Claude Alvares, Science, 1992

The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power


I was born into a culture that continues to exercise greater influence and power over behaviour than modern science does, or will ever do. If that were properly understood, then this obituary would not appear either scandalous or scurrilous. Every culture enjoins its members to maintain respect for certain entities. Modern science does not find a place in our pantheon.

Far from it. From this side of Suez, in fact, modern science appears akin to an imported brand of toothpaste. It contains elaborate promises and much sweetness and glamour. It can be used, is often used (many times pointlessly), yet can be dispensed with at any time precisely because it is still largely irrelevant to life.

Toothpaste has become a significant universal commodity: for some, it has even evolved into a category of mind. For decades now, it has remained (with the toothbrush) an essential adjunct of modern civilization, available from Managua to Manila. Those who have ingratiated themselves with modernity are prone to find any absence of toothpaste (either for themselves or for others) a source of acute anxiety.

In our society, however, the moment we find toothpaste unavailable, we return to neem sticks, or cashew or mango leaves, or mixtures composed of ginger, charcoal and salt. All excellent, locally available and dependable materials for keeping the mouth fresh and disinfected and the teeth clean.

Now modern science is a universal commodity too, also distinctly recognizable from Managua to Manila, also approved by many whose devotion to its tenets and its propagation is more often than not related to its ability to provide a high living wage and, often, in addition, power, prestige and a chauffeur-driven car. Like the early morning toothbrush, science is considered a precondition for a freshly minted world-view uncontaminated by unlearned or unemancipated perceptions. For its part, it offers to flush out the many disabling superstitions from all those hidden crevices of a society’s soul, to eliminate any and every offending bacterium, to produce a clean and ordered world. Most important, it promises a materialist paradise for the world’s unprivileged through its awesome, magical powers. But, not for any reason difficult to understand, it also continues to require as big an advertising budget as toothpaste. There is something about modernity’s leading prestige product that is actually so bland it has to be rendered spectacular by sensational copy and a fertile imagination.

Such an irreverent view of modern science will not be comfortable for those who have chosen to remain imprisoned within the dominant present-day perceptions of the age. But for us, it always was another culture’s product, a recognizably foreign entity. We eventually came to see it as an epoch-specific, ethnic (Western) and culture-specific (culturally entombed) project, one that is a politically directed, artificially induced stream of consciousness invading and distorting, and often attempting to take over, the larger, more stable canvas of human perceptions and experience. In a world consisting of dominating and dominated societies, some cultures are bound to be considered more equal than others. This heritage of inequality, inaugurated and cemented during colonialism, has remained still largely intact today. So the culture products of the West, including its science, are able to claim compelling primacy and universal validity only because of their (as we shall see later) congenital relationship with the political throne of global power.

Colonialism, we know, subjects, undermines, subordinates, and then replaces what it eliminates with its own exemplar. It is natural to expect that Western science, an associate of colonial power, would function not any less brazenly and effectively: extending its hegemony by intimidation, propaganda, catechism and political force. In fact, being a culture product, it was only to be expected that it would be associated with the various (mostly aggressive) thrusts of that culture. It would attempt to extend its hegemony to other cultures through an elite class, which social commentators today call “modernizers”, whose distinguishing characteristic, following a period of schooling at Oxbridge, was a thoroughgoing alienation from the life and culture of their own people. And true to its origins, this science has remained in the service of Western culture to this day, a crucial component in the hysterically active hegemony of the West.

However, due to stupendous and unrecognized inner strengths, the cultures on which modern science sought to impose itself were able to prevent themselves from being fully incorporated. Science’s inability to deliver the goods and its general incompetence in dealing with specific problems have also led to its decline. A global overview today of its actual hegemony would, in fact, be quite distressing to its devotees. In many areas of the non-Western world, it has been reduced to the status of a commodity (like toothpaste) or a gadget (to be purchased with money). Its promise to transform the world into a materialist paradise and thereby put an end to poverty and oppression has lost all credibility. There is evidence indeed to show that it has accomplished just the contrary. As for its offer of a new metaphysical world-view to provide us with ethical guidance, this has also been largely rejected. Dharma, conversation, community, interaction with sacred entities and their associated symbols, still remain prime movers within our societies. One even encounters significant desertions from the imperium of science in the very citadels of Western culture.

