Bard College, New York & Simon's Rock College, Massachusetts
When, on the verge of the 21st century, we look at the world around us, we cannot be other than amazed indeed stunned by the spectacular transformations on our planet wrought by science; that particular branch of thought that, as history has progressed, has acquired its autonomy by breaking loose from philosophy and religion. To be sure, this form of thought existed in all human cultures, but before it achieved autonomy in 17th century Europe, it was scattered or over-diluted in other knowledge as a whole. Freed from that point on from any philosophical, moral or political constraint, it was able to display and demonstrate the efficacy of its method, the scientific method, which can be summarized very briefly in these terms: selection of a specific subject of investigation, adoption of a cognitive blueprint about it, and verification of one's working hypotheses through experimentation, all the time keeping in mind that a verified hypothesis will remain true only insofar as it has not been falsified or refuted by another experiment. This principle of falsifiability or refutability is fundamental to the method for it means that in science there is no absolute truth since the latter can be called into question and even abandoned if just one crucial experiment were to contradict it. On the contrary, even if hundreds of experiments have verified and supported a theory, they will not have made it into an absolute truth since that theory is always at the mercy of a possible decisive experiment that could invalidate it.
Hence, contrary to appearances, scientific certainties are more susceptible to change than those of religion or certain philosophical and political dogmas. It is in this dialectic of a "clash of truths" that science irrigates itself with new ideas, breaks new ground and moves forward.
This scientific truth does however have universal value for the time during which it is instituted: that is to say it is valid for the whole universe. The properties of the hydrogen atom as revealed in a laboratory in the Congo will be the same as those of the hydrogen atoms in the Orion nebula millions of light years away, and similarly, the consumption of oxygen by cells during metabolism will occur in the same way in a Japanese person as in an Xhosa.
So through the application of its method, science and the derived technologies have not only given results that are spectacular in themselves, but even more, thanks to the benefits they have brought to humanity, have made our Earth into a materially more convivial planet. We can cite, in no particular order, the discovery of new medications, the treatment of numerous diseases (polio and smallpox for example have been eradicated from the planet, and research on AIDS and malaria continues to move forward), cell and gene therapies, the discovery of new energy sources, new communication methods and nanotechnology. Just as significantly, scientific culture has moved out of the laboratories and has permeated the whole of society. The hundreds of thousands of midwives who, in the African countryside, wash their hands with soap before delivering a child, the village people who know that latrines must not be dug uphill from a source of drinking water; all these people are practising science even if many of them are unaware of it, just like Moliere's famous character Monsieur Jourdain with his use of prose. Science has also fundamentally changed the way the world is looked at and thought about in all fields, from philosophy to the arts, passing through sport on the way. Finally, if we have anything like a poetic mind, we cannot remain indifferent to the complex symmetries of computer-generated fractal images or the spectacular beauty of exploding stars and colliding galaxies as revealed to us by the Hubble Space Telescope. With regard to such established facts, there is no longer any doubt that science has fulfilled its contract with humanity and, irrepressible, it continues to extend the boundaries of knowledge and to improve the material conditions of our existence.
In the face of these undisputed successes of science, it cannot escape one's notice that more and more voices have been raised, and are still being raised, to criticize it and proclaim its failure by arguing that it has not been able to make any overall response to the basic problems that beset the majority of the planet's population. With regard to hunger, with regard to wars, with regard to pollution and deforestation, with regard to human cloning and genetically modified organisms, we often hear just one cry: "Defendant, Science, stand up! You promised us happiness, but you are bringing us toxic waste, nuclear weapons, the destruction of living and non-living ecosystems, you are digging a gulf between the rich and the poor...!" Such shrieking comes not only from non-scientists who can be excused because they are unaware of the true purpose of science but one sometimes finds renowned scientists among those Cassandras; it seems that they have forgotten the problematics, both of their discipline and of its practice.
