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Zia and Me

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS. 2-4, 170-179

Jerry Ravetz 

University of Oxford, Oxford, UK


First I review my long and fruitful association with Zia, starting with our meeting at the Council for Science and Society. We met over the years in a variety of places, and he was essential in the promotion of Post Normal Science. He also helped in the publication of my various books. I see his Post Normal Times as a natural outgrowth of the cautiously radical message of Post Normal Science. This offers a essential complementary vision, especially now that the Euro-American Empire has taken another downward lurch. What comes next? I conclude with a list of keywords that would define a new rejuvenated natural science. They conclude with compassion, a topic on which Zia and I are in deep agreement.



Since this article is for a Festschrift, I can permit myself the luxury of being autobiographical. After all, it is now very nearly a half century since Zia and I met, and he has been a close and inspiring colleague, comrade, and friend. Our paths have run parallel, with occasional wonderful inter-sections; and now they might actually be converging.

The story starts in 1974, when I was running the Council for Science and Society. This was a pioneering venture, far ahead of its time. It came to be because its founder, the great reforming barrister Paul Sieghart, had been totally frustrated in his attempts to reform science. He had already had great triumphs in his campaign to reform the practice of English law with the organization “Justice.” But on turning to his second love, science, he found only the alternatives of the puerile sectarians of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, and the senile opportunists of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He determined to do it his way, organizing what we would now call a think tank. And he hired me to run it.

We had a great time. Knowing that scientists’ minds run on tram tracks and that academics are fussy, Sieghart had his private formula for success: choose topics for the working parties that are challenging and paradoxical. There was only a slight problem of implementation, that of finding people to participate effectively in this eccentric programme. He actually had a private formula for membership of a working party. This was to include: a barrister for chair; a moral philosopher, preferably Oxford; a moral theologian, preferably Jesuit; and (yes!) an intellectually divergent redheaded woman. He even had a list of the latter! All this is to convey an idea of why I was so much in my element, in this slightly zany setup, freed from the petty nastiness of academe.

Our first working party was on “the acceptability of risks.” It was designed to subvert the ruling assumption that the management of technological risks (like nuclear power) just needed some experts to provide the numbers for probabilities and harms, and then science-based decisions would follow automatically. One of our staff saw a letter in The Times from a worried scientist. He was doing research on the fracture properties of steel pipes. This was actually crucial for the planned investment in high-pressure North Sea gas which was to replace the low-pressure traditional town gas. Failures in these pipes would be catastrophic in a variety of ways; and so typically the research was farmed out to a PhD student in a lesser university. We invited him to join the working party, which he did, and after an introductory chat he returned to college and told all about it to his friend Zia Sardar.

Zia lost no time in coming to see me at the office, and we lost no time in becoming lifelong friends. I met his family, and learned of his vision, somewhat more ambitious than mine, of a total reform of Islam. But he was also deeply interested in science, and I contrived to get him an invitation to a conference in Paris on science and society. On the way over, we had one of those immortal conversations, about a popular book, a sequel to my heavyweight tome Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems. We actually drafted chapter headings for all but the very last chapter. And there it stuck. I had already enjoyed the luxury of writing a basically activist book without specifying a practical activity for realizing its vision. I couldn’t do it again! From my point of view, there is no point in being a rabble-rouser if there is no rabble to rouse. My disappointment with the scientific Left had sent me to the Council, and there I saw that reform would be slow and arduous. So while Zia got on and produced his Future of Muslim Civilization within a mere five years, my manifesto had to wait for his renewed invitation some 30years later. Even then, it had a very modest reception. Of that, more later.

We had already established another point of contact, it could be very broadly be called religion or, in my preference, trans-dimensional realities. Each of us had had our own vivid experience. Zia was then emerging from an association with people who considered themselves to be Sufis, although from what he showed to me about them, they did not appear particularly gentle or broadminded. For myself, I had recently concluded a very profound midlife crisis by joining the following of a Hindu guru. With him I had sensed an experience and state of being that could only be called “spiritual.” Quite early on I recognized that his movement was prevented from becoming truly nasty only by being totally disorganized. But there was, through all the craziness, a feeling of authenticity and connection that was not easily achieved otherwise. Through my studies of the history of science I had already come to appreciate the greatness of other world civilizations and their contributions to world culture. This had made me open to Zia’s Islam, as well as to the Indian and Chinese cultures.

