Mishigass at the Ontario Museum: claims of parity between modern science and indigenous “ways of knowing”

April 29, 2023 • 11:30 am

I’m back to viewing and reading about claims that indigenous knowledge is coequal to—or even better than—modern science (often characterized as “colonializing” or “Western” science). This is always a painful exercise for me, because although indigenous people have indeed produced empirical “observational knowledge” that can be important, they have not adopted (except as participants in) the rigorous methodology of modern science that involves doubt, testing, hypothesis-making, quantification, blind tests, and so on.

Thus practitioners of indigenous knowledge (or “other ways of knowing”) don’t have any methodology to advance knowledge of the universe except to simply make more observations. The most striking lacuna in these other ways of knowing is the absence of hypotheses, based on present (provisional) truths, that can be tested lead us to further truths. This lacuna is painfully evident in this video from the Royal Ontario Museum, a 1¼-hour discussion of science vs. “First Nations ways of knowing”, held on the occasion of an exhibition of painting around that theme.

Every speaker strives mightily to espouse a parity between First Nations “ways of knowing” and modern science’s genuine way of knowing.  The reader who sent it to me the video said this:

I find it nearly impossible to follow the speakers’ trains of thought.

If you listen, you’ll see what that reader meant.

In the end, this video—similar to what is claimed by those who espouse parity between Māori “ways of knowing” and modern science in New Zealand—merely demonstrates that the “parity” comes down to two anodyne assertions that fail to demonstrate any equivalence between science and local ways of knowing:

a.) Local ways of knowing (seen both in this video and in the works of Māori advocates) emphasize “connections between everything”.  This may be part of the ideology, superstition, or morality of local people (and is formally true in physics), but, as my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once said,

“my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls off very rapidly with distance”

“Connectedness”, if important, will emerge as part of science itself, as in attempts to unify the fundamental forces of physics.  It is not any kind of “indigenous science”, but an emotion, a religious belief, or an assertion. And the idea itself does not profitably advance modern science.

b.) Insofar as the exponents of indigenous science do see connections with Western science, they are only weak and totally useless metaphors. Here is their typical form:, “Well, this aspect of our knowledge looks like quantum mechanics or the Big Bang.” But they never arrive at quantum mechanics or the Big Bang on their own: they simply look at the achievements of modern science and say, “see, we had stuff in our culture that looks like some assertions of modern science.” But it is modern science that has found these truths, and people like Elder Wilfred Buck in this discussion are always playing catch-up to that science. (Quantum mechanics is a particular victim of this kind of metaphorizing.)

Have a listen, for example to Elder Buck’s (15:30) comparison of the Cree myth of humans coming from a “hole in the sky” as energy beings that then become material beings to the “particle theory” of physics, “quantum physics” and “multiple realities” (presumably “multiverses”). This is about as weak and unenlightening as metaphor gets!

Here are the YouTube notes (I’ve added links)

This panel brings together some of the most brilliant minds in their fields for a conversation on how Indigenous and Western thinking on knowledge, being, and science intersect, with particular focus on themes explored in the exhibition Kent Monkman: Being Legendary, presented at ROM from October 8, 2022 to April 16, 2023.

Panelists include:

Dr. Leroy Little Bear – a Blackfoot scholar whose thinking compares western academic metaphysics to the Blackfoot cultural metaphysic that has developed from unique relationships to land, the ecosystem and the observable cosmos over a thousand generations in the northern plains.

Elder Wilfred Buck – Cree author, science educator, and Indigenous star lore expert – who posits that the depth of knowledge obtained through Indigenous Methodologies are on par with present day scientific theories put forward by leading scientists.

Dr. Kim Venn – astronomer, physicist and specialist at UVic in observational stellar spectroscopy – who analyzes stars to study the fossil record of the chemistry of the Universe at the time and place where they were born.

Kent Monkman – Cree visual artist and the artist-curator of Being Legendary.

The conversation is moderated by acclaimed Anishinaabe filmmaker and self-proclaimed “science geek,” Lisa Jackson, whose upcoming feature documentary Wilfred Buck weaves together Wilfred’s past and present life with his sky stories as it explores colonization’s impact on Indigenous ways of knowing.

