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.