That connection led to a fascinating interview with a contact of Zia, an eminent Indian science-policy scholar, Abdul Rahman. At the end of our discussion, he looked at these two young men, and identified Zia as Ibn Rushd and me as Al-Ghazzali, the rationalist and the mystic respect- ively. There was another connection, about which I learned from Zia only much later. Rahman had asked me why I did not come to India, and I replied that I was still waiting for an invitation. It seems (according to Zia) that Rahman, who had a high position, did actually request the British Council to sponsor a lecture tour by myself. But, apparently, when they contacted the Royal Society of London, they were told that under no circumstances were they to engage Ravetz, as he was a dangerous radical. This explanation helped to explain a variety of occasions on which my conventional career has failed to move forwards. Of course, all that is far behind me now, and in any event I am not one to resent that I am not being fed by the hand that I am biting.

Zia and I had some wonderful encounters later over the years, One was by chance in California where he had a disillusioning experience with American progressive thinkers. I was just then teaching in Santa Cruz, so we had some time just to hang out and philosophize. Another was in Malaysia, in one of the periods when the statesman Anwar Ibrahim was allowed to attempt to create a modern multicultural society there, with Zia and Merryl Wynne Davies as advisors. The three of us had masses of time together for putting the world to rights; it was totally memorable. By the mid ’80’s, when Zia was editing Futures, another extraordinarily collaboration began. Silvio Funtowicz had come to England in the early ’80’s, and we began our lifelong collaboration soon after. We started with the study of uncertainty, but when that was completing we broadened our perspective, and created the ideas that we eventually called Post- Normal Science. Now, a quarter-century later, the idea of “facts uncertain, values in dispute ... ” is quite familiar, but then they were totally strange. We had already had some experience of academic referees, who could be very helpful but more often simply could not see outside their own paradigm. How to get our message across? Enter Zia, at Futures. He refereed with a light touch, so that a stream of papers covering a variety of themes from our point of view, eventually appeared. And his policy paid off; our 1993 Futures paper has been the most widely cited in its field of future studies. Even after Zia left Futures, the special relationship continued, and papers of mine which by ordinary standards would be viewed as eccentric if not cranky, found a home there.

Zia also played a very big role in my publication of books. Quite early on he enlisted me to coauthor a volume in a series of graphics-books; ours had various titles and eventually became Introducing Mathematics: A Graphic Guide. I think that he did the cultural side and I did the technical stuff. I do remember one the great intellectual challenges of my career was explaining the mysteries of the differential calculus on a single two-page spread. I recall that I had decided that it was too difficult to do, then had my mind changed after the layout had been done, and so had that fitting-in job to do. I think that it was none the worse for that. The book survived, and not long ago I received my complimentary copy of a translation into Thai! Later we did Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway. I was especially grateful for the opportun- ity to make a partial recompense for a serious academic wrong. A Ph.D. student of mine, George Spencer, had his thesis flatly rejected (I had retired by the time he submitted), and this book gave him the opportunity to publish the key idea as “Microcybernetics as the Meta-Technology of Pure Control.”

Zia also was instrumental in my own publications, which had a salu- tary history. First there was a collection of my essays, for which he had secured agreement from a publisher. I found that most of what I thought worth publishing could fit into a standard size book, and it was a great experience to put them together. I had a really cute title, The Merger of Knowledge with Power. This was a play on two themes. The first was a slogan of Francis Bacon, “the marriage of knowledge and power.” And the second was an American aphorism, that the third great lie of modern civilization relates to corporate affairs, “It will be the same after the merger.” Doubtless, the joke was too subtle for my intended readers. And then things went wrong. First, there was a merger among the publishers, and my book narrowly escaped being pulped. Then the launch took place on the night that London had a hurricane, so hardly anyone turned up. Finally, it was greeted with incomprehension. New Scientist gave a reviewer a full page, and poor chap (a popularizer of astronomy) simply didn’t know what to make of it, and said so. I liked to compare its fate to that of the first book by the philosopher David Hume, who said that “it fell still-born from the press.” 

