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Scientific discovery and its enemies(2)

By Douglas Anele

Meanwhile, no philosopher of science or epistemologist has done more than Karl Popper to provide an epistemological rationale for the falsification of theories in science. Popper argued that although the quest for truth is the cardinal aim of science, no scientific hypothesis or theory can be conclusively proved to be true because none is completely immune from falsification. What can be established deductively is the refutation of scientific hypotheses based on the modus tollens of formal logic. A theory that withstands severe tests, that is, one which has not been falsified as yet, can be said to be corroborated. Therefore, Popper’s falsificationist methodology sits comfortably with the possibility that Prof. Ezeibe’s claims might be erroneous, because it entails a paradigm-shift in the attitude of scientists to the falsification of their theories. Before Popper, verification or confirmation of theories in science was the norm for most epistemologists, such that falsification or refutation of a theory was considered a horrible thing, something scientists should feel really bad about, a possibility that they should do their best to avoid. But since his fundamental work entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery was published in 1959, we now understand that a falsified scientific theory also contributes to the advancement of knowledge. Accordingly, a scientist should accept proven falsification of his or her theory in good faith. Prof. John Eccles, the Australian brain scientist and a Nobel laureate, after imbibing Popper’s falsificationist methodology, was emboldened to carry out more fundamental researches in his area of specialisation despite the ever present possibility that his theories could be overthrown at any time. Nigerian scientists can borrow a leaf from Eccles’ example. As I stated earlier, Prof. Ezeibe’s claim could be verified by further scientific investigation; however, even if it turns out to be wrong, he should not be despondent or abandon his efforts to find an effective cure or vaccine against HIV. I believe Ezeibe’s research efforts might be useful in some way and should not be suppressed or ignored simply because of his alleged failure to obtain “ethical approval.”

Our analysis thus far can be used as a springboard for re-examining the difficult problem of scientific and technological underdevelopment in Nigeria. No reasonable Nigerian, no matter how patriotic he or she might be, can deny the fact that our country is lagging far behind less naturally endowed countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and several others in industrialisation and manufacturing. For instance, Nigeria’s economy is a one legged invalid heavily dependent on crude oil exports, and the foreign exchange realised is spent on importation of manufactured goods from other countries. Indeed, we import everything, including those items that can manufactured in the country based on comparative advantage with respect to the availability of raw materials and arable land for industrial agriculture. That Nigeria continues to import food items of all sorts, textile goods and refined petroleum products is a serious indictment of her leadership since the attainment of independence in 1960. The shameful situation of arrested development in industrialisation and manufacturing is largely responsible for our shambolic economy and horrible condition of a vast majority of the population. What is responsible for this? Why is Nigeria, in spite of her impressive human and natural resources, operating largely a mono product mixed-up economic system that relies too much on crude oil exports? What is hindering the attainment of home-grown sustainable industrialisation in the country? Why are we not making real progress in science and technology?

For decades and at different forums, government officials, scientists, engineers, scholars from different disciplines and other interested parties have identified reasons for the abysmal level of scientific development in Nigeria. These include mediocre political leadership that does not appreciate the critical role of scientific and technological research in national development, poor funding of individuals and institutions that ought to lead in research and innovative technology, absence of strong systematic linkage or symbiosis  between research institutions and companies that can harness research findings for industrial purposes, as well as socio-cultural impediments radioactive to the spirit of free critical inquiry, which is fundamental in scientific investigation. The problem of extremely weak political will by successive administrations to mobilise available talents and resources needed for research and innovation cannot be overemphasized. Rapid industrialisation of Singapore and South Korea, countries that were in the unenviable category of Third World countries with Nigeria in the 1960s demonstrates that a country cannot develop its industrial capacity without consistent solid backing by the political leadership. In other words, for a country to industrialise, government must lead the way by incentivising educational institutions, firms and organisations specifically set up for research and development. That said, I wish to draw attention now to an impediment to scientific discovery often ignored or downplayed by those interested in the problem of scientific and technological underdevelopment in Nigeria. What I have in mind is the overarching primitive superstitious mentality dominant among Nigerians. Every adult human being has a worldview or philosophy of life that guides his or her activities. If you want to appreciate the decisive role of a dominant general world outlook or what the Germans call weltanschauung in the development of human society, compare the situation in medieval Europe with the renaissance. In the middle ages, because of the overbearing influence of religion on both the elite and the masses, science and philosophy were subordinated to theology, and scientific research was neglected. The end result was prolonged stagnation in science and technology. After philosophers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes had revolted against the epistemological sterility of medievalism, Europe witnessed the dawn of scientific and technological progress aptly called the renaissance. Presently, most Nigerians operate with precisely the same kind of antiquated religious mentality characteristic of medieval Europeans. Right from infancy, the typical Nigerian child is malnourished with the intelligence-destroying diet of religious superstition. The child grows up as a Christian, Muslim or, in a few instances, as an adherent of traditional African religion.

Of course, there are some biblical and koranic passages that encourage the pursuit of knowledge, whereas indigenous cultures value knowledge and wisdom. But the overwhelming worldview projected by Christianity and Islam is fundamentally dogmatic, superstitious, unscientific and otherworldly. Mutatis mutandis, the same is largely true of traditional African religion. Therefore, a researcher who had internalised religious dogmas is very likely to be discouraged or hampered unconsciously in following through with a research finding that threatens to conflict with the teachings of his or her faith. In some cases, the outcomes of experiments are either manipulated to conform to religion or covered up because it contradicts the core religious beliefs of the investigator. This leads to cognitive dissonance characterised by conflict between experimental results and unconscious religious bias ingrained in the epistemic repertoire of the researcher. This is a serious issue because notwithstanding their highfalutin academic degrees and professorships, a sizeable number of Nigerian scientists in our universities and research institutes place their religion above science. Indeed, many of them abandon rigorous scientific research and become religious clerics and preachers. The net result of all this is significant reduction in both the number of scientists doing important research relevant to the country’s developmental needs and in the quality of research output. I am convinced that part of the problem of low productivity in research is due to uncritical acceptance of religious dogmas by Nigerian scientists. As Richard Dawkins argued in his splendid book, The God Delusion, uncritical acceptance of religious superstition is detrimental to the growth of science because whereas religion is based on the will to believe without adequate evidence science thrives on the unceasing desire to find out in the face of the possibility of error.

Most scientists in developed countries are atheists, agnostics or nominal believers for whom religion is just an item in the social calendar, while 99.9% percent of Nigerian scientists are devout Christians and Muslims who prefer the creation myths of their religion to the theories of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Overall, referring back to Prof. Maduike Ezeibe’s episode, although hubristic disrespect of Nigerian scientists by so-called experts is deplorable, the fear-motivated childish elevation of religion above science by our researchers is the worst impediment hindering scientific progress in Nigeria today. Concluded.


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