Response to Paul Davies

I appreciate Paul Davies' response to my question "What is science, and do indigenous kniowledge systems also contain a genuine scientific understanding of the world?" My point in raising this question is not to suggest that Western science is not universal - clearly the same law of gravity operates in the deserts of central Australia as operates in the labs of Caltech. In that sense Western science is indeed something that every culture can share and benefit from, if they so choose. At issue here is really the reverse question: Might there also be discoveries about the way the world works that have been made by other cultures, that we in the West have not yet come to - knowledge that we in turn might benefit from?

One example here is the Aboriginal tradition of fire burning. It is now known that Aboriginal people traditionally managed the land and its native flora and fauna by complex patterns of burning. Given the huge risk of out-of-control bush-fires in Australia, there is now interest among some ecologists and park mamagers re understanding this tradional knowledge. Another example is accupuncture. Some years ago I had a serious case of hepatitis, for which Western medicine could do nothing whatever. Eventually after months of illness, I started to see an accupuncturist because Chinese medicine claims to have ways of treating liver disease. Eventually I recovered. It is possible, of course, that I might have recovered without the accupuncture, but many many people (including billions of Chinese) have had therapeutic experiences with accupuncture. I do not claim to know how accupuntcure works, but it seems fair to at least keep an open mind that there really is some deep understanding here of bodily function - some knoweldge that we might truly benefit from.

The hard part of the question is does such knowledge constitute a genuine "science"? Paul suggests not, but I think this option should not be ruled out. In practical terms, accupuncturists operate much the same way that Western doctors operate: you go for a diagnosis, they check for various symptoms, then they prescribe certain treatments. All this involves rational analysis based on a complex underlying theory of how the body works. That theoretical foundation might well sound odd to Western minds (it obvioulsy does to Paul, as it does to me), but if billions of people get well it seems hard to dismiss it completely. We should not forget that our own medical science today now incorporates theoretical ideas (jumping genes for example) that were scofffed at by most scientists just a few decades ago. There are no doubt many more "true" ideas that we have not yet come to about the human body - things that might seem crazy today. Numbers of double-blind trials have shown that accupuncture can be very effective - so even by Western standards it seems to pass the test. One could still argue that its not a "true science", but just a complex set of heuristics that happens to work in lots of cases, but is this any less so of much of our own medical science?

As "shining emblems of true science" Paul suggests, "radio waves, nuclear power, the computer and genetic engineering." The first three examples all come out of physics, which because of its mathematical foundation is somewhat different to most of the other sciences. As philosphers of science have been saying for some time, it is problematic to judge all sciences according to the methodologies of phsyics. If that is the criteria for a "true science" then much of modern biology would not count either. Paul's final example, genetic engineering, is from the biological area, but it is the most "atomized" part of biology. Historically the whole area of gene science (from Max Delbruck on) has been heavily influenced by a physics mentality, and contemporary genetic engieering is indeed a testimony to what can been achieved by applying a physics paradigm to biology. But again, if this is our only criteria for "true science" then what is the status of other biological sciences such as ecology, zoology, and indeed Darwin's theory of evolution? None of these would seem to me to pass Paul's criteria.

Thus we come back top the question: What really is science? This is a question of immense debate among philosophers of science, and among many scientists. I don't claim to have a simple answer - but I would like to argue for a fairly expansive definition. Although I trained as a physicist myself, and physics remains my personal favorite science, I do not think it can or should be our only model for a "true science."

By suggesting that indigenous knowledge systems contain genuine scientific understandings of the world, I do not mean to imply that Western science becomes less universal, only that there may well be other truths that our science has yet to discover. The point is not to diminish our own science, or our understanding of what sicence is, but to enrich both.

MARGARET WERTHEIM is the author of Pythagoras Trousers, a cultural history of physics, and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. She writes regularly about science for Salon, L.A. Weekly, The Sciences, Guardian, TLS and New Scientist. She is the senior science reviewer for the Australian's Review of Books.