Thus, the geographical area of science’s influence has turned out to be far less than was originally desired or attempted. In comparison, other ideas have dominated (and sometimes unsettled) human societies for far longer periods of time. Buddhism, for example, which like Western science had its own theory of causation, was born on Indian soil, from where it was exported to entire civilizations. In societies like Japan, it exercised influence for centuries. It unsettled most South and Southeast Asian societies with its radically new notions of what a society should be like and of the relationship between the sangha and the state. In comparison with Buddhism, the sway of modern science is impressive, but less pervasive. We should also remember that Buddhism, in contrast to science, was not propagated and imposed by violence.

The actual self-perception of modern science as a recognizably distinct human activity does not go back more than 200 years in Western society. The very term “scientist” (used as an analogy to the word “artist”) was first suggested by William Whewell as late as 1833 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was only used without distaste by its practitioners towards the end of the first quarter of this century.

This is not to deny that the world’s citizenry suffered greatly from the temptations of modern science. It did. Just as it did until recently from the promises of development. But just as one now routinely encounters the “stink of development”, one is also compelled to concede that three centuries of science have raised their own trail of disturbing odours. Not surprisingly, therefore, one discovers that whatever is being said in obituaries about development can equally be said about modern science.

Science and development: a congenital relationship

What has been responsible for the gross influence of science over the imagination of men in our times? One major factor has been the intimate relationship between science and development. They cannot be understood in isolation from each other, as India’s policymakers made clear thirty years ago:

“The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can in fact make up for a deficiency in national resources and reduce the demands on capital.” [1]

Generally speaking, development was merely modern science’s latest associate in the exercise of its political hegemony. Earlier, science had linked itself with enlightenment and millennial claims, before going on to associate itself with racism, sexism, imperialism and colonialism, and then settling down with development, an idea in which most of these earlier inheritances are encoded.

If one, in fact, reflects on the events of recent decades, one is indeed reminded that development and science have run through the period, tied together as intimately as a horse and carriage. Development was desired by us non-Western societies precisely because it was associated with science. What obtained prior to development, either in the form of pure nature or non-Western subsistence, did not have, we were told, the rationality, slickness and efficiency of modern science. People, societies, nature itself were backward because of its absence. Planners labelled entire zones “backward” simply because they lacked factories. (The factory has remained until today a concrete symbol of the new processes developed by science.) Backwardness was to be substituted by development, an allegedly better way of organizing man and nature based on the rich insights of up-to-date science.

Science, in turn, was desired because it made development possible. If one developed its associated skills, one could have unlimited development and riches. Science and development reinforced the need for each other; each legitimized the other in a circular fashion popularly rendered “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”.

If development had had no special relationship with science, there would have been no need to displace subsistence and the new standard of living that development proposed.

However, the relationship between modern science and development was much more than merely intimate: it was congenital. This congenital relationship can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution when a relationship was first established between science and industry. This should not unduly surprise the reader. Some of the principal laws of science arose originally out of industrial experience. For instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics resulted from efforts to improve the working of the steam engine with a view to advancing industry.

The Indian scientist C.V. Seshadri, in a paper on “Development and Thermodynamics”, has provided some original clues to the historical development of this relationship between industry and science. Seshadri found the Second Law of Thermodynamics, on close scrutiny, ethnocentric. He charged that, due to its industrial origins, the Second Law had consistently favoured the definition of energy in a way calculated to further the allocation of resources solely for big industry purposes (as opposed to craft). In a related paper, co-authored with V. Balaji, Seshadri wrote:

“The law of entropy, backed by its authority, provides a criterion for utilization of energy available from various resources. This criterion, known as the concept of efficiency, is a corollary to the law of entropy and came into existence along with the law. The efficiency criterion stipulates that the loss of available energy in a conversion becomes smaller as the temperature at which the conversion is effected is higher above the ambient. Therefore, high temperatures are of high value and so are resources such as petroleum, coal, etc., which can help achieve such temperatures. In this sense, the law of entropy provides a guideline for the extraction of resources and their utilization.” [2]

Efficiency, perceived in such terms, came to be the leading criterion for judging technologies and productive work. In the light of modern science, more efficiency of this kind was considered synonymous with more development. Yet, in reality, this central concept of modern science is thus fused with a particular kind of resource utilization.

