New Zealand is a lost cause insofar as science education is concerned, for the government and educational establishment is doing all it can to make local indigenous “ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori, or MM) coequal with modern science, and taught as coequal. This will, in the end, severely damage science education in New Zealand, and drive local science teachers (and graduate students) to other countries. It won’t help the indigenous Māori people, either, as it will not only give them misconceptions about what is empirically “true” versus what is fable, legend, or religion, but also make them less competitive in world science—both in jobs and publishing.
Now, I would be the first to admit that indigenous knowledge is not completely devoid of empirical knowledge. Indigenous people have a stock of knowledge acquired by observation as well as trial and error. This includes, of course, a knowledge of the indigenous plants and their medical and nutritional uses, when the best time is to catch fish or pick berries, and, in perhaps its most sophisticated version, the ability the Polynesians to navigate huge expanses of water. (That, of course, was also done by trial and error, and must have involved the demise of those who didn’t do it right—something that’s never mentioned.)
Is observational knowledge like this “science”? In one sense, yes, for you can construe “science” as simply “verified empirical knowledge”. But modern science is more than that: it’s also its own “way of knowing”—a toolkit of methods, itself assembled by trial and error, for obtaining provisional truth. This toolkit, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, includes the practices of modern science, including hypothesis-making and -testing, experiments, replication, pervasive doubt and criticality, construction models, concepts of falsifiability, and so on.
Because modern science comprises not just facts but a method codified via experience, indigenous knowledge generally fails the second part, for it lacks a method for advancing knowledge beyond experience and verification. Indeed, I know of no indigenous science that has a standard methodology for ascertaining truth. Yes, various plants can be tested for their efficacy in relieving ailments, but this is done by trial and error—in contrast to the double-blind tests used to assess the effects of new drugs and medicines.
Still, indigenous knowledge can contribute to modern science. This can involve bringing attention to phenomena that, when tested scientifically, can be folded into the domain of empirical fact. Quinine and aspirin were developed in this way. And, of course, local ecological knowledge of indigenous people can be valuable in helping guide modern science and calling attention to phenomena that might have otherwise been overlooked. Nevertheless, what we have is experiential knowledge on one hand—a species of knowledge that rarely leads to testable hypotheses—and modern science on the other, which is designed to lead to progress by raising new testable hypotheses.
The concept of “indigenous science”, then, baffles me, especially if, as in New Zealand, it’s seen as coequal to science. It’s not, though, for it lacks a methodology beyond trial and error for determining what’s true. But because of what philosopher Molly McGrath called “the authority of the sacred victim.”, indigenous “ways of knowing” are given special authority because they’re held by people regarded as oppressed. This leads their “ways of knowing” to be overrated as competitors to modern science. Indeed, MM is a pastiche of real empirical knowledge, but also of religion, theology, ideology, morality, rules for living, authority, and tradition. This kind of mixture characterizes many indigenous “ways of knowing”, making it necessary, when teaching them as science, to not only distinguish “fact” from “method,” but to winnow the empirical wheat from the ideological and spiritual chaff.
As I said, it’s too late for those in New Zealand, with real science being diluted by MM, but only now am I realizing that Canada, which of course harbors indigenous people with substantial power, is starting a movement to teach “indigenous science”, too. And the way it’s going it doesn’t bode well. For example, here’s a job ad for a high-paying “Director of Indigenous Science” on a Canadian government website (click screenshot to see the whole thing):
The position is, first, to “bridge” Indigenous and Western science (of course although modern science started flowering in sixteenth-century Europe, it is no longer “Western” and should not be called as such, which insults all the working scientists not in the West):
The Indigenous Science Division is seeking a Director who will bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western sciences! Do you want to participate in establishing partnerships with Indigenous knowledge holders? Do you possess strong communication skills and have a desire to engage with this community?
But the implicit assumption is that there is indeed indigenous science comparable to modern science. How can they be bridged? By supplementing modern science with things like medicinal plants that haven’t been tested using a proper method? Or by bringing the methods of modern science into indigenous science, which I don’t think is the goal here/ Indeed, the position assumes there already is an indigenous “science” that seems to go beyond experiential knowledge. Here are some of the criteria you must meet to be considered for the job:
– Experience working with Indigenous knowledge systems or science.
– Experience developing and implementing policies and programs related to Indigenous science, Indigenous knowledge, or science programs.
