Another paper touts the advantages of “other ways of knowing”

July 1, 2023 • 11:30 am

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).

Click to read:

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, 1992Halpin, 1989Leonelli, 2015Mitroff, 1972Woodcock, 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 1Althaus, 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.”

32 thoughts on “Another paper touts the advantages of “other ways of knowing”

  1. What on earth is this to do with the type of science published by the Journal of Experimental Biology? No indiginous people have the wherewithal to do that type of research. Or is that the issue?

  2. The “western” in Western Science is part of the problem for these people, as Western in their cant means capitalist. The advantage of “other ways of knowing” is that they can ignore things like proof in favor of happy stories.

  3. Strictly speaking the generation of hypotheses does not require any particular approach. Using a magic 8 ball or a whimsical dream are as good as anything else. Science doesn’t care. Once the hypothesis is established the rules of science are used to decide if the hypothesis conforms to reality. Thus, you could admit a suggestion by a shaman or tribal priest as a topic to investigate without violating scientific protocols. In this narrow sense, I suppose, there is some justification for looking into insights from any tradition.

    1. Yes, but then the hypothesis have to be tested via modern science. And surely you don’t think we should be looking into hypotheses like “The rain is from tears of the God X”, do you?

    2. I was trying to figure out why that approach didn’t sit well with me. As Jerry says, these gnostic ideas have to be put into the form of a testable hypothesis. That rain is tears of a god is simply not testable and so isn’t a scientific statement. That shamans can heal people is a little better but it is still too vague to do much with. Heal better compared to what? (Most things that people see doctors or shamans for get better on their own.). Heal or even diagnose what diseases? “Western” diagnoses like diabetes and colon cancer? Or traditionally defined conditions (analogous to our own “catarrh of the liver”, whatever that was). that we can’t agree on what they are? Does the subject have to believe in shamanism in order to benefit? Do the researchers studying the shaman’s powers have to believe that he has them? Will “negative” skepticism dull his edge? Randomized and blinded? How would you blind a subject as to whether it was the shaman laying on hands or just Siouxie the barista? Can anyone with the right skill and attitude learn the methods or are they inherent to the shaman’s own person or his race, inaccessible to others? How would we know this?

      The literature on traditional healing yields two conclusions:

      1). Traditional practitioners become defensive and uncooperative, citing “re-colonization“ or “you and Big Pharma are trying for profit to discredit my secret discoveries” when their methods get subjected to this kind of rigor…even before the evaluation gets started. The stagecraft varies with culture but it’s all the same content.

      2). Traditional healers and knowledge keepers working in modern societies don’t really believe this stuff. They’re not stupid. They claim they do—and no one dares call their bluff—in order to get stipends to hang around hospitals, research labs and resource projects to provide gratuitous consultation and oversight, and where they can threaten to disrupt the work if they are not shown sufficient deference. Getting research done requires deft political skill.

  4. We also had indigenous ways of knowing, including ways of identifying people as causes of harm including (for example) making lightning strike someone’s home. We identified people as witches who had caused harm in such ways, and we then punished them. We checked on our identification of these people as causing harm by the use of torture— which was part of our indigenous way of knowing things. It is a very good element of the history of some parts of the world that we have rejected many of our previous modes of identification of people as causes of harm. These indigenous ways of identifying people as causes of harm persist in some parts of the world, and are promoted by witch-doctors, supposed experts with knowledge of traditional practices. “Indigenous knowledge” is a huge ragbag.

  5. Earlier issues of JEB include interesting papers on allometry; on the relationships between animal size, metabolism, and lifespan; on the isozymes of hexokinase; reviews of the biochemistry of myoglobin; and numerous papers on the aerodynamics of animal flight. Hird et. al. neglect to tell us how any of these subjects would be illuminated by “our culturally embodied knowledges and life force that connect us to our respective lands, our creators, all living entities and our ancestors”. One also wonders whether the Hird et. al. authors consult a dentist when they have a toothache, or instead “ask for greater acceptance of diverse values and beliefs about the nature of realities”.

