Aboriginal Science

Both Lorenz and Tad have linked to this article about “two University of Victoria researchers are changing how science is taught in B.C. schools.”

I laud the efforts to show the value of traditional Aboriginal forms of knowledge discussed in this article, but I cringe when I hear them use the term “science” in order to legitimate such knowledge.

“The big, central questions here are what is science, and is aboriginal knowledge science?” says Snively. “We’re saying it is science, and that every culture has its own science. Right now, there’s a complete blank—traditional knowledge is not only devalued, for most teachers it doesn’t exist.”

When I last mentioned Meera Nanda’s criticism of “Vedic Science” in a comment here, Oneman replied that Nanda’s criticism was flawed because she was attacking Vedic science on the same political grounds that its defenders supported it. Fair enough. However, I think that the political issues here are important. Moreover, I think that there are good grounds for arguing that science is not anything we want it to be.

The politics are simple enough (in my mind). How can we keep creationism out of our science classrooms if we simultaneously embrace “aboriginal science”? The answer is we can’t.

The problem is that to accept all belief systems about the natural world as science makes nonsense of the term science. Whether it is intelligent design or aboriginal knowledge, these forms of knowledge are important to those who embrace them, but why do we need to label them as being “scientific” as well? It is true that many things aborigines know through their traditional forms of knowledge have, in fact, been proven to coincide with scientific knowledge as well. But some have not. This alone shows that traditional forms of knowledge can never be coterminous with science.

Scientific knowledge carries far greater status in our society because it offers us control over the material world in which we live. This, in turn, serves the interests of those who seek to profit from such forms of knowledge. This is why, for instance, pharmaceutical companies have been so interested in studying traditional knowledge systems. If they can find areas where traditional knowledge can be shown to have a scientific basis then they can profit from it.

But the solution to the relative status of traditional knowledge compared to science is not to simply label knowledge as “science.” It is to find ways create space within which it can find legitimate expression in our society and be accorded a status other than “superstition.” It is also to better educate people about scientific knowledge and its limits, so that all citizens can better distinguish between good and bad science. Seeking to give traditional forms of knowledge the same status of science accomplishes neither of these goals. Even worse, it makes it harder for us to understand why we should care about traditional knowledge. After all, if it is simply science with another name, why bother?

8 thoughts on “Aboriginal Science

  1. I think that there are good grounds for arguing that science is not anything we want it to be.

    And the greatest of these is the systematic search for data to DISCONFIRM hypotheses. No other type of knowledge does this.

  2. Kerim … Your post and assessment is great, and the distinctions you make between science and traditional/aboriginal knowledge are very useful. The idea that TK = science is, indeed, unfortunate. You final paragraph makes good sense and it is helpful for Canadians (in British Columbia anway) to read it since the ID debate is not as prominent here.

    To extend the discussion, I wonder if a difference in the use or application of traditional knowledge and intelligent design stems from its promoters? Until now, I have thought that the motivation to include ID in classrooms comes from its proponents. In contrast, the use of TK has occurred typically in biological or environmental studies as the work of biologists in non-classroom settings; those using it are trained to evaluate the TK in relation to their scientific aims. And, it has had little visibility among the wider public.

    (This, of course, is loaded with its own problems — including the ideas that you could actually equate TK and science and that TK is somehow the domain of non-native scientists for furthering their research goals. It also begs further study about how TK is conceived of or used in aboriginal communities themselves — or if they even think about their knowledge in these terms when they are not collaborating on government or university-directed research projects.)

    What this article points to is the idea that aboriginal educators are now asking that TK be included in science curricula. In my experience, this is a new use of TK which, as you suggest, runs the risk of devaluing it even further because even with such inclusion it is likely to be held up as ‘something that isn’t science but is like science.’

    Then there’s the question of the label ‘traditional knowledge’ itself which probably risks constant comparisons with ‘true science’ simply by sounding like something that is old.

  3. I find it interesting that the fight is over whether aboriginal knowledge is “science.”

    The word science can be used in two ways, I suppose. First, as the scientific process, and second, to refer to the products of that process.

