29 August  2018

Prof. Yousef Sobouti, in the Paolo Budinich Science Diplomacy Lecture, says the scientific mindset can help achieve peaceful solutions

2017 Paolo Budinich Science and Diplomacy lecture

AAAS-TWAS Summer course on Science and Diplomacy

Trieste, August 21-25, 2017                            


Understanding Others the Science Way

 Yousef Sobouti

 Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences-Zanjan,


Iran Academy of Sciences




As long as one is not dealing with speeds close to that of light, Newton's law of motion is exact. Observations support it. On the other hand many of the tenets of topics such as sociology and the like are not so blessed. Opinion of one expert on the topic may differ from those of others, while there no supporting hard evidence to settle the differences. I would like to generalize this point of view and, in a crude sense of the word, classify the wealth of the human body of knowledge into two categories, Evidence-based exact Sciences, and Opinion-based, and not so exact knowledge. There is a distinct difference between the two categories. Credibility of a theory in exact sciences comes from concordance with observations, not from the name or standing of the author of the theory among the community of experts. This is not often the case with prophesies of the opinion-based knowledge. To varying degrees, credibility of an idea depends on who is its author.  For instance, Newton had also formulated a corpuscular theory of light, which later was shown to be incorrect. At the time of Newton there were not accurate experimental data to prove or disprove the corpuscular theory. The fame of Newton, however, made the idea survive for about 100 years until the time of Huygens and who revealed the wave nature of the light. Evidence-based sciences have a built-in mechanism to reconcile differences between opposing views. The supreme arbitrator is observation. There is no such arbitrator in the wealth of the opinion-based knowledge. Differences may call in harsh measures. Throughout the history of mankind, many of the disputes over what is right or wrong have stemmed from debates over vaguely conceived and ill-defined issues.  Opposing parties find no common grounds to settle disputes in peaceful ways.


Cannot a science way of thinking help one to better understand the others?!    



I am associated with ICTP since early 1970's and with TWAS since late 1980's. At times I have been a member of ICTP's Scientific Advisory Committee. In my frequent visits to Trieste, I would often see the late Paolo Budinich and enjoy listening to his views on science and societies. I always wondered how valuable the assistance of the Italian Budinich to the non-Italian Abdu's Salam, not so familiar with the subtleties of the Italian way of doing things, has been in the formative years of ICTP and later of TWAS.


Budinich believed that, mathematics in particular, has an immense capacity to serve as a path finder to the unknowns. Today I am honored to be here and give the 2017 Budinich Lecture on Science and Diplomacy, a theme very much in line with his lifelong devotion to Science and in line with my own obsession for exact sciences. I am grateful to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and to the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). They invite me "to share my views on the important role that the universal language of science - particularly that of physics - plays in international relations, particularly between countries under political strains", not an easy task, particularly considering the fact that English is not my native language. I will, however, try my best.


I am a student of physics. Confronted with complexities in their study of natural phenomena, physicists often resort to reduction to basics. They identity the prominent feature of a phenomenon, strip away the insignificant details and reduce the problem to a bare minimum to manage.  I wish to follow this long honored tradition of physicists to "Understand Others, the Science Way".


Astronomy as a study of the skies became an evidence-based science from the times of Hipparchus (circa 190-120 BC) and Ptolemy (100-168 AD). Through observation of the motions of the heavenly bodies, the inquisitive man understood the order prevailing in the skies and was able to predict some astronomical events. He predicted eclipses, conjunctions, oppositions, tides, etc…, with astonishing precisions. Similarly, the ancient Euclidian geometry, born out of the everyday practices in building construction and land surveying, became axiomatic at about the same times. No one disputed the legitimacy of these two disciplines for the purposes one needed. They were taught and learned in any language, by anyone of any cultural, ethical, and ethnical background. At no time or place did their tenets become sanctified, nor were any of their advocators and practitioners promoted to the status of sainthood. The two disciplines emerged as two time-free, geography-free, ethic- and ethnic-free intellectual construction of man's mind as early 20 centuries ago. This endowed the discipline with a built- in mechanism to reconcile differences among the experts.  One could convince or be convinced by one's fellow practitioner through logical mathematical reasoning or turn to observations as the supreme arbitrator.


Unlike astronomy and geometry, many other topics in the treasure house of the human body of knowledge had to wait for 100's of years to attain an acceptable level of clarity to become exact. Axiomatization of physics (mechanics) begins with Galileo and Newton, 16th and 17th Centuries and still is being revised and refined.  Chemistry and biosciences are in their infancy. Economics, medicine, social and behavioral sciences, and the like have at most emerged as empirical chapters in the human body of knowledge. There also exists a long list of creeds and credos that may never become evidence- based and contained to deserve the title of science. Almost all age old beliefs of people of metaphysical origin fall in this category.


