In Africa, wariness toward science impedes research and development

Africa's scientific progress is stymied by a reticence among Africans to embrace scientific inquiry and a reluctance in the West of investing research dollars.

John MCconnico/AP
Employees of Aspen Pharmaceutical Research Laboratories, which produce generic drugs including AIDS medicine, put medicine kits together in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Skepticism about the value of scientific inquiry abounds in many parts of Africa, fed by four related forces:

  • Afro-centrism, or the belief that African sources of knowledge have been unfairly downgraded in comparison with Western knowledge
  • fervent Christianity, especially evangelical movements who insist that faith is more important than rationality
  • the persistent hold of “juju,” of magical thinking, on the behavior of Africans at all levels of society
  • romanticization of “indigenous” knowledge by Western scholars studying bio-diversity and medicine in Africa

Anti-science attitudes to Africa stand behind seemingly unrelated developments:

  • the repeated insistence by Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president, that Western scientists have failed to explain the cause of HIV-AIDS
  • the widespread practice by rural Africans, and many wealthy city dwellers, of eating “bushmeat,” or wild animals, despite growing concerns that serious diseases – perhaps even Ebola and AIDS itself – are transmitted through such dietary habits
  • the resistance in northern Nigeria against innoculating children against diseases such as TB
  • in several African countries, “traditional healers” have received government sanction, giving them some of the same state legitimacy provided to nurses and doctors.

The large numbers of highly educated people who move to Europe and the US and lack of social and financial support for scientists in most African countries means that there are few voices defending science in political and media debates in the region. The most passionate defenders of science often are foreigners and thus anti-science attitudes are fueled by resentments against outsiders.

To be sure, South Africa remains an outlier: the technoscientific establishment is robust in the country (as I’ve shown in a recent article), but political demands for more social and economic relevance from research highlight the tensions between the grassroots and elites in South Africa.

Aid donors and educators from Europe and the US often argue that improving African science is simply a matter of supplying more inputs: get more of the diaspora scientists to return to their home countries, spend more on higher education, provide more funds for scientific research, forge more links between scientists in Europe and the US and African scientists.

More inputs into African science will help, of course, but much less than proponents expect. Anti-science attitudes in Africa are deeply rooted, and they are worsening in some ways because of the rise of pandemics and evangelical Christianity and the continuing political and moral appeal of Afro-centrism.

The anti-science movement in Africa displays curious parallels with a similar movement in the US. This suggests that merely dismissing science skeptics in Africa as irrational or irrelevant won’t work. These science skeptics must be understood on their own terms. And the case for greater financial investment in research and development in Africa must be made convincingly in political, economic and moral terms. That greater benefits to African societies will result simply from more spending on more R&D should not be presumed but rather demonstrated.

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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