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Understanding Others the Science Way

Understanding Others the Science Way

In the 2017 Paolo Budinich Science Diplomacy Lecture, eminent Iranian physicist Yousef Sobouti explores how the dispassionate precision of the "exact sciences" could help guide humanity through a time of challenge and instability.

[Yousef Sobouti, a theoretical physicist and astronomer, is the founder and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan, Islamic Republic of Iran. He has made significant contributions to research and science education in Iran, and his influence has extended far beyond the country's borders. He was elected a fellow of TWAS in 1987 and a fellow of The Academy of Sciences of Iran in 1990. The following is the full text of the Paolo Budinich Lecture, delivered by Sobouti at the AAAS-TWAS Summer Course in Science Diplomacy on 23 August 2017 in Trieste, Italy.]


I have been associated with ICTP since the early 1970s, and with TWAS since the late 1980s. At times I have been a member of ICTP's Scientific Advisory Committee. In my frequent visits to Trieste, I would often see the late Paolo Budinich and enjoy listening to his views on science and societies. I always wondered how valuable the assistance of the Italian Budinich to the non-Italian Abdus Salam, who was not so familiar with the subtleties of the Italian way of doing things, must have been in the formative years of ICTP and later of TWAS.

Budinich believed that mathematics in particular has an immense capacity to serve as a pathfinder to the unknown. Today I am honored to be here and give the 2017 Budinich Lecture on Science and Diplomacy, a theme very much in line with his lifelong devotion to science and in line with my own obsession for exact sciences. I am grateful to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and to The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). They invited me "to share my views on the important role that the universal language of science – particularly that of physics ­– plays in international relations, particularly between countries under political strain". It is not an easy task, particularly considering the fact that English is not my native language. I will, however, try my best.

I am a student of physics. Confronted with complexities in the study of natural phenomena, physicists often resort to reduction to basics. They identity the prominent feature of a phenomenon, strip away the insignificant details and reduce the problem to a bare minimum to manage.  I wish to follow this long-honored tradition of physicists to "understand others, the science way".

Astronomy as a study of the skies became an evidence-based science from the time of Hipparchus (circa 190-120 BC) and Ptolemy (100-168 AD). Through observation of the motions of the heavenly bodies, the inquisitive man understood the order prevailing in the skies and was able to predict some astronomical events. He predicted eclipses, conjunctions, oppositions, tides, etc., with astonishing precision. Similarly, the ancient Euclidian geometry, born out of the everyday practices in building construction and land surveying, became axiomatic at about the same times. No one disputed the legitimacy of these two disciplines for the purposes one needed. They were taught and learned in any language, by anyone of any cultural, ethical and ethnic background. At no time or place did their tenets become sanctified, nor were any of their advocates and practitioners promoted to the status of sainthood. The two disciplines emerged as two time-free, geography-free, ethic- and ethnic-free intellectual constructions of man's mind as early 20 centuries ago. This endowed the discipline with a built-in mechanism to reconcile differences among the experts.  One could convince or be convinced by one's fellow practitioner through logical, mathematical reasoning or turn to observations as the supreme arbitrator.

Unlike astronomy and geometry, many other topics in the treasure house of  humanity's body of knowledge had to wait for hundreds of years to attain an acceptable level of clarity to become exact. Axiomatization of physics (mechanics) begins with Galileo and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries and still is being revised and refined. Chemistry and biosciences are in their infancy. Economics, medicine, social and behavioral sciences, and the like have at most emerged as empirical chapters in the human body of knowledge. There also exists a long list of creeds and credos that may never become evidence-based and contained to deserve the title of science. Almost all age-old human beliefs  of metaphysical origin fall in this category.

Let us arrange the human body of knowledge on the steps of a ladder, beginning from the most exact and best "evidence-based" sciences and ending with the least verifiable "opinion- based" creeds. One may easily recognize the followings pattern:

  • Evidence-based sciences draw their credence from the compatibility of their conclusions and predictions from observations.
  • Opinion-based doctrines and creeds draw support from the prestige and social eminence of their authors and the community of their followers.

Examples: The credibility of Newton's laws of motion comes from the everyday practices in ballistic technology; that of Maxwell's equations from the TV, radio communication technologies; that of quantum mechanics from the spectroscopy of atoms and molecules. Their validity is not hinged with the names of Newton, Maxwell, Schrodinger or Heisenberg, who are undoubtedly among the most prestigious peers and pillars of the modern physics.