An economy based on this kind of science not only provides itself with a self-serving criterion with which to legitimize itself, it also assumes thereby that it has a justification for taking over all resources hitherto outside its domain and untouched by modern science. Just as economics invented the idea of scarcity to further its domain, so science assumed the idea of thermodynamic efficiency in order to dislodge competition.

Bias against nature and handicraft

As Seshadri pointed out, both nature and non-Western man proved to be losers when the thermodynamic definition of efficiency became the criterion for development. Both, by definition, overnight became undeveloped or underdeveloped. A tropical monsoon, for example, transporting millions of tonnes of water across the tropics, became by definition inefficient since it performed work at ambient (and not high) temperatures. S.N. Nagarajan agrees:

“This is not merely confined to the organic world. Even the evaporation of water, which forms clouds and desalinizes, is not done at 100°c. Life could not have emerged by a process similar to what scientists use, at high temperatures. Scientists are incompetent to construct higher organizations at low temperatures. Tropical agricultural practices were built upon such a kind of knowledge. The two different kinds of approaches have different criteria of efficiency. So the two have a different understanding of development.” [3]

And he adds:

“Nature’s way is slow, peaceful, non-harmful, non-explosive, non-destructive, both for others and for itself. Take for example, the production of fibre by plants and animals, compared to machines. The end result of plant and machine processes may appear to be the same: fibre and rayon. The machine also produces a large quantity in a short time. But at what cost? The costs are borne by the weaker sections and by nature. The people who are chained to the machine (workers) are also consumed by it.”

In fact, all processes or work effected at ambient temperatures are discounted in the suzerainty of modern science. Thus tribals, bamboo workers, honey bees and silkworms all process the resources of the forest at ambient temperatures, and hence without the polluting side effects of waste heat and effluent associated with big industrial processes. However, in the eyes of development, it is only the high energy input rayon and pulp units that really process the forest resources and contribute to economic growth and production.

Yet modern science still insists: “The efficiency criterion stipulates that the loss of available energy in a conversion becomes smaller as the temperature at which the conversion is effected is higher above the ambient”. By this means, it in fact destabilizes and exorcizes entire industries and livelihoods. A final illustration from the production of various kinds of sugar in India can drive home the point.

India produces different forms of sugar. The most important of these are white sugar and gur. According to official opinion, the processes used for the extraction and production of white sugar are superior to those that lead to gur. Not only is the extractive efficiency of large mills higher, the product (white sugar) stores well. It can be transported and hoarded, and otherwise abused for reasons of state. The attendant pollution wreaked by sugar mills is acknowledged, but is considered a small price to pay for the benefits of progress.

Gur, on the other hand, is mostly manufactured in open furnaces, using agricultural waste, timber or bagasse. The extraction of sugar cane juice is not as high as in the big industry process. The final product also does not keep well beyond a certain period. However, no pollution results from the production process: neither the earth nor its atmosphere is damaged. And, of course, hoarding and speculation in gur is less easy.

From a bare accounting of the two processes, it would seem to be in the public interest for the state to support the replacement of gur production with modern sugar mills. Development is white sugar. And this is what has occurred in countries like ours in the post-independence period. Credit policy towards farmers in the vicinity of large sugar mills stipulates that if farmers take loans for growing sugar cane from government financial institutions, they are duty bound to sell all their sugar cane only to the large refineries. They may not make gur out of it. Special officers of government, designated Sugar Commissioners, actually oversee such development. Indeed, this authoritarianism of development has been upheld by the Supreme Court of India. A farmer was ordered by a Sugar Commissioner to deposit all his sugar cane with a large sugar mill. He refused because he wanted to process it into gur instead. The matter went up to the Supreme Court. The Court upheld the orders of the Sugar Commissioner.

A different picture emerges, however, when a closer investigation is made of the qualities of the two processes and their end products. We then discover how modern science highlights certain qualities to the exclusion of others and how the blind adoption of its procedures can lead us to emphasize the wrong values. White sugar is dangerous to health for a number of reasons long tested and proven. The bodily processes involved in the metabolism of white sugar end up destabilizing the health of the consumer. In addition, the human body has no physiological requirement for white sugar as such. It is recognized that white sugar is, after all, nothing but empty calories. Gur, on the other hand, is a food. It contains not merely sugar, but iron and important vitamins and minerals.

