Algerian science meets Algerian demagogues: space science, and the myth of the written word

abdelmalek-sellal

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has become an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons. His inarticulate populist ramblings have now earned the popular title of سلاليات – Sellaliates – perhaps to capture the entertaining humorous character of almost everything that comes out of his mouth. But despite our special sense of humour, the Algerian saying goes همّ يضحك و همّ يبكي – one concern makes you laugh, another makes you cry. So when put in the larger context of what is at stake, every new Sellaliate leaves little room for humour and rings the bells of concern a little louder. At least that is how I feel when I come across such masquerades, particularly those making references to Algerian scientific achievements and prospects.

For example, Mr. Sellal recently told us how opportunities for Algerian economic development lie in nanotechnology. This is because, he reckons, “Algeria is going to have to move away from relying on fossil fuels at some point, and nanotechnology is the future”.

Going into its 52 years of independence, Algeria’s need to diversify its income sources is not only undeniable but also dangerously urgent. But Mr Sellal’s assertion about nanotechnology is unfounded to say the least. Without a clear national strategy, it is hard to imagine exactly how nanotechnology, or any other similarly interdisciplinary industry for that matter, is going to contribute to diversification or replace the country’s over reliance on fossil fuel. As I wrote in a previous article, the prospects for moving beyond fossil energy anytime soon are quite thin. In fact, recent events suggest that the major source of national income will not only remain static but is to be consolidated with new ventures for shale gas explorations. The new agreements that followed Lord Risby’s visit certainly seem to pave the way for this direction, while the “close collaborations” with the french that, among other things, overlook the establishment of the Algerian academy of science and technology, could potentially shackle any prospects for alternative visions before they are even born. With the shadows of Britain and France continuing to loom over our development, Mr. Sellal’s vision for the place of nanotechnology in the country’s future economic development is one laughable concern indeed همّ يضحك.

Exploiting Science

In another science related Sellaliate/concern/همّ, we hear the Prime Minister boasting about how the Algerian flag now flies high along side 14 of the biggest nations in the world. His declaration was almost ceremonial, just what is going on Mr. Prime Minister?! Well, Algerian experts, he asserts, are now amongst the top experts in space science, and this achievement, he continues, is “no coincidence but rather the result of the state’s strategic policy that prioritises investment in the Algerian youth”. Mr. Mebarki, the minister of higher education and scientific research, has also made similar declarations.

The great achievement in space science that our politicians are alluding to is a technology and knowledge transfer project headed by the Centre for Advanced Technological Development (CDTA) as part of JEM-EUSO, which is a Japanese-led project to develop a cosmic ray observatory on board the International Space Station. The project brings together over 300 researchers from 80 institutions worldwide, 31 of which are from the universities of Annaba, Constantine, Tlemcen, M’sila and Jijel, as well as researchers from CDTA and the Centre for Research in Astrophysics and Geophysics (CRAAG).

This is indeed a fantastic opportunity to promote scientific exchange and knowledge transfer in space science and related fields between the institutes and researchers involved. One wonders though whether this “achievement” is truly the result of a strategic and visionary state policy, or rather another timely coincidence that Mr. Sellal and his government could exploit to play the patriotic card. Could this project be a true measure of the effectiveness of Algerian science policies, or are the politicians giving it more weight than its actual substance? Though the answer may be quite clear to many, no harm in delving into some details to highlight the inconsistencies in this kind of demagogic discourse.

As anyone with interest in Algerian politics knows, opacity is a defining characteristic when it comes to Algerian state policy. Between dismal official sources of data and dodgy media outlets, deciphering what is really going on behind the scenes is not always trivial. Over the past couple of years or so, the DGRSDT – the main government body managing research institutions and strategy – has been working on the third law for the 2014-18 national science and research strategy. The new law was scheduled to pass through the National Assembly to be voted upon last November. Prior to this, Prof. Aourag, who heads the DGRSDT, spoke to the media on various occasions about the major outlines of this new law (for example, see this interview). Additionally, the DGRSDT presented a draft of the law to various universities and research centres around the country throughout the first semester of 2013 as a form of consultations with the community of academics and researchers.

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The JEM-EUSO project. Earth Image © NASA

What is surprising is that neither Prof. Aourag’s interviews and media statements nor documents made public by the DGRSDT or its affiliated bodies contained much reference to space science, basic research in astronomy or astrophysics, nor anything about the specific involvement of our universities and research centres in the JEM-EUSO project. Still, Mr. Sellal does not hesitate to attribute this involvement to a visionary state policy. If it was really the case, why does space related sciences seem to take such a peripheral place within the new law for national science and research strategy? Just where else are plans for space sciences supposed to be fully articulated otherwise?

