Times Higher Ed on indigenous knowledge as science

October 25, 2023 • 1:00 pm

On October 1, I wrote about a big project in which the National Science Foundation was going to invest substantial dosh in integrating indigenous (Native American) knowledge into science.  But the “braiding” of modern science with indigenous “ways of knowing” worried me, especially when I’ve seen what it’s done to New Zealand. Here’s an excerpt of what I said in my post:

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.

A reporter for Times Higher Education somehow found this post and interviewed me about my views, writing about the project and giving some of my quotes from the interview in the article below (click to read, and make a judicious inquiry if you can’t access it). Forgive the self-aggrandizement, but I’m pleased that the problems with such a program are being given wider exposure.

Here’s an excerpt. Note the NSF’s response in bold. But they do say that some money will be allocated to training students, which is good.  The rest you can read at the site.

Already, there have been some early warnings that the outcome in the US could be similar. Indigenous knowledge certainly has useful applications in many fields of human activity, said Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, but it does not contribute in significant ways to the modern scientific processes that have produced decades of major breakthroughs in critical fields such as medicine, physics and chemistry.

“The idea that indigenous knowledge is really going to push science forward seems dubious to me,” Professor Coyne said.

In their announcement of the new NSF centre, its organisers cited the example of clam gardens – rock walls built along shorelines to provide a welcoming habitat for molluscs – which indigenous people have been creating for thousands of years along the Pacific north-west coast of the US and Canada. The approach can double or quadruple clam production, according to Marco Hatch, an associate professor of marine ecology at Western Washington University who studies their use and who will receive some of the first allotment of funding from the new NSF centre.

That kind of work does seem beneficial, Professor Coyne acknowledged. But as similar cases in New Zealand have shown, the actual scientific content is thin, he said. “My response is: show me the results, show me what useful science has come out of this – and there’s very little,” he said. “It’s always in the nature of, well, we’ve learned to pick berries when this phase of the moon occurs at this time of year. Yeah, that’s useful practical knowledge, but it’s not really science in the sense that the NSF considers science.”

An NSF official insisted on the scientific value of bringing new “backgrounds and attitudes” to research work. “Scientists don’t always create good or optimal research questions and designs because they are sometimes missing critical information about culture or other aspects of human behaviour or the environment,” the official said.

A potentially more valuable outcome of such federal investment, Professor Coyne said, would be for the government to help more indigenous students become professional scientists, who could then use their ancestral backgrounds in ways that fit more directly into existing research channels. “If you want to help underserved people, bring them into modern science,” he said.

The NSF’s announcement of the new centre does indicate plans in that direction, saying that some funding would be spent on training students at school level all the way up to postdoctoral researchers and graduate research assistants, many at minority-serving institutions.

I wish, though, that the unnamed “NSF official” had given at least one example of a project that had gone forward or been improved by adding that “critical information about culture”. As I noted in the piece, those who push for the unification (and sometimes coequality) of science and “indigenous ways of knowing” often fall short when asked to give examples of how this will improve our understanding of nature.

29 thoughts on “Times Higher Ed on indigenous knowledge as science

  1. In haste today

    The “braid” is suggestive of the dialectic ; the upward spiral, same in kind, difference in degree.

    It’s unclear also – as I am in haste – this came up the other day with the medicine – is the bigotry of low expectations at work, such that hypotheses that favorably reflect upon the indigenous but otherwise fail to meet empirical tests will be given leniency?

    Is a concern – we shall see.

  2. Jerry and friends, bear with me while I briefly advance this idea. I propose that we change the conversation to focus on discussing good science versus bad science. In other words, don’t talk about science, meaning science that incorporates the scientific method, versus indigenous ways of knowing but instead modern science versus ancient science. Before you protest that I’m elevating older ways of knowing to the same level as modern science, please understand that I’m conceiving of science in its broadest sense of a body of knowledge. Thus, the crucial question becomes, is this science a body of reliable knowledge? I submit that only the modern scientific method can yield reliable knowledge. The ancient ways of knowing are fundamentally faith-based in that one has to accept unconditionally what one is told to be true. So again, let’s talk about good science that gives us knowledge we can rely on and use to predict outcomes as opposed to bad science that can lead us astray and hurt us in some cases. Let us call indigenous/alternate ways of knowing bad science.
    I’m inspired to write this because, as I’m sitting in my personal library at home, I just descried the spine of one of my favorite books by Martin Gardner on my bookshelf, namely, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus.