Thus, if the two sugars are compared in the round, gur would make a positive contribution to human welfare, whereas white sugar would not. This, however, is not apparent in any comparison of the mere production processes that produce white sugar and gur, and in any case the criterion of this comparison resides only in the particular, and biased, terrain of modern science’s view of efficient energy conversion. The technology for white sugar production is simply assumed to be more efficient than the technology used in the production of gur. Besides, whether it is worth producing a commodity that is harmful to human health and also damages the environment (waste heat and effluents) is not part of the efficiency debate [4].

Symbolic, nevertheless, of the new status sought for modern science by Third World ruling elites was an international conference on the Role of Science in the Advancement of New States held in August 1960, in Israel. At that conference S.E. Imoke, Minister of Finance for Eastern Nigeria, told his audience:

“We do not ask for the moon nor are we anxious for a trip there with you just yet. All we seek is your guidance, assistance and co-operation in our efforts to gather the treasures of our lands, so that we may rise above the subsistence level to a life more abundant.” [5]

Revamping Society

The drive to advance big industry in the West was paralleled by an equally powerful project to reorganize society along scientific (i.e. efficient) lines. Auguste Comte set out the general design. His vision of applying the principles of rationality, empiricism and enlightenment to human society in every detail has already had a pervasive influence on the so-called advanced societies.

A roughly similar Comtean vision received a fresh lease of life with the political independence of Third World nations. Here science (the archetypical instrument) was entrusted with the turnkey role of promising undreamed of standards of material well-being to the so-called poor of the planet.

The most well-known specimen of this innocent world-view was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India. No leader of the Third World was as enamoured of the glamour and promise associated with modern science as Nehru. For him development and science were synonymous. The original Comtean vision is starkly revealed in Nehru’s insistence on scientific temper as a sine qua non of material advancement. According to him (in his Discovery of India, 1946), it was science and science alone that “could solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people”.

This alarming naivety was passed on by him to the country’s leading bureaucrats. India adopted a science policy resolution in March 1958, which read in part:

“The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements. It is this which, for the first time in man’s history, has given to the common man in countries advanced in science, a standard of living and social and cultural amenities, which were once confined to a very small privileged minority of the population. Science has led to the growth and diffusion of culture to an extent never possible before. It has not only radically altered man’s material environment, but, what is of still deeper significance, it has provided new tools of thought and has extended man’s mental horizon. It has thus even influenced the basic values of life, and given to civilization a new vitality and a new dynamism.

Science and technology can make up for deficiencies in raw materials by providing substitutes or, indeed, by providing skills which can be exported in return for raw materials. In industrializing a country, a heavy price has to be paid in importing science and technology in the form of plant and machinery, highly paid personnel and technical consultants. An early and large development of science and technology in the country could therefore greatly reduce the drain in capital during the early and critical state of industrialization.

Science has developed at an ever-increasing pace since the beginning of the century so that the gap between the advanced and backward countries has widened more and more. It is only by adopting the most vigorous measures and by putting forward our utmost effort into the development of science that we can bridge the gap. It is an inherent obligation of a good country like India, with its tradition for scholarship and original thinking and its great cultural heritage, to participate fully in the march of science, which is probably mankind’s greatest enterprise today.” [6]

Likewise, the authors of the country’s First Five Year Plan noted:

“In the planned economy of a country, science must necessarily play a specially important role … Planning is science in action, and the scientific method means planning.”

These great “self-evident truths”, however, did not seem so obvious to many ordinary people in the Third World, particularly tribals, peasants and others not yet converted to the Western paradigm. In fact, if the benefits of modern science were not immediately obvious to them, neither did development seem to symbolize a better way of doing routine tasks. On the contrary, development seemed more of a con-game to ordinary folk. To these perspective observers, it actually demanded greater sacrifices, more work, and more boring work, in return for a less secure livelihood. It required the surrender of subsistence (and its related autonomy) in exchange for the dependence and insecurity of wage slavery.

