UCT invites “conspiracy theorist” to talk about decolonisation of science

Academics furious with decision to give CK Raju official platform

Photo of CK Raju
Professor CK Raju holds up a copy of his book Is Science Western in Origin at a UCT panel discussion on 19 September. Photo extracted from Youtube

University of Cape Town academics have expressed dismay that the institution invited Professor CJ Raju, vice-president of the Indian Social Science Academy, to be the main speaker at a panel discussion titled Decolonising Science.

Described as a “crank” by one UCT professor and a “conspiracy theorist” by another, Raju gained some notoriety last year when an article he published in The Conversation was withdrawn. The article articulated Raju’s Indian nationalist views in which he rejects what he calls “Western” formal mathematics. He argues in favour of a revisionist history of mathematics that elevates the Indian role.

His talk at UCT on 19 September, placed on YouTube by the institution, contains numerous fringe claims. For example at about 7 minutes 15 on the video he dismisses a concept mathematicians deal with on a daily basis: the infinitesimally small. He then mocks people in the audience who work with this.

Raju was formally invited by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, and UCT’s Curriculum Change Working Group “to engage students and staff on his views”. The dean of the science faculty, Anton Le Roex, formally declined to participate in the panel discussion.

Jeff Murugan an Associate Professor in UCT’s maths department told GroundUp: “I believe deeply in the freedom of ideas and information. As such, all ideas should be heard. However, with Raju, UCT has just given an official platform to a set of ideas that are, at best, fringe, and lauded them as a revolutionary challenge to mainstream science. They are not. Much of what Raju says either reflect a very shallow understanding of the nature of science or, when they are correct, trivial.”

Murugan said that he was deeply concerned that the changes that Raju advocates in his decolonising mathematics project amount to a neo-bantu education that, implemented in South Africa, would see our students unable to compete in the global marketplace of ideas. He gave several examples of measures he and others in the maths department had taken “to improve what we teach and how we teach it, paying specific attention to students from previously and currently disadvantaged backgrounds.”

“Any one of these initiatives are far more meaningful in the South African context than Raju’s philosophy of going back to thinking like the Indian sages of old,” he said.

In response to a GroundUp question whether giving official sanction to Raju, who dismisses almost the entire body of work done by UCT’s scientists and mathematicians, is a productive way of taking forward the decolonisation debate, Feris replied:

“Professor Raju was invited not so that his views by necessity replace existing ones, but rather as a departure point for debate. Raju challenges existing dogma at a time when we as a university are reflecting on our colonial history and the ways in which we as a country have embraced colonial epistemology. Raju’s message to students is that they should question Western Authority on science and insist instead on empirical evidence on truth. To faculty, he asks that if we teach the exact similar science as taught in the West, we should be able to justify why that is so. First - we must explain our exclusion of other approaches to science from other parts of the world. Secondly, we should demonstrate the benefits of science as taught and understood in the West, and explain why local communities may be rendered only beneficiaries, and never co-producers of scientific knowledge. Professor Raju essentially rejects the notion that the Western philosophy of science and maths is objective and universal. This aligns with the decolonial questioning of Western thought as the singular truth. Professor Raju invites us to think about philosophy other than that which originated in the West, Eastern and African philosophies of science and maths. It seems to me like a constructive way to engage in a discussion on decolonial thinking, regardless of the discipline.”

In response to this Judge Dennis Davis, who like Feris is in the law faculty, told GroundUp: “While a vigorous debate about knowledge production at a university is vital to its mission, part of the debate is who participates. [Feris’s] response fails to address this key question: does participation include an advocate of a flat earth, a denialist of evolution, an advocate of potatoes and garlic in place of antiretrovirals for people living with HIV, an advocate of eugenics? Remember UCT disinvited Flemming Rose [the Danish editor who published cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed] so this is not about its steadfast commitment to free speech fundamentalism.”