Undaunted, Zia later got me another promising connection, with the radical journal New Internationalist. They were producing a series of little paperbacks with the title “A No-nonsense guide to ...” They had approached Zia to do Science, and he passed them on to me. This was a really great opportunity, and I seized it. Just imagine, say it all in thirty thousand words, and no semicolons! Too late I learned that they would helpfully decide on the graphics, most of which were acceptable to me. The launch was a very modest affair in Oxford; the book sold well enough to go into a revized, improved second edition, but languished afterwards and was eventually dropped from their list. I did learn something very important from it. I had an intended audience, either of Third World activists or (on advice from the publisher) students over here. So my model reader was a student, approaching or starting university, who was beginning to wonder what it is all about. The conclusion of the book had a sort of catechism, or “hidden curriculum” of science, and then sev- eral sets of questions concerning the what and why of studying or doing science. My big chance for promoting the book came when a sympathetic friend organized a meeting with a group of science educators. They immediately fastened on those questions, in a distinctly hostile mood, and my own friend said, “Well, I’m not so sure that it’s a good idea to feed students with those sorts of questions.” Ever diplomatic, I agreed that he had a legitimate problem, picked up my hat and left, much wiser and not noticeably sadder.

For a while I was Zia’s guest contributor to Futures, offering bits of what I hoped were wisdom to its readers. My most significant contribution was to the Millennium issue. My thoughts were focused on “the millennium bug,” which was the first occasion that on a crucial issue our technical knowledge was swamped by ignorance. The bug itself was a result of the sort of thing that theoreticians of Information Technology would never notice: the code for dates. It was realized that some at least of these, embedded in almost all computer systems, would be deranged when the calendar turned to 2000. There was a massive effort, but of course no one could know whether a crucial bit of bad code was lurking in an obscure old, forgotten bit of software. In the event, the IT system had few serious outages; some said that that would have been the outcome even without all the effort, and we will never know. However, the issue provided an opening for me to explore other imperfections in our total technological civilization. The paper “Fault-lines of globalized civi- lization” is quite challenging. I had nearly forgotten how much deep critique is there, as indicated by the headings: the corruptions of meretricracy; runaway technology; hypercomplexity; hi-tech sleaze; mathematical hubris; technocracy; Y2K; Consciousness. If any document could provide the bridge between the two post-normal philosophies, this would be it. For “meretricracy” just think of “mereritricious” and “meritocracy,” and see that with the rule of advertising, even before “fake news,” we have been firmly in the kingdom of the liars.

Other than that, Zia did me the great honor of associating me with his periodical Critical Muslim. I felt rather guilty, because I had never been as active a friend as I wished, in Zia’s circle of comrades, and I engaged with his broader community only rarely. But at least I did know some- thing about the great period of Muslim civilization, and of the (mainly) positive relations through history of Islam and Judaism. I take delight in asking people, in what language did Maimonides write his masterpiece, Guide for the Perplexed? The answer is Arabic, or more precisely Judeo- Arabic, rather like Yiddish was in medieval Germany. It was not simply that Arabic was the vernacular, rather that it was the language in which the deep issues of philosophy and theology were discussed, even among the Jews. I did contribute one little piece to the journal about religion, which Zia kindly published in CM, and which I reproduce here, slightly modified. Warning: the message is ironic!

When I contemplate
the infinite majesty of the creation,
and then the infinite mystery of the creator, and reflect on the puny and insubstantial reach of the human understanding,
I consider myself so truly fortunate
to have such perfect certainty
that the religion of everyone else
is false.

oming up to the present, there is the fruitful tension between my Post-Normal Science and Zia’s Post-Normal Times. It is really quite common, in the development of radical movements, for the earlier critics to be overtaken by those coming later. The Protestant Reformation had Erasmus and then Luther; the French Enlightenment had Fontenelle and then the Encyclopedistes. The French Revolution had Condorcet and the Gironde, and then Jacobins and Robespierre. Mid-19th century Russia had Hertzen and then Chernyshevsky, with his fateful slogan “What is to be done?.” Of course the radicals did not always shape history their way; after Luther came the turmoil which persisted for more than a century and left Germany in ruins; France went from The Terror to Napoleon; and the Russian revolution produced Lenin and Stalin. If there are indeed radical defects in our science-based civilization, we should be aware that they will not simply be put right with piecemeal social engineering.