  6. 1.

    “There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.”


    2. This is how ideology – here, Critical Social Justice – poisons science. It knows science and dutiful scientists will wring and scrape every possible piece of value from any paper – and rightfully so – but not at no cost. It really does cost time and resources.

    However, I am wondering if the time has come, if it can be precisely shown to be the iceberg of Critical Social Justice (CSJ), then all that follows will be rejected outright.

    Because CSJ is about living one’s entire life – one’s “lived experience” and “consciousness” too – in doing the praxis of CSJ – here, getting published – on the premise of a sort of blackmail over any form of justice. Justice is not to be developed, but replaced in “revolution”. Which justice is to materialize? The new justice formulated in the CSJ “theories” which are theirs, “socially constructed” as a mystical lived experience. That is available for all to read – with all the big words I used above – those are not my made-up quoted terms. Is sounds preposterous but what else could any such paper mean? Is there a diamond in the rough? If so, that is the authors’ problem. Seems clear to me, by this point.

    Long comment curtailed.

  7. Thanks Jerry for continuing to call out those who contest the very idea of scientific objectivity, as if there were some other basis to make claims about how things actually are. One might put it this way when asking what’s factually true: “Objectivity: got a better idea?” Pinker and Dawkins are your allies on this, what looks to be a perpetual battle on behalf of rational epistemology. Tiresome but necessary, and the basis for naturalism as a worldview.

  8. The doctrine of empirically described “objective reality” is not only associated with evil, Western, patriarchalist, settler-colonial science, but it also does emotional harm to certain of our marginalized populations. I myself discovered recently that I had been born in the wrong body—my body really should be that of a Jerusalem artichoke. But people cite the endless amount of empirical evidence that I am physically a member of H. sapiens rather than H. tuberosus. That harms my mental state, and makes me consider suicide, or at least dormancy. It is true that I haven’t spent much time as a rhizome or a propagule, but I absolutely require that others respect my unlived experience.

  9. 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”.

    So many of these dubious assertions seem to be based on category errors — and so many of these category errors seem to be based on reactions against real or perceived slights.

    “Some scientists who came from the West worked with a company which polluted a river indigenous people had lived with for hundreds of years. Therefore, testing hypotheses using rigorous methods is only one way of doing science.” It’s Non Sequiturs as a moral system.

  10. “The paper is best ignored.” – J. Coyne

    Yes, but unfortunately many people don’t ignore texts like that and are influenced by them. We mustn’t tolerate the current postmodern Gegenaufklärung (Counter-Enlightenment) as exemplified by that paper, because it is really dangerous, the authors’ archenemy being “universalist ‘enlightenment thinking’.” What they are zealously planning is a radical paradigm shift, and they are dead serious about it.

  11. It is undoubtedly a very difficult issue when in the past there really was racism and oppression and when we have residual inequalities. Of course, colonialism brought negatives as well as good things, and indigenous societies were themselves not free of unpleasantness either, but we have today a very dangerous social justice juggernaut that is way out of control. In New Zealand their proponents seem blind to the considerable efforts that the country has made to repair disparities and, while gaps in education, deprivation and health persist, many Government initiatives give Maori a distinct advantage over others, including:

    various financial assistance
    scholarships and other education-related incentives
    preferential admission to Medical School
    heavily Treaty-centric, Matauranga Māori-based early childhood, primary and secondary education curricula
    an increasingly Treaty-centric tertiary sector
    a Treaty-centric public service; naming of public institutions in Te Reo
    a dedicated health authority.

    Various urban myths persist, despite the research evidence – Maori are indeed employed in our universities at approximately the proportions predicted by their PhD completions, and racism most probably plays little or no part in appointment or promotions. Maori are not under-represented in Parliament – they are in fact over-represented in numbers of Members of Parliament – and have been for a couple of decades.