Professor George Ellis, one of UCT’s best known scientists who was awarded the Star of South Africa by President Nelson Mandela and is a fellow of the Third World Academy of Science, described Feris’s differentiation between science in the “West” versus “other parts of the world” as “pure rubbish”. Ellis said: “Third World Scientists adhere to the same international standards as Western scientists, as made explicit for example by the nature and work of the Third World Academy of Science. Reputable scientists in the Third World do not teach a different kind of science.“

“His talk has nothing positive to contribute to the discussion, not just because he advocates replacing the internationally agreed approach to mathematics and physics by his own idiosyncratic views, but particularly because he explicitly advocates ignoring the views of international experts on scientific topics in his decolonial approach to science and maths. If UCT were to follow that route, we’d better close down the science and engineering faculties. The degrees we will produce will be worthless,” said Ellis.


Dear Editor

Among the claims in Mr Raju’s biography are that he has “corrected” Newton and Einstein; “debunked” Euclid, Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler; “demonstrated that teaching calculus with zeroism [sic] … makes it easy enough to be taught in five days”; and that his work has been repeatedly plagiarized by Sir Michael Atiyah, former president of the Royal Society, among others. Mr Raju also boasts of having received the gold medal of the dubious Telesio-Galilei Academy of Science “for correcting Einstein’s mathematical mistake”.

These claims hardly seem credible—it appears that the University has suspended all incredulity. That such a charlatan is welcomed to UCT by a Deputy Vice-Chancellor while Flemming Rose is shunned does the university no credit.

Dear Editor

Where did the Greeks go to study trigonometry and geometry? Egypt.

Who introduced Oriental and Indian Mathematics (and the lost Classics of ancient Greece) into Europe via their invasion of Spain, thereby igniting the Renaissance? The Muslims.

So, Mathematics and Physics are not "western"; they are factually, historically and intrinsically "universal".

Secondly, to accept the straw man implies that the cognitive processes involved in obtaining knowledge (epistemology) are different in colonised peoples when compared to their colonisers. This is what Verwoerd proposed as a basis for "Apartheid" and separate education.

Those who buy into the notion of "decolonising education" are thus similarly reduced to being nothing more than (anti-European) racists, and racists who have little or no knowledge of the history of subjects like Mathematics and Science.

Dear Editor

Both the one letter writer and Denis Davis attempt some logical gymnastics in order to link the invitation to Raju with Fleming Rose's disinvitation. The link is tenuous at best and non-existent otherwise.

Many at UCT and beyond continue their obsession with Rose, as some great philosopher whose wisdom they were deprived of.

They had opportunity to listen to him when the SAIRR invited him a few weeks ago. Those who missed that are directed to YouTube to satisfy this craving.

Let Raju stand as a crackpot on his own.

Dear Editor

The university is the only platform where ideas can be put to the test and be constructively dismissed as rubbish. But that dismissal must follow an interactive engagement. UCT academics that fear engagement are not being progressive. This is not religious heresy but an attempt at a new frame of reference. The manner in which they have responded makes me want to listen to this Professor even more. I had not heard about him before.

Dear Editor

In order to attain the highest standards in Sciences in South Africa we must learn from world class scientists and emulate international best practices.

To do anything less will mean we may produce sub standard scientists and poor science when we don't learn from those who have learnt before us.

Those who talk of decolonising science must remember that the benefits of the modern age are as a result of scientific discoveries made by scientists from all over the world and are not just from the west. A scientist like the one in this discussion who claims special knowledge in maths must open his research for study and replication by his peers. If it is not replicable it must be disregarded.

Science is international and Africa must throw off her chains and start producing world class scientist.

We must further do everything in our power to advance and provide opportunities for previously disadvantaged men and woman to be exposed to the best the world has to offer so they can learn and further the cause of science for the benefit of Africa but also the rest of the world.

Dear Editor

To talk about decolonizing science and maths in itself encourages so many problematic assumptions that UCT might as well invite all manner of quacks and opportunists to the debate. This topic easily slips into the ad hominem fallacy that the validity or otherwise of a theorem, fact or principle is determined not by its internal logic or empirical evidence, but by who utters it. And it encourages the notion that the science and mathematics taught in South African universities are essentially colonial in origin and nature, ignoring the fact that these disciplines started to evolve thousands of years before the era of European colonialism, and, ironically, obscuring the key role of non-European societies in developing what are now globalized bodies of knowledge (for example, the Chinese and Arabic mathematical traditions). Thinking about it, perhaps UCT is deliberately reducing this debate to a farce.