Post-Normal Science has become a movement of some significance. It has a history which, thanks largely to Zia, is well documented in the back issues of Futures magazine. It should be remembered that when it was first announced, the field of radical critique of science was barren. The Utopian imaginings of Paul Feyerabend had become an historical curios- ity. The Marxist critics of the ’60s and ’70s were reduced to a tiny sect. Even to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, that all policy problems could be reduced to comparisons of precise quantities, was itself a radical act. For our earlier writings, I recalled Lenin’s term “Aesopian language,” as a way of getting past the censor. But our censor was in our intended read- ers, so we had to be very tactful indeed. The radical message of our study of quantities was well hidden in the Epilogue of our book Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy. In describing Post-Normal Science we sneaked in the politics through the technical term “extended peer community.” And we were careful not to challenge the puzzle-solving “normal science” on its own turf; we just said that now there are big problems where facts are uncertain, etc.

This caution served us well; we did not scare off potential supporters who were privately worrying about the way that the official pretense of certainty was harming science in the difficult policy-science domains. Our success in mainstream science is shown by the open support of Sir Peter Gluckman, now the leading spokesman for the international scientific community. But I have been aware, for quite some time, that this restricted perspective will eventually render the original doctrine obsolete. Whether a renewal will come from within the PNS movement, remains to be seen. But the terms “corruption” and “power” never appear in the early writings, and quite soon they will need to be incorporated in any analysis of science that hopes to be relevant.

My own thinking on these issues provides a bridge between the two sorts of Post-Normal analysis. Some years ago I realized that my early study of Marxism had left me with a very powerful insight: contradiction. I developed this in a couple of papers in the ’00s, working on the “characteristic contradiction” of a complex system. I applied this in a paper published in Futures (where else?) on “The Maturing of the Structural Contradictions of Modern European Science.” Up to now the paper has received very little notice, but it does bring to light the possibility that our sort of science will fail to solve its challenges. These are all related, of course; thus pseudo-quantification is now a means of manipulation of science by external interests, political, ideological or commercial, and thereby feeds its corruption, both technical and moral.

It is personally gratifying to see scholars mentioning Post-Normal Science without citing any sources. This shows that PNS has become a meme! It is now taking its place in a variegated and rapidly growing movement for reform in science. It is scarcely a decade since a prominent mathematician called for a boycott of a leading publisher because of their particularly rapacious publication policies. This was the “spring” for science. Not long after, the problem of quality, which had long been festering, burst open to the scientific and lay publics. By the mid-teens, the persistence of discriminatory practices based on ethnicity and gender became an issue within science as in other institutions. With all these campaigns, science has joined the human race. The mystique of The Scientist as a dedicated white-coated bespectacled middle-aged male is gone forever. Hopefully, I can now write the last chapter of the book that Zia urged me to do, all those years ago on the cross-channel ferry.

There are several topics on which a fruitful dialogue of “Post- Normals” could now be opened. For example, the possibility of a real decline of science is hardly ever discussed, even among those who warn of the dangers of technology going out of control. Yet history teaches us that excellence of any sort cannot be maintained indefinitely in any local center. A Japanese scholar, using primitive data-processing methods, established a seventy-year cycle of scientific excellence, with centers moving through Italy, England, France, Germany, and U.S.A. There are already strong signs of senescence in American science; will China be coming next? For that we consider how “classical” Greek civilization gave way to the “Hellenistic” of the Eastern Mediterranean, itself eventually blending with the flourishing Islamic cultures. Could we now be witness- ing an analogous development in East Asia, with emerging foci of creativity, each with their own characteristics, in mainland and the “Confucian diaspora,” both practicing Feng Shui? Time will tell.

I am writing these final lines just at the moment of key turning point in our civilization: the fall of Kabul. It marks the end of the last of the great European empires, America. Since plausibility follows power, we can expect that our socio-politically constructed realities will follow suit. Since Science has been so central to the European imperial project, from practice to ideology, the perspective for a post-imperial western science is of crucial importance. For the conclusion of this reflection on a career, paralleling Zia’s as a “critical scientist,” I will have a look at the new sort of science that is now emerging.