    1. “[…] Science is a mechanism. […]”

      -Issac Asimov

      Source ( unverified ) see for full quote:

      ‘Isaac Asimov Speaks’ with Bill Moyers in The Humanist (Jan/Feb 1989), 49. Reprinted in Carl Howard Freedman (ed.), Conversations with Isaac Asimov (2005), 143-144. Bill Moyers asked “What’s real knowledge?” Asimov replied, “Well, we can’t be absolutely certain.” He continued answering as in the quote above.

      1. In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. –Stephen Jay Gould

        1. And

          “Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth.”

          -Asimov (vide supra)

          So we have (perhaps) discernment between “fact” (and I agree w/Gould), “true” (all claims are truth claims), … Asimov posits a fallacious “absolute truth” (and I seem to know what that means)…

          … so I suppose epistemology comes up, underneath those. And I am weak on epistemology.

          I sort of try to stand on empirical hypothesis testing, but only because it is the proverbial streetlamp. I don’t understand the philosophy, like a Deutsch or a Popper.

    2. I agree with Stephen on “good science versus bad science”, but I’m less happy with “modern science versus ancient science”.
      Stephen says “The ancient ways of knowing are fundamentally faith-based in that one has to accept unconditionally what one is told to be true.” I disagree; in that I think that the ancient ways of knowing to at least some extent represent/represented what we would call “good science” – what got remembered and perhaps converted into faith-based knowledge was surely what worked for people at the time, and that’s a pretty good definition of science. If you planted too early, nothing came up; if you planted too late, the crop wouldn’t ripen. How you described the right time to plant, such as by reference to some natural phenomenon, like cherry blossoms, depended on what reference you had available. We may now have better tools than cherry blossoms to tell us when to plant, and it is what I consider common sense to use the best tool available, but that doesn’t make cherry blossoms bad science, just outdated science.

      1. Point taken, David, thanks. I was thinking more of the just-so stories about the beginning of human beings, the origin of lighting, the source of volcanoes, and the like.

    3. Also, a fave:

      “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
      Neil DeGrasse Tyson
      —From Real Time with Bill Maher

      Real Time with Bill Maher
      “2011-02-04” on this video : https://youtu.be/yRxx8pen6JY

    4. Given the current climate, I think there’s more chance of getting the authorities and media to accept that indigenous ways of knowing are “not science” rather than “bad science.” Though both may be true, the second phrase condemns and dismisses their beliefs in a way the first one doesn’t.

    5. I am not sure what StephenB means when he says ancient ways of knowing are fundamentally faith-based. We have to distinguish traditional bodies of knowledge, of the sort non-literate cultures preserve, from ancient science, including written scientific knowledge of the Greeks as passed into Islamic and medieval European science. Obviously there are issues with the relation between faith and science, but the development of Ptolemaic astronomy was a response to the inaccurate predictions of earlier Greek astronomy. Their science drew on long-term written records of observations and was integrated with a mathematicized theory.

      1. Please see my response to Derek in which I mention that I was focusing on the “just-so” origin stories when I made that statement about “faith-based.” Because of your and Derek’s comments, I will be more exact in my language. I like the term “outdated science,” which is a better pointer to what I’m referring to. Still, to put astrology, flat-earth belief, geocentrism, a literal reading of Genesis, Matauranga Maori, etc., on equal footing with modern science is to make these outdated sciences into bad sciences.

  3. “An NSF official insisted on the scientific value of bringing new “backgrounds and attitudes” to research work.”, presumably referring to indigenous backgrounds and attitudes. I can think of one example. In several different native American folk traditions, animals have the power of speech, or at least did at one time. In modern times, we have the exhaustive studies of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s conversationalist parrot Alex. Although there is no record that Dr. Pepperberg was influenced by indigenous native American stories, maybe it was Alex who read these stories.

  4. “Indigenous science” isn’t really about advancing science. It’s about decolonization. That explains why indigenous science is promoted even though everyone knows it can’t “do” science. Keep your eye on the prize.

    1. “For in the first phase of the revolt killing is a necessity: killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free; for the first time the survivor feels a national soil under his feet.”

      -Jean-Paul Sartre
      Excerpt from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth – this is the preface written by Jean-Paul Sartre in (Sept. 1961, p. lxi, 60th ann. ed. 2021, Grove Press, NY)
      Translational variations exist.