To criticize science in this way is to ignore the fact that since the middle of the 20th century, serious scientists no longer believe that science is the essential vector of human "progress". There was a time, it is true, particularly during the 19th century when, faced with the overwhelming progress of this way of perceiving the world, scientists believed themselves to be the sole trustees of reason and truth and let their enthusiasm transform itself into an ideology that had more in common with metaphysics than with physics. This scientistic ideology even suggested that the worship of God, whose death and irrelevance would be proclaimed by Nietzsche, be replaced by the worship of Science with a capital S. For these adepts, science was in the process of solving all humanity's problems hunger, poverty, diseases, etc.; it was in the process of bringing civilization to primitive peoples (hence justifying colonization in its own way), and why not, bringing happiness to humankind if only one could "organize humanity scientifically", as Renan wrote in The Future of Science. Even further, whereas in the 17th century Descartes contented himself modestly with the thought that science was going to allow nature to be mastered, Marx in the century of triumphant rationalism gave it the mission of transforming the world and creating a new man. Nothing less than that!
These ideas were abandoned a long time ago and we are dismayed by the intellectual apathy of those who still think that this is how scientists conceive of their work and their role. It is as if we said that there were men and women of science in this the 21st century, who still believe that the Earth is at the centre of the universe, that the sun moves around it, and that it is flat.
Once again, no man or woman of science since the middle of the last century, and even at the start of this century, believes any longer in a humanitarian mission for science, or that the purpose of science is to provide an answer to humanity's social problems, except perhaps a few isolated cases such as C.P. Snow in his book The Two Cultures (1959). Snow thought that Western science would solve the problems of poverty in Africa and the Third World by the end of the 20th century. To ask science to provide something it does not claim to be capable of doing is the same as asking a chicken to lay ostrich eggs: something beyond its capability..
What many researchers in the social sciences tend to forget is that the scientific method, which allowed science to have such a predictive and operative ability, in return imposes significant inherent limitations. Despite the current attempts to investigate complexity using systemic parameters (chaos theory, research into randomness, scientific procedure is still essentially based on the Cartesian method which consists of "carving up the problem into as many parts as possible, progressing from the most simple to the most complex". Science reduces, simplifies, makes approximations, idealizes and, following the principle of "Ockham's Razor" , of two possible explanations of a phenomenon, chooses the simpler : Sancta simplicias. On the other hand, by systematically eliminating whatever is unquantifiable Galileo proclaimed that the Book of Nature was written in mathematical language one removes from the field of investigation certain realities that are fundamental to human societies. Finally, the scientific method achieves its efficacy by severing its practice from any ethical consciousness and does not incorporate the subjectivity of the thinking subject. However, these are procedures that are contrary to those of human cultures as studied by the social sciences where reductionism is not always possible. Science's homogeneous universality does not allow access to that other universality, the kaleidoscopic, varied and iridescent one of the social sciences. To return to the example of the hydrogen atom: when we know the properties of one, we definitely know those of all the trillions of other ones that populate the universe. On the other hand, knowing how an American reacts when faced with death does not necessarily imply that we can predict how a Tibetan or a Pygmy will behave when faced with the same event. The representations of man or woman in society and the political, economic and social structures must take into account simultaneously all the myriad forces passing through them, in all their dynamics and complexity. Only the Humanities (I am thinking in particular of literature) and the social sciences are able to do this. Understood in this way, researchers in social sciences will no longer have any reason to take the "hard" sciences as their source of legitimization. The "truths" of human cultures are not the same as scientific "truth", they transcend it at the same time as they subsume it. They must understand that the Humanities and Human Sciences rank ahead of science in that they seek to elucidate what makes our specificity in the universe : in other words our humanity. Now, no description of the world in which we live can be complete without this dimension of humanity; namely the suffering, the distress, the sense of beauty, in short the very sense of human existence. The social sciences supply us with the frameworks for interpretation that allow us to develop our plans for society, reading grids that, once applied, will have more instrumental consequences than science. Science has never run the world, nations have never gone to war over differences of scientific opinion, whereas they have slaughtered one another over differences of opinion on economic, political or ... sentimental issues. The discovery of dark matter or of a new galaxy, the development of a new physical theory reconciling relativity and quantum mechanics will amaze us but will have no impact on racism in the world, on religious extremism or on the excision of women in certain African societies, in contrast to an economic, sociological or political theory.