    It seems to me that most of those who advocate equality of traditional knowledge and science are mostly not trained in the sciences but some of them are. Same with those re-casting New Zealand’s primary and secondary education curricula. Thus, in the Science Curriculum Progress Outcomes for Science at Year 3:

    I know – At the cutting edge: historical and contemporary:
    Stories and pūrakau about how peoples’ curiosity and persistence have led to new breakthroughs in knowledge about the natural world, such as Māui snaring the Sun, as I have explored cutting edge examples with reference to historical and contemporary Mātauranga Māori and Science example. (Year 3)

    Another worrying trend is the current lobbying for traditional medicine to exist outside New Zealand’s health legislation. One prominent advocate tells us that Western medicine is not better and not worse than Maori medicine! Is this not a truly dreadful message? Of course, what of those who go for herbal remedies rather than chemotherapy?

    While we should not doubt that some of them have good intentions, we must nevertheless fight them because they are doing damage to education, to science, to our universities and to the goodwill that has characterized New Zealand society over the last half-century.
    David Lillis

    1. David, any suggestions about what else can be done? You and others have written some excellent articles, but the MM crazies treat any criticism with ostentatious contempt and accusations of racism, or simply ignore it altogether. Even the highly respected, in theory, scholars from Ngai Tahu have been largely ignored – for example their demolition of that ridiculous Wehi Antarctica article, or this:

  12. “There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.” – Mike Aus

    He’s right, knowing isn’t adverbially determinable like believing (or talking—e.g. quietly, loudly—, or walking—e.g. fastly, slowly). There are different ways of believing—e.g. firmly, hesitantly—, but not different ways of knowing.
    We may also speak of different degrees of belief and different degrees of justification (of belief), but there are no degrees of knowledge (other than 0 and 1). One cannot “half-know” something! In German there is the noun “Halbwissen” (= “half-knowledge”); but it simply means “insufficient, superficial knowledge”, which is still /knowledge/ rather than “half-knowledge” /between knowing and not knowing/.
    What there are are different /ways or means of acquiring knowledge/. There are different sources of knowledge (e.g. sense-perception and introspection), and there are different methods of experimenting and testing.

  13. The word “objectivity” has more than one meaning, but all four below-mentioned kinds of objectivity have been declared nonexistent (and even impossibly existent) by postmodern critical theorists:

    “The first understanding of objectivity is perhaps the most common one. It is that an objective judgement is a judgement that is free of prejudice and bias. One might put this by saying that it is a judgement to which any fair-minded person could agree, no matter what views they held.” (p. 4)

    “The second understanding is that an objective judgement is a judgement which is free of all assumptions and values.” (p. 5)

    “The third notion of objectivity is focused directly on how we arrive at our views or theories. It is that an objective procedure is one that allows us to decide between conflicting views or theories.” (p. 6)

    “This is the fourth understanding of objectivity, and in philosophical and scientific discussions from the 18th century onwards, we find a move away from a negative understanding of objectivity as freedom from prejudice or bias, towards the positive idea that objectivity consists in accurate representation.” (p. 9)

    “There is one final understanding of objectivity that needs to be considered briefly. This is the idea that something is objective if it leads to conclusions which are universally accepted. Part of the motivation for this idea is that when one considers results in the
    natural sciences, for example, there is a very significant level of agreement, a level of agreement that cuts across cultures, religions, and just about any other kind of cognitive endeavour. But this is at best a test of, or sign of, objectivity, not a definition of what objectivity is.” (p. 10)

    (Gaukroger, Stephen. /Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction./ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.)

