Another report about the NSF initiative to braid indigenous ways of knowing with “Western” science

October 29, 2023 • 9:30 am

Nature and Science, widely considered the world’s two best scientific journals, are competing with each other to see who can evince the most “progressive” ideology.  So when the NSF appropriated $30 for projects to “braid” indigenous Native American knowledge into modern science, Nature touted the project, which I analyzed in a post here. Some of my suggestions were later outlined in a piece in  Times Higher Education.

Now, Science is also highlighting the NSF project in the article below (click on headline).  Note the trope of “Western” science, which was also used by Nature. This should be offensive to all the scientists in the world who use “modern” science but aren’t in the West. One example, which I’ve seen first hand, is science in India. I’ve talked to a lot of evolutionary biologists there about their research, and we communicate easily because we’re familiar not only with the tools of modern science, but also with its published results. To tell an Indian evolutionist that they’re actually doing “Western” science would be insulting. Science belongs to the world, and although it originated in Europe, it’s no longer any more “Western” than are automobiles. (Do the Chinese drive “Western cars”?)

But I digress. Science again touts the NSF project without a word of caution, though there are plenty of reasons to exercise care when allocating lots of taxpayer money to “braid” “indigenous knowledge” and “Western” science.

One of the biggest problems of these article,s which is never discussed, is the conflation of ultimate goals. Is it to improve science itself by bringing in indigenous “ways of knowing”? That’s the goal usually presented, as it is in this piece.  And in New Zealand, the two “ways of knowing” were considered coequal by government authorities under the Ardern administration. (Perhaps no longer now that Chris Hipkins heads the government.)

But another goal is not “knowledge equity” but “scientist equity”: that is, to ensure that indigenous people are represented in science in a proportion at least close to their presence in the population.  Although I’m not a fan of equity in the form of “proportional representation,” I do think that the denial of equal opportunity to minorities who were victims of bigotry, if that denial still exists, needs to be rectified.

Thus, if you’re going to use money to improve science, and help indigenous people at the same time, virtually all of that money should be earmarked for training indigenous youngsters to learn science, and ensure that there’s no bigotry against them. That is, indigenous people should have equal opportunity from the outset to learn STEM. Then, those with talent and desire can become scientists using modern science.  To my mind, this is better than simply scouring indigenous cultures for bits of knowledge that can be further investigated, or giving money to indigenous people without fixed projects to fund, simply as a form of reparations.  To fund education rather than cultures themselves is preferable because the results are permanent and self-sustaining (once the pipeline is open, it tends to stay open).

Sadly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken the route of trying to produce “research equity”, and so far, in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand, the results have been thin,  That’s expected because indigenous people like Māori and Native Americans didn’t have a tradition of doing science. They do have a tradition of understanding nature insofar as it was useful for their well being, but that’s only a small part of modern science. The paucity of results so far can be seen in the article below.

The goals of the project seem to involve not just ameliorating climate change, but also “preserving cultural heritage”:

Last month, NSF aimed to bridge such disconnects, with a 5-year, $30 million grant designed to weave together traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Western science. Based at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) aims to fundamentally change the way scholars from both traditions select and carry out joint research projects and manage data.

The center will explore how climate change threatens food security and the preservation of cultural heritages through eight research hubs in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Ranco co-leads the U.S. Northeast hub.) Each hub will also serve as a model for how to braid together different knowledge traditions, or what its senior investigators call “two-eyed seeing” through both Indigenous and Western lenses.

I’d feel better about the climate-change work (also funded for New Zealand and Canada’s indigenous groups) if we could figure out how indigenous knowledge would make a substantial change in ameliorating climate change. I can see that indigenous people might call attention to some species that are disappearing, but that’s a symptom, not a cause, and fixing the cause depends on concerted government action (which isn’t happening). As for “preserving cultural heritage”, that’s a goal that has to do with social engineering rather than science (and it is valuable), but I’ll just mention that and pass on.