When we look at the continent of my birth, Africa, I sense no such quivering in the renewal of thought. The works of our philosophers, sociologists, political economists, economists and many more that I could mention are for the most part only private recesses inside the fields defined by Western researchers. I say this because for more than three decades I have been in vain seeking in their works the theoretical propositions that will allow us to understand the reasons for the continent's failure on almost all fronts. Why, since the end of colonization, has Africa been coming last in all the parameters used by the U.N. to evaluate economic progress, education and health, way behind South-East Asia for example, whereas at the time of decolonization, in the early sixties, both regions had practically the same economic indicators? Why is the modernization of Africa (computerization, mobile phones, satellite televisions, etc.) happening without modernity? Why has the graft of democracy not taken or why do we continue to have all the outer signs of democracy without actually achieving democracy? Why, in a continent where survival depends so heavily on women's work particularly in rural areas does woman still not have the standing due to her, notwithstanding symposia, conferences and seminars?
The answers can come only from researchers in the social sciences. However, instead of offering us appropriate new paradigms, their work gives us only variations on old themes that have been harked back to a thousand times since the various countries became independent. Several hypotheses can be put forward for this lack of originality. We can think that these researchers are frightened by the myth of science, or rather by what Edgar Morin calls "technoscience", behind which the strength and hegemony of the West are hidden; as a result they no longer dare to assert the primacy of their work and hence leave a clear field for the dictates and ways of thinking of the big Western (capitalist) companies or institutions, such as the IMF with its notorious structural adjustments that have never managed to extricate a country from poverty. In fact, the contrary is true if we look at the case of Argentina at this very moment. The same applies for democracy. The lack of theoretical thought emanating from African societies favours the local petty tyrants. The confusion of democracy with its outer signs multiple parties, elections, etc. easily allows the men in power to pervert it by "scientifically" rigging the elections and creating several "feeder" parties. And given a choice between a democracy that promises economic development but delivers only civil wars and poverty and a nice little dictator who provides food and clothing or other necessities, how can we be surprised that the population prefers the latter?
It could be retorted that no great scientific discovery has neither been made by researchers in the "hard" sciences in Africa, nor in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and technology; that research on AIDS or malaria is carried out primarily in the West. We must not make a mistake and draw a false symmetry between these two fields. The fundamental difference resides in the fact that scientific theories and practices are directly transferable, whereas those in the Human Sciences are not. For science researchers, the problem is only "quantitative" whereas for the Human Sciences it is "qualitative". On the day when the material conditions are all in place funding, the construction of laboratories, equipment the tens of thousands of young African researchers from the African diaspora, chemists, physicists, information technologists, medical researchers and others, will be able to transfer their know-how to their continent overnight. As much cannot be said for the Humanities. As Fanon pointed out in his time and in another context, it is not conceivable to see a Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalyst apply his method, just as it is, to an hysterical Kongo or Yakoma ; or to contemplate an American judge settle a divorce between Bamilekes. However, so that this know-how can be used and not squandered, so that its priorities and the terms of its use can be determined, these scientists need plans for a society developed by the social sciences.
This is why it was pointed out earlier that the truth of the Humanities ranks before the truth of science. Dr Strangelove is a good science fiction theme, but in reality a mad scientist in his laboratory can threaten the world only if there is a Hitler to support him, or a political regime like South Africa's apartheid for the existence of a Dr Wouter Basson, the doctor who was developing chemical or biological weapons that were supposed to attack Blacks specifically.
I am therefore more frightened by a mad politician or philosopher than by a mad scientist in his laboratory. The consequence of this unfulfilled expectation of social sciences researchers is that it has pushed a few scientists into believing that they could themselves be adequate substitutes. It is naïve to believe that the reality of the laboratory can be transformed into social reality without any other type of process. A brilliant physicist or biologist does not convey the rigour of his discipline once he is outside his laboratory; on the contrary, unaware of the complexity of the kaleidoscopic universe of the human sciences, he may commit the most incredible blunders. This is the case with Lyssenko who wanted to prove the soundness of the Marxist dialectic through genetics or those many physicists who launch into philosophical wild imaginings contributing to the "New Age" craze, unless we consider the political experiment of Margaret Thatcher, a Chemistry graduate, as an exemplary success. Einstein himself, as a scientist who knew that skill cannot be transferred from one field to another, refused the presidency of the State of Israel when it was offered to him.