    For more, see: Scientific Objectivity:

  14. Postmodern critical theory systematically “deconstructs” modern science in such a way that objectivity, rationality, and universality (universal validity & veridicality) go out of the window:

    “One key feature of postmodern historical formations, however, consists in the fact that, in terms of its epistemic validity, /science is regarded as one ‘language game’ among others/.” (p. 35)

    “On the /philosophical/ level, the rise of postmodernity cannot be understood in separation from the task of /deconstruction/. In essence, the ‘deconstructive attitude’ endorsed by postmodern philosophy is suspicious of the Enlightenment optimism vis-à-vis the /assertive, regulative, and reflexive functions of modern science/:

    A. The /assertive/ function of modern science concerns its /representational/ capacity to provide evidence-based – that is, epistemically adequate, analytically sound, and argumentatively convincing – accounts of the underlying mechanisms that govern both the constitution and the evolution of the natural world as well as of the social world.

    B. The /regulative/ function of modern science designates its /interventional/ capacity to offer purposive – that is, empirically viable, practically sustainable, and technologically ever more sophisticated – models permitting both individual and collective actors to gain increasing control over their physical and cultural environments.

    C. The /reflexive/ function of modern science refers to its /critical/ capacity to develop emancipatory – that is, conceptually insightful, intellectually enlightening, and socially empowering – knowledge equipping ordinary actors with the ability to make use of their rational faculties with the aim of liberating themselves from mechanisms of domination and, thus, from both the symbolic and the material chains of power-laden realities.

    By contrast, /the age of postmodernity is characterized by radical incredulity towards the assertive, regulative, and reflexive functions of methodical enquiries and, consequently, by deep scepticism towards the representational, interventional, and critical capacities of scientific epistemologies/. The invention of the modern subject capable of epistemically accurate representation, control-oriented intervention, and emancipatory reflection appears to have lost credibility in the context of postmodernity. For the postmodern universe is composed of a multiplicity of human and nonhuman actors, none of whom occupies an epistemically privileged position. All attempts to obtain the total and unequivocal mastery of a relationally constituted – and, hence, constantly shifting – reality end up reproducing the stifling logic of ethnocentric, logocentric, or anthropocentric claims to validity. From a deconstructivist point of view, then, a world without essences amounts to a planetary context of existence that does not allow for universal frameworks of representation, explanation, and emancipation. For the spatiotemporal specificities of locally anchored realities are irreducible to epistemic models oriented towards the discovery of context-transcending generalizability.” (p. 37)

    (Susen, Simon. /The ‘Postmodern Turn’ in the Social Sciences./ Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.)

  15. Vincent van Uitregt, one of the authors of this latest piece, was also listed as an author of the recent ‘Maori discovery of Antarctica’ papers.

  16. At some level, this is a joke. At some level this is deadly serious. No one actually believes a word of it. When they (the proponents of MM) want to communicate, they will use a cell phone just like everyone else. Were cell phones the product of ‘western’ science? Of course. They will use them anyway. When they get sick (the proponents of MM) will they go to a ‘western’ doctor / hospital? Of course. Will they take ‘western’ medicines? Of course.

    What they really want (and will get) is payoffs. Some of the payoffs will be purely monetary. Some will take the form of race-based AA (Affirmative Action). Some of payoffs will take the form of denigrating evil white people with no pushback.

    All of the blather about MM is really just a cover for extortion and should be viewed as such.

    1. “Some will take the form of race-based AA (Affirmative Action). ”

      Remember, New Zealand has enacted affirmative action already in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (which PCC(E) notes on almost every NZ post, I am well aware). Though NZ is not a specific section in it, matters in NZ are discussed briefly a number of times in :

      Affirmative Action Around the World
      – An Empirical Study
      Thomas Sowell

      An excerpt (p. 7):

      “In short, the even representation of groups that is taken as a norm is difficult or impossible to find anywhere, while the uneven representation that is regarded as a special deviation to be corrected is pervasive across the most disparate societies. People differ — and have for centuries. It is hard to imagine how they could not differ, given the enormous range of differing historical, cultural, geographic, demographic and other factors shaping the particular skills, habits, and attitudes of different groups. Any “temporary” policy whose duration is defined by the goal of achieving something that has never been achieved before, anywhere in the world, could more fittingly be characterized as eternal.”