      And :

      “That’s why I admire Cape Verde’s president, Artistides Pereira. He gave a speech in Praia in which he made an extraordinary statement that has a lot to do with our conversation now: “We made our liberation and we drove out the colonizers. Now we need to decolonize our minds.” That’s it exactly. We need to decolonize the mind because if we do not, our thinking will be in conflict with the new context evolving from the struggle for freedom.”
      -Paulo Freire

      The Politics of Education, 1985

  5. Thank you for sticking with this, Jerry. You are right and I was wrong to minimize the potential damage of any NSF funding giving these indigenous and traditional ways a beach head in the formal US science enterprise. It is important that your interview be picked up by science education policy-makers before momentum can build as it did in NZ. Turning the funding into properly preparing and bringing more kids from tribal schools into STEM majors seems like a better way to open up entry for underserved kids from diverse cultural backgrounds into US science and engineering.

  6. “Empirical claims in ‘stories’ can’t be taken at face value, but have to be tested using the toolkit of modern science. . . . Even if you’re working with indigenous communities, don’t you want to ascertain truth the same way we do in modern science? [Italics mine]

    If you subscribe to a naturalistic worldview it’s reasonable that you should require evidence consistent with that view. What’s not reasonable is that you should expect someone who doesn’t subscribe to a naturalistic worldview to adopt your standard of evidence, any more than it would be reasonable of that person to expect you to adopt his.

    In this case, the person you disagree with is not willing to accept your premise that modern science is the only way to arrive at truth about reality. Since this is what you disagree about, requiring him to provide scientific evidence for his position is asking him to concede the argument as a condition for refuting it.

    In short, it seems to me you’re begging the question. If I’m missing something here, someone please tell me.


    1. Claims without evidence, and that can’t be replicated independently, can be discarded. If an indigenous person makes a claim that is supposed to be accepted as science, then it has to withstand those requirements. Stories, like the Polynesians discovered Antarctica in the 7th century, a “story” regarded as truth by the Maori, and published in science journals, have no support at all. You don’t get it, do you? That is a naturalistic claim and therefore can be tested using naturalistic methods.

      Do you believe all legends and myths taken as truth by indigenous people? If you do, I feel sorry for you. You’re trying to make religion and faith-based claims part of science.

    2. Another great quote I wanted to add :

      Nullius in verba

      “The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”


      … IMHO if that doesn’t make it crystal clear, the dimension/scope of the problem – appeal to and domination of authority – not sure what would.

      It brings to mind the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” when certain appeals are made as a justification for Inclusion in science/etc. Nobody is excluding anyone here, as I am aware.

      show us the data

  7. Shaman Enterprises. Thirty years ago, when I began investing I was persuaded by the idea that learning from indigenous peoples about cures would yield modern, useful drugs more quickly. It did not. Better hypotheses? Doubtful.

  8. Is there a fairly comprehensive list of claims made by “indigenous science” that are supposedly valid? It might be good to have actual scientists evaluate such a list with another column that refutes each one as either non-scientific or why the claim fails (lack of evidence, ill-defined claim, counterveiling evidence, not replicated, etc.). So many people who don’t know the first thing about science try to claim some bullshit deserves membership to add legitimacy to it.

    I can imagine a claim about the ingestion of a local plant that helps treat a specific condition as an example of legitimate medical science but not many beyond that.

    1. The best example I can think of is arbor vitae to cure scurvy. The son of an indigenous chief showed the remedy to Jacques Cartier during the winter of 1534-5 at what is today Québec City and saved the lives of his crew. But was this science?

      All we have to go on is Cartier’s diary, written by an amanuensis. From this account, it seems that the natives were familiar with scurvy (as of course were the sailors.) During that cold winter when there was little game, many natives fell ill with it. Cartier had shared his meagre medical supplies with them to no avail. This kindness may have motivated the chief’s son to disclose to Cartier that he had (perhaps because of his status) received a healing ceremony from a medicine woman, which had cured him. The young man had probably deduced that a decoction of the conifer needles was the secret and the rest was just woo. (Kids these days! No respect!) Cartier prepared it according to the son’s instructions and even sailors very near death recovered rapidly. (Arbor vitae needles contain arginine, which allows collagen biosynthesis to bypass lack of Vitamin C.)

      It’s clear that Cartier regarded this substance as Enlightenment-era medicine — that the healing properties lay in the substance, just as we do today. (A little prayer to God wouldn’t hurt, but hadn’t helped all those who had died.) The native perception of their own remedy seems to have been different: they suffered many villagers to die even though the arbor vitae conifer shrub was in green winter abundance all over the place and any household could have made their own as easily as Cartier did. (We have it in our back yard.) Yet only the chief’s son got to visit the medicine woman. She wasn’t telling, and no one (except Cartier) seems to have pressed him to ‘fess up as to what the secret was. Was the sizzle believed to be more important than the steak?