Left to its own, development would have made little headway across the globe. That it did eventually get moving was due purely to the coercive power of the new nation-states which now assumed, in addition to their earlier controlling function, a conducting function as well. Every nation-state stepped in voluntarily to force development, often with the assistance of police and magistrates. If their citizens were so ignorant that they were unable on their own to recognize the “benefits of development”, the new states would have no option but to “force them to be free”.

Development became coercion: forced relocations to ujamaa villages, compulsory co-operatives, and tying people up in new forms of organization “for their own good”. Said Abel Alier, Sudan’s southern regional president, during an Assembly discussion of the controversial Jonglei Canal: “If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks, we will do so for their good and the good of those who come after us” [7]. The modern state does not understand, much less accept, the right of people not to be developed.

We must recognize that the state’s commitment to development stemmed from its equal commitment to modern science. Science was an ideal choice because it claimed to be able to remake reality. It redefined and invented concepts and laws, and thereby remade reality as well. It manufactured new theories about how nature worked or, more important, should work.

Neither people nor nature have been spared as victims of a science-fuelled developmentalism driven on by the state. Today, the remaking of nature has become a major preoccupation of officialized ecology. A classic illustration comes from the approach of scientists to what is called forest development. Foresters are unable to re-create natural forests. But that does not bother them. Instead they redefine forests as plantations, and carry out monocultures under the label of scientific forestry. Nature is thus replaced with a substandard substitute. In reality, the afforestation engineered by modern science becomes the deforestation of nature.

The state claims its right to “develop” people and nature on the basis of a vision of progress set out in blueprints supplied by modern science, itself a cultural product of the West. The people have no role other than as spectators or cogs in this “great adventure”. In exchange, they, or some of them at least, are privileged to consume the technological wonders that result from the heady union of development and science. In the eyes of a patronizing state, this is adequate compensation for a surrender of their natural rights. As for those who cannot or will not participate, they must lose their rights. They can be displaced from the resource arena, their resources being transferred instead to big industry.

A totalitarian edge

The democratic idea remains the one potential element available to counter these twin oppressions of modernity. For democracies are based on the principle of fundamental human rights. Let us turn to how this potential for checking the totalitarianism of modernity was, however, effectively undermined.

We have probed the congenital links between modern science and development, and the implied bias in science against both nature and handicraft production. We have also discussed how the new nation-states, heavily committed to development, found in this science an attractive instrument for their project of remaking their people in the image of what they believed was an advanced form of man.

Both these features of the modern science/modern state relationship indirectly undermined the natural rights of man. In the first instance, science dismissed all existing processes in nature and traditional technics as inferior or of marginal value, thus enabling big industry (capitalist or statist) to substitute the blueprints supplied by science. Yet in human history, at least up until the scientific and industrial revolutions, the technical knowledge necessary for survival had mostly remained non-centralized and radically dispersed. Literally millions of arts and technologies existed – all using a vast variety of accumulated knowledge and productive of a huge quantum of goods, cultural ideas and symbols stemming from the rich diversity of human experience, and based principally on exploiting processes at ambient temperatures. In many ways, this technical diversity of the human species more or less paralleled the genetic diversity of nature itself.

In the second instance, the very conception of what constituted human normality was itself redefined. People lost the right to claim that they could function as competent human beings unless they underwent the indoctrination required by modernity. It was a priori assumed that they were deficient as human beings and had to be remade. As the scientific policy resolution quoted earlier noted: “India’s enormous resources of manpower can only become an asset in the modern world when trained or educated”. If in the process they emerged as pale caricatures of human beings in more powerful cultures, this was nothing to worry about. Science and its experts would decide how human beings would be brought up, trained and entertained, and what they should consume.

This is not too difficult for modern science to achieve primarily because it claims to be associated not only with greater efficiency, but also to have greater explanatory power. What is more, it claims its explanatory power to be superior to anything ever achieved before in the human past, because it alone is impartial and therefore objective. Objectivity was also easy to associate with equality and democracy, since neutrality was beneficial to all. (The biases of monarchical forms of administration, for instance, were notorious.) Modern science therefore seemed ideally suited for modern democracies.

By implication, everything “non-scientific” was devalued as subjective and arbitrary, of marginal value, and could hardly be made the foundation of public policy.