The concept of “two-eyed seeing“, which originated in Canada, implies that “Western” science is partly blind because it doesn’t take into account indigenous “ways of knowing”, and explicitly touts a knowledge inequity rather than an ethnic inequity among scientists. Below are quotes from the article implying that “indigenous ways of knowing” can make a valuable contribution to understanding and ameliorating issues like climate change, and can do so because they are fundamentally different ways of knowing:

That NSF “has moved beyond the idea that science has to be only Western science is truly remarkable,” says archaeologist Joe Watkins, a past president of the Society for American Archaeology and a member of the Choctaw Nation. “NSF is saying it will continue to fund basic science but also look at other social constructs that might help us move forward to deal with the climate crisis. That’s a bold step.”

It’s also long overdue, says Sonya Atalay, a UMass anthropologist and director of the new center. “For a very long time, Indigenous science has been marginalized, and thought of as maybe quaint stories that were too local to be useful to the broader enterprise of science,” Atalay, who is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage, says. “That is beginning to change.”

The difference in results touted for the two “ways of knowing” doesn’t hearten me that indigenous contributions to science will be incorporated into modern science and be built upon the way modern science works. Rather, the differences appear to be culturally specific to the funded group, like the “terraced clam gardens” mentioned in the Nature piece. There’s a reason why science aims at wider conclusions, for the usual aim is to understand nature in general, not nature in, say, one small plot of land.

Although both Indigenous knowledge and Western science include observations and data collection, they differ in several key dimensions, Atalay explains. Indigenous knowledge is place-specific, whereas Western science tends to seek universal rules that apply everywhere. Indigenous knowledge is rooted in the relationship between humans and their environment rather than isolating study targets from their surroundings. And the knowledge gained through Indigenous science is managed by the community, in contrast to publishing all results and using patents to restrict access to certain information.

. . . Once research is underway, another key difference is how data are managed. Scientists often put data into a common repository open to everybody, and then write papers that are part of the public literature. But many Indigenous people believe knowledge should not be separated from its cultural roots and that the community should have the authority to decide what data can be shared and what may need to be kept confidential.

Thus indigenous science aims to control not only the research, but the data resulting from the research. The restricting of access to original data is highly unusual and is frowned upon by scientists. If indigenous science is to be “braided” with modern science, it should be subject to the ethical norms of modern science, which means that results don’t count as “knowledge” until they’re published, disseminated, and tested by others. And if you publish your results, it’s incumbent on you to give the data that went into your results to other scientists who request it, for that’s the only way people can check the veracity of your results. Otherwise, your data is confidential and cannot be checked. When I worked on flies, I was asked several times to provide original data, as well as stocks of flies that I manufactures genetically and used in public research. It was almost a scientific crime to withhold data and fly stocks!

But what is indigenous science itself supposed to do? Let’s take climate change as an example. Exactly what is the indigenous science of “climate change”?  Can we have an example of how ignoring other “social constructs” has held back knowledge of climate change?  It is the lack of examples and tangible projects for this and other aims that makes me dubious about the project of funding “research equity”. Indeed, the NSF funding appears to have been given without many specific projects in mind:

The center’s research agenda is a work in progress because deciding what to study is a key step in the process. Only a handful of an estimated three dozen projects has been chosen. With two-thirds of the center’s 54 lead investigators identifying as Indigenous, the NSF grant’s senior investigators see the center as belated recognition that Indigenous scholars must help set the research agenda.

It thus appears that there is no research agenda, yet these are not students being funded for their Ph.D.s, but adults.

. . . The climate crisis is propelling interest in coping strategies that incorporate TEK, which is the product of millennia of interactions between humans and the environment. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting 30 years for some scientific theory to trickle down to have an impact at the community level,” says Jon Woodruff, a UMass sedimentologist and co–principal investigator for the center. “We need to start right now, with the type of place-based, community-based research that the center will be supporting.”