This panel discussion with Kent Monkman, Dr. Leroy Little Bear, Elder Wilfred Buck, Dr. Kim Venn, moderated by Lisa Jackson was recorded Thursday, April 6, 2023 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

I listened to the entire thing. There is a lot of self-identification and touting of various First Nations cultures, self-congratulation about the wonderfulness of the panel, as well as weak analogies to science (“quantum mechanics” and “dark matter” are mentioned several times, and one expert in spectroscopy even apologizes for the colonialist nature of the periodic table!). But there is not a single instance in which a speaker shows any aspect of indigenous knowledge that advances, supplements or is even equivalent to a finding of modern science. Again, we find are only weak parallels and indigenous metaphors.

There is, however, plenty of the “authority of the sacred victim“: a touting of the view expressed in the eponymous book:

Suffering can make sacred, so it may partly be nature, and not culture alone, that leads us to apprehend a sacred aspect in victims of oppression. Those who recognize this sacredness show piety—a special form of respect—toward members of oppressed groups.

You can see this in the near-groveling of the one non-indigenous member of the panel, Dr. Venn, towards Elder Buck.  Yes, of course Canada’s indigenous people were horribly oppressed, with some of their their children removed from homes, put in schools, and forbidden to practice their culture or even speak their natal language.  That must be recognized, taught, and, where necessary, compensated for. But we also have to recognize that suffering does not give you special expertise in understanding the universe, or the ability to make valid comparisons between indigenous knowledge and modern science. As we wrote in our paper that I mentioned yesterday:

The scientific method is the core of liberal epistemology. In The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch addresses the current epistemological crisis by reaffirming the central tenets of liberal epistemology (developed by Popper, Albert, Weber, and others). Namely, that provisional truth is attainable and that a truth claim can be made only if it is testable and withstands attempts to debunk it (the Fallibilist Rule). He also emphasizes that no one has personal authority over a truth claim, nor can one claim authority by virtue of a personally or tribally privileged perspective (the Empirical Rule).

And yet both rules are violated over and over again in this video, in other places in Canada, and in New Zealand.

It’s a shame that this is put on by the Royal Ontario Museum, which, one would think, would value real scientific knowledge above superstition, origin stories, or even observational knowledge. Couldn’t it just have programs on First Nations people without dragging in modern science?

But Canada is now in the throes of touting the authority of the sacred victim, and, as the introducer—along with giving the obligatory land acknowledgement and noting the “colonialist roots of this Museum”—pledges to make the museum a place “where all indigenous peoples have a deep and full sense of belonging.” That can happen only if the Museum gives scientific credibility to the myths of indigenous people, and never, ever says anything that would put sacred myths and stories in doubt.

Well, here you go:

34 thoughts on “Mishigass at the Ontario Museum: claims of parity between modern science and indigenous “ways of knowing”

  1. What can I say – I’m still blown away by the spectacular paper from just yesterday – but I guess we’re going to hear about the emperor of critical social justice for a long time.


    I’ll have to seek “authority of the sacred victim”, as my library doesn’t have it readily available.

  2. Reading these weak arguments for the interconnection between Modern science and Indigenous “science” sends me right back to what first piqued my skepticism back in the 70’s.

    The same old assertions about Inner Wisdom and Ancient Ways were making the rounds back then, this time integrated into astrology, psychic powers, alternative medicine and all the feel-good fluff that invoked the concept of the Noble Savage. Our ancestors were wiser than we were because they were uncorrupted by the cold rationality and superficial relationships of life today. Back then, as now, the steady beat of Spiritual Connection to Mother Earth gave rhythm to whatever tune was being played at the time. Nostalgia for a myth.

    The candle in the dark keeps flickering.

    1. One hopes the status of ‘OWOK’ ends up the same as the new agey stuff otherwise we really are in trouble.

  3. Thanks for watching the video. I am happy with your summary, and don’t feel the need to watch the video myself.

    The question I would ask of indigenous knowledge is what predictions can it make? A feature of a successful physical law is that it can predict the outcome of an experiment that has never been done before. That’s why we can build bridges that stay up, and send rockets to the moon. [Here ‘experiment’ can mean a lab experiment, but can also mean any physical process where the set-up is quantifiably known.]

    Is there any example of indigenous knowledge that can make predictions of non-trivial physical outcomes?

