An Exchange on Science and the Supernatural in Pakistani Universities

SERRC —  November 2, 2015 — 4 Comments

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Stefano Bigliardi for forwarding this exchange. Please refer below to articles posted regarding the broader discussion on Islam and science hosted by the SERRC.[a]

Jinns Invade Pakistani Universities
Pervez Hoodbhoy
[1]

Originally published on Oct 2, 2015 in Dawn, “Jinns Invade Campuses” Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan), October 2, 2015.The names of some individuals that were removed from the published version have been reinstated in the following.

Last week, a workshop titled “Jinns and Black Magic” was organized in Islamabad by the department of humanities at the COMSATS Institute of Technology (CIIT), one of Pakistan’s largest universities. The invited speaker, Raja Zia-ul-Haq, introduced as a “spiritual cardiologist” is reputedly an expert on demonic possessions and evil spirits. He is popular: a press photograph shows no standing room left in the university’s main auditorium. 

According to those resent, interesting logic was used to prove the existence of jinns and black magic. The speaker first categorized all unseen creatures into three types: those that fly; those that change shape and appearance depending upon circumstance; and those that find abode in garbage or dark places. Why, he asked, would Hollywood invest in horror movies and paranormal phenomena if these didn’t actually exist?

But hang on! Doesn’t his argument force you to accept that Hollywood’s popular vampires, werewolves, and zombies are also real, not mere fiction? Do Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig exist? Surely this nonsensical claim could have been challenged by a single bold person in the audience. But, as at all such events, the organizers ensured that the preacher’s three-hour monologue would be uninterruptable.

What lies next is to be seen. Perhaps CIIT could go for creating a jinn-based telecommunications network. Another promising direction could be radar evading jinn-powered cruise missiles. Jinn chemistry, a research subject activated in the Zia-ul-Haq era, could be another growth point. CIIT could also pursue a proposal from the 1970’s, initiated by a senior director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, to replace fossil and nuclear fuels with jinn power.

Actually, last week’s event was unexceptional. In schools, colleges, and universities similar “motivational speakers” claiming paranormal knowledge are today’s rage. The Institute for Business Management (Karachi), for example, organized a meeting on “The Last Moments of a Man”. The poster showed the grayed hulk of a man slouching through a graveyard. Students (again a full auditorium, I’m told) were given graphic glimpses into life in the next world. The source of this information, probably secretly SMS’ed from inside the grave, was not revealed by the speaker.

One might have thought that Pakistan’s super-elite universities would be different. LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), the country’s most expensive private university, has a school of science and engineering built with American dollars. It appeared to have a serious mission but several LUMS professors now openly deride scientific reasoning.

Quite accidentally, earlier this year I happened to attend a public lecture given by Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul, professor of humanities at LUMS, whose specialty is science-bashing. While admitting he knew no physics, he went through the usual stale post-modernist critiques of science and then claimed that the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded to American physicist Robert Millikan in 1923, was undeserved since he threw away several data samples and chose only those that fitted his hypothesis.

The distortions were clear to me, but when the professor poured a ton of scorn on Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, my eyes nearly popped out and my heart stopped beating. What else could make an atom bomb explode, or a nuclear reactor produce electricity? Jinns, surely! But he is not alone in making such claims. Professor of molecular genetics and the head of the biology department, Dr. Mohammed Tariq, in an email to the entire LUMS faculty, excitedly claimed proof that reciting or listening to Surah-e-Rahman “can control genes and metabolites” and suggested that specially equipped audio-visual rooms be made in hospitals to treat terminally ill patients.

Perhaps to underscore its determination to shift away from western science, last month LUMS ousted Pakistan’s most widely regarded and respected mathematical physicist, Dr. Amer Iqbal, from his tenured position. Fortunately he loses nothing since Harvard, Princeton, or MIT (from where he received his PhD) will welcome him with open arms.

Paranormal and conspiratorial ways of thinking dovetail well with each other. Hence it should not surprise that Dr. Mujahid Kamran, the current vice-chancellor of Punjab University, Pakistan’s largest public university, has written a book asserting that 911 was an inside job. Further, according to a newspaper interview, he says that the world’s entire economic system is controlled by Jews huddled together in the town of Monte Carlo.

Conspiracy buffs can expect even more delights now that the famous Zaid Hamid, having successfully dodged his sentence of 1000 lashes, is back from his months of incarceration in Saudi Arabia. Inshallah, this fiery orator will soon resume his popular campus speaking tours across Pakistan.

The all-pervasive anti-reason, anti-science attitude on our campuses might seem difficult to understand. No, it’s not hard, just think for a moment. To spit venom at science and pillory its epistemological basis is easier than falling off a broken chair. Rejecting science means you are spared the required toil, effort, and exacting mental discipline needed for learning hard stuff like math and physics. Besides, you might not even have the talent for it. It’s far easier to curse science than to woo it.

