This is yet one more example of how science—in this case the well known Journal of Experimental Biology—is being “disrupted” (deliberately so!) by ideology. The point of the article below, which has nothing to do with experimental biology, is to show that “other ways of knowing” of indigenous people should be respected and then used to disrupt and then transform modern science.
As usual with these articles, it is very long on the dissing of modern science and scientists, long on victim narratives, but very short on any examples about how the protocols suggested by the authors will change the nature of science in a good way. The authors’ aim is not just to bring more indigenous researchers into modern science, which is a worthy goal, but to transform science itself. And their suggestions for transformation are not worthy goals.
I don’t intend to dissect the whole paper, as it’s long and not that different from others of its genre, but I’ll give a few caveats.
First, I don’t denigrate indigenous “knowledge” as worthless or not part of modern science. (These papers often call it “Western” science, but science hasn’t been “Western” for a long time.) Insofar as indigenous people have found out things that appear to be true, those things should be valued and incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge. I hasten to add, however, that indigenous knowledge can’t just be assumed to be correct, but must be tested—tested using the methods of modern science. If a plant, for example, is said to be efficacious in healing some malady, we need to test that claim using the gold standard of modern scientific medicine: double-blind testing.
Second, if you want to study something that’s the purview of indigenous people, like agricultural or fishing methods, you must cooperate with them. After all, they’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, and taking advantage of what they know without their assent, help, and contribution is simply patronizing.
Third, insofar as possible—and this holds not just for indigenous people but also any group with limited opportunities—we should strive to afford everyone equal opportunity from birth. I recognize that, given inherited wealth, that this is impossible, but equal opportunity can still be improved. It will be hard to do, as it needs to start from the moment of birth, and will require work rather than words, but this is the only way to give all people a shot at what they want to do, including science.
But simply lowering the bar of merit to achieve equity in the field is not the way to go. I still believe in a type of affirmative action as a form of reparations to remedy the residua of past bigotry, but that should stop after college. Starting with entrance to graduate school and after, science and scientists should be judged on merit, which of course includes assessing teaching, research, and committee work.
Finally, I reject the common assertion that science is structurally racist. I’ve spent my life in science and, as I’ve said before, I’ve never heard a single racist remark from a scientist, nor seen any “structures” in the system that are discriminatory. That of course doesn’t deny that some scientists are racists. Of course they are; no discipline is free of bigots. But all science departments are busy trying to get equity for both students and faculty, so, if anything, they’re antiracist.
But I digress; I wrote the above because there are misunderstanding about what it means to be wary of valorizing “indigenous knowledge.”
This paper asserts that science has a “settler-colonial design” and is “ontologically supremacist”. I don’t think it’s worth dissecting in detail; a few quotes will give you its flavor. The four authors hail from Australia, Colorado, Idaho, and New Zealand (land acknowledgments are part of their addresses).
The first thing this paper does is reject the “myth of objectivity” that supposedly pervades “Western science”. Well, objectivity does pervade it, and for good reason: it’s a tool that’s essential in finding the truth about nature. To quote Richard Feynman again:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
The cure for being fooled is objectivity, which includes scrutiny for others, replication, and so on.
Now, from the paper:
Today, biological scientists often assume an ‘objectivist’ and universal knowledge stemming from early Western science philosophy (Stewart, 2001). The UK Science Council defines science as ‘the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence’ (The Science Council, 2009). But ‘the scientific method’ is not captured by a single, simple pattern. Pursuing the ‘myth of scientific objectivity’ (Bauer, 1992; Halpin, 1989; Leonelli, 2015; Mitroff, 1972; Woodcock, 2014), scientists working on natural systems often engage with the natural world as an ‘object’ (Halpin, 1989), contrasting with relational ethics and Indigenous ways of being and knowing (Box 1; Althaus, 2020).
Although the pursuit of objectivity is a powerful tool, it can lead scientists and science learners to mistakenly deem other forms of science as ‘unscientific’. When scientists pigeon-hole their views on how knowledge can be created, they constrain and erase opportunities for more holistic science, including collaborations between Western and Indigenous scientists [e.g. understanding the biophysics of rivers as living entities in Aotearoa (Brierley et al., 2022) or investigating the genetic–linguistic links between grizzly bears and Indigenous communities (Henson et al., 2021)]. Part of the issue with the corporate model of contemporary research and teaching institutions is the tendency to commodify, co-opt, market and assimilate Indigenous knowledges for consumers trained to look at scientific knowledge and data through a settler-colonial (see Glossary) lens.
The two examples they give—of grizzly bears and of regarding rivers as “living entities”, do not, as far as I can see—draw from indigenous “ways of knowing”. The grizzly bear study, showing convergence between linguistic groups of humans in western Canada and the genetic patterns in bears, is an interesting result, and does involve collaboration with locals and “western scientists”, but the idea and execution have nothing to do with indigenous “ways of knowing”. (It’s apparently a result of convergent isolation by distance.)
But as I said in my recent paper with Luana Maroja, indigenous knowledge, insofar as it’s verifiable, is already part of, or could be part of, modern science. On the other hand, indigenous “ways of knowing” are generally not equatable to science because they include things like legend, superstition, morality, guides to living, and religion. My words:
Indigenous ways of knowing usually include some practical knowledge, which includes observations about the local environment and useful practices developed over time, including, in the case of Matauranga Māori, ancient methods of navigating and the best way to catch eels. But practical knowledge is not the same as the systematic, objective investigation of nature—free from assumptions about gods and spirits—that constitute modern science. Conflating indigenous ways of knowing with modern science will confuse students not only about what constitutes knowledge but also about the nature of science itself.
The article says that “Western science” is to be contrasted “with relational ethics and Indigenous ways of being and knowing (Box 1)”. Let’s look at Box 1 to see what we’re comparing to modern science:
I see virtually nothing here that should be compared to or absorbed by modern science: what we have are “ways of being”—ethics, laws, social interactions, etc.—not “ways of knowing”. Whatever the above is, it’s nothing like modern science, nor should these “kinship systems” and “ways of being” be incorporated into modern science.
Further, there is a critique of how modern science, denigrated as “ontological supremacy”, acts in bad ways on indigenous ways of knowing. There’s also a section on how to ameliorate these problems, one suggestion being to “disrupt whiteness”, which seems a tad racist.
These are the supposed characteristic of modern “settler-colonial science”, which reminds me of the Smithsonian’s now-expunged exhibit on the characteristics of “white culture”:
In the end, the paper is not really an exposition of how modern scientists can profitably engage with indigenous scientists, but rather a series of complaints about how modern science is racist and has victimized indigenous people and ignored indigenous science. Since there’s really nothing new here compared to a gazillion other papers that say the same thing, I have nothing useful to add. The paper is best ignored. I’m just giving my opinion “for the record”, so that none of this misguided argumentation goes ignored.
One wonders why a paper of this ilk, that is all about ideology and identity politics, and has virtually nothing to do with science, was published in The Journal of Experimental Biology. Only the editors know for sure, but it’s rare these days to find a biology journal that hasn’t published something along these lines. As an update, after a colleague read this post, they said this:
I don’t know what to say about the article you posted, except perhaps you should start a competition for the best piece of virtue signaling published in a purported science journal. I have no idea what this was doing in JEB, which I thought was a serious journal.
And I’ll finish by quoting Pastor Mike Aus, who said, when giving up his faith:
“There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.”