Also surprising is the fact that a recent external review of CRAAG’s activities and plans that was supposed to cover the next 5 to 10 years did not include a review of their involvement in the JEM-EUSO project. According to researchers involved in the review process, the subject simply did not come up during the discussions. Why would CRAAG leave such an important project off the review table is a question I won’t attempt to address. But this clearly reinforces the assumption that state strategic policy had not much to do with this particular development and that Mr. Sellal and his government’s eagerness to exploit everything and anything ليحمدوا بما لم يفعلوا never fail to impress.

One important goal of scientific research should be to advance socio-economic development, something that Algeria is in much need of. State policies and resources should be devoted to support this goal. Space science in particular is one field where the impact of the infrastructural investments devoted to it reach far beyond the field’s immediate application areas. For example, in his interview with Inspire Magazine, Prof. Melikechi described how his involvement in the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover mission is both based on and contributes to advancements in the area of laser technology and its use for early cancer detection. Meanwhile, the status of cancer treatment in Algeria is not to be envied. Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, associate director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in the 70s, gave a more thorough explanation -and justification for- the seemingly extravagant government spending on space science and its far reaching impact in this inspiring letter.

The blatant reality is, just like the majority of Arab and Muslim as well as African countries, Algeria is still really far behind when it comes to space science. One therefore imagines that a visionary and strategic state policy designed to boost this important area of science would address fundamental infrastructural issues in order to build appropriate foundations that ensures the long term flourishing of Algerian space science. According to Dr. Guessoum recent analysis of the state of astrophysics in the Arab world, a revival of space related sciences should include serious investment that balances spending between applied and basic research, including investing in high quality equipment, updating university programs to reflect the state of the art in these fields, as well as establishing international exchange programs and increasing expertise in the management of large scale scientific projects. A strategic state policy that prioritises investing in the Algerian youth should also address the dire status of the educational system (primary, middle and high school). In particular, educational programs should be updated to adequately incorporate STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) if they are to instil future generations with critical thinking and problem solving skills, which is the best way to truly promote a culture of science in the country. Additionally, a long term strategic vision should ensure that Algeria teams up with regional players who are also in the process of building a foundation for space related sciences. It should endeavour to develop robust space policies and programs in order to strengthen the relationship between the activities of its space agency and national development plans, while also effectively contributing to the establishment of the African Space Agency.

Just how much of the Algerian national budget is devoted to space science? What is the place of basic research in the new national law for science and research? How much development is going into Algerian universities -beyond buildings that is- or the educational system for that matter? And what is the situation of the Algerian student, researcher and academic in comparison to those other nations who, according to Mr. Sellal, we are now supposedly in their league? Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t look too good, and no amount of demagogy can hide the blatant facts on the ground.

The myth of the written (scientific) word

The way contemporary demagogic discourses exploit science bears a striking resemblance to an old phenomenon, one that was vividly articulated in an intriguing passage of Malek Bennabi‘s autobiography. A major part of Bennabi’s work was concerned with dissecting the impact of ideas on societies and their contribution to the birth, progress and regress of civilisation. In this particular passage, Bennabi writes about the emergence of new ideas that followed an unprecedented boost of intellectual activities during the 1920s and reflects on how these new ideas changed the dynamics of culture and intellect in Algerian society:

هذه الأفكار [الجديدة] المتداولة في الشارع كانت كمنشار يقوم بعملية تقسيم غامض لطبقات هذا الوسط ، و قد كان قبل منسجما موحدا في الجزائر. كان هذا التقسيم يحدث في الأشخاص و الأفكار مرة واحدة . فكثير من المعتقدات الباطلة و الأوهام التي تعبر عن جهل بالعالم بدأت تحتضر . فالجهل عادة يحمل احتراما وثنيا لك ماهو مكتوب . و الجزائر بقابليتها للاستعمار و بالاستعمار كان لديها اعتقاد بخرافة الورقة المكتوبة ، فقيمتها السحرية لا تمارسها فقط في النساء العجائز اللواتي يضعن لأطفالهن (حروزا) يقينهم بها من العين الشريرة ، بل إنها تمارس قيمتها السحرية أيضا في ذلك الوسط الذي تكون في الزوايا الصوفية ، إذ تستعمل فيه حجة لا جواب عليها في المناقشات.