Although there are still many dedicated individual discoverers of scientific truth, in the power politics of science they are relics of the pre-industrial age. The heavy lifting is now done by the post-doc gig workers operating high-capital equipment. The traditional output of “papers” is giving way to spinoffs and IPOs. It is best for us to unlearn “science” with all its historic associations and to use “STEM,” in which science, meaning research and including mathematics, is just one part of the corporate knowledge system. 

In studying this system, we start with Power. In addition to the trad- itional control over resources and activities, this now includes control over information. Since “uncomfortable knowledge” is now an inevitable by-product of STEM’s activities, power to control that, either by neutralizing it somehow or by blocking its diffusion or production, is essential for STEM’s functioning. This “cancelling” of “misinformation” is in blatant contradiction to the inherited ideology, and image, of science. Also, it is in connection with power that President Eisenhower’s “military- industrial-scientific complex” has its societal base. The collapse of the American imperial project is mirrored in the accumulating problems and contradictions in its domestic realization. They principally manifest as incompetence, closely related to corruption.

Corruption should not be approached emotively; it is entirely natural to social systems, and must be understood if it is to be contained. We are already familiar with it in research science, as it manifests in the “reproducibility crisis.” In Technology, it is most easily seen in the military sphere, with examples of the F-35 aircraft (which is now due to have a complete rewrite of its software), and the British Ajax light tank (which needs to come to a rest before firing its cannon). Those familiar with software development will know the slogan “Fake it then make it.” There are many sorts and degrees of corruption, as any student of comparative government can tell. Whether STEM as a whole is peculiarly sensitive to its effects, because of its essential reliance on trust (internal and public), only experience will tell.

Since STEM, with the brand name of Science, is so well entrenched as the hegemonic system of core belief in the recently dominant European empire, it is unrealistic to expect that it can either be cured or replaced in the near future. To be sure, its scope is quite sharply limited. In the USA, half of the people have reservations about its applications if not its principles; and in the majority world its adherents are found largely among an elite. The status of STEM as core ideology in China is both crucial and unknown. Do young modern Chinese accept the therapies invoking qi energy? If they do, however pragmatically, then their science will inevitably have “Chinese characteristics.” One of the main vulnerabilities of STEM as a hegemonic belief system (as it excludes religion, folk- knowledge and enhanced realities) is that its adherents are so encased in it, that for them anything else is “irrational” or worse. They are then vulnerable to what might be called the “Marie Antoinette syndrome,” despising everyone who does not share their belief in their natural superiority.

I have wondered about the best indicator for these deeper changes. Ever since the ’60s the boundaries of reality have been publicly contested. It is significant that the book The Secret Life of Plants of 1972, whose contents would be instantly dismissed as pseudoscientific rubbish by any scientific publisher, has been a perennial best-seller. And “the secret life” has become a meme, as reputable scientists speak ever more anthropomorphically about species far removed from ourselves. But I keep in mind that in many ways our modern culture, from the Scientific Revolution through the Enlightenment, has been a revolt against the appropriation of transdimensional realities by corrupt hegemonic institutions.

I would therefore suggest that we consider appreciating the growing sense of compassion in our modern culture. This is not merely the discovery that the universally acknowledged truths of earlier times, about the essential inequalities between different sorts of people, defined by gender, race, religion or class, are actually false and evil. But we also have the growing the awareness that other life forms and even natural systems, are worthy of Kantian respect, being treated not merely as means but ends in themselves. This development is naturally furthest advanced in places where European invasions did not succeed in the total obliteration of indigenous peoples and cultures; but the examples, and their lessons, now diffuse worldwide. This is not merely a question of guilt and exotica; from appreciating these other ways of living and knowing we are beginning to learn the price we have paid for the Great Truncation of reality that we call modernity and progress. I have nothing to say about how that wound can be healed; I never forget the most idealistic goals can be enlisted to the most corrupt purposes. But I now believe that at this turning point in civilization, there lies the most promising horizon to the future.

I have always shared with Zia the creative tension between the enhancement of inner experience and the struggle for social justice. We know that we are both children of Abraham. I even have a title for my unwritten autobiography, “Red diapers, blue heavens.” Perhaps now, in spite of the continuing horrors of the secular and the religious world, we can see a glimmering of light to guide us on.