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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Libertaion Thorugh Science

Liberation Through Science
M. Bakri Musa

The low level of science literacy among Malaysian students, most acute among Malays, is well documented. Science is important for two reasons. The first is obvious; nearly all the advances responsible for our material comfort, improvements in health and life, as well as our comprehension of our physical and social world are due to science. It behooves us to make our future citizens science literate. Before pursuing that, I will dispose of the second reason.
            This second reason is less obvious but more compelling. Science presents a unique way of looking at the world and an approach towards problem solving. Hamka once said that Allah gave us two Korans; one He revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., the other, this wonderful universe. We have a responsibility to study both Korans. With the first, He gave us an exceptional teacher in the person of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w; with the second, He has equipped us with akal, intellect, an attribute unique only unto humans.
            Hamka’s two Korans metaphor is the best reconciliation of faith and reason, of revelation and experimentation.
            Using akal or rational thinking is what science is all about. It is based on empirical evidence, not speculation or philosophizing. You observe the world around you, make a tentative hypothesis to explain what you have observed, and then test it through experimentation or its predictive accuracy. In many respects, the scientific mind is like that of a child; always curious and always learning, as well as constantly formulating, testing, and re-formulating its hypothesis of reality.
            That at least is the ideal of science. In the real world however, things are not necessarily so neat or elegant. Scientists too are subject to the usual human foibles and narrow-mindedness. In collecting data, scientists are like everyone else, subject to “confirmation bias.” When the data do not support the theory, the usual reaction is to blame the experiment and or experiemnter, especially when he is not from the establishment and the prevailing theory has been postulated by someone eminent and in authority.
                  In his book The Mismeasure of Man, the late Stephen Jay Gould debunked the 18th Century “science” of craniometry, where by measuring the size and conformation of human skulls one could classify the various races and purportedly make inferences on their intellectual capacity. Gould made the singular point that to embark on such an enquiry one must have a priori belief in the different intellectual capabilities of the various races, and that those differences in turn are related to skull size and conformation; hence the measurements.
            Subsequent empirical studies debunked that thesis. That is the beauty of science; the certitudes of today could be the butt of tomorrow’s jokes. As for skull conformations, consider the flat back of the heads of Malays for example. That has more to do with cultural child-rearing practices. We put our babies to sleep on their backs; Europeans on their tummies, with the face turned sideways to avoid being smothered. Incidentally, today’s pediatricians advise mothers to avoid that practice as it is associated with a high incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Score one for traditional Malay culture!
            Returning to the first rationale, making citizens science literate and mathematically competent is a practical necessity in today’s world, unless you wish your society to remain backward. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) shows that a nation’s economic development is correlated with, and in fact due in large part to the scientific and mathematical skills as well as the language and critical thinking ability of its workers. All other criteria, such as the amount of money expended on education, class size, or years in the classroom are irrelevant. By these other criteria Egypt is on par with South Korea, but the economies and social development of the two countries could not be more different. The Koreans have much superior science and mathematical skills. That in turn translates into their superior economic and social developments.
            The deficiency with science teaching in Malaysia lies with both approach and content. The subject content is totally unrelated to the pupils’ environment, making it difficult to capture their interest. The loaded national syllabus prevents the teacher from exploring the children’s natural world. A school may be on the beach but the pupils learn nothing about the tides and inter-tidal marine environment throughout their school years; likewise, students living near rivers or deltas would be totally ignorant of their riparian ecology.
            For many reasons, primarily financial, experiments–the essence of science–are now mostly demonstrated to but rarely repeated by students. Now in a misuse of computers, those experiments are simulated digitally, teaching students that real life is as predictable as the simplistic software engineers’ algorithm would have it.
            Very few schools have programs related to their immediate environment. My old school in Kuala Pilah way back in the 1950s had a weather station that collected data on rainfall, wind, and daily temperatures. Our job was to present the data in a variety of formats, typically graphs and tables. We were able to compare our data with what was written in the textbooks. Likewise, during my primary school I remember doing experiments on seed germination using corn and green peas, being ready examples of mono and di-cotyledons, as well as observing the metamorphosis of banana leaf moths, an ubiquitous insect.
            In California, my son’s elementary school science project had the pupils examine owl pellets and from there deduce the birds’ diet. In my grandson’s Grade One class, the children did experiments with oil, water and cork to demonstrate the concept of density and buoyancy. There are literally thousands of such tangible, easily performed experiments to stimulate the students’ interest in science. Those exercises may not be in the syllabus or be tested in the final examinations, but they will sustain the students’ interest, and more importantly, help them absorb the essence of the scientific method.
Next:  The Trap of Mono Lingualism

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016


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