Contrast this with philosophical views of August Comte, Francis Bacon, Hegel,  Bernard Shaw, or in contemporary times with the economic, social and political views of the columnists of the Guardian, New York Times, France Soir,  Corriere della sera, etc. Such points of view are credible not because they have been proven to be the ultimate truth, but because they are authored by the great thinkers of their times.

A second characteristic to note: Names and ideas associated with evidence-based sciences remain earthly names and ideas. They can be refuted with no risk of consequential retribution.

This is not always the case with the opinion-based knowledge. There, the ideas may get sanctified and become faith-like beliefs. And authors of the ideas may become unapproachable. Karl Marx and his views on capitalism in the Soviet Era in the East, and to a lesser extent the notion of democracy and human rights in present times in the West, fall in this category.

As such, evidence-based sciences have a built-in provision for resolution of conflicts, while the opinion-based creeds nurture the seeds of controversy. Confronted with opposing views, they look for support from followers, patrons and patron institutions. The outcome may not always be peaceful.  Let us look at some tragic historical and contemporary incidences.

In the 5th century BC, Socrates was tried in a court of 500 Athenian elites. The charges against Socrates were divergence of his philosophical views from the accepted values of the Athenian society. Neither the defendant nor the prosecutors were able to provide unequivocal evidence to support or discredit the claims and counterclaims. The verdict was tragic. Socrates was made to drink the deadly potion.

Centuries later, a bigger tragedy took place. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those of the orthodox faith of his community confronted each other. Both sides were committed to their cause and had disciples to defend them. The logic of one side however, was not acceptable to the other. Inevitably tragedy took place.

Throughout history, such episodes have repeated themselves. The pattern is always the same: Two factions oppose each other over a vaguely conceived cause, such as a religious teaching, a social value, a moral code of conduct, a philosophical doctrine or a material interest. Opponents don't find a common ground to settle disputes, and so resort to the zeal of their followers.

Let us consider examples from the Muslim world in the flourishing era from the 8th through 12th centuries. Abu Nasr Farabi (873-979) and Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) were undoubtedly the greatest philosophers of their times as well as devout Muslims. Abu Hamed Ghazzali (1058-1111), an equally renowned thinker and theologian, was however at odds with philosophy and philosophers. He maintained that the teachings of the philosophers, including mathematics, weakened the pillars of faith. He announced Farabi, Abu Ali, or for that matter all philosophers, heretics. Fortunately, the Islamic societies in their economically and politically booming times between the 8th and 12th centuries were tolerant enough to let the verdict pass by, without incident. Ghazzali's defiance of philosophy and free thinking did, however, leave long-lasting effects. The great theologian had zealous followers amongst elites and commoners. They eventually succeeded in curbing the tradition of free thinking and accelerated the decline of the Islamic societies.

Let us proceed to 16th- and 17th-century Europe. The Ptolemaic geocentric models of the universe, combined with the Aristotelian point of view that man stood second to the Almighty in honor, had put the Earth in a noble position in the scheme of creation. Somehow this notion had worked its way into the teachings of the Church. Taking the Earth out of the 'center of creation' was a sacrilegious act. Copernicus, fearing his fellow theologians, chose to postpone the publication of his heliocentric theory to the very last day of his life in 1543. Galileo (1564-1642) was wise enough to deny altogether the motion of the Earth and escaped persecution. Giordano Bruno (circa 1600) was not that fortunate. He was burned at the stake because he had advocated that there might be an infinite number of worlds with intelligent beings.

By the 21st century, many of the natural, human, and social sciences have achieved acceptable levels of clarity, and their practitioners have learned to reconcile differences through sober dialogue. This is a welcome development. There are, however, many global issues that are not yet cast into satisfactorily objective terms, and there remain issues that may never be viewed as objective ones. Topics such as economics, governance, human rights, ethics, social mores, international relations, peace and war and many others fall into this category. Indispensable as they are in everyday life, they do not have concise and contained definitions and founding principles to fit into the hallmark of modern sciences. They may mean different things to different people of different cultures, times and places. At times they may become sources of conflict.

Maybe naively, however, I maintain that the tradition of modern sciences can help resolve or at least ameliorate conflicts in non-science issues as well. I believe that life will be much easier if the majority of the population of the world subscribed to:

  • not presenting one’s beliefs as evidence of one’s rightfulness and righteousness; and   
  • not considering any concept sacred, no matter how widely popular it may be.