Yes, yes, but what will the $30 million be used to find out now? We are not told.

As always, the writers single out one group-specific project to use as an example. But projects like the one below (or the “clam gardens”) don’t give me much confidence that the “braiding” will push science forward in a significant way. As usual, the examples involve the best way to harvest food—fish in this case.

For example, to harvest fish sustainably, the Passamaquoddy have begun to redeploy traditional fish weirs. These wooden structures have latticework that guides fish into an enclosed area during high tide, and then blocks their escape as the water ebbs. The weirs allow some fish to continue their journey upstream to spawn while yielding a harvest calibrated to the needs of the local community.

“It took a lot of traditional ecological knowledge just to place these fish weirs,” says anthropologist Natalie Michelle, a research fellow at UMass and a University of Maine postdoc who is a member of the Penobscot. “They would have to know the different currents in the ocean, the different depths at which the fish swim, the weather patterns, seasonal migration, and so on.”

Yes, this is knowledge, but it’s place- and group-specific. It is experiential knowledge, which is of course of empirical value, but this study would be hard to extrapolate elsewhere, though it might be useful for helping states get fish upstream. But I doubt that wooden fish weirs will replace the complex and expensive ways scientists have devised to allow fish to bypass dams.

One other project described involves not the acquisition of knowledge, but its dissemination to indigenous people:

Water is sacred to Simonds’s Apsáalooke or Crow community. But the rivers in southeastern Montana that have nourished their culture for millennia are now polluted, and their home wells are riddled with toxic metals. “We wanted to find a way to raise community awareness of the water problem,” says Simonds, who learned about her Crow heritage during childhood trips to the reservation to visit her grandmother. “We figured that a good way to reach parents was through the young people.”

Local community college students will sample and analyze water from sacred Apsáalooke cultural places and share their results with middle school students from the reservation, who in turn will test rivers and springs for Escherichia coli. The students will also hear from elders about the importance of water.

And again, this produces useful but local knowledge that stops after the students hear about it. But if local rivers are polluted in this way—with both toxic metals and E. coli—the results need to be reported to those authorities entrusted with protecting citizens.  But this is not really indigenous knowledge: it’s modern scientific knowledge, for how else do you test for E. coli or toxic metals? You use modern scientific methods, not traditional “ways of knowing.”   The only “indigenous” part is that it involves Native Americans.

So my two points are these. First, we should not throw money at indigenous projects until we see examples of how “two-eyed seeing” actually produces valuable knowledge and advances science. So far, the results are thin.

Second, if organizations like the NSF really want to do “braiding” they should braid indigenous people into modern science by funding education and opportunity starting at a young age. Otherwise, this initiative, like many already in place in New Zealand, feel more like performative actions: “We have to show that we’re responding to progressives by creating some kind of scientific equity.”

h/t: JG

27 thoughts on “Another report about the NSF initiative to braid indigenous ways of knowing with “Western” science

  1. “braid” is a perfect description of the alchemy of the dialectic – especially how the synthetic result is only in the imagination.

  2. Must be an error in this number! “NSF appropriated $30 for projects to “braid” indigenous Native American knowledge…”

  3. This is an incredible admission. I hope re-quoting it is OK:

    “Indigenous knowledge is place-specific, whereas Western science tends to seek universal rules that apply everywhere.”

    “Scientists often put data into a common repository open to everybody, and then write papers that are part of the public literature. But many Indigenous people believe knowledge should not be separated from its cultural roots and that the community should have the authority to decide what data can be shared and what may need to be kept confidential.”

    The authors make it sound as if science is somehow deficient for trying to seek and disseminate universal knowledge that transcends parochial obsessions of place and people. If I were writing a textbook on the differences between science and traditional empiricism/mysticism this is exactly what I would say but with the opposite spin!