“إنه كتبي” يقولها واحد للتاكيد إذا آنس في وجه مستمعه بعض الشك ، “إنه كتبي” أي أنه في (كتاب) ، يقولها و هكذا يسقط الشك و تنحني الرؤوس أمام الحجة الدامغة . لقد فقد الفكر النقاد الذي توقف بتلك الكلمة السحرية كل حقل . وقد ظل متوقفا بهذه الطريقة خلال أجيال . أما الآن فقد بدأ (الكتبي) يفقد سلطانه الساحر في العقول ، و يفقد شيأ فشيأ أنصاره.

” [..] These [new] ideas have now become common on the streets and were like a saw partitioning the layers of this environment, which were once harmonious in Algeria. This partitioning was taking place at the level of individuals and ideas at the same time. Most unfounded beliefs and illusions that manifest themselves as an ignorance of the state of the world are now agonising. Ignorance usually holds an idolising respect for the written word. And Algeria, with its colonisability and colonialism believed in the myth of the written word. Its magical value wasn’t only used by those elderly women who would put Huruz  [a written equivalent of an amulet or a talisman] to protect their children from the evil eye, but it was also practiced within that environment which emerged within sufi zawayas [lodges], where it is also used as an irrefutable argument during debates.

It’s kutuby [it’s written]”, one would say as soon as one senses a shred of doubt in the face of their interlocutors, “it’s kutuby”, that is it’s written in a book [kitab], one would say, and just like that, doubt disappears and heads bow in the face of the irrefutable argument. Critical thinking is lost with such a magical word, and has been stagnant in this manner for many generations. Now, however, the written is starting to loose its magical grip on the minds and, little by little, it’s also loosing its proponents.” (pp 106-107, my translation.)

158-Malek-Bennabi

Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi

Among other things, the spread of the new ideas that managed to defeat the myth of the “kutuby” resulted from the launch and spread of a number of Arabic newspapers and cultural youth clubs around the country. At a time of living under french brutal colonialist rule that actively sought to undermine culture and identity, developments of that sort marked a critical moment in Algerian modern history. The activities that helped foster these new ideas were truly revolutionary in the sense that they provided the youth with a space for an alternative discourse that challenged the status quo of the 1920s. However, 93 years later, demagogic statements similar to those made by our politicians confirm that, rather than disappear, the observed effect of the “kutuby” or the “written word” is well and alive having morphed into a new form. Science, or rather scientism, is its new disguise.

The dogmatic endorsement of the knowledge produced by science is a global phenomenon of course, the phrase “this is scientifically proven” is nowadays often used as if it were an irrefutable argument, which impedes debate when it should stimulate it. It is interesting how Bennabi attributes the idolisation of the “written word” that he observed in the 1920s to “an ignorance of the state of the world”. A discourse based on scientism thrives on an ignorance of the state of the world too. In this case it’s an ignorance of what science is and what its underlying philosophy is. It thrives on an ignorance of what makes a scientific argument scientific, of the nature of scientific evidence, the extent of its validity and how it is to be applied and evaluated.

Our politicians exploit a variant of this kind of discourse as an attempt to shut off any criticism or dissent. All kinds of alarms should be going off when ideas tainted with scientism – which are more dangerous than the ideas of the “kutuby” – are no longer enforced by a brutal colonialist regime but promoted by official statesmen determined to convince the population that “their” strategic state policy has managed to place the country at the peak of scientific achievement, when in fact it did not.

There is also a troubling irony in how the particular activities of the zawayas that contributed to engendering a sterile intellectual environment back then, have resurfaced and keep on mushrooming at an incredible rate, eventually dominating the cultural and religious spheres of Bouteflika’s Algeria. When interrogated about the fate of the zawayas when Bouteflika is no longer in power, this is what the Prime Minister had to say, which decorticated of its street talk tone, emphasised that Bouteflika is going nowhere and the dominance of the zawayas will continue to increase.

Moving beyond scientism and into the realm of science-based ideas that shake up a nation into prosperity requires the founding of a scientific culture that promotes critical thinking and exchange rather than smothers them, it requires real investment in the Algerian youth’s education, from schools and colleges, to universities and beyond. To quote the french poet Antoine de Saint Exupéry “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In this spirit, a strategic, visionary and, dare I say, revolutionary state policy that invests in the Algerian youth should at least not obstruct their longing for the wonders the universe and thirst for knowledge, and foster an environment that helps them appreciate and instrumentalise both. While the opposite continues to be true, we really should be doing less laughing, for indeed too much laughter kills the heart .كثرت الضحك تميت القلب

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