      Ceremony today is a big part of indigenous healing rituals even when western medicine is being given to a sick person in a colonialist hospital. Sweetgrass and sage for smudging are regarded literally as “medicine” in this context. It’s woo all the way down. Not that woo doesn’t make believers feel better….

      The claim that the indigenous Huron of North America discovered a cure for scurvy, then, just doesn’t wash in a scientific sense even though every Canadian school child “knows” the story.

      1. Amazing!

        I know that tree!

        Oh, another story … and I found it!

        “In 1860–61, Burke and Wills were the first Europeans to cross Australia south to north; on their return they subsisted primarily on raw nardoo-fern. It is possible that this led to their death due to the extremely high levels of thiaminase contained in nardoo. The Aborigines prepared nardoo by soaking the sporocarps in water for at least a day to avoid the effects of thiamine deficiency that would result from ingesting the leaves raw. In the explorers’ journals they noted many symptoms of thiamine deficiency, so it is thought that they did not soak the nardoo long enough. Eventually thiamine deficiency could have led to their demise. It is noteworthy to mention that there are several other hypotheses regarding what may have killed Burke and Wills and it is widely disagreed upon by historians and scientists alike.[2]”

        I think the apparently fatal condition is beri-beri.

        See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiaminase

      2. Thanks Leslie. I would call this the most rudimentary form of medicine: trial and error. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out the consequences of ingesting just about everything in your area (borne of starvation or taste) and remembering which are poisonous or have other effects. One also has the benefit of cheating by watching what other mammals will or will not eat, aposematic coloring, etc. Example: ingesting a plant that gives you diarrhea might actually be efficacious if you become constipated. Even some animals have figured some of this out. Then there’s next level rudimentary science of semi-purifying or concentrating active ingredients via salves, distillates, teas, and extracts. An impressive example is an involved preparation of curare which has been used by indigenous tribes to tip blowgun darts or arrows to paralyze game while hunting.

        That said, some of this “science” falls into Prof. Coyne’s looser definition that could include plumbers unclogging a pipe. It’s really just observation and the most obvious and testable hypotheses. I think the real test would be indigenous people using something like the scientific method to establish what is true. No invoking supernaturalism! Not only is that non-scientific but never a legitimate part of any hypothesis to prove anything and disqualifying.

        1. “No invoking supernaturalism!”

          Just for fun, I’d add : but if numerous independent, empirical observations were made, without appeal to any one authority, it would have to be accepted as likely, real, or true.

          I think that’s the model we have to use – independent empiricism and likelihood – because we know it works. If the UFO is really aliens, then hey, great – aliens.

          Nullius in verba

      3. Well, if it actually works (which appears true in this case), then it is indeed a cure even if the discoverers cannot defend it by citing controlled studies or a plausible mechanism, or if they thought it would cure everything else as well. Not that the FDA should approve it under such circumstances.

        This is not a defense of indigenous “ways of knowing”, though, since as Jimbo says, the natives undoubtedly came up with this preparation via empirical trials. There’s no indication that they attributed their awareness of it to extra-natural sources. (Cartier’s journal reads a bit differently from the story given above. One can read relevant excerpts at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2647905 . This article points out that Cartier probably exaggerated the effects.)

        But the activists know they won’t make any headway by stating that indigenous people ran uncontrolled experiments as that admits the latter would be better off adopting genuine scientific methods. They have to put their own woo into it.

        The remedy itself must have taken a lot of raw material – Cartier did not stock up on needles for future trips. According to his journal he thought it was a miracle. Perhaps he thought this was a one-time event.

  9. An idea of how UNESCO wants higher ed to change (I don’t have the full reference yet – bold added ):

    “With 2030 less than a decade away it is paramount to think critically and act urgently if we are to achieve the sustainable development goals. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are uniquely positioned to the social, environmental and economic transformations that are required to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. This report thoroughly discusses the role of higher education institutions in contributing to the 2030 agenda through a focus on three interrelated themes.
    1. The need to move toward inter- and transdisciplinary modes of producing and circulating knowledge.
    2. The imperative of becoming open institutions fostering epistemic dialogue and integrating diverse ways of knowing.
    3. The demand for a stronger presence in society through proactive engagement partnering with other societal actors.”

    1. Here it is :

      Title: “Knowledge-driven actions: transforming higher education for global sustainability”

      Parr, et. al. / UNESCO

      DOI :
      ISBN :
      Collation :
      101 pages


      A favorite quote:

      “HEIs should not cease to protect and expand academic freedom for the promotion of systemic change.”

      See? Academic freedom is protected and expanded – ahhhh.

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