Is Science Multicultural?: Challenges, Resources, Opportunities, Uncertainties
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Is Science Multicultural? Challenges, Resources, Opportunities, Uncertainties
Special Forum: Is Science Multicultural?

Challenges and Resources

Are the natural sciences multicultural? Could they and should they be? Such questions initially may seem ignorant, or at least odd, since it is exactly the lack of cultural fingerprints that conventionally is held responsible for the great successes of the sciences. The sciences “work,” they are universally valid, it is said, because they transcend culture. They can tell us how nature really functions rather than merely how the British, Native Americans, or Chinese fear or want it to work.

There are good reasons to wonder whether one should regard this “universal science” claim as ending the matter, however. Multicultural perspectives are providing more-comprehensive and less-distorted understandings of history, literature, the arts, and the social sciences. They are beginning to reshape public consciousness as they are disseminated through television specials, new elementary and high-school history and literature textbooks, and, indeed, daily news reports of perspectives on the West (or should one say the “North”?) that conflict with the conventional beliefs that many Westerners now understand to be Eurocentric. Do the challenges raised by multicultural perspectives in other fields have no consequences for the natural sciences?

We can identify three central questions for anyone who wishes to explore this issue. First, to what extent does modern science have origins in non-European cultures? Second, have there been [End Page 301] and could there be other sciences, culturally distinctive ones, that also “work” and thus are universal in this sense? Third, in what ways is modern science culturally European or European-American? Fortunately, pursuit of these questions has been made easier by the appearance in English recently of a small but rich set of writings on such topics. These “postcolonial science studies,” as I shall refer to them, are authored by scientists and engineers, a few anthropologists, and historians of science, who are of both European and Third World descent (the latter live in the Third and First Worlds).

The proceedings of two recent conferences give a sense of the increasing international interest in these topics. Science and Empires: Historical Studies about Scientific Development and European Expansion contains about one-third of the 120 papers presented at a UNESCO-sponsored conference in Paris in 1986. The conference was organized by the French government’s National Center for Scientific Research, and these proceedings are published by one of the most prestigious and largest science studies publishers in the world. The Revenge of Athena: Science, Exploitation and the Third World contains twenty of the thirty-five or so papers presented at a 1986 conference in Penang, Malaysia, where Asian scientists, engineers, and science policy analysts were joined by several historians of science of European descent. The final version of the conference’s policy statement, the Third World Network’s Modern Science in Crisis: A Third World Response, has been published separately. 1

Now is none too soon to note that the terms of this discussion are and must be controversial, for whoever gets to name natural and social realities gets to control how they will be organized. Moreover, it is not just language that is at issue, but also a “discourse” [End Page 302] —a conceptual framework with its logic linking my words in ways already familiar to readers—that is adequate to the project of this essay. 2 For example, for conventional science theorists it is controversial to use the term “science” to refer to the sciences’ social institutions, technologies and applications, metaphors, language, and social meanings: they insist on restricting the term’s reference to sciences’ abstract cognitive core—the laws of nature—and/or the legendary scientific method, thereby excluding the other parts of sciences’ practices and culture, which many contemporary science theorists insist are also fundamental constituents of the sciences.3

Moreover, the terms of multicultural discourse are and must be controversial. Do my references to “Western” replicate the dualistic, orientalist thinking that has been so widely criticized? Is it not precisely from the borderlands between “Western” and “non-Western” that this paper and the thought of its cited authors arise? 4 How “Western” is Western science anyway (a...