The “Western” Pejorative

Science is the skilled study of facts – predictable, falsifiable observations in nature. I always thought that was non-racial. But somewhere along the way the terms “Western” and “Eastern” cropped up, distinguished from each other yet allegedly two sides of the same coin. Alternatives. We see this in medicine now with the popularization of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is sometimes presented as the equal Eastern-based underdog alternative to Western medicine. But it’s odd that contemporary science is synonymous with “Western science” even though the entire world uses science and technology.

While it is true that the modern idea of science as we know it began in earnest in Europe, scientific techniques have been used for centuries from Greece to the Middle East, China, and India and their (among many other cultures) scientific contributions continue to benefit us to this day. So what current relevance is there in defining science or medicine as Western/Eastern? I suppose one could argue that the cultural basis of a philosophy is relevant to its real-world application, but even though people aren’t objective, science is. That is why the method is so successful when used correctly – it’s designed to eliminate that personal bias regardless of the topic under investigation. Cultural context shouldn’t affect the objective ability to study a specific concept. So, the common reference to modern science as “Western” continues to perplex me. It seems as if the term is serving two main functions: diminishing science’s overall value and distinguishing it from from the mysterious East.

The implication is that science, due to it’s Westernness, is inadequate or unwilling to investigate Eastern ideas. But I find that typically the Eastern beliefs that science is allegedly inadequate to explain are philosophical and/or spiritual, not natural claims that happen to be Eastern in geography. Or they are concepts that science is adequate to explain, but proponents of “Western bias” claim that the negative findings are because of the limits of Western investigation, not because the claim is simply false. “Western science can’t explain , but it works.” Although science is inadequate to investigate anything outside of the realm of what can be observed in nature, it is not limited by arbitrary geography. Yet the alleged Western bias is bandied about as a fundamental weakness of the entire scientific method. I would argue that the main limitation is when scientists are inadequately familiar (perhaps culturally) with their subject. But that is a human limit, not one of science itself, that is true with virtually any cross-cultural analysis.

Science is science across the globe. I think the implication that science can’t investigate Eastern ideas is a misunderstanding of the nuance of investigation – it’s a poor carpenter that blames his/her tools. There is nothing inherently wrong with spiritual philosophy, as far as it goes, but an individual components’ inability to stand up to scientific rigour when bold claims are made about its efficacy for wellness, for example, is not a limitation of science – it is simply what science is. It’s possible the right question wasn’t asked or the appropriate methodology wasn’t employed, but that is a limit of researchers. Furthermore, so-called Westernism doesn’t diminish anyone’s personal freedom to engage in whatever religious or spiritual healing regimens they prefer, for example. They just aren’t part of science.

Another assumption is that when other cultures use the scientific method, they only do it because of Western influence. Even if true, why does that matter? Does that somehow diminishes its value? If science is objective and it works, then why shouldn’t it be globally used? This assumption is a little racist. The use of so-called Western ideas in other cultures is apparently not due to their own development and benefit of use, but because other cultures cannot withstand the powerful onslaught of the West, never mind global contribution to and use of scientific discovery.

If all of this seems like a gross oversimplification that is largely a misunderstanding of the cultural nuance across global cultures, it’s because it is. The terminology is used to separate the cold, calculating West from the wise, ancient East. I could have easily called this article The “Eastern” Pejorative or Brown People are Magic – perceived positive stereotypes can be just as unfair as negative ones. Eastern ideas are apparently so transcendent that our puny Western minds simply cannot comprehend or investigate them. The assumption of homogeny is also insulting – both the West and the East are comprised of multiple unique cultures. To simplify that to East/West is prejudicial against and condescending to every culture involved.

I draw attention now to the main flaw in the supposed East/West dichotomy: it is an “us vs. them” mask for the apples and oranges comparison of the scientific method and spiritual philosophy, ignoring global context and the use of an objective tool within it. Something being “Western” (or called that despite inaccuracy) is not evidence for or against efficacy, correctness, or usefulness. Something being “Eastern” is not evidence for its wisdom, transcendence, and spiritual effectiveness. Those stereotypes are a dismissal of the contribution that science has had in our lives in general, a dismissal of the value of Western ideas, a dismissal of existing and historical global contributions to science, and insulting to the intelligence and independence of non-Western cultures to the supposed onslaught of the powerful West.

Dismissing the scientific method or modern medical claims as Western is playing a social politics game rather than relying on a claim’s merits. Unfortunately the Eastern label is being used to promote things like Feng Shui, chakras, meridians, fire cupping, etc. I wonder where fan death fits into Eastern wisdom. This example, I hope, illustrates the absurdity of revering ideas simply because of the culture from which they originate. Any culture is capable of both kooky superstitions and intelligent reasoning. That is where science is a handy universal tool – the scientific method doesn’t care who is making the claim, only that the claim can be demonstrated and verified objectively. That is why science isn’t Western, despite its original popularization.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.