China has historically been a place of great scientific advancement and is well known for having beaten Europe to a great many innovations and discoveries. From antiquity through to the early second millennium China was noticeably ahead of Europe in almost all scientific fields. However, by at least the sixteenth century China’s scientific and technological advancement had entered a period of prolonged stagnation, one which allowed Europe to overtake China in the sciences.

The Needham question asks why China suddenly fell behind Europe in the sciences. Joseph Needham himself argued that it was the rising negative political and cultural impact of Confucianism and Taoism which stifled advancement, perhaps similar to the European Dark Ages. While perhaps partially accurate, this argument seems insufficient on its own to fully explain the phenomenon.

One interesting theory that’s been put forward is that the Chinese language itself played a prohibitive role in terms of scientific advancement beyond a certain point. While the Chinese were advanced enough to invent the printing press many years ahead of the Europeans, the Chinese language lacked an alphabet or system of writing which could be easily codified into a mass-producible typeset. As a result, printing remained an exclusive and expensive practice in China.

This contrasts dramatically with the European case, where the easy availability of printing for the emerging educated middle classes after the renaissance period allowed for the rapid spread of ideas and knowledge, and was essential for the move towards a modern scientific community and the widening of education programmes.

This idea reminded me of a similar but seemingly unrelated problem encountered by the Chinese relating to their written language: the difficulty of learning to read and write it with any fluency. The problem was seen as so severe that in efforts to boost literacy the young People’s Republic took the drastic step of changing their written character system to the Simplified Chinese we students of the language are thankful for today.

So I’m going to ask you, do you think that the added difficulties in learning to read and write (which probably restricted literacy on class lines more dramatically than in Europe post-Reformation) is a potential significant contributing factor to the Chinese scientific and technological stagnation of the last few centuries?

Which explanations of the Needham paradox do posters favour? Do you feel there are other significant contributing factors which are routinely ignored?

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Optimum Population

25/04/2010

Population control is a rather unpopular idea, which remains haunted the spectre of Thomas Malthus whose apocalyptic projections famously never saw realisation. To this day any suggestion of population control or of the mere existence of an overpopulation problem is likely to be dismissed as neo-Malthusian pseudo-science.

In 2009 naturalist and TV producer David Attenborough, of whose documentaries I am quite a fan, stirred up a bit of controversy when he joined a small charity (bringing the oxygen of publicity with him) called the Optimum Population Trust (OPT).

I would argue, in defence of the OPT, that population level, and far more importantly rate of population growth, is a significant concern worthy of both scientific investigation and political action. Consider, for example, the level of criticism often levied at the People’s Republic of China (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) for it’s rapidly growing level of CO2 emissions. Now if it were not for the highly controversial population control laws applied in parts of mainland China, the population of the PRC would be 300-400 million greater than it presently is. Accommodating for such a larger population with the currently existing standard of living (including the same availability of domestic electricity per person) would require drastically higher levels of CO2 emissions (as the population increase would be almost entirely urban). Not increasing the power generation capacity in proportion to the population increase (which would be economically infeasible anyway) would result in greatly reduced standards of living for all concerned.

This ecological argument is the focus of all modern population control efforts, including the OPT. The ecological population problem differs from the Malthusian population problem in that whereas the latter is resolved through the exponential increase in productivity from industrial capitalism, the ecological crisis is often caused by that very increase in productivity (especially in major developing economies such as China).

All this, then, if perhaps not scientifically conclusive on its own, suggests that further investigation into the potential problem shouldn’t be neglected and that great consideration should be given to efforts to reduce the global birthrate, or even better to address the climate change issue directly (and no, asking developing countries to develop less slowly while much of their population lives in poverty is not a solution).

The problem, however, is that the OPT seem to be preoccupied with campaigns which fail to address this commendable goal in any realistic way.

Firstly, I shall address the issue of their views specifically on the United Kingdom population. The UK is a densely populated country, there is no denying that. There is also no denying the fact that the population of the UK is increasing, and that net migration into the country plays a role in that. It does not, however, logically follow that it is necessary to “[bring] immigration into numerical balance with emigration” (in other words, adopt a draconian immigration policy).

Limiting immigration to the UK does not tackle global population growth (as residents in the UK, including later-generation migrants are likely to have less children that those who live in countries from which the UK receives most of its immigration, it would actually have a slight impact of increasing it). Is there a specifically UK population crisis? If so the OPT fails to make the case for it convincingly. Yes, our population has long outgrown our domestic ability to produce sufficient sustenance and to handle all our waste produce, however we are not and are unlikely to ever be dependent solely on the natural resources of Great Britain and two-thirds of Ulster.

Further restricting immigration to the UK actually defeats what was presumably its purpose. The OPT cite the ageing of the UK population as a serious concern, however restricting immigration would make this worse, by eliminating a major source of young working-age adults and their children.

The OPT could make the argument that severely limiting immigration to the UK is in the interest of its ‘native’ population (although the evidence doesn’t seem to support that position) but the OPT should realise that this not a scientific position but a political one (and a rather unpleasant one at that).

Secondly, beyond positive support for the improved availability of family planning and birth control resources, the OPT’s approach to the global population problem is thoroughly disappointing. Their “Stop at Two” campaign just seems patronising, as though third world families have many children through ignorance, rather than economic necessity.

When I first heard of the Optimum Population Trust (through the Attenborough controversy) I was interested in joining, but after reading their material I though better of it. Should they come up with some genuinely inspired campaigns and overcome their flirtations with national-chauvinistic sentiment (which I’m sure is just badly thought out policy making rather than genuine malice) I would happily take out a membership card but until then I’ll opt-out.

The signing of Early Day Motion 908 by left-wing MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn among others has greatly worried those scientifically-literate left-wing bloggers who count ourselves among their supporters. Early Day Motion 908 called on the Government to disregard a Committee of Science and Technology report critical of homoeopathy (it pointed out that it doesn’t work). This wasn’t the first time for such a surprise. Back in 2007 the same MPs along with Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society Kelvin Hopkins, of all people, signed Early Day Motion 1240 calling for the positive recognition of NHS homeopathic hospitals.

David Tredinnick is at the vanguard of the anti-science forces in Parliament. The Tory MP is an outspoken supporter of the provision of homoeopathy and psychic healing on the NHS, and is a firm advocate of doctors consulting astrologists when considering treatments. In this general election Tredinnick is being challenged by a newcomer. Science writer Michael Brooks is standing against him as the one and only candidate of the new Science Party.

The Science Party believes that scientific ignorance among MPs is at dangerous levels. They stand for Government decisions on health policy to be based on scientific evidence, improved funding for the sciences and strategic investment to turn the UK into a high-technology economy which can compete on the global stage and oppose public spending on unproven pseudo-science.

While they’re obviously not going to win the seat it would be fantastic if their campaign raises enough publicity to put science policy on the agenda during the next Parliament and brings these concerns greater public attention.