NSF invests millions in indigenous knowledge

October 1, 2023 • 11:30 am

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 program:

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).

31 thoughts on “NSF invests millions in indigenous knowledge

  1. I have always believed that quinine came from China (too many James Clavell books). Apparently, I was wrong. Originally quinine was extracted from Cinchona which came from S. America.

    1. And the word may have Basque roots (Celtiberian and Iberian were also mentioned in Wiktionary, the latter being non-Indoeuropean).

  2. I’m looking forward to the next-generation of mobile-phone chips, improved by the braiding with indigenous knowledge, and communicated “through the use of comic books, posters and theatre”.

    This reminds me of Kendi’s research centre on “systemtic racism” which seems to have frittered away $30 million without doing any research, let alone finding any evidence for this supposed “systemic racism”.

    But then donating to Kendi’s research centre, or the NSF’s funding of “braiding” with indigenous knowledge, is not done with the expectation of producing results, it’s done to signal one’s virtue.

    1. Of course, comic books and posters presuppose a written language, something frequently absent from traditional indigenous knowledge.

      Still, one can look back in regret at Mme Curie, Sir Isaac Newton et al and wonder at how much more they and Western science in general would have achieved with comic books.

    2. I’m waiting for the Center for Antiracist Research to claim that it has been systemic racism and pervasive whiteness that impeded the Center’s ability to have its staff muster the emotional power and necessary safety to do actual research AND that having nothing much to show for millions of dollars donated IS EVIDENCE of the oppressive system they and others aiming for justice are working under.

  3. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe that rediscovering clam gardens, forest gardens, and other Indigenous practices will lead to benefits for Indigenous people (and contribute to reconciliation between Canada and First Nations – September 30 was our national day for truth & reconciliation). I’m sure folks like Marco Hatch are doing what they think is right. But the evidence is thin for any benefits from this kind of research.

    Most of the clam species in Indigenous clam gardens were slow-growing species with thick shells. The clams all have planktonic larvae, and Indigenous people had no knowledge of those larva or the methods for cultivating them: spawn the adult clams, grow the larvae in containers of seawater, feed phytoplankton to the larvae, wait for them to become tiny benthic clams, then spread them over the sediment in the garden. So what the Indigenous people were cultivating was wild stock: larvae that happened to fall out of the plankton, settle into the clam garden, and become trapped there. It’s like being a farmer but not knowing how flowers work, or knowing what a seed is.

    And it’s unknown how much the cultivation of such species could contribute to the food needs of a pre-contact Indigenous community. Knowledge of these clam gardens is qualitative and mostly derived from oral tradition plus some archaeology.

    Forest gardens (cultivated patches of berries, hazelnuts, roots, medicinal herbs, etc.) were also small (<2 hectares) and could have supported only a small fraction of the food needs of local Indigenous towns given what's known from the archeological record about the likely sizes of those populations.

    Ecologists studying these food systems are keen to show that Indigenous people were not itinerant hunger-gatherers but rather were agriculturalists. Political activists are also keen to show that the agriculturalists were making substantive use of the land because this kind of use is a criterion for some land claims against governments here in Canada. But it's a tough argument to make with so little data, and in some ways ecologists have avoided a quantitative assessment of this kind of agriculture because it tends to show the Indigenous people were not relying much on their agricultural production and it tends to make Indigenous agricultural production and technology look pretty bad even compared to 17th century European agriculture by new settlers.

    1. The expression of “braiding in respect” for indigenous ways of knowing, which Jerry rightly worries about, would mean suppressing such inconvenient results as those you cite about clam gardens and horticulture and would prevent the scientific record from containing all available information. This is not virtue signaling and is more and more being seen as struggling for a new power balance, as in New Zealand.

      Some indigenous fact claims invoke the literal sacredness of certain natural features like a lake or river that we want to build a pipeline or such under. Not merely the claim that the project will damage a fragile ecosystem, a claim that can be tested with the scientific method and either rebutted or mitigated, as per the regulatory permitting process. Rather, that the project violates the sacred nature of the lake, no matter what measures might be taken to mitigate even low-probability damage. How can you rebut or mitigate a sacrilege? Canadian courts have so far been unwilling to give any probative weight to religious claims by anyone, so this opposition is largely grandstanding after the fact. But native groups are free to make such claims in regulatory hearings where they cannot be cross-examined.

      The CBC doesn’t use the “sacred” word in its coverage but other outlets do quote native leaders as saying such.
      It’s worth pointing out that there is no such thing as “Secwepemc Law” or any other tribal law in Canada, any more than there is sharia law. There is only one law, that of Canada and its provinces which applies everywhere inside Canada’s borders including on Crown Indian Reserves, which are in no way sovereign. Which is why the regulator approved the route change.