I would like them first of all to address these four urgent questions:
1. What is meant by the notion of "development"? Why is modernization in
Africa happening without modernity? In other words, is it possible to
"Africanize" modernity by "provincializing" Europe, namely by using categories
whose frames of reference are not those of the West?
2. How can democracy in Africa be imagined? How can we go beyond the outer signs of democracy (elections, multi-party systems, etc.) that are usually subverted by the entrenched powers, for example by integrating community practices? Also knowing that democracy is not a necessary condition for development, as demonstrated by Pinochet in Chile, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or Deng Tsiao Ping's China, what arguments intrinsic to democracy can be offered in order to show that it is necessary for Africa and for Africans?
3. How can we attack the hidden structural obstacles of African societies which continue to perpetuate the unegalitarian situation of women? How can we move beyond simple conference resolutions and articles written into constitutions and expose the problems that the Western feminist movement cannot perceive?
4. Finally, the great existential question that I cannot formulate very clearly because I do not really know how to express it. The writer Cheick Hamidou Kane was already asking it in the middle of the last century in his book The Ambiguous Adventure: is universalism really a "universal" notion, or does it hide the West's imperialism? Since the centre that organizes the current world is the West, does Africa risk being left out in the cold by inevitable globalization if this universalism is not embraced? Or must and can we define this universalism in another way so that we can appropriate it without losing our souls? Is Senghor's message of métissage still up to date in a world where some speak of the "clash of civilizations"?
These are the points for which I expect some profound answers. It is possible. The legal innovation provided by the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" in South Africa is an example. I am not talking about definitive answers, which would be impossible and "antiscientific", but rather about great ideas, great themes that could be debated, contested, improved, just as Negritude, Panafricanism and the "Ujamaa" of Julius Nyerere were in their time. We need new paradigms. Our intellectual landscape is empty, there are no longer any great debates, any great struggles. Only literary and artistic creation (music, plastic arts) have contributed anything new. Through the glaring light that they have focused on our societies, the writers of Africa have allowed us to confront, in a salutary way, those shady areas that would otherwise have remained hidden from view, and have forced us to rethink our societies. It is the task of researchers and practitioners in the social sciences to do their share of work. Our escape from poverty, our march towards happiness and towards psychological and existential safety depend on such thought more than on the discovery of a new elementary particle.
Science can be compared to the engine of a vehicle. The people who hold the vehicle's steering wheel firmly in order to drive it where they need to go are the people who officiate in the field of social sciences. They need to know that the future of humanity is in their hands and the task of science, efficient and amoral, is to propel them along the roads they have chosen.
 For reasons of brevity, by "science" I mean here the so-called "hard" sciences (exact sciences, natural sciences, life sciences), as well as the techniques and technologies that are derived from them. Similarly, I include the Hunanities and Law in the social sciences.
 On this subject see the book by Sokal and Bricmont, Impostures intellectuelles [Intellectual Deceptions], Le Livre de Poche 4276, which gives an interesting collection of them.
Emmanuel DONGALA was born in 1941; his mother hailed from Central Africa while
his father was from the Congo. Emmanuel Dongala taught at the University of
Brazzaville where, for a considerable time, he also carried out the duties of
Director of Acadameic Affairs. He was forced to leave the Congo during the
civil war which ravaged the country in 1997. Today, he is Professor of
Chemistry at Simon Rock College, Massachusetts, U.S.A. as well as Professor of
Francophone African Literature at Bard College, New York. He has published five
books : Un fusil dans le main, un poème dans la poche (novel,
1973) Jazz et Vin de Palme (short stories, 1922) Le feu des
origines (novel, 1987) Les petits garçons naissent aussi des
étoiles (novel, 1988) and Johnny Chien Méchant
(novel, 2002). In 1999 Emmanuel Dongala was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship
and in 2003, he was the winner of the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols Prize 2003 for
literary excellence. His works have been translated into a dozen different