Dear Editor

The Telesio Galilei Academy is a hoax, to start with.
Why is Raju given the credence he doesn't deserve?

Dear Editor

What I see as the main point of objection to the suggestions made by the Indian professor is fear by the so-called seasoned scientists who throughout their career have only repeated the discoveries of western science. They are afraid of destabilising what they regard as the comfort zone within academia. Decolonisation cannot be prevented from touching all aspects of knowledge. No disrespect to whatever the so-called distinguished scientists are doing. They need to interrogate important principles and not just applying them. They need to go behind what they have received as universal science. If this is not done the current scientific practices are not different from any kind of religion. Of course theirs becomes scientism. Thus, the arguments being raised to object ideas from Indian professor do not border on any epistemological deficiency. It's time the so-called third world academics realised that decolonisation project is about everything received from the west. This does not mean there aren't some things that are valid. far from that! So, bring another valid arguments against the Indian professor's ideas. We need to differentiate knowledge from what we have inherited as knowledge. This does not spare African traditional thought either. Don't fear change, even though it is painful. I guess science has to be rational. Consider Plato and the people in the cave. Give the Indian professor the benefit of doubt.

Dear Editor

I am not competent to comment on Raju, but learned from Raju’s lecture because its coordinator, DVC Feris, invited a mathematician, mathematics-philosopher and an educationalist to comment. This was undermined when its video contained ONLY Raju’s presentation. After complaints to those responsible for this ‘censorship’, a second video was released covering the panellists’ comments. According to the Executive Director: Communication and Marketing, this ‘action’ was an error by a junior staff member. One hopes that those affected by academic decolonization will watch BOTH videos. Otherwise, Raju’s views could be accepted without debate. Raju’s lecture symbolizes a concern that deconstructive-decolonists within centralized administration may be driving the process of transformation. Therefore, George Ellis and I suggested that Fellows of UCT (members of academic staff recognized for original distinguished academic work) become involved in decolonization to support the views of ‘hands-on’ academics involved in the educational process on a day-to-day basis.To counter Feris’ assertion that “Raju’s message to students is that they should question Western Authority on science and insist instead on empirical evidence on truth”, I say: “Letting Raju give the impression that his approach “makes math easy and intuitive, and leads to a better understanding” is music to radicals who would intimidate academics struggling to do the job properly.” How many times must academic incumbents have to “justify” their competence in the face of evidence-free assertions from invitees like Raju who come and go? In biological evolution, we rejected Lamarckism because it didn’t work. But, because the Soviet Union liked it, it became dogma. Its application led to the murder of hundreds of scientific dissenters and deaths of millions from starvation. There has been renewed interest in ‘soft’ Lamarckism. Look at evidence-based molecular/anatomical research by UCT's Nicci Illing and David Jacobs, who are also playing constructive roles in decolonization at UCT.

Dear Editor

Now that "struggle credentials" are fading from view (and importance), a new slogan has assumed pole position: "decolonization", "transformation", call it what you will - anything that promises change (from what, exactly, to what, is unclear) and movement is seized upon as either THE path to upward mobility amongst the managerial classes at UCT, or yet another sop to a restive student body.

And if, along this treacherous path, those of intellect and integrity complain, one can merely dismiss them out of hand, for they are few in number, and swimming against the prevailing current.

Sadly, though, harm IS done when a UCT DVC invites an obvious charlatan to campus, and, in this race to the bottom, all suffer.

Dear Editor

Cant wait to roll bones to diagnose something, maybe a dance to cure cancer? The West has kept Africa alive with its advanced medicine, now they try to deny it?

Dear Editor

I recall a T-Shirt that read "phUCT", whilst I was a student at UCT.

Is it possible that my alma mater and the institution at which I am an honorary senior lecturer, continues to give credence to academics of dubious distinction will bring honour to the rather dishonourable sentiment expressed on that T Shirt?

Dear Editor

If one considers subjects such as history or law the concept of a Western or an African interpretation has meaning.

Mathematics is universal and stands above petty human pariochial concerns. Pi is the same in Africa and Europe as well as the Klingon home world. The same applies to thermodynamics and many other mathematical and scientific principles.