  4. Well,I do not worry that this is anything like the MM debacle we see in NZ. I‘ve been away from OSTP and NSF funding opportunities for more than a decade,but this looks less serious than the programs funded in core discipline (math, science and engineering) directorates. It appears to be among some start-up funded programs out of the NSF director’s office and $30M over five years is $6M/yr which looks like it includes the overhead of the UMass Center. It is part of an effort to get researchers to think and take the initiative in a more inter-disciplinary, though I would call it inter-cultural way and involve tribal entities in core NSF research. So it appears to me to be some additional funding out of the NSF director’s office that encourages researchers to do something that is a political exigency without diverting core discipline dollars. $6M/yr out of the total annual NSF budget of $11B to encourage communication and possible collaboration with our indigenous peoples? Seems ok to me. (Some readers may recall when Criterion 2, something like societal and community impact was added to the technical evaluation of proposals in the late 80’s or early 90’s(?). This seems to be along similar lines except nsf is supporting it with a little new money)

  5. It might make some sense to allocate the money to *test* claims made by indigenous science (and scientists) scientifically. Claims failing such tests would then be rejected. Will the NSF require grantees to use established scientific methods to apply risky tests (tests that can lead to falsification) to their claims? Being in the business of promoting science, the NSF must at least require that much from the research. We’ll see.

    On the other hand, if the NSF’s goal is simply to *appear* to be supportive of indigenous peoples, then they should bypass the research part and just give the money directly to the indigenous populations they support. Let’s not make a mockery of the scientific enterprise.

  6. Again we see the dialectic in play:

    Each of a pair of apparent contradictions are the same in kind, only different in degree.

    Antithesis : indigenous knowledge (things to raise up)
    Thesis : western (John Wayne?) science (things to negate, things to keep)
    Synthesis by alchemy of the retained components into a new higher entity.

    aufheben (Hegel), or sublation (Marcuse). Marcuse developed the idea of “negative thinking”.

  7. I think it was Richard Dawkins who said that if “alternative medicine” worked, it would already have been incorporated into science! The same can be said of indigenous knowledge. The parts that work will become a part of science, and the ones which don’t will not.

  8. The real danger here is if this crap metastasizes beyond the office of the director and becomes a criterion in the technical evaluation of all nsf grant proposals in the research directorates. Think about how dei became a part of university position applications! Need some intel from some of the current nsf program managers.

  9. I think science needs a rebrand. Too many people have conflated it with all sorts…and that even includes bonafide physicists.

    As Sabine Hossenfelder points out, in her book Existential Physics and elsewhere, many physicists have their preferred “scientific” origin theories that have no evidence and, possibly, can have no evidence.

    Science, in terms of finding the objective, testable truths of reality, needs a makeover like Twitter/X (well, maybe not like X). Have this new field come from some sort of diverse committee (based, of course, entirely on skin colour and gender choice) so claims of colonialism can be easily dismissed.

    Anything with even a whiff of humanities or social “science” never get in again.

    1. Sabine Hossenfelder does not speak for the community of scientists, or physicists, or whatever. Yes, she is prominent on social media, but so what? That’s like saying that the best music is whatever is in the charts.

      In the last few years, she has become increasingly sensationalistic, perhaps in order to become more prominent. Think about a newspaper more interested in sensationalism than in real news.

      1. I never said she did. I think, if anything, I said quite the opposite.

        I tried listening to her podcasts, and did not particularly enjoy, but it is possible to agree with somebody on some points and not on others. For what it’s worth, Sean Carroll has also been drinking the gender ideology kool-aid and certainly strays into topics outside his wheelhouse. You’re quickly going to run out of “popular physicists” if you dismiss them as soon as they say something you don’t agree with.

        I’ve only read Existential Physics, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve got Lost in Math, but haven’t read it yet. I believe it makes a similar point.

        Regardless, the fact some/many physicists embrace untestable and unprovable theories of origin and what not is not, in my opinion, too far removed from religion and “other ways of knowing”. We’re all humans at the end of the day and driven by human nature. The point was that EVEN physicists are not immune to some “anti-science”. Many Worlds might be right, but you’re not going to be able to tell me either way. Perhaps ever.

  10. Sorry for the multiple posts. The site is acting up again. My first comment above showed up immediately. The others didn’t, so I reposted. I did NOT get a “duplicate comment” error, so I assumed that they didn’t get as far as WordPress. Yesterday, a comment never showed up, at least not after several minutes.

    I’ve seen this behaviour from time to time. Also, the site has been loading really slowly since the time the annoying “subscribe” pop-up message has appeared. I’ve “subscribed” to both posts and comments via RSS for years. I don’t want an email every time a post or comment appears.