  4. From what I gather on Wikipedia, there is not a singular, homogeneous indigenous population now. Presumably as well in the past.

    Is it true then that all these disparate groups lived as in a Utopia, or Garden of Eden, free of disagreement or conflict? Utterly harmonious, such that only “white colonizers” should apologize, and give their land back?


    1. I read Martin Dobrizhoffer‘s “An Account of the Abipones, an Equestrian People of Paraguay” recently, and I doubt America was a Utopia before the arrival of the white colonizers.

  5. Jerry, your sentence beginning, “Yes, of course Canada’s indigenous people were horribly oppressed. . . “ is so misleading and lacking in context that it amounts to a lie. I don’t think you mean to disseminate propaganda.

    I won’t take everyone’s time with a detailed defence of Canada’s Indian policy from the 19th century. Others have. Suffice that assimilating a stone-age culture, through education, to stand on its own two feet was the goal, imperfectly achieved by imperfect people. If this is oppression, fine. It was either that or let them starve. Why would a government bother to educate people it was trying to wipe out? The English-speaking culture they have enthusiastically adopted, even when they generate no wealth to pay for it themselves, is western consumer culture beginning immediately with the horse, the firearm, and liquor. Even bannock, promoted without irony as “traditional Indian comfort food”, is Scottish, all of its ingredients being unknown to pre-Contact Natives. Stone-age culture has little to recommend it except when you want to present its loss as a grievance.

    The measures you cite as “oppression”—not a word I hear you use often—were done mostly for the protection and education of children. Some were abused in the schools, often by older students. None were murdered or neglected to death.

    Canada has paid, and continues to pay, scores of billions of dollars as unending compensation for all manner of hurts and slights committed over the years, on top of regular budgeted support of the welfare economies on the Reserves and among the urban homeless, the latter being a substantial municipal burden.

    All this is important because the preposterous nonsense in the ROM video is based on the false claim, endorsed by Parliament, that the Canadian state committed and continues to commit genocide. We must atone for our on-going crimes by decolonizing science and listening respectfully while we are told how to decolonize the university (whatever that means but it’s not apparently a metaphor.)

    No one would pay the slightest attention to this stuff otherwise. It wouldn’t need your skilled and insightful debunking. Common sense for bullshit detection would do it. Everyone knows it’s mishigass. But no one dares risk the wrath of the aboriginal advocacy industry and the large swathes of the Canadian government it has captured. As in New Zealand, it isn’t about science anymore. It’s about power. The allies of science telling their inconvenient truths will not be heard.

    But I do thank you as an influential American friend for calling this out.

    1. A lie is a deliberate untruth. I did not tell a deliberate untruth. You might have corrected me politely instead of that way. You will apologize to me publicly, and now, or you’ll never post on this website again. And you really do need to work on your civility.

      I won’t tolerate accusations like this on the site. Corrections, fine. Calling people liars: intolerable.

      And you talk as if only you know the absolute truth about this situation. I’m sorry, but I’m willing to listen to people beside you on this issue.

      1. I believe what you said is sufficiently lacking in context that it is untrue, notwithstanding that you sincerely believe it to be true. I will not apologize for that. I accept the consequences—it’s your living room. Honoured to have been a guest.

        1. “notwithstanding that you sincerely believe it to be true”, is a clear statement that JAC was telling the truth as he sees it. In saying that it is a ‘lie’, you’re contradicting yourself. I agree with JAC – you need to learn some manners.

          1. Leslie,
            I’ve noticed all this Matauranga First Nations stuff takes place in Anglophone Canada. Is it equally pervasive in Quebec, or do the Francophones quash this so as not to detract from the narrative of historic French oppression under the English thumb? ( Incidentally, I did notice a few years ago how Mini-Pierre had no compunction sacking his 1st nations Attorney General, to counteract the existential threat posed by her to Quebec engineering corporates.)

            PS If you look at the Auckland art gallery website landing page, I’ve managed to not only get rid of the Maori propaganda banner, but for the first time ever, at the bottom, to get visitor information in 2 Asian and 2 European languages ( whereas before the visitor info was only available in Maori and English.)

            1. Ramesh I’m not ignoring you. Even if Jerry lets this through, I think it would be better if I didn’t say any more on this topic.