    The proprietary claim to keep data secret is a universal (and reprehensible) constraint imposed by indigenous band leaders on researchers. Not only does the band demand to keep culturally inconvenient results secret, it won’t even permit individual community members to consent to participate in the research without the approval of the band leadership. This would be as if the reeve of your little village had the power to prohibit you from choosing to be a subject in research approved by the IRB of the sponsoring institution in the city.

    It’s egregious for Science to defend these practices and for the government to finance them.

    1. The part about keeping some results confidential can well mean that research that produces no useful results is, well, kept confidential.

    2. “… the community should have the authority to decide what data can be shared and what may need to be kept confidential.”

      This is one way to avoid a replication crisis in an academic field. Apparently, Indigenous Science has learned something from Social Psychology.

      1. [ I think you are quoting the source, so im not arguing with you]

        “community” needs definition.

        This word gets tossed around like mad, but it always strikes me to mean “except you”.

        Is there a dog owner community? Do people own dogs? Those are two completely different things.

      2. The replication crisis in social psychology arose partly (not only) because the field searched for novel or counterintuitive results using weak methods untethered to theory and based on p-hacking. Many studies using this approach were essentially noise mining with no real underlying phenomenon (see power posing). But every once in a while one of the studies would by accident produce p<0.05 and get published to much fanfare with TED talks and book tours (again see power posing), followed by multiple failed efforts to replicate the one "successful" result. Keeping data confidential and unpublished is the way to get a replication crisis, not the way to avoid one.

    3. +1

      There’s a concept out there :

      The Iron Law of Woke Projection.

      It’s said the Law never misses. Seems right on target here.

  4. The photo with that Science article shows a sunrise ceremony outside the “place-based” indigenous knowledge centre in Massachusetts in winter. I guess it’s meant in part to be a kind of thanks-giving with offerings. The offerings include strawberries (from California?)! One of the containers for offerings is a Pacific abalone shell. And the ceremony is being live-streamed from a rose gold MacBook made in Vietnam. Some braiding!

    I want to take these people seriously because $30m is a lot of money to waste and *something* good ought to come out of it. But they’re not serious people and they don’t really mean “place-based” in any specific sense. I guess this is better than the alternative: like the shaman fooling the patient into believing a placebo will help, it’s best for the shaman not to also be a true believer. For example, if these folks really believed in place-based indigenous ways of knowing, they would be proposing to train hundreds of knowledge keepers who would commit all the new data from this project to memory and pass it along through a Massachusetts oral tradition (Wampanoag). That was the indigenous way of knowing since time immemorial.

    The best we can hope for is a kind of placebo effect in which some indigenous students will get scholarships and jobs in research, all the white people involved can feel good about themselves, and all the Asian and African people involved can just quietly shake their heads. But the root causes of underrepresentation of indigenous people in science will go unaddressed because as Jerry noted NSF and universities and research centres can’t solve economic and social problems in childhood.

  5. The concept of “two-eyed seeing“ is nonsense. You can have one way of knowing -science-, or one for every culture in the world. In Canada, for example, we should have Mi’kmaq science, Québécois science, Cree science, Ukrainian Canadian science, etc.

    1. I was thinking the same except in terms of Crow science and Apache science. I wonder how these “sciences” establish what is true when their findings differ.

      1. Obviously, ‘two-eyed seeing’ is repugnantly offensive as it is irredeemably bi-gotry.
        And bi-gotry is really, really bad.
        FLY-eyed seeing is the way to go as it encompasses many many facets equally.

        Ramesh 2% Denisovan-sighted.

  6. When one side of a population is dominant over another, this inequality can be fixed by either making both sides equal or creating a new situation where the power shifts to the formerly dominated. If knowledge and success are shorn of their context and treated as prizes distributed to winners, then awarding an indigenous myth the status of a tested scientific theory is fair.

    If we’re lucky, then indigenous science will be the Participation Trophy of Science. You came to the game, suited up, and ran around on the field trying to be helpful: yay you! Thanks for coming.

    If we’re not lucky, then indigenous science will actually change the rules of the game. Thanks for nothing.