Let us arrange the human body of knowledge on the steps of a ladder, beginning from the most exact and best "Evidence-based" Sciences and ending with the least verifiable "Opinion- based" creeds. One may easily recognize the followings pattern:


o   Evidence-based Sciences draw their credence from the compatibility of their conclusions and predictions from observations.

o   Opinion-based doctrines and creeds draw support from the prestige and social eminence of their authors and the community of their followers.


Examples: Credibility of Newton's laws of motion comes from the everyday practices in ballistic technology; that of Maxwell's equations from the TV, radio communication technologies; that of quantum mechanics from the spectroscopy of atoms and molecules. Their validity is not hinged with the names of Newton, Maxwell, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, which are undoubtedly among the most prestigious peers and pillars of the modern physics.


Contrast this with philosophical views of August Comte,  Francis Bacon, Hegel Bernard Shaw, or in contemporary times with economic, social, and administrative views of the columnists of the Guardian, New York Times, France Soir,  Corriere della sera, etc. Such points of view are credible, not because they have been proven to be the ultimate truth, but because they are authored by the great thinkers of their times.

o   A second characteristic to note: Names and ideas associated with Evidence-based Sciences remain earthly names and ideas. They can be refuted with no risk of consequential retribution.

o   This is not always the case with the Opinion based Knowledge. There, the ideas may get sanctified and become faith like beliefs. And authors of the ideas may become unapproachable. Karl Marx and his views on capitalism in Soviet Era in the East, and to a lesser extent the notion of democracy and human rights in present times in the West fall in this category.


As such, Evidence-based Sciences have a built-in provision for resolution of conflicts, while the Opinion-based creeds nurture the seeds of controversy. Confronted with opposing views, they look for support from followers, patrons, and patron institution. The outcome may not always be peaceful.  Let us look at some historical and contemporary tragic incidences.


In 5th century B.C. Socrates was tried in a court of 500 Athenian elites. The charges against Socrates were divergence of his philosophical views from the accepted values of the Athenian society. Neither the defendant nor the prosecutors were able to provide unequivocal evidence to support or discredit the claims and counterclaims. The verdict was tragic. Socrates was made to take the deadly potion.


Centuries later, a bigger tragedy took place. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those of the orthodox faith of his community confronted each other. Both sides were committed to their cause and had disciples to defend. The logic of one side however, was not acceptable to the other. Inevitably tragedy took place.


Throughout History, such episodes have repeated themselves. The pattern is always the same. Two factions oppose each other over a vaguely conceived cause, such as a religious teaching, a social value, a moral code of conduct, a philosophical doctrine, or a material interest, Opponents don't find a common ground to settle disputes and resort to the zeal of their followers.


Let us consider examples from the Muslim world in its flourishing 8th- 15th Centuries. Abu Nasr Farabi (873-979) and Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) were undoubtedly the greatest philosophers of their times as well as devote Muslims. Abu Hamed Ghazzali (1058-1111), an equally renowned thinker and theologian, however, was at odds with philosophy and philosophers. He maintained that the teachings of the philosophers, including mathematics, weakened the pillars of faith. He announced Farabi, Abu Ali, or for that matter all philosophers heretics. Fortunately, the Islamic societies in their economically and politically booming times between 8th and 12th Centuries were tolerant enough to let the verdict pass by, without incidence. Ghazzali's defiance of philosophy and free thinking did, however, leave long lasting effects for years to come. The greet theologian had zealous followers amongst elites and commoners. They eventually succeeded in curbing the tradition of free thinking and accelerated decline of the Islamic societies.


Let us proceed to the 16th and 17th century Europe. The Ptolemaic geocentric models of the universe, combined with the Aristotelian point of view, that man stood second to the Almighty in honor, had put the Earth in a noble position in the scheme of creation. Somehow this notion had worked its way into the teachings of the Church. Taking the Earth out of the 'Center of Creation' was a sacrilegious act. Copernicus, fearing his fellow theologians, chose to postpone the publication of his heliocentric theory to the very last day of his life, 1543. Galileo (1564-1642) was wise enough to deny altogether the motion of the Earth and escaped persecution. Giordano Bruno (circa 1600) was not that fortunate. He was burned at the stake, because he had advocated that there might be an infinite number of worlds with intelligent beings


By 21st Century, many of the natural, human, and social sciences have achieved acceptable levels of clarity, and their practitioners have learned to reconcile differences through sober dialogues. This is a welcome development. There are, however, many global issues that are not yet cast into satisfactorily objective terms and there remain issues that may never be viewed as objective ones. Topics such as economics, governance, human rights, ethics, social mores, international relations, peace and war, and many others fall into this category. Indispensable as they are in everyday life, they do not have concise and contained definitions and founding principles to fit into the hallmark of modern sciences. They may mean different things to different people of different cultures, times, and places. At times they may become sources of conflict.