  11. You have to look further back than the current or recent engagements for the roots of this. John Moore wrote “Science as a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology” (https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674794825); original pub in 1993, but current edition is 1999. But probably a better book is Scott Atran’s “Cognitive Foundations of Natural History” (https://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Foundations-Natural-History-Anthropology/dp/0521438713) also first published in 1993, with a more recent reprint.
    Both look at the emergence of the culture of scientific inquiry and how it diverges from “folk biology” (or indigenous knowledge systems—IKS), and both are sanguine about the shared foundations of folk and modern biology. Atran’s work is a lot denser (the original in 1993 was obviously translated from the French in a less-than-masterful execution), but his is the one that really shows how both folk biology and modern natural science are rooted in the same fundamental cognitive processes of humans everywhere. BUT, Atran is also clear on how modern science diverged from the IKS of European cultures in the course of the Enlightenment and became what we call “science” today.
    However, this is not really a fight about science, it is a struggle among cultures. And, unfortunately, it is framed in the language of colonial suppression. Modern science is a foreign cultural construct associated with European colonialists. It is a fact that modern (and not-so-modern) science came into these regions along with colonization. So, it is partly OUR job to show that evidence-based policies (or science education) are not a part of the attempts to suppress and deny indigenous cultures and values (at least not today).
    The other cultural issue here is less the process of scientific inquiry (where it is agreed that IKS provide insights, observations, and important experience with local or regional environments) and more that of implementation of policies and practices. It is not JUST indigenous peoples who are rising up against the “top down” policy decisions made in the name of “science” but that undo or destroy native cultures and institutions.
    While it may be true, citing the example above from Leslie MacMillan, that we do not tend to accept assertions about spiritual presences or sacred grounds as a basis for settling claims or implementing policy, I would argue that it is more likely that we would opt NOT to drill for oil there if a large reserve were discovered located under, say, the Arlington National Cemetery.
    In many ways, what indigenous peoples are saying is that they need a way into the policy decisions that affect their lives and cultures. Perhaps the language they are using doesn’t resonate with us because there is a poor match in western culture (and certainly in the sciences) between the terms we use to translate indigenous ideas into English (or any other modern language). And so when we hear that a land or a lake is “sacred” and must be “respected” we are overlaying our concepts of “sacred” and “respected” onto the discussion, instead of trying to understand what the indigenous speaker means. For us, “respected” might mean minimizing risks; for another culture, it might mean taking no risks, however slight.
    This is not only true of communicating with indigenous peoples, but also with any population that will be affected by a policy implemented as an application of scientific knowledge. If people feel that a decision was imposed from on high or outside their group and that they or their representatives had no input into or influence on the outcome, there will be problems. We don’t have to look farther than the responses to the temporary health restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Great examples of success stories (and failures) are in “Ethics and Practice in Science Communication edited by S. Priest, J. Goodwin, and M. F. Dahlstrom, Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press, 2018, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-49781-5 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10572252.2021.1888526).
    Even if the worries of indigenous peoples about attacks on their cultures are unfounded, their concerns still need to be addressed in order to enact evidence-based policies effectively. If we do not find a way to do that (and the MM encroachment on the practice of science education in EnZed is a glaring failure), then we have only the words of Porky Pine to sum up the situation, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

    1. Actually if an oil field under Arlington was big enough to bother exploiting, you could drill slantwise down into the deposit from outside the cemetery and extract it without disturbing the graves. Oil is two miles or more down, remember. Lithium ore would be a tougher challenge.

      Native people do get a say in much that happens in Canada. Canadian constitutional law going back to 1763 enshrining the Honour of the Crown requires that, in modern times, indigenous groups must be consulted meaningfully about resource projects that affect their traditional territories. The consultation is not a treaty negotiation between two nations where one side can walk away and scupper the project. Rather, natives are Canadian citizens (and technically subjects of King Charles III) like all the rest of us, working out how to do a project in the public interest for Canada as a whole. Part of the consultation process involves respect for native claims about mystical stewardship of the land and part addresses prosaic concerns about caribou migration and the drinking water supply. And part involves money. Lots and lots of money for no value received.

      Natives do not have a veto and their “nations” are not sovereign in any way. They can, and do, apply for judicial review of the consultation process but if the Courts rule that consultation was adequate, they must, whether they agree or not, allow the project crews to enter their land and dig (just as I must, on my land for a validly permitted infrastructure project.) These native consultations go on for years.

      As to religious language, nearly all indigenous people in Canada are nominally Christian, having converted during colonial times. All speak English fluently (or French, rarely) and, as in EnZed, very few speak any indigenous language. Many are poorly educated but if they say a lake is sacred, I think we are entitled to take them at their word in common Christian English usage, whether or not the individuals making the claim believe it to be literally true themselves. The claim is intended to carry political weight, in a way that a claim that abortion is a sin does not (in Canada.) Even settler atheists are expected to give some uptake to native religiosity and mysticism in public discussions instead of dismissing it as superstition as we do Christianity.

      So I think indigenous people do have a way into much that happens in Canada. Their per-capita influence on public policy is enormously greater than the per-capita influence of the other 96% of the population, whose say is limited to voting in elections. Current native dissatisfaction seems to come from the reality that they don’t get their way on every contested issue, not that they aren’t heard at all.

  12. Alchemy became chemistry. Newton was famously an alchemist.

    Astrology became astronomy.

    There are cult writings (e.g. The Kybalion) that fascinate over this relationship as if there is no difference between them in kind, only in degree.

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