I'm studying High School Science teaching in Australia. In our Science curriculum there are "cross-curriculum" priorities "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures" and "Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia". (see http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/science/cross-curriculum-priorities)

Our lecturer told us that teaching science means teaching Western science based around the Scientific Method and that the above priorities should be taught in parallel with Western science. Specifically, we shouldn't try to integrate them too much into our teaching. For example, teaching Western medicine and Aboriginal Medicine comparatively rather than to trying to unify them. Similarly, for the Asian priority.

Also, China and Aboriginal Australia developed many technologies and observed many phenomena but, perhaps, not in a scientific way.

My question is: "Did other cultures use/develop principles analogous to the western scientific method?"


In a word, yes, but only interpreting "western" broadly. The tradition of precise and systematic astronomical observations comes from ancient Babylonians, i.e. from Mesopotamia, and even Alexandria, where many scientists worked during Hellenistic times, is in the middle east. John Philoponus (c. 490 – 570) working there wrote things like "but this [view of Aristotle] is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument". One of the first practitioners of controlled experiments and field studies were an Arab polymath Alhazen (c. 965 –1040), and Persians Al-Biruni (973 – 1048) and Avicenna (c. 980 –1037). Ancient Babylon, Hellenistic Alexandria, and medieval middle east deeply influenced the scientific method tradition. They are often counted as "western" because they culminated in a completed form of scientific method, explicitly outlined by Francis Bacon (1620), in western Europe during and after the Renaissance, and then exported all over the world during the colonial period.

There was a remarkable period of scientific and technological innovation in China during Song dynasty (960–1279), that in some ways compares to Hellenistic period and Renaissance. The invention of gunpowder and nautical compass, as well as widespread use of printing press and paper money in China date to this period. Chinese Leonardo, Shen Kuo (1031–1095), the inventor of compass, also measured the distance between the North star and the true north, improved designs of the armillary sphere, gnomon, sighting tube, and water clock, devised a geological hypothesis for land formation, and proposed a hypothesis of gradual climate change. And yet Song China was a near miss, it did not lead to development of systematic theoretical and empirical science as we understand it today. But it shows that much can be accomplished in other traditions. A very sympathetic, anti-eurocentric, account is given by Morris in Why the West Rules - For Now, for balance here is a critical review of his book. But even Morris acknowledges that the East did not formulate a scientific method of its own.

Ancient Egypt and China, medieval India, American Indian civilizations, etc. also made many technological advances, but they were practically oriented traditional societies that developed their tools and procedures through accumulation of incremental glacial changes, generational trial and error, rather than through intentional innovation guided by scientific inquiry. Traditional medicine, aboriginal one in particular, is a typical product of such development, but so is ancient Babylonian or medieval Chinese mathematics. Here is Stein's characterization of Babylonian mathematics, that applies to science in traditional societies more broadly:

"...for the Babylonians, mathematics was not an enterprise, but a lore and a skill possessed by the priestly or scribal class, for use in essentially administrative functions, and passed on from generation to generation much as were the techniques of the craft guilds in the middle ages. Of course, the techniques had to have been discovered; and innovations might occur from time to time; but invention or discovery was no more the business of those trained in the lore, than it was the business of the medieval master of a craft."

  • $\begingroup$ I agree that the term "Western" is rather vague, but it is, after all, education. $\endgroup$ – pdmclean May 20 '15 at 1:53

Yes, the scientific method is a Western invention. It was formulated in the end of the 16th century. In the English-speaking world, its invention is associated with Francis Bacon, but as it always happens, many other people contributed, all of whom lived in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The ancients (Babylonians, Hellenistic Greeks) did not have a fully developed scientific method in the modern sense of the word. Their achievements in mathematics and astronomy can be considered as a beginning of science (if you include mathematics and astronomy into science, which not everyone does), but none of them formulated or used the scientific method as we understand it now, though Archimedes was very close.

And yes, most of the science until the end of the 19th century was done in Europe. More precisely, in Italy, England, France and Germany.

