Social Sciences; thinking and change

2018-05-30T22:39:22+05:00 Atle Hetland

Last weekend, I came across two exciting programmes on PTV World, one after the other. The first one was an interview with a renowned Pakistani social scientist and educator, Professor Anees Akhtar, who is a former rector of the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI) and he is currently heading an institution at Lahore. The other programme was a talk on what PTV calls the ‘Classics Show’, where attention was drawn to the late Swedish physician, international health specialist and statistician, Dr. Hans Rosling (1948-1917) who became famous in his later years due to his public speeches with graphics at conferences and on TV, questioning ‘truths’ that were indeed far from being so. With his son Ola, he was the co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, holding large events which can be viewed on YouTube.

If that wasn’t enough, my friend and host that TV-evening was a French artist of Pakistani origin, Asad- ur-Rehman, whose intellectual and socially concerned family, had always emphasized the importance of doing good and right in this life. Asad said that Professor Anees Akhtar’s way of reasoning and speaking about issues reminded him of how his father and his friends had spoken; when the adults spoke, the children and youth were quiet, trying to understand and remember their words of wisdom and common sense, indeed often based on Islamic teachings and verses.

The painter and sculptor Asad also talked about Abdul Sattar Edhi (1928-1916), the highly respected founder of Edhi Welfare Organization in 1951, with ambulances and other emergency services, indeed for women and children. Edhi’s work continues all over Pakistan, with branches in other countries, too, notably USA, UK, Canada, Japan and Bangladesh, mostly made possible through voluntary work and funding through Zakat and other contributions, not the government – throughout the holy month of Ramadan and the rest of the year.

Asad stressed, partly in frustration and partly in pride, that Pakistanis and other people of the calibre mentioned often remain ‘uncrowned kings and queens’, noting that Bilguis Edhi was also a key activist. Edhi received many prizes for his impressive work, but not the most prestigious Western awards such as the Noble Prize, he said.

Prizes aside, what Asad said to me as we watched the TV programmes, was that the international media often present a tilted picture of Pakistan (and other ‘far away’ countries). “The media, indeed the TV stations, should not distort reality for us”, said Asad. “We have reason to be proud of so many things and many people in Pakistan”, he continued.

One of the main points that Professor Anees Akhtar made in the interview I referred to above was Islam’s emphasis on peace, love, harmony, and discipline, the latter being not least important for the thinking and work of scientists. He stressed that scientists, in this case, social scientists, should base their work on the right and good values. But he also honoured the importance of his Western (American) education. After all, a social scientist is indeed a scientist, not a theological preacher, with universal values and methods. That distinction is important not only for Muslim researchers, but also for Christian researchers, members of other religions and ideologies, such as socialism, capitalism, and so on. It is important that we try to use the more neutral, analytical scientific methods when we study the past present and future; that we try to be objective is what distinguishes science from more general observations and opinions. But our values still play a part, especially when we choose problems and issues for our studies, decide on the directions and emphasis of our research, and the way we suggest solutions. Sometimes, the scientific conclusions have to draw from our studies and data we have collected, may even be contrary to what we wish was the reality.

I was glad to hear Professor Anees Akhtar draw attention to the issues I have elaborated upon here. And it is important that we all, also in the West, recognise that it is not only in Western science and thinking we can be value-based and neutral at the same time but also in other religions and ideologies. It is probably a fact that the social sciences are less developed in many Muslim countries than in the West; that also includes Pakistan. We need to give much more prominence to making use of the social sciences in analysing and understanding our societies and cultures. I am indeed glad that the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform in recent meetings with the Council of Social Sciences (COSS), and other groups, has called upon them to advise on how the social sciences can be made better use of in future planning and decision-making in Pakistan. It is about time, considering that most countries gave social sciences prominences decades ago. I also hope that the social science teaching and research at universities be upgraded so that civil servants and politicians can make better decisions, and so that teaching at secondary schools can be better.

The in-words today are ‘evidence-based’ deliberations and decisions, and ‘research-based’ teaching. I am not sure I would go as far as to use the term ‘evidence-based’, because only some of what the social sciences find out is that certain and conclusive. But some of what we social scientists know can also be called ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’. I would suggest we use words like ‘research-based’ or ‘data-based’ knowledge rather than ‘evidence-based’. Let also the politicians and other people be allowed to discuss what social scientists find out since only some of it can be termed ‘evidence’; little in the social sciences is cut in stone.

Dr Hans Rosling, the other prominent name I mentioned at the beginning of my article today, was the kind of social scientist who would ask questions about what data shows and what we know, or think we know. True, he was a medical doctor and statistician, but I still claim his mind was more that of a social scientist than a natural scientist. He questioned a lot of the ‘facts’ that his colleagues used, especially in demography and the ‘population explosion’, and as for the general knowledge, we in the West think we have about situations and developments in developing countries. He had himself worked a lot in Africa and India and had travelled throughout South-Asia with his wife. Later, he was affiliated to the vibrant public health milieu of Johns Hopkins University in the USA.

To make the arguments more clear, I will refer to a few of Dr Rosling’s points, also discussed in his book, ‘Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think’ (published in 2018). He says that experts cannot solve the major challenges in our time, or any time for that matter if they don’t base decisions on facts, knowledge, and sound understanding. “But first, we need to erase preconceived ideas and misunderstandings, and that is a difficult thing”, he said. Yes, as an educationalist, I know that well; we think about better ways of learning new things, not about un-learning what we learnt which had become wrong over time, or was wrong even when we learnt it.

Finally, let me emphasise what the great thinkers and educators, I have mentioned in this article, have taught us: we have to learn how to reason, think and analyse issues. We have to question ‘truths’ and not be orthodox; we have to double-check things we think we know, and we have to think over again about issues. For example, when people say that Swedish ideas are so great, Hans Rosling used to say that values are ‘modern and international’, not ‘Swedish’, and he was so glad that so much of all those outdated old, Swedish things were gone. Yes, he was probably right, but not entirely. Even what the great gurus say must be questioned; we must all think for ourselves.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

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