The so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century constituted a watershed in thinking about thinking. The revolution was successful in insinuating a general consensus that, for the first time in human history, human beings had succeeded in unravelling a method of gaining knowledge as certain as the knowledge that earlier had only been available via revealed scripture. This technique of knowledge acquisition was so reliable that the knowledge acquired thereby was for all practical purposes non-negotiable. It was this claim which would soon conflict with the natural rights of man.

The indisputable knowledge that science presumed to offer was kept outside the arena of politics: in no way was it the consequence of bargaining or choice. In fact, one was no longer at liberty to choose scientific knowledge as an option from among other systems of knowledge. Scientific knowledge was a given. No one was any longer free to reject its statements, as one was free (and often encouraged) to reject the statements of religion or art. The individual who refused to accept the basic scientific world-view risked being labelled not merely ignorant, but obscurantist, deviant or irrational.

There are two important points here. First, fallible beings, equipped with an equally fallible instrumentality, reason, were now staking a claim to an infallible method of generating and certifying knowledge. Second, rationality itself was being reduced to nothing more than a narrow and biased scientific rationality which has precious little to do with how the human mind actually thinks, although much to do with how some people think the mind ought to think.

We have to acknowledge that, in its drive for power, modern Western science could hardly afford to be diffident about the nature of its claims. It was compelled by its own premises to concentrate and arbitrate all epistemes, and to pretend to do so impersonally. As the need for certification increased, so did modern science become less democratic and access to knowledge itself turned into a matter of privilege and special training. The layman was now seen as an empty receptacle to be filled up with the contents of science. He was to forgo his own knowledge and knowledge-rights.

There is another curious paradox here. Scientific reason operated with a logic that was allegedly independent of personal factors or whims. It aimed at the formulation of laws existing independently of persons. Yet its certifiers were persons, often persons who had a vested interest in the power of science, and who were dependent on it for their livelihood. Fallible individuals thus exploited the prestige associated with their discipline to gain a share of political power. The ballot was surreptitiously replaced, increasingly by the new scientific priesthood indoctrinated by its shared assumptions.

This, of course, was diametrically opposed to democratic functioning where rights are unique and universal and belong to individuals primarily because they are members of the species. Such rights include the right to claim true knowledge and the right to reject impersonal knowledge. A right which, in other words, includes the power to certify knowledge. Under the new tyranny of modern science, such rights were first assaulted, then extinguished, and ordinary people were no longer considered as being capable by the fruit of their own activity of providing or obtaining true and certain knowledge of the world. This political right was taken away from all people falling within the ambit of science’s dictatorship. In fact, for the ruling classes which felt that human rights had been too early democratized, or unnecessarily so, science now provided an instrument by which they could take back with the one hand what they had earlier been compelled to give away with the other.

Thus planning, science and technology – the technocracy – now became the principal means for usurping the people’s rights to the domains of knowledge and production, for dismissing the people’s right to create knowledge, and diminishing their right to intervene in matters of public interest or affecting their own subsistence and survival.

The non-negotiability of modern science, the much vaunted objectivity of scientific knowledge, the seeming neutrality of its information, all these seemed positive features to most reasonable and educated men of different religions, values and nations. Rationality, the scientific temper and modern education seemed indisputable and necessary assets to human life.

However, while science itself advanced its knowledge by dissent, by the clash of hypotheses, it summarily dismissed dissent from outside the scientific imperium regarding either its content or its methods and mode of rationality. The non-negotiability of scientific assumptions, methods and knowledge became a powerful myth elaborately constructed over several centuries, fed by a feigned ignorance among its propagandists concerning how it had actually negotiated its rise and apparently unassailable position.

Scientific knowledge – seen as above emotion, caste, community, language, religion, and transnational – became the preferred and primary instrument for transformation not only above the interest of all but, more importantly, enforceable on all. Never, in fact, was there so much agreement among the intellectuals of so many nations, whether liberals, communists, reactionaries, Gandhians, conservatives, or even revolutionaries: all succumbed to the totalitarian temptation of science.

What we have said concerning the power relationship of modern science with other epistemologies is also true of what came to obtain between it and technics. Development based on it came to constitute a dynamic (actively colonizing) power, committed to compromising the survival possibilities and niches of larger and larger masses of people. By and large, it found the people’s knowledge competitive and therefore offensive. And since it maintained a contemptuous attitude towards folk science, it also treated people’s rights to use resources in their own way with scant respect.

