Why there is Lack of Scientific Curiosity in Africa

Curiosity is a fundamental human trait but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation.  This according to Astrophysicist and author of Why? What Makes Us Curious, Mario Livio, is determined by both nature and nurture.

Generally, curiosity is well-expressed in all children but tends to decrease or disappear in adults due to the many restrictions on exploring and wondering imposed by education, laws, and society. It can be enhanced by asking questions, by encouraging people to be curious about things or can be suppressed sometimes by government, culture, ideologies, and so on.

What is Science Curiosity?

Professor of psychology and law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Dan Kahan defined Science Curiosity as a desire to seek out and consume scientific information just for the pleasure of doing so. People who are science curious do this because they take satisfaction in seeing what science does to resolve mysteries.

This is different from somebody who would show interest in scientific information because they had a specific goal like wanting to do well in school or get a job. Science-curious people are driven by the pure activity of consuming what science knows. For instance, Albert Einstein was a science curious person. He once said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

Curiosity provides the impetus for us to be able to investigate the universe we are in. Exploration and discovery have formed the basis of all scientific endeavor. Asking questions is the fundamental expression and genesis of all research. We can ask how, where, what, who and when? and the most important question of all, when attempting to understand the true nature of knowledge, is to ask the question why?

African Gerontocratic Culture

Largely, Africa has curiosity-suppressing traditional and religious beliefs.  It is largely a Gerontocratic society. According to George Sefa Dei, in in his paper, Afrocentricity: Cornerstone to Pedagogy (1994), Gerontocracy is “the traditional African respect for the authority of elderly persons for their wisdom, knowledge of community affairs, and ‘closeness’ to the ancestors.” This kind of leadership according to Kwasi Wiredu, in his book, Philosophy and an African Culture,  resulted to authoritarian traditions in Africa which are responsible for the lack of sustained curiosity to look at issues from different perspectives.

Authoritarian, paternalistic, and traditionalist cultures are strengthened when curiosity is contained or suppressed, but undermined when curiosity is unleashed. A submissive, incurious populace is less likely to depose the existing elites.

As social arrangements are shot through and through with the principle of unquestioning obedience to superiors, hardly any premium is placed on curiosity in those of tender age, or independence of thought in those of more considerable years and since curiosity results to being sceptical of the explanations and ideas propounded by others, including authorities, whether these they are political or religious leaders, curiosity is seen as rebellion because it undermines the social order.

Though there were remarkable Scientific achievements in Africa in the past, they were less based on systematic research and not driven by curiosity but largely due to the necessity to solve pressing daily problem. Science was not separate from spirituality, religion, culture, and everyday African life, and Africa was culturally and intellectually independent as such was not relying on science or technology from western or oriental civilizations.

In present times however, colonization and then globalization has eliminated those factors that drove scientific development in the continent. This has laid bare the effect of the lack of scientific curiosity in the continent. Scientific curiosity is the true incentive to carry out research and the lack of it has led to low-interest in scientific research and contributed to decline in scientific or technological development in the continent.

Scientific research is not so easy, since it always is risky, expensive, and takes lots of time to complete.  Hence, curiosity as a motivation for doing research must be quite strong in scientists.

Incurably Religious

Orthodox religious beliefs generally discourage people from questioning core tenets which are supposed to be accepted on faith as maintaining religious orthodoxy means holding on to specific beliefs against any challenges or questions from the outside.

Religious orthodoxy is imperilled by too much intellectual curiosity because no religion can completely satisfy all doubts and challenges. Not long ago, Pope Francis actually stated that “the spirit of curiosity distances one from God.”

The more widely a person reads and studies, the harder it can be to hold on to traditional, orthodox beliefs for with greater curiosity, people are more willing to take new information into account when forming their opinions about the world.

According to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, who wrote on Islam and science in 1991 in his book ”Islam and Science, Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality,” Muslims are seriously underrepresented in science, accounting for fewer than 1 percent of the world’s scientists while they account for almost a fifth of the world’s population. Israel which is surrounded by Muslim countries, he reports, has almost twice as many scientists as the whole Muslim countries put together.

Among other sociological and economic factors, like the lack of a middle class, Dr. Hoodbhoy attributes the malaise of Muslim science to an increasing emphasis over the last millennium on rote learning based on the Koran.

”The notion that all knowledge is in the Great Text is a great disincentive to learning,” he said. ”It’s destructive if we want to create a thinking person, someone who can analyse, question and create.” There has been an effort to ”Islamicize” science by portraying the Koran as a source of scientific knowledge.

Dr. Hoodbhoy said the religion had criticized the concept of cause and effect. Educational guidelines once issued by the Institute for Policy Studies in Pakistan, for example, included the recommendation that physical effects not be related to causes.

For example, it was not Islamic to say that combining hydrogen and oxygen makes water. ”You were supposed to say,” Dr. Hoodbhoy recounted, ”that when you bring hydrogen and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water was created.”

Africans are very religious and religion play a major role in everything they do. Before western influence and Jihad, they did everything based on religion and organize their societies religiously. Though presently, Africans are mostly adherents of Christianity, Islam, which they often combine with their traditional beliefs, they remained very religious, even more than the people who introduced the religions to them. As such Africa is overly affected by religious dogmatism and fanaticism.

Tribalism and Collectivism

Africans are tribalistic and communalistic in culture as such are drawn to members of their tribes or religion and tends to live in groups and act collectively. This has helped in the retention dogmatism of Christianity and Islam among African Christians and Muslims for it is true that any tribalistic and communalistic group of people will exert social pressure on its members to conform to the beliefs and assumptions of the other members.

This culture has also made it easy for ideologies and traditions that suppress scientific curiosity and rationality to flourish among Africans for groups of individuals sharing some common goal or belief can easily come to entirely irrational or even self-destructive conclusions, as each member reinforces and magnifies the similar beliefs held by others.

The truth is that though curiosity is a part of human nature, the desires for social belonging is also a part of human nature.

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One thought on “Why there is Lack of Scientific Curiosity in Africa

  1. You have quoted Dei out of context.In fact he argues the opposite .Btw gerontocracy does not connote idiocy.This piece is weakened by its use of many of the colonial anthropological stereotypes and assumptions created by old school racists.

    Liked by 1 person

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