It is of course precarious to criticize the present-day worship of “indigenous knowledge”, as it’s all too easy to dismiss that criticism as racism or bigotry. The problem is not that the empirical knowledge of indigenous people is worthless, because it isn’t. Although it’s often derived from trial and error, that is still a way to gain “knowledge” about the universe, and some of that knowledge has proven accurate and valuable. The use of willow bark by ancient people, for example, led to the discovery of aspirin. (On the the other hand, the widespread story that quinine as a malarial treatment was discovered by indigenous South Americans via use of cinchona bark appears to be erroneous; they used it to treat shivering and diarrhea, and a European discovered its efficacious effects on malaria, which also causes shivering.)
It’s hard to think of general scientific knowledge contributed by indigenous “ways of knowing”, as the latter often comprise observational data specific to the local environment: when to harvest berries, where to fish, and so on. Whether that local data could be generalized, becoming part of larger science, is unclear, and I can’t think of many examples.
Nevertheless, the George Floyd Effect appears to have spilled over to indigenous “ways of knowing”, so that countries like New Zealand, for example, consider local “ways of knowing”, like Mātauranga Māori, as a form of science, even though much of MM has nothing to do with science, but is concerned instead with religion, tradition, superstition, and ethics. Nevertheless, the view that MM is a “way of knowing” has completely taken over New Zealand, threatening to wreck science education in that country. It’s also created a national climate in which the views of those espousing MM have become beyond criticism, so that critics get fired or demonized.
It now appears that something similar is happening in the US, at least as evidenced by a recent $30 million National Science Foundation program described in the Nature article below. I am not saying we’re even close to the degree of corruption of science that’s occurred in New Zealand, but the “other ways of knowing” trope is the first sign of rot, and it looks like we have it here. Check out the claims in this article that indigenous people do science with “stories” and the implication there are many ways of knowing, some coming through traditional stories.Click to read:
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded its first research hub focused on Indigenous knowledge. The move comes amid discussions of colonialism in science, and a reckoning that researchers must do more to engage with native peoples when seeking their expertise in everything from flora and fauna to medicines, weather and climate.
Launched yesterday with US$30 million in funding over five years, the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) joins more than a dozen active NSF Science and Technology Centers across the United States that focus on core research areas. It will be based at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.
The goal is to cultivate Indigenous knowledge of the environment, and weave it together with Western scientific methods in a way that respects local communities and cultures, says Sonya Atalay, an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the centre.
The “braiding” trope, indicating interweaving of indigenous knowledge and modern science, grates on me, implying that the former is roughly equivalent to the latter, but that’s just me. What’s more serious, though, is that although we should surely respect local communities and cultures, local knowledge doesn’t necessarily deserve respect, particularly when it’s the kind of “knowledge” claiming that the Māori discovered Antarctica in the 7th century AD. Like scientific knowledge, indigenous knowledge should be questioned, particularly when it’s based on stories, lore, and tradition.
Here are two claims in the article that worry me. The first is a statement by Sonya Atalay, “an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the [Braiding] centre.”
“As Indigenous people, we have science, but we carry that science in stories,” Atalay says. “We need to think about how to do science in a different way and work differently with Indigenous communities.”
I’m not sure what it means to say “we carry that science in stories,” but stories can, like that Antarctica trope, be corrupted over years and centuries. Empirical claims in “stories” can’t be taken at face value, but have to be tested using the toolkit of modern science. And what does it mean to say “we do science in a different say”. Really? Even if you’re working with indigenous communities, don’t you want to ascertain truth the same way we do in modern science?
And there’s this:
Atalay is thinking about ways to measure success and communicate findings that go beyond publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. In particular, she says, scientists will focus on finding ways to communicate their results with communities, including through the use of comic books, posters and theatre.
“You share what you’ve learned, and you do that through stories, through art, through any accessible means,” she says. “That is not a side note. It’s an integral part of the circle of doing science.”
Well, yes, if you need to tell the locals what you’ve found using comic books and plays, that’s fine. But if knowledge, whether coming from or derived from indigenous communities is to become part of modern science itself, it needs to be published, not in comic books but in peer-reviewed journals.
It’s statements like these that make me worry that the NSF is throwing piles of money (our money) at these endeavors primarily as a performative gesture showing that it cares about indigenous people.
To be fair, though, there is one substantive project that the NSF bucks will be used for—farming clams. (“Hatch” below is “Marco Hatch, a member of the Samish Indian Nation and a marine ecologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham” who has long worked with indigenous people.)
One project set to launch in the first year at the Pacific Northwest hub focuses on a type of clam farming that has been practiced for thousands of years by native peoples along the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States.
Marco Hatch, a member of the Samish Indian Nation and a marine ecologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, has spent nearly two decades working with Indigenous communities to investigate and revive this ancient technique. It involves using terraced gardens to extend and flatten a beach’s intertidal zone — where clams grow — and it can be two to four times more productive than conventional methods, Hatch says.
With funding from the centre, Hatch adds that he and his collaborators will be able to expand their partnerships to Indigenous communities in Washington and Alaska. “There’s untold thousands of clam gardens up and down the coast that haven’t been identified,” he says. With guidance from a panel of Indigenous advisers, scientists will be able to conduct surveys at low tide, using boats and aerial drones.
Yes, that could be of substantial practical value, but I hope it’s not the only kind of thing that comes from “braiding” indigenous knowledge with modern science. What we nearly always get in this “braiding” is an improvement in practical techniques, but not the kind of knowledge that comes from theorizing, hypothesizing, and testing used by modern science. (By the way, it’s patronizing to refer to modern science, a worldwide enterprise involving people from many lands, as “Western” science.) In the end, it’s hard for me to imagine substantial advances in modern physics, chemistry, mathematics, or biology that can come from investing millions of taxpayer dollars in indigenous “ways of knowing.” To quote Jerry Maguire, I’ll sign on when these projects “show me the money” (i.e., the results).