Most important of all, the modern state’s interest in such development itself owed much to the latter’s constant search for ways and means to compromise, erode, and often severely diminish, personal autonomy, and the creativity and political freedom that went with it. In a democracy, people can govern themselves, but they can hardly do so if their governments are seriously attempting at the same time to see whether they can be successfully managed and changed.

Once the ordinary people’s epistemologic rights were devalued, the state could proceed to use allegedly scientific criteria to supplant such rights with officially sponsored and defined perceptions and needs.

Science’s propaganda, that it alone provided a valid description of nature, was turned into a stick with which to beat trans-scientific, or folk-scientific, descriptions of nature. The various “people’s science movements” in India took this job quite seriously, by functioning as an unofficial establishment, gallantly attempting to replace the science of the village sorcerer or tantrik with the barbarism of modern science’s electric shock treatment or frontal lobotomies.

This expansion of the domain of scientific epistemology involved the most sustained deprivation of others’ epistemological rights. State policy, being committed to this one epistemology exclusively, abused or ignored others. In medicine, to take just one example, the bias exercised against Indian systems of healing in favour of imported allopathy needs little documentation.

All imperiums are intolerant and breed violence. The arrogance of science concerning its epistemology led it actively to replace alternatives with its own, superimposing on nature new and artificial processes. Naturally, the exercise provoked endless and endemic violence and suffering as the perceptions of modern science sat clumsily and inappropriately on natural systems. Thus, just as the Europeans eliminated millions of indigenous Indians from North and South America and other indigenous populations elsewhere to make a place for their own kind, and just as their medicine uprooted other medicine, and their seeds displaced other seed, so their knowledge project called modern science attempted to ridicule and wipe out all other ways of seeing, doing and having.

Knowledge is power, but power is also knowledge. Power decides what is knowledge and what is not knowledge. Thus modern science actually attempted to suppress even non-competitive but different ways of interacting with man, nature and the cosmos. It warred to empty the planet of all divergent streams of episteme in order to assert the unrivalled hegemony of its own batch of rules and set of perceptions, the latter being clearly linked with the aggressive thrusts of Western culture.

It is an illusion to think that modern science expanded possibilities for real knowledge. In actual fact, it made knowledge scarce. It overextended certain frontiers, eliminated or blocked others. Thus it actually narrowed down the possibilities for enriching knowledge available to human experience. It did appear to generate a phenomenal information explosion. But information is information, not knowledge. The most that can be said of information is that it is but knowledge in degraded, distorted form. Science should have been critically understood not as an instrument for expanding knowledge, but for colonizing and controlling the direction of knowledge, and consequently human behaviour, within a straight and narrow path conducive to the design of the project.

Is, then, the defeat total? No. The planet has not succumbed to appropriation by modern science everywhere. Indeed the outward symbols of science – agribusiness food, nuclear reactors, gigantic dams – are facing rebellion across the globe. And if those who have tasted the empty fruits of modern science are disillusioned with them, others have refused to taste them at all. Millions of farmers, for instance, reject the modern rice strains manufactured by cereal research centres controlled by agribusiness. Citizens across the planet are rejecting modern allopathic medicine to varying degrees. Millions of ordinary people reject the idea of living by the distorting (and distorted) values associated with modern science.

In a country like India, forty years of state sponsorship of science and all its works have been unable to bolster its failing reputation. In 1976 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made the propagation of the scientific temper one of the fundamental duties of Indian citizens, and amended the constitution accordingly. Despite this there is an even greater sense of crisis among the Indian scientific community, which finds itself every decade more and more out of tune with Indian society’s principal preoccupations.

This sense of failure has irreversibly crippled much of the thrust to push India into the straitjacket prepared for it by the project of modern science. The people in non-Western societies do not merely not co-operate with its principal designs, they indicate they do not care a fig for the West and its creations.

In many areas, the non-cooperation has become aggressive. People, groups, villages have openly rejected modernizing development and stubbornly insisted on maintaining their ways of life, their ambient interactions with nature, and the arts of subsistence. The revolt against development is bound to be at another level a revolt against modern science and the violence it symbolizes. This was Mahatma Gandhi’s view. It will eventually become the view of those interested in protecting the natural rights of man and nature everywhere.