There is no such thing as decolonized thermodynamics.

Dear Editor

I am astonished that a cranky charlatan with no credible scientific reputation can be invited to talk about science and maths at UCT. How did Feris find him?

He is a stupid embarrassment to a country that has produced such scientific geniuses such as Bose and Raman amongst a panoply of others, going back to ancient times. None of whom commuted on flying carpets.

How were the other panelists conned into sharing a platform with him? Anton le Roux was quite correct to decline to participate in absolute nonsense.

Dear Editor

Lecturing at UCT on the philosophy of science for the past 15 years, I can attest to the value of Raju’s writings for engaging with students on the decolonisation of science.

Raised in India substantially outside Western norms, then learning to navigate these in higher education and professional pursuits, Raju lends a valuable critical perspective to those interrogating influences of colonialism on science.

For many students Raju is a compelling thinker who helps awaken an understanding of what colonisation can mean in a scientific context, and how its legacy can influence scientists and their science. He exemplifies how one can be a vigorous critic of intellectual and institutional norms and practices in science, and so highlight their effects on the knowledge gained in these ways, and also be a rigorous scientist committed to furthering scientific knowledge.

Raju was invited to engage questions of decolonisation in science where he has valuable insights to offer as we try to find our own way. This includes resurfacing the historically overt and now normative submergence of a Western cultural frame over important aspects of the conceptual foundations of science and of its origins, which is not an argument from ‘the fringe’ but a coherent critique which evidently threatens and offends many locals in positions of scientific authority.

Raju is one of a diversity of credible, important voices we can learn from if we are willing. Characterising Raju as unworthy to speak is an indication of how poorly understood the decolonisation project must be at UCT and among those who defend such conduct. Ad hominem attacks sidestep Raju’s arguments, which evidently few of his critics have read, and such attacks are an embarrassment to those who make them.

They also reinforce the perception and substantiate the reality that the hegemony in the Faculty of Science of those aligned to the legacy of colonialism remains firmly in place despite protestations to the contrary. Raju threatens not science, but such hegemony.

Dear Editor

Professor Feris’s statement above could have come straight from the pen of Thabo Mbeki when he was busy decolonising virology, complete with references to “existing dogma”, “Western Authority”, and “empirical evidence”—all part and parcel of the quack’s tool kit to try to sound reasonable. That she could make this statement AFTER hearing Raju’s talk suggests that she has been gulled.

Scorning scientific validity in favour of “alignment” with a political line is Lysenkoism. It has a terrible history.

Dear Editor

The debate about what constitutes "valid knowledge" has been thrown open. Excellent. Now let all those who have a point to dispute do so on the same platform the advocates of various heterodoxies demand. And let the purveyors of falsehood feel the consequences of being wrong.

If this approach was good enough for Socrates its good enough for me.

Dear Editor

The beauty of science which is written in the language of mathematics is that it describes how everything works in the entire known universe.

The theory of general relativity explains the history of our universe from the big bang to the present. General relativity is described by its equations.

Einstein was a German Jew but relativity is neither German nor Jewish. Einstein described relativity but it has existed for billions of years. Relativity is not a human invention.

Colonialism is a human thing but science and mathematics exist outside humanity. Ants are governed by science even if they are not aware of this. Advanced aliens would discover the same mathematics and science we have discovered.

Science and mathematics are the most powerful force for the advancement of any species in the universe.

Colonialism is a human issue only relevant in the last couple of centuries in a universe billions of years old.

Although one can say many things about colonialism it is not relevant or important for study of science and maths except perhaps for the scientific study of human behavior.

Colonialism is best dealt with in the humanities because it is a human issue. I studied maths and science precisely because its power goes way beyond humanity. If humanity survives science has the power to transform us in ways that we can barely comprehend.

Dear Editor

Could some decolonisation authority please produce a precise and consistently valid and rational definition of "colonialism in context here used" and thus also define "Decolonisation".

I have heard the term decolonisation implying "getting rid of all European influences", which is idiotic..... getting rid of Whites, which is idiotic and racist....learning to see things from an African perspective, which is completely dependant on the subject and therefore usually invalid... etc

Please also explain rationally,...How does one decolonise Science/technology/art/History?

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