Letters to the editor: November 4 to 10 2016

Link ideas to their context

The issue of the decolonisation of academic teaching took a seemingly ridiculous turn with a report on the panel discussion on the decolonisation of science held at the University of Cape Town, during which a student panellist argued that “Western” science should be scrapped and replaced by a foundational African model that would explain supernatural causalities, which are part of African traditional belief systems. Or, as she put it, it would explain how someone receives a curse from a witch and then is fried by lightning.

She was instantly ridiculed and dismissed and her view was seen as totally unscientific (Decolonise science at your peril).

She also took a swipe at Isaac Newton, recounting the legendary story of the falling apple bouncing on his head and giving him the idea of gravity from nowhere.

Ridicule is never really helpful in intellectual debates or disputes. It is the province of satire – and was used brilliantly by writers such as Jonathan Swift in attacking the burgeoning empirical science of the 18th century.

But satire can be a double-edged weapon. In any case, it doesn’t seem appropriate to ridicule detractors when science has itself entertained the utterly ridiculous since the 1920s, turning ridiculous theories (which, Niels Bohr said, need to be “crazy” to have any hope of truth) into fantastically successful outcomes.

The great example of this is quantum theory. And, with some of its weird notions (such as entanglement and wave collapse) still being explored for their deepest implications, perhaps we should be wary of running back to Newton to bash students. Albert Einstein spoke of quantum entanglement, a relationship not affected by the speed of light, as “spooky action at a distance” – the word “spooky” being pertinent here.

Quantum theory shows that observers affect things, suggesting that the universe is not just energy and matter but consciousness too. It suggests that the brain is a quantum machine, in which consciousness comes from an interface between quantum waves/particles and the structure and “matter” of the human brain.

Sir Roger Penrose, perhaps Britain’s most renowned physicist, is engaged in joint research in this field. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued that we cannot dismiss ideas as irrational until we connect them to the context of belief from which they emerge.

What I do share with the would-be student decoloniser is the idea that Newton and the scientific world model he produced (which the student sees as part of the “project of modernity”) must, well, exit stage left. She argued Newton got his idea of gravity from nowhere, which sounds absurd. But, rephrased as “he got his metaphor badly wrong”, this becomes a different animal.

Einstein’s notion of general relativity has been far more powerful in allowing human beings to understand the cosmos. Without it, we would not have figured out that the universe is expanding and was once infinitely smaller, so small and so hot the laws of physics did not apply – and then, of course, the “big bang”.

Newton saw gravity as a force pulling inwards. Einstein saw a slope that things slide down, created by the distortion of the curving of space/time because of an object’s mass. So the metaphor is the key.

Metaphors are integral to human thinking and conceptualisation, but they lie outside science. Science hamstrings itself somewhat because, in thinking of itself as a purely objective form of inquiry into truth, it lacks a “meta” awareness of how it actually does things and how it actually works (both consciously and unconsciously). How many scientists have done any work or any reading into the philosophy of science?

The problem with Newton from a social perspective is not with the science but with the powerful way his notions have worked as metaphor. Many of us decry neoliberal capitalist economics for taking the world towards an increasingly unequal dystopia. Without us having bought in to the idea of ourselves as pure individuals operating like distinct, separate and fundamentally unconnected “atoms” (the underpinning metaphors of Newton’s system), this would not have happened. – Damian Garside, Mafikeng

A graduate tax will prevent student debt

The call for free tertiary education can only be resolved by government. No university principal has the power or the wherewithal to do so (Inequalities increase as fees rise).

Providing more student loans does not seem to be a viable solution. Being in debt is not a propitious start to anyone’s career, and we know that there are graduates all over the country unable to find employment, yet still encumbered by debt.

Every person who has attended or graduated from a South African university, no matter how long ago, has benefited from government subsidy.

It seems to me that the most practical and just way to move on this issue is the imposition of a graduate’s tax: a small percentage addition to the assessed income tax of every graduate will enable the state to raise revenue for “free” education, and at the same time ensure that those graduates who are unemployed or earning too little to incur income tax at all are not put under pressure.

Perhaps the amount recovered could be calculated according to the number of years the graduates spent at South African universities. Having benefited from government subsidies ourselves, we should not be averse to extending such benefits to younger generations.

The chief difficulty would be ensuring that government uses the revenue so raised for this purpose and no other, but it is surely not an insuperable one. – John Brodrick, Johannesburg


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