              1. Well, honestly, I would have written exactly the same as you but you got there first. Your comment was a good summation of the actual facts instead of the current narrative of oppression, victimhood, et cetera, et cetera. Promulgating such a narrative is destructive on many levels.

        2. I see, you’re one of those people who is unable to apologize.

          This kind of incivility has appeared in many of your comments and I won’t have it on my site. You really should look at how your comments come across. They are often very good, but you seem unaware that you’re talking to himan beimgs

          I am NOT honored by being called a liar.

          1. I apologize, Jerry.

            Because this apology wasn’t “now”, I don’t expect you will find it sufficient but I’m making it anyway. It is intended to be public if you wish to make it so.

            I don’t, and didn’t, think you are/were a liar. My uncivil language carried the implication that I was accusing you of it. Your inference was reasonable from the words I used. I probably would have taken it the same way. I should have recognized that you or any reasonable person would have taken it as a personal insult and I failed to do that. You were right to object and to demand an apology. And the rest of your remarks in both your replies are well taken.

            Now that I have thought about it — literally I did not sleep on it — I make the apology sincerely and unreservedly, and with better understanding and deepest contrition.

            1. Hey Leslie, I too am glad that it looks as if you might be allowed to continue commenting. But I just don’t think it’s true that “any reasonable person would have taken it as a personal insult”. I certainly wouldn’t. It seemed quite clear that you had absolutely no intention of calling our host a liar, but were merely suggesting that he was repeating a shade uncritically falsehoods promulgated by others. Prof Jerry, if this seems uncivil so be it, and it’s your site, but I think you were being over-sensitive and taking offence where none was intended. I’ll continue to lurk, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the cause of reason and truth, but over and out.

    2. in October 2022 the Canadian government passed a motion to “recognize what happened in Canada’s Indian residential schools as genocide”. Trudeau has portrayed the treatment of the indigenous population as genocide on numerous occasions. If the government says it, many people, especially outside Canada will believe it. As Jonathan Kay has pointed out https://quillette.com/blog/2022/10/31/welcome-to-canada-nation-of-genocidaires/ if it were true a number past prime ministers are implicated, included Justin Trudeau’s father.

      From what I can tell the claim of genocide is a wild exaggeration, and the parliamentary motion was performative. The recent supposed scandal of murdered students in 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops illustrates the state of hysteria in Canada on these matters. In fact all that has happened is that ground penetrating radar found some dips and bumps in the land, cause unidentified. So far not a single body has been found. For a summary see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/world/canada/kamloops-mass-grave-residential-schools.html?ref=quillette.com

      The latter article is accompanied by a photo of Trudeau emoting with a teddy bear. This is one type of response to the issue. I prefer my history to attempt an unemotional presentation of the facts, and their context, and to leave the reader to draw their own conclusions. The topic of the indigenous schools is covered carefully and at length in Nigel Biggar’s book ‘Colonialism a moral reckoning’ and that’s a good starting point.

      1. Dear Stephen Warren.
        Rest assured the vast silent majority in Canada do not believe for one minute in the current government’s line proclaiming genocide. This is just outrageous politics. If genocide was ever the intent there would be a lot less of the indigenous population or has everyone overlooked Australia and in particular Tasmania.
        I am an immigrant to Canada and have made it my business to find and understand as much of my “ new” countries history as possible and the genocide claim is completely untrue.
        The whole business of indigenous support is also unsustainable and it requires someone with the honesty to say enough is enough and within one generation from this point the indigenous population of Canada have to become full integrated Canadians and stop expecting a livelihood based on the public purse. Fine if you want to reside on your ancestral lands so be it but do not expect the rest of the nation to pay you for the privilege. A large proportion of indigenous people live normal everyday lives in the “normal” community but still have special privileges and exemptions not available to the general population.This has to cease.
        We the majority in Canada are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors and are not going to continue being penalized because of historical exaggerations and political untruths .

  6. This can be looked at two different ways (at least). From one standpoint, Western elites have lost all confidence in their ideas and themselves. They should say that the enlightenment produced (among many other) things modern science and modern science explains the world we live in. Indigenous science is just a bunch of random suspicions that has produced nothing. Would anyone dare to say any such thing? Of course, not.