Strict observation of such seemingly simple criteria in non-scientific cases is not easy. A conscious effort to adhere to them, however, should be rewarding and help one better understand others.

I am aware of my naivety in maintaining that disputes between individuals, societies, countries, etc. stem from lack of understanding. To the contrary, conflicts are often over material interests and desire for domination.   Nevertheless, the partially scientified world of the 21st  century has, to certain extents, created legal international infrastructures to deplore, if not to prevent, the age old brute logic that the strong can take the possessions of the weak. Such provisions are welcome developments. They can impede acts of aggression, or at least are expected to do so.

Finally, I am aware that my professed technique of reduction to basics has oversimplified the problems. After all, long before the formulation of exact sciences, man’s inexact creations, such as sports, arts, music, poetry, epics, commerce and even wars, have brought people together and let them interact with each other. Here, I only wish to point out that science, by all standards, seems to be the most vigorous force behind the development of societies. Logically, its value-free methodology should serve as a common language that allows us to understand each other. It is worth the effort.


Notes and references

For over 20 years, U.S. academies and Iran’s academia, in spite of all differing views of their governments over international issues, have conducted a series of informal forums to discuss topics of mutual interest. From time to time a dozen or so participants from both sides get together in the U.S., in Iran, or elsewhere, and exchange ideas on issues. So far we have had 10 -15 such forums.

The title and theme of the 2007 US-Iran forum was “Science, a Gateway to Understanding” and was held in Tehran. What I presented here today was the second edition of what I had done in 2007. []

I often turn to my learned colleague, Bahman Farnudi, for advice on my writings. When I asked him to have a look at this paper, he did a literature search and came up with many references, mainly in the fields of medicine and social sciences, with themes similar to what I have shared with you today. There are diverging points of view. They only tell me that medicine and social sciences have a long way ahead to become exact and evidence-based disciplines. Here are samples:

  • Why “Science”-Based Instead of “Evidence”-Based? The rationale for making medicine more science-based, updated 26 August 2014 (first published 2009), Paul Ingraham – Science-based medicine (SBM) is not a replacement for the more familiar concept of evidence-based medicine (EBM). Instead, it emphasizes some neglected aspects of EBM. This article explains the differences and the need for the distinction.
  • Evidence-based knowledge in the context of social practice (Scand J Public Health. 2014 Mar;42(13 Suppl):59-73. doi: 10.1177/1403494813516714) – Social practitioners require evidence-based knowledge as a guide to the development of social policies and practices. This article aims to identify: (1) knowledge domains needed for the development and use of evidence-based knowledge in social practice; (2) promising research methods for such knowledge development; (3) a framework for linking evidence-based practice, systematic reviews and practice guidelines, as well as standards for systematic reviews and guidelines; (4) issues influencing use of evidence-based knowledge in social practice.
  • Evidence Based Practice and Practice Based Evidence – Is It One or the Other?  17 July 2012 – The American Psychological Association (APA) defines evidence-based practice in psychology as: “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences.” (APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, “Evidence-Based Practice in Psychology,” American Psychologist 61, no. 4 (2006)). 
  • From Opinion-Based to Evidence-Based Social Work: The Swedish Case, Knut Sundell, Haluk Soydan, Karin Tengvald ­­– This article presents an account of Sweden’s Institute for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice (IMS), located in Stockholm. The article places IMS in the context of making Swedish social care services less opinion-based and more evidence-based. The institute is an example of how policy-driven processes promote the use of evidence-based practices in this European nation. The article includes presentations of history, organization, and products of IMS, and concludes with comments on future opportunities and challenges.
  • Eminence-based Medicine vs Evidence-based MedicineIn the current clinical practice that we have seen, many health professionals are moving on from the traditional approach to health care known as eminence-based medicine to an evidence-based approach when dealing with a clinical problem. The reason for this transition and its popularity in the past decades is the ability of the systematic approach to promote better health care and clinical practices.
  • In defense of expert opinion, Tonelli MR (Acad Med. 1999 Nov; 74 (11):1187-92) – Evidence-based medicine, centered on the incorporation of evidence from clinical trials and systematic reviews into the teaching and practice of clinical medicine, explicitly attempts to supplant expert opinion, which is viewed as an antiquated and unreliable form of medical authority.