      1. Could you elaborate on the Treaty of Waitangi as itself an instrument of affirmative action, TP? I don’t see anything in the 1840 document that promises Maori preference in anything. Much much later (late 20th century to now) agitation over alleged repudiation of Treaty promises have led to the NZ government introducing features of affirmative action as reparation but I don’t see a commitment to AA in the treaty itself. That would be a remarkable undertaking in 1840 even for the magnanimous fair-minded British….

  17. Good to see a New Zealand author in there. I see that he is a senior lecturer in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He completed a PhD in Evolutionary Ecology in 2012 but says “I jumped ship from science after that “. The department is one of those targeted for layoffs, but I imagine, as one of the non-scientists, his job is safe.

    I was intrigued by the claim that “Scientific institutions reflect settler-colonial design, with knowledge traditions built upon the dispossession, genocide and erasure of our ancestors” and followed the quote here to find another masterpiece of insane bullshit by academics employed in a New Zealand university:

    The madness never ends.

  18. I run a forum for people with CLL (patients and caregivers only). I’m walking a fine line with a patient who was a chiropractor, who keeps posting woo. I reply to his posts with slightly more rational replies, but he replies with long posts and multiple links to woo sites. I don’t want to ban him – after all, he needs support as much as anyone, but I don’t want to let him run riot. The best I can do so far is to reply to his “how to starve cancer” ideas is to post contradictory science-based answers and for the sake of politeness, say I hope I am proven wrong at some point. If it were a general public site I’d be more aggressive, but being for patients I’m more likely to take a “whatever gets you through” line.

  19. Nothing of value in the Journal of Experimental Biology paper yet, sadly, it needs to be addressed and debunked else it become mainstream and do longstanding damage.

  20. Several years ago I interviewed two young women scientists for a publication at the University of Colorado, regarding their efforts to create a group of like-minded young scientists.

    When one touted “other ways of knowing,” I pressed the issue, asking for an example. She mentioned a hypothetical in which an indigenous person might understand weather patterns better than scientists from, say, North America. Specifically, she mentioned a person who could predict rain through some non-scientific means.

    “OK,” I said, “I can understand that. But let’s say said indigenous person makes an assertion — he/she can predict the weather through X ‘spiritual’ means or some ‘other way of knowing.’ Would you still want to confirm this assertion through the scientific method before accepting it as ‘true’?”

    This line of questioning did not sit at all well with my interview subjects, one of whom responded by asking my age, then snorting in derision when she realized she could dismiss me as an “old white guy.”

    It’s really hard to understand how someone like that refers to herself as an actual scientist.

  21. Thank you for posting about this subject!

    I’m probably out of my depth when it comes to philosophical arguments, but to me the proof is in the pudding with respect to the “ontological supremacy” of the scientific method. Despite being around for a much shorter period of time than other ways of “knowing,” the scientific method has produced deep insights into the nature of matter, the history of the earth and the universe, and how the biological diversity we see around us came to be (to name only a few of the high points). People lived to the ripe old age of 35 (on average) using non-scientific methods of knowing. (Leeches, anyone?) With science, the life expectancy has been doubled. Science even produced the bomb, which is nothing to be proud of, but (you have to admit) certainly impressive.

    What knowledge have the indigenous ways of knowing (or any other non-scientific method of knowing, for that matter) produced that is on the scale of discoveries made by scientists such as Darwin, Einstein, Maxwell, or Bohr? They all had deep insights into the natural world that relied on the observations and experiments of many scientists. You don’t just stumble onto those ideas.

    I am very concerned about these arguments. These types of arguments, if accepted, could even lead to creationists of all stripes, even the white Christian ones, finding their way into biology departments. After all, Biblical creationists are only claiming a different way of knowing. Why favor one non-scientific method of knowing over another non-scientific method? They all have proven to work equally poorly when applied to learning about the natural world.

    I hope all this will pass soon.