– Experience in building and maintaining relationships with Indigenous communities, organizations, or multiple stakeholders, including different levels of government.
– Experience providing leadership and guidance to staff in incorporating Indigenous science, Indigenous knowledge or science into their work.
And what you must know:
– Knowledge of Indigenous Science, including traditional ecological knowledge, Indigenous research methods and methodologies, and perspectives on environment and natural sciences.
– Knowledge of Indigenous Science frameworks, such as Two-Eyed Seeing, which integrate Indigenous and Western knowledge systems.
Yes, of course traditional ecological knowledge, if it’s established as true, would count, but I’m curious about what constitutes “indigenous research methods and methodologies.” If they do exist, I’d be pleased to learn about them.
But the stuff about “Two-Eyed Seeing” is misleading, for, if you read the article in the British Columbia Medical Journal below, you find that seeing nature through a modern science lens (one eye) as well as an indigenous science lens (the other eye), you are basically valorizing the oppressed rather than invigorating science. Click to read:
The definition of “Two-eyed seeing” from the paper’s background material:
Two-Eyed Seeing developed from the teachings of Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation, but Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation was the first to apply the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing in a Western setting. Specifically, Two-Eyed Seeing “refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together for the benefit of all.”
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t show what the “indigenous eye” can contribute to vision, for the piece is mostly about gaining the trust of indigenous communities if they are to be involved in your research. And that’s necessary, of course: you just don’t go barging into an indigenous community to use them as research subjects or helpers without their complete cooperation, including discussion of how they’d benefit from the research and exactly what is being studied. But the article is NOT about empirical truths gained from indigenous “ways of knowing.”
Finally, if you were thinking that you can’t “decolonize” mathematics, you’re wrong. Here’s a link to a “professional learning session” sent me by a Canadian teacher who saw it and was upset by it. (By the way, I get quite a few emails from Canadian educators who are upset by the “decolonization” of scientific/medical knowledge via “indigenous knowledge”, but, like people in New Zealand, they dare not object for fear of professional damage.)
The session is on April 29, and you can register to see it online by clicking on the article—at least I think you can. You might have to be a Canadian teacher.
What’s on tap in this session (my bolding):
In this session Dr. [Lisa] Borden will share stories from her research and teaching life that have been influenced by the knowledge learned from time spent alongside Elders and knowledge keepers within the Mi’kmaw community in Mi’kma’ki or what we now call Nova Scotia. Through a series of moments, she will share how her philosophy for decolonizing mathematics education has been shaped and how this in turn shapes her mathematics teaching. Key ideas that will be shared include ideas about ethnomathematics, the role of community-based inquiry and social justice, the importance of a culturally enabling pedagogy informed by language, and the importance of a holistic approach to advancing students’ mathematical understandings.
Lisa Lunney Borden is a Professor in the faculty of education who holds the John Jerome Paul Chair for Equity in Mathematics Education striving to improve outcomes in mathematics for Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian youth. Prior to coming to StFX, she had a teaching career in We’koqma’q First Nation where she spent ten years as a secondary mathematics teacher, a vice-principal and principal, as well as the provincial mathematics leader for all Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey schools in Nova Scotia. Lisa credits her students and the Mi’kmaw community for inspiring her to think differently about mathematics education which continues to shape her work today. She is committed to research and outreach that focuses on decolonizing mathematics education through culturally based practices and experiences that are rooted in Indigenous languages and knowledge systems. She is a sought-after speaker nationally and internationally and has a passion for working with teachers and their students. Lisa has helped to create the Show Me Your Math program that inspired thousands of Mi’kmaw youth to share the mathematical reasoning inherent in their own community contexts, and an outreach program called Connecting Math to Our Lives and Communities that brings similar ideas to Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian youth as an afterschool program. She currently serves as the President of the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group, and sits on the Canadian Mathematical Society’s reconciliation committee.
Now I’m not sure what’s included in “ethnomathematics”. If it’s just approaching teaching math but using examples familiar to indigenous folk, then it’s not an alternative form of mathematics but a method of teaching. If it really adds stuff to the knowledge of mathematics, I’d like to know what. (Be always wary when you see the term “holistic approach” applied to education. And the notion that ethnomathematics has something to do with “social justice” scares the bejeezus out of me.) Perhaps ethnomathematics is mathematics + ideology, in which case it’s not an eye that sees, but a hand that propagandizes.