Consider the advantages: Mental disorders like epilepsy can be understood and cured without bringing in neurosurgeons or clinical psychologists since, of course, it’s the jinns at work. A good resident pir or exorcist would do fine. You don’t have to learn the messy science of meteorology because jinns make winds. And seismology is useless since earthquakes happen because of our bad deeds.

As for toys and trinkets like computers and cellphones we can, like our Saudi brothers, always buy the best from Apple or Nokia. Some money-hungry Zing-Zang-Zong company will happily run the cellphone networks for Pakistan. The dirty business of technology and inventing things can be safely left to the Chinese, Americans, and Europeans. Their jinns know their job so well.

Pakistan’s universities should have been beacons of enlightenment, open inquiry, and bold new thinking. Instead they are sheep farms. A legion of intellectually lazy and ignorant professors wants to breed students who will submit to authority, not question or challenge. Knowing that an invented bogeyman subdues 5-year olds effectively, they hope the spectre of unworldly creatures and fear of death will suitably frighten 20-25 year olds. The newly launched jinn invasion of campuses means that Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual decline will accelerate.

[1] The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad

LUMS Responds To Hoodbhoy’s Article [2]
Yasser Hashmi [3]

This is with reference to the op-ed piece (Oct 2) by Dr. Hoodbhoy. We would like to make clear that the School Sciences and Engineering at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) was funded by Pakistani philanthropy, not by ‘American dollars’. Dr. Hoodbhoy’s claim is incorrect. The list of donors adorns the entrance to the Sciences and Engineering building.

Dr Hoodbhoy identifies and quotes an email sent by a LUMS faculty member on how ‘reciting holy verses can control genes and metabolites’ without giving the context.

Dr Hoodbhoy raised this matter internally at LUMS and it is worthwhile to quote the email response by the Dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering: “This is with reference to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s email to you. The author [a LUMS faculty member], is clearly excited about a scientific report published in a top-tier journal which indicates that thinking influences brain biochemistry and decided to share it with the Faculty. The reported data is robust. That this indeed happens has been obvious for decades and even centuries because how else could a person retrieve or recollect a memory that has been stored in the cortical areas of the brain.

“Thus thinking about stuff forgotten and retrieving it must be associated with biochemical change(s); same goes for memory storage. Similarly, it is well-known through the work of Fred Gage (Salk Institute) and others that [the] visualisation of happy and sad images influences the brain but in opposite ways.

“Based on this, one wonders whether [the] visualisation of any religious script or its recitation would have a similar impact on the human brain. For an atheist such inputs are unlikely to lead to any changes due to lack of faith; for a devout Muslim or a Jew, however, hearing the recitation of verses from the Holy Quran or Torah is likely to have some impact.

Such hypotheses can certainly be tested scientifically! … Anyway, the point is that had the author replaced Surat-Rehman with happy and sad images (as Gage has done in his work on neurogenesis), or a movement from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in his email, it would have evoked a wow from Pervez and whosoever forwarded that email to him. Unfortunately, mentioning Sura Rahman had the opposite effect on him.

Dr Hoodbhoy further quotes a LUMS faculty member as questioning E=MC2. Again, he fails to give the context which is that of philosophical debate, not the veracity of the equation, but of the limitations of the orthodox concept of the scientific method.

There is no doubt that Pakistani students are poorly prepared to understand the philosophical underpinning of science. That is all the more reason they should be exposed to important issues in the history and philosophy of science.

[2] Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015

[3] Spokesperson, Lahore University of Management Sciences

A Response To LUMS
Pervez Hoodbhoy, 25 October, 2015 (To be published in Dawn)

LUMS [Lahore University of Management Sciences] has officially responded (October 24) to my article of October 2 with two assertions both wrong, needlessly personal, and indicative of the strong anti-science and anti-intellectual currents within that university. First, it has upheld the claim of the LUMS biology department chairman that reciting or listening to certain holy verses “can control genes and metabolites” and his suggestion that reading such verses could cure terminally ill patients in hospitals. Modern medicine, by this reasoning, is irrelevant. But we see that everywhere in the world, including Pakistan, people are living 15-20 years longer. This is not because people are listening more often to Beethoven or have started reciting prayers but because of antibiotics and vaccines.

LUMS has also defended its famous science-bashing humanities professor who openly ridicules Albert Einstein and Robert Millikan, both physics Nobel Prize winners. Its spokesperson said I had not given the context of the “philosophical debate”. Let me clarify that there was no debate. I had heard this professor at a lecture where he admitted to knowing no physics but he still fiercely condemned the work of the two great scientists using arguments that were illogical and steeped in ignorance.

Finally, I do not understand how LUMS can deny that it has received USAID funding when its official webpage: http://lums.edu.pk/page.php/lums-at-a-glance acknowledges receipt of $10 million from USAID in 1989. LUMS SSE is, of course, a part of LUMS and hence just as much a beneficiary. There is nothing wrong with this, but one just wishes that LUMS someday recovers its lost sense of balance and ceases its violent assaults against reason and science.

[a] Articles in the exchange on Islam and science on the SERRC:

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