  22. There is a fairly deep and quite respectable tradition of understanding “indigenous knowledge systems” (IKS)—as well as a similar one for “science as a way of knowing” (SAWOK)—that goes back into the late 80s to early 90s. What we are seeing now is a distortion of both of those intellectual models in education making the whole thing about politics and cultural identity.
    My introduction to IKS came when consulting on new science curriculum standards for the District of the Western Cape (RSA) that had included IKS for the first time. The inclusion was reasonable and did not seek to equate IKS with modern science or to replace modern scientific understandings with “traditional” knowledge.
    However, the thrust was that centuries of traditional knowledge, living in particular ecosystems, could provide insight from an “insider’s” perspective on events, conditions, and changes in ecologic relations among organisms (and abiotic components) that make up these systems.
    The value, it claimed, for modern scientific study was to provide observations (and links among them) that could be examined scientifically. The goal was never to replace the process of scientific inquiry, but to suggest avenues of exploration for more systematic observation and scientific study.
    However, one goal that it DID have was to emphasize that “traditional” knowledge (from decades or centuries of observations) could provide valuable data about the world in which we live. The links that indigenous people noted among their observations were well “tested” by the fact that being wrong could lead to being harmed or wiped out. So, the idea was to look at the IKS information in terms of how it described the relationships among components of an ecosystem (including humans) and how those could become the subject of scientific inquiry.
    Similarly, SAWOK was an approach that was based on the idea that modern science is very, VERY good at answering SOME very, VERY important questions. In this view, modern science should recognize its strengths and continue to operate in those realms. John Hueisenbeck’s comments show how this is so.
    However, as good as science is on the how and the why of the things we study, it is less good at the shoulds and oughts of their application. Scientists need to be a part of this conversation, of course, but the decision to use “all the tools in the toolbox” is a societal decision and not a scientific one. And if we do not recognize how people are making these decisions, we run the risk of being ignored. Examples are legion.
    During the Bush (43) administration in response to the threat of a SARS pandemic, folks studied the 1918 flu outbreak to understand differences in the impact in different cities. The cities with the lowest mortality and morbidity implemented public health measures (masking, quarantine, closing schools and stopping public gatherings, distancing, etc) sooner (a summary here:
    The take-home for public health was very clear for the COVID outbreak 12 years later; a strong, early public health response to the outbreak could have vastly reduced the impact. This was something that science KNEW. But the scientific community couldn’t sell it. And the result was dangerous (and deadly for millions of people).
    Bottom line: WE need to be a part of this conversation. We need to explore the boundaries and the overlap between IKS and modern science. Making observations is a very important beginning; seeing relationships among them is also valuable. THEN, the science begins: this is where we are able to find cause-an-effect and generalize beyond specific examples and relate to fundamental knowledge. One of the best presentations of that process is here:
    In a more humorous way, Dara O’Briain puts it the problem with subsuming IKS models uncriticallly this way:
    So, yes, a lot of the noise around the inclusion of IKS models in the curriculum these days is driven by a political engine that is less concerned with the knowledge per se and what it prepares students to do; and are more concerned about the cultural implications and geopolitical relationships among western and indigenous cultures.
    To be sure, Western political leaders have often invoked “science” or “scientific” models and authority to justify their actions in other lands and cultures. Scientists, unfortunately, have not always resisted (or even recognized) this co-optation. So, our task is to be able to show, explain, and convince people why modern science is a useful tool for solving a whole class of problems that other “ways of knowing” cannot.
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, of course. However, they are not universally accepted.

    1. I don’t think you’re saying much that I haven’t said before, or agree with. And NOWHERE have I said that scientists should have the major say in the application of what we find. I think people recognize that science is a useful way of knowing, but for people like vaccine denialists, who simply won’t accept the facts, it eventually is not the responsibility of scientists to convince everyone of the truth. Same with evolution. Show them the evidence, and if they reject it, well, it’s their loss. But I bet most of these people get their kids shots when they go to school, or take antibiotics when they have an infection

      BTW, please don’t write long essays as comments.

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