Some other countries also had important achievements, this cannot be denied, but the body of exact sciences which we study now in schools and universities was created in Western Europe. This applies to the universities in China, India and elsewhere. Their ancient science is of interest only to historians, not to the students of science.

Let me give just one example to clarify what I am talking about. There are two very well documented first-hand accounts of Tamil astronomy (one written by a French in the 18th century, another by an English traveler in the 19th century). They describe in great detail the methods used by Tamil astronomers to predict eclipses. The accuracy of their predictions was comparable to the European methods of the 18th century. These astronomers were illiterate (by European standards) and they used some development of the ancient Babylonian system (it passed to India after Alexander's conquest). Nowadays this indigenous Tamil astronomy does not exist (is not practiced) but we know it very well because of the records of European travelers. And historians of astronomy study it. But no one teaches or uses Tamil astronomy as astronomy.

And let me add that what I wrote concerns only science, not inventions. We do use some ancient Chinese (and other nations') inventions in our daily life, e.g., paper, the compass, gunpowder, fireworks, kites and several others.


The whole question of the provenance of a cultural artifact such as the "scientific method" is fraught with hazard. For instance, alchemy has ancient origins. The late historian of science, Derek J. de Sola Price, viewed alchemy as a pre-scientific methodology since many of its practitioners documented their use of quasi-experimental designs in an exhaustive combinatorics of the elements hypothesized to transmute lead into gold.

Others, notably 50s and 60s French Structuralists, have argued that mythology was another form of pre-scientific endeavor, particularly insofar as myth relates to the cosmos and origins of existence. If you believe Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechen in their book, Hamlet’s Mill (1965), the word “hamlet” originated in Persia thousands of years ago in the linguistic form of “amlodhi,” a cognate of the Persian word for necessity. Then it diffused through time and culture including Old Icelandic myths and other vestigial forms to appear in the version closest to Shakespeare’s in a 13th c work by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus where “amlodhi” had morphed into “amleth.” The authors of Hamlet’s Mill viewed these ancient creation myths as the technical language of a pre-scientific elite, finding their analogues in biblical “floods,” West African (Dogon) cosmologies and MesoAmerican oral histories where lurking beneath these mythic artifacts are cosmological phenomena such as the 26,000 year precession of the equinoxes.

The bottom line is that it's only a kind of ethnocentric and arrogant hubris that demands fealty to modern, Western definitions of "science."

  • $\begingroup$ I like it! Arrogant hubris describes education quite well. $\endgroup$ – pdmclean May 28 '15 at 12:27

Generally speaking every culture has a unique way of gathering knowledge, what is called "epistemology". Even in Anglo-American culture there is a lot of variance in the scientific method. For example, in the 17th century there was a huge dispute between Hobbes and Boyle about the proper way to validate a theory (see the book, Leviathan and the Air Pump). Today in Japan, for example, scientific research has aspects and methods that differ somewhat from Western methods. The West is not even consistent in its own methods. For example, it is very common for Western scientists to keep their data secret and only publish their results, which is contrary to Boyle's methods.

Ancient Greece had attitudes towards science which had many similarities with modern methods and in fact the word epistemology is a Greek word. So did the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.

Aboriginal cultures are too diverse to categorize in any fixed way, but in general tended to be (and still are) much more superstitious, attributing natural phenomena to "spirits". Much of Asiatic culture is the same way. For example, most of the documents recovered from the manuscript cave in China by Aurel Stein and date from 1000 AD are either religious texts or involve fortune telling or augury, which mirrors their society. Even in Japan, which is the most rationalist of the Asiatic nations, superstition is universal and most people carry around lucky charms in their wallets or purses.

Nevertheless, lack of rationalism does not mean a culture cannot excel in scientific discovery. As I wrote before, each culture's method is unique. For example, in Japan there is the concept of honte, what is proper. We have this now in America, too, where we call it "best practices," but the Japanese concept is far more developed and has resulted in them making many discoveries that Americans have failed to make.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by "Today in Japan ... differ somewhat from Western methods"? $\endgroup$ – Lee David Chung Lin Dec 5 '17 at 9:52

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