    From a different standpoint, the right response is just ridicule and laughter. Indigenous science is just PC clown science and should not be taken seriously. Anyone who put up with it, should be laughed at. In 1900 or 1950 of 2000 anyone advocating a co-equal place for ‘indigenous science’ would have just be laughed at and (possibly) sent to an asylum (rightfully so).

    It is a sad truth that the West has lost confidence in its ideas. This is just chapter 1001 in the long and sorry list of consequences.

  7. No need to use English, the settlers’ language. The language of physics is mathematics —which is not a white invention—, so, any chance we can see some Cree equations?

    1. The language of physics is mathematics —which is not a white invention—,

      With the exception of the significant work done in the early years of the last millennium by Islamic scholars in the Babylonian Cailiphate (1000~1400 CD, 400~600 AH, “-ish”), and non-trivial work by Indian scholars (who invented those heretical “Arabic numerals” so terrifying to Christian idiots, including the satanic place-holder “zero”), I think you’ll find that mathematics has historically been a very “DEW” subject – Dead, European and White.
      Of course, whether mathematics is a matter of discovery or of invention remains a problem in the queue with the “pin-head dancing angel density”, and equally unlikely to be solved from within mathematics.

      1. When I was a child I was (incorrectly) taught that the numbers we use were ‘Arabic numerals’. As you point out, they were actually Indian. The Arabs adopted them from the Indians and the Europeans adopted them from the Arabs (to the credit of all three). By contrast, the Roman system was painful.

  8. I wonder why indigenous peoples want to have their knowledge and history placed side-by-side with science, rather than appreciated for its intrinsic value. Isn’t it accepting the assumption that the Colonist’s culture is superior if it is being used as the measure of value? I see this as the irony of these efforts to re-define both science and indigenous mythology and history.

    1. The same is true of creationism. The creationists don’t argue that science is irrelevant; they argue that it supports their beliefs. In doing so, they are (inadvertently, I am sure) acknowledging the importance of science.

  9. Scientific methodology discovers something, articulates the approach and provides the evidence for all to confirm or rebut. Random punter says “that’s what we were kind of trying to say”. I know which I’d rather have.

  10. I asked ChatGPT a question about Indigenous science and here is the answer:

    There are few specific examples of scientific breakthroughs made by Indigenous peoples of the Americas in the 20th century in physics, but here are some notable examples:

    The work of Jim Gates: James Gates is an African American physicist who has made significant contributions to the study of supersymmetry and string theory. While he is not Indigenous, he has spoken about the importance of incorporating Indigenous perspectives into physics and other sciences.

    The work of Shelly Valdez: Shelly Valdez is a Pueblo woman who is a physicist and materials scientist. Her work has focused on developing new materials for use in electronics and other industries.

    Overall, while there are relatively few specific examples of scientific breakthroughs made by Indigenous peoples of the Americas in physics in the 20th century, Indigenous scholars and scientists are working to integrate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into the field. Their work has the potential to lead to new breakthroughs in the future.

    1. Where is the evidence, O ChatGPT, that these people “used indigenous perspectives” to develop their work. It looks like plain old modern science to me. ChatGPT is DISSIMULATING!!!!

  11. ‘Indigenous ways of knowing’ is a riff on the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. Where robust science intersects with a myth at a superficial level, out comes the target.

  12. I’m with you in your frustration but I do think there might be a baby in bathwater here.

    If, when we talk about “ways of knowing,” we’re including how debates are conducted, how information is transmitted, how the spread of bad ideas is policed, how institutions of knowledge are guarded against corruption, etc., there might be some really cool insights and techniques found in different cultures that we’re missing out on.

    It seems to me that the best way to find these gems is to patiently reach out. We need sincere ambassadors who are sensitive to cultural differences, but who also have a strong respect for and willingness to defend the methods that have made science so productive.

    I think sincere and mutually fruitful cultural unions are possible with proper outreach efforts, but maybe I watched too much Star Trek as a kid.

  13. Re your last paragraph: yes, you did. The “patient reaching out” has been tried in New Zealand, and failed. The problem is that those with their own “ways of knowing” don’t want debate, they want POWER. And nowhere is this more evident than in New Zealand. Your kumbaya method simply won’t work. It didn’t work in NZ, and, as you can see from the video I posted the other day, it’s not working in Canada. You are assuming that people are willing to consider modifying their traditional “ways of knowing” and accept modern science.

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