May be naively, I, however, maintain that the tradition of modern sciences can help resolve or at least ameliorate conflicts in non-science issues as well. I believe that life will be much easier if the majority of the population of the world subscribed to 

o   Not presenting one’s beliefs as evidence of one’s rightfulness and righteousness, 

o   Not considering any concept sacred, no matter how widely popular it may be.

Strict observation of such seemingly simple criteria in non-scientific cases is not easy. A conscious effort to adhere to them, however, should be rewarding and help one better understand others.

I am aware of my naivety, in maintaining that disputes between individuals, societies, countries, etc. stem from lack of understanding. To the contrary, conflicts are often over material interests and desire for domination.   Nevertheless, the partially scientified world of the 21st  Century has, to certain extents, created legal international infrastructures to deplore, if not to prevent, the age old brute logic that the strong can take possessions of the weak. Such provisions are welcome developments. They can impede acts of aggression, or at least are expected to do so.

Finally, I am aware that my professed technique of reduction to basics, has oversimplified the problems. After all, long before the formulation of exact sciences, man’s inexact creations, such as sports, arts, music, poetry, epics, commerce, and even wars, have brought people together and let them interact with each other. Here, I only wish to point out that science, by all standards, seems to be the most vigorous force behind the development of societies. Logically, its value free methodology should serve as a common language to understand each other. It is worth the effort.


Notes and references

For over 20 years, US Academies and Iran’s academia, in spite of all differing views of their governments over international issues, have conducted a series of informal forums to discuss topics of mutual interest. From time to time a dozen or so participants from both sides get together in US, in Iran, or elsewhere, and exchange ideas on issues of mutual interest. So far we have had 10 -15 such forums. The upcoming one on environmental issues will be here in Trieste and I will return here in December. The title and theme of the 2007 US –Iran forum were “Science, a Gateway to Understanding”. It was held in Tehran.  What I presented here today was the second edition of what I had done in 2007 forum;  http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12539.html

I often turn to my learned colleague, Bahman Farnudi, for advice on my writings. When I asked him to have a look at this paper, he did a literature search and came up with an abundance of references, mainly in the fields of medicine and social sciences, with themes similar to what I have shared with you today. There are diverging points of view. They only tell me that medicine and social sciences have a long way ahead to become exact and evidence-based disciplines. Here are samples:

o   https://www.painscience.com/articles/ebm-vs-sbm.php, Why “Science”-Based Instead of “Evidence”-Based? The rationale for making medicine more science-based updated Aug 26, 2014 (first published 2009), Paul Ingraham - Science-based medicine (SBM) is not a replacement for the more familiar concept of evidence-based medicine (EBM). Instead, it emphasizes some neglected aspects of EBM. This article explains the differences and the need for the distinction.

o   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24553855, Scand J Public Health. 2014 Mar;42(13 Suppl):59-73. doi: 10.1177/1403494813516714. Evidence-based knowledge in the context of social practice, Social practitioners require evidence-based knowledge as a guide to the development of social policies and practices. This article aims to identify: (1) knowledge domains needed for the development and use of evidence-based knowledge in social practice; (2) promising research methods for such knowledge development; (3) a framework for linking evidence-based practice, systematic reviews, and practice guidelines, as well as standards for systematic reviews and guidelines; (4) issues influencing use of evidence-based knowledge in social practice.

  • https://cb100.acf.hhs.gov/downloads/E-BPorP-BE_PPT.pdf,   Evidence Based Practice and Practice Based Evidence – Is It One or the Other? July 17, 2012 - American Psychological Association (APA) defines evidence-based practice in psychology as: “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences.” (APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, “Evidence-Based Practice in Psychology,” American Psychologist 61, no. 4 (2006)). 
  • From Opinion-Based to Evidence-Based Social Work: The Swedish Case, Knut SundellHaluk SoydanKarin TengvaldThis article presents an account of Sweden’s Institute for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice (IMS), located in Stockholm, Sweden. The article places IMS in the context of making Swedish social care services less opinion-based and more evidence-based. The institute is an example of how policy-driven processes promote the use of evidence-based practices in this European nation. The article includes presentations of history, organization, and products of IMS, and concludes with comments on future opportunities and challenges.
  • http://www.students4bestevidence.net/eminence-based-medicine-vs-evidence-based-medicine/  - Eminence-based Medicine vs Evidence-based Medicine - In the current clinical practice that we have seen, many health professionals are moving on from the traditional approach to health care known as eminence-based medicine to an evidence-based approach when dealing with a clinical problem. The reason for this transition and its popularity in the past decades is the ability of the systematic approach to promote better health care and clinical practices.
  • Acad Med. 1999 Nov; 74 (11):1187-92 - In defense of expert opinion, Tonelli MR. - Evidence-based medicine, centered on the incorporation of evidence from clinical trials and systematic reviews into the teaching and practice of clinical medicine, explicitly attempts to supplant expert opinion, which is viewed as an antiquated and unreliable form of medical authority