    1. Yes – quote:

      “2. The imperative of becoming open institutions fostering epistemic dialogue and integrating diverse ways of knowing.”

  7. After expending the $30M and getting no braided results of value, will the NSF abandon the project? Continued funding should be results driven, no?

    1. Surely you jest!
      Look at the National Institutes of Health and their National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), established in 1999.
      From the NIH website: “The mission of NCCIH is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.”
      Millions and millions spent over nearly 25 years, and with no results of value.
      How about: “The mission of NCCIH is to find out, through rigorous scientific investigation, whether complementary and integrative health interventions have usefulness and safety and any roles in improving health and health care.”

      1. +1

        Almost 25 years later, “define” sort of… sticks out like a red flag, but it would have sounded compelling at the time.

        If only anyone knew…

        Because obviously, it has been defined now.

        Maybe I could apply for a job and declare I will “define” my position and salary in the company…. I guess we sorta do, but anyway…

  8. Weir fishing is practical at the mouths of tidal estuaries, particularly in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy where large tides occur. The Minas Basin is essentially one large tidal river with excursions of 70 vertical feet at new and full moons, unique in the world.

    For a take on modern-day commercial weir fishing without the woo, but with a healthy content of real science, check out this award-winning video from my part of the world. The fish caught in this weir are usually sold for bait. Popular edible species are caught in deeper water farther offshore which requires seaworthy boats. The long promontory in the background is Cape Blomidon. And yes, we really do talk like that “down the Shore”, as they say. 🙂

  9. Another great blog Prof Jerry. We now have a new government over here in New Zealand, Chris Hipkins and his fellow SJW cultists have thankfully left the building. The new govt is centre-right, so some things may change for the better….we can only hope. Cheers!

  10. I wonder if all indigenous knowledge of all the various indigenous groups agrees with each other? It is easy to imagine that they all have their own, mutually exclusive, origin stories, their own cultural stories and histories, even their own uses for medicinal plants and how to treat the animals they utilize. It will become unwieldy to simply “braid” them all together in one big incoherent theory of life. I agree, what is needed is to recognize that change takes time, and that we should ensure that indigenous people the world over receive good education that includes their own histories and culture (and language), as well as the sciences. And then, we should see how they incorporate their traditions into modern science.

    1. The above ^^^ (Jim Roper, but this isn’t personal) comment – especially the notion that it’ll be basically a mess – suggested I another round of Hegelian speculative philosophy / dialectic as it pertains to the topic (to alleviate my despair, I suppose, because I haven’t done it on this post):

      The dialectic posits contradictions between thesis (Indigenous “knowledges”, perhaps), and antithesis (Enlightenment perhaps).

      Contradictions in general are viewed in History (this is the concept of History Hegel uses) as a sort of conflict that goes through cycles of cancellation, resolution, synthesis, etc. until at an apex or “Omega” point at the end of History the pure Ideal has ascended through the Material to the Spirit – the purest synthesis without contradiction.

      The postwhateverists (maybe postcolonialists here) have invented a brilliant way to explain why the dialectic isn’t producing the expected results :

      social construction

      Thus, the big “braiding” project, as pointed out, can’t possibly work but ah ha! It isn’t working because someone isn’t socially constructing it hard enough!

      Mao had a way to deal with that problem, as we know. But that’s my admittedly novice understanding of how Hegel and postcolonial/poststructural/etc. theory link these social engineering projects.

      Last hasty note : Paulo Freire argues for decolonization of the mind (see Politics of Education) – the proposed education will be viewed as more attempted colonization, perpetuating the system of dehumanizing structures (Freire), when it should instead be overthrown (according to Freire). I should post quotes, but best to read Freire to understand his concept of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (and the book title).

      1. I just thought to BRIEFLY note:

        The praxis of social construction thus plays a role parallel to the “solutions” to escape sin in Christianity – perhaps devotion to God, accepting Jesus in your heart, sacrifice, repentance, etc.

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