Claude Alvares is an editor at Other India Press, and director of the Goa Foundation, an environment monitoring group. His investigative journalism in India, reporting on development blunders from the building of dams to the privatization of seed, gained him a wide readership. His books include Science, Development and Violence (1991), Decolonizing History: Technology and Culture in India, China and the West (Zed Books, 1991) and The Organic Farming Source Book (2009). He lives in Goa.


Further reading

Mahatma Gandhi’s vigorous attack on the claim of modern science to truth in M.K. Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj”, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Delhi: Government of India, vol. 4, pp. 81-208, has been most important to me. A few decades later, a kindred spirit, Lewis Mumford, examined similar trends and pointed to the violence inherent to science in L. Mumford, ‘Reflections’, in My Works and Days, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, and, of course, in his The Myth of the Machine, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964. Among the more recent inquiries into the epistemological limitations of science, see for instance P. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, London: Verso, 1975, or K. Hubner, Critique of Scientific Reason, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. It is also worthwhile consulting L. Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, an early essay (written in 1936) on science as a social construction.

The vicious link between science and development has been explored in A. Nandy (ed.), Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988, and by myself in C. Alvares, Science, Development and Violence, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992. I found very insightful C.V. Seshadri’s seminal work Development and Thermodynamics, Madras: Murugappar Chettiar Research Centre, 1986, and also J.P.S. Uberoi, Science and Culture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978. For two case studies in India, see D. Sharma, India’s Nuclear Estate, New Delhi: Lancers, 1983, and V. Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution: Ecological Degradation and Political Conflict in Punjab, Penang and London: Third World Network and Zed Books, 1991.

Stunning critiques of science have emerged from gifted practitioners of life husbandry. In the field of agriculture there is M. Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution, Hoshangabad: Friends Rural Centre, 1985, and in the field of health M. Kothari and L. Mehta, Cancer: Myths and Realities, London: Marion Boyars, 1979, and Death, London: Marion Boyars, 1986. I. Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa, London: Hutchinson, 1985, testifies to the appropriateness of indigenous knowledge of cultivation, while F. Apffel-Marglin, ‘Smallpox in Two Systems of Knowledge’, in F. Apffel-Marglin and S. Marglin, Dominating Knowledge, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 102-144, shows the inner cultural logic of a non-scientific way of seeing smallpox. Furthermore, there is obviously a long history of non-Western science. Thanks to the monumental work of J. Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China, vols 1-7, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954, rich material on China is available; while Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century, New Delhi: Impex, 1971, highlights the Indian patrimony of knowledge before colonization. S. Goonatilake, Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity in the Third World, London: Zed Books, 1983, discusses the attempts and difficulties in redefining science from a non-Western perspective.

But no work of academia can be as compelling as human experience. Enmeshed in day-to-day village cosmology, it was not too long before the scales fell quickly from my eyes. If one attempts to live close to the peasants or within the bosom of nature, modern science is perceived differently: as vicious, arrogant, politically powerful, wasteful, violent, unmindful of other ways. Life in Thane, a village north-east of the state of Goa, on India’s West Coast, and for the past six years in Parra, a more accessible coastal village, provided me with enough education to see through the emperor’s new clothes.


The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power,
Wolfgang Sachs éd., Zed Books, 1992.
2nd edition, 2010.


[1] Indian Science Policy Resolution, 1958, in W. Morehouse, Science in India, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1971, p. 138.

[2] C.V. Seshadri and V. Balaji, Towards a New Science of Agriculture, Madras: MCRC, n.d., p. 4.

[3] S.N. Nagaraian, personal communication to the author, 7 May 1990.

[4] See Claude Alvares, Science, Development and Violence, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, for a detailed argument.

[5] In Ruth Gruber (ed.), Science and the New Nations, London: Andre Deutsch, 1963, p. 34.

[6] The entire Science Policy Resolution is to be found in Morehouse, Science in India, pp. 138-140.

[7] Quoted in E. Goldsmith and N. Hildyard, The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams, Wadebridge: Wadebridge Ecological Centre, 1984, p. 18.

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