This question came up when I was thinking about Māori and other indigenous “ways of knowing”, and I realized that this kind of knowledge is acquired mostly through trial and error. Now that doesn’t mean it isn’t science, for it is “science construed broadly” as I discuss in Faith versus Fact. And before we had the scientific toolkit now used by professional scientists, this is pretty much all we had. In his new book, Rationality, Steve Pinker begins with a long and absorbing disquisition on how the San people of Africa have developed a sophisticated way of tracking animals, and accomplishing other feats, through trial and error over the centuries. And sometimes it’s based on hypotheses, like “Wildebeests are bigger than other grazing animals, and would leave deeper tracks.”
So yes, “trial and error” is science, but it seems to me that modern science involves far more than trial and error, but rests more frequently on testing a priori hypotheses. We didn’t use trial and error to get the Webb Space Telescope to its position, for if we made one error, the mirror wouldn’t open. We also used the known laws of physics, which aren’t used in “indigenous knowledge.” Darwin didn’t develop the theory of evolution by natural selection using trial and error, but had an epiphany from reading Malthus and then worked out the consequences, including checking the results of breeders. Avery et al. didn’t discover that DNA was the hereditary material by trial and error, but by knowing that the constituents of bacteria were mostly proteins and nucleic acids, and seeing which of them, via lab experiments, could “transform” other bacteria. This kind of science, more than does indigenous knowledge, builds on itself, so that as hypotheses are confirmed, one after the other, they ultimately lead to an immensely sophisticated body of knowledge.
I came to these thoughts when I was thinking about the ability to navigate between islands used by ancient Polynesians. This is often touted as a form of indigenous “science”. Now this couldn’t have developed, I think, as an a priori set of hypotheses used to get from place A to place B. Rather, we must remember all the voyagers who didn’t make it compared to those who did. Those who did may have used methods that enabled them to succeed: keeping stars in one position, looking for seabirds, and so on. Over time, the successful voyagers incorporated one method after another so voyages became ever more successful. The methods” of those who died attempting the voyages were lost. This was trial and error, and it was a form of scientific knowledge, but it involved enormous wastage. It was the result of one successful trial piled atop another, with the methods that produced successful voyages incorporated into lore.
A similar method could be used to suss out a way through a bifurcating maze. Imagine that there is a Y maze, with each branch bifurcating. After three bifurcations you have 8 separate destinations. Further assume that all the destinations save one—for example, taking the left branch, then the right, and then the left—conclude in a pitfall trap with spikes at the bottome, while that one successful trio of choices leads to a cache of food. Your job is to get the food. You send 1000 people into the maze, and only about 125 (one out of eight) will emerge at the other end. You then ask them how they got there. They’ll all say, “Go left, right, and then right.” Everyone else would be dead. And so you have “knowledge” of how to solve this problem.
It must have been something like this that was the nucleus of Polynesian navigation—and much other indigenous knowledge. It seems to me—and I may be wrong—that modern science is far more than trial and error, and far more than the kinds of “knowledge” that advocates of, say mātauranga Māori tout as coequal to modern science. But teaching how modern science approaches problems is far more sophisticated than trial and error, even though indigenous knowledge is indeed sometimes “knowledge” or “truth.” Teaching mātauranga Māori in science classes is not possible so long as that method incorporates philosophy, mythology, legend, and morality, but its empirical methods—trial and error—could be taught. That would take one hour at best. But could you use trial and error as a way of understanding the cosmos that is coequal to the entire toolkit of modern science, which includes trial and error, but so much more?
I am not yet convinced that there’s a good reason to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as coequal to science, though there is a rationale for teaching the methods that our predecessors used to gain knowledge. It’s just that this is not coequal to modern science.
When knowledge was based on trial and error, progress was slow and tedious, and sometimes didn’t happen. It took centuries of failed trial and error to figure out how bubonic plague or malaria was caused, and how to deal with it. The solutions came from hypotheses that were tested, not willy-nilly guesses that weren’t tested, but merely enacted—and failed, one after another. (A lot of my ancestors were burned as supposed remedies for the plague.)
These are just some random thoughts to inspire others to think about the issue of indigenous knowledge versus modern science