    It seems that aboriginal knowledge is self evidently neither. Its a set of things which a group of people believe, not an epistemological process, so it doesn’t meet the first. And it was produced by different processes, so it doesn’t meet the second.

    I think that when people like those linked to in the above article say that aboriginal knowledge is “science,” what they are really arguing is that aboriginal knowledge is not mere superstition, and should not be completely discounted by nonaboriginal people.

    That’s an entirely different proposition, and one which has a better chance of making sense.

    I also, however, don’t like the use of the term “knowledge.” The western world has a reasonably effective means of parsing out the difference between knowledge and belief. The valence of an element is generally “knowledge,” the seating arrangements next to god’s throne in heaven are “beliefs.” I think its clear that its worthwhile to treat these two types of “known” things differently, even if we don’t always agree on the exact boundaries.

    So I’m not sure its appropriate to call aboriginal knowledge “knowledge.” It seems to be a jumbled up system of knowledge and belief, and with no built in manner of determining which is which, the only way to do so that I can think of is to apply science.

    Which puts us back where we started, I suspect. A presumption that its superstition until science can verify.

  4. So I’m not sure its appropriate to call aboriginal knowledge “knowledge.” It seems to be a jumbled up system of knowledge and belief, and with no built in manner of determining which is which, the only way to do so that I can think of is to apply science.

    Lets look at the law. We include scienctific evidence as one of many kinds of evidence for determing “the truth” in a court of law. We also rate and categorize the various different types of evidence.

    Now, if we look at other societies, we find that there are different systems of classifying forms of evidence, there are even different kinds of institutions that exist to determine the truth in disputes. So I don’t think it is correct to say that only science counts as a system of knowledge, and that only those with scientific knowledge have ways of distinguishing what is truth and what is belief.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t unique features of scientific knowledge systems, but I think it is going too far to claim that only science is “knowledge.”

  5. Patrick wrote:

    So I’m not sure its appropriate to call aboriginal knowledge “knowledge.” It seems to be a jumbled up system of knowledge and belief, and with no built in manner of determining which is which, the only way to do so that I can think of is to apply science.

    If we were to define science in strict Popperian terms (wherein hypotheses must be falsifiable), we can also define knowledge in Popperian terms.

    In _Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach_ Popper proposed that knowledge was not limited to the phenomenal world. He was perfectly accepting of the fact that knowledge extends beyond the boundaries of science, per se. And, if I remember correctly, he seemed to imply that our knowledge had its own validity independent of the objective world.

    Therefore, though it would seem perfectly proper not to label Aboriginal belief systems science, they certainly could be called knowledge. After all, we all know things that are not subject to any test of falsification. And some of them might even be true!

    Of course, is Social Science knowledge or science in the strict Popperian sense?


  6. I think Patrick’s account of TK is the jumbled one. Iirc, in epistemology 110 we learn that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’, so it seems to me all knowledge also involves an element of belief. I think what he means to say is that while TK is justified (i.e. part of a rational and describably cultural logic) and believed by its adherents, it might not be true. Equally, we might say that TK knowledge is true (yes, those berries DO cure caner) but their justification for it (a cultural logic that articulates with traditional medical practice) is wrong (we really know it cures cancer because of some biomedicinally-specificed chemical properties).

    The anthropological contribution to this discussion is merely to point out that ‘justification’ relies on an underlying logic which is always culturally given.

    I agree with other commentors who have noted that the problem is the way that ‘science’ is considered the only form of knowledge or knowing worth pursuing. Science’s brand is so great that most people endorse it — or, in the case if IDM, oppose it — without understanding very well what it actually consists of. Revalidating ways of knowing that aren’t science doesn’t mean attacking science, it just means pointing out that there are other ways of knowing things or considering things true. This is true both ‘outside’ of ‘Western’ culture (in the case of TK) and true ‘inside’ of it as well (where all sorts of practical knowledge are devalued when people compare them to ‘science’).

    It seems like most of what the researchers are doing is finding culturally-appropriate ways of teaching science, and articulating it with other kinds of knowing — and this seems like a very good thing to do to me.

  7. I will at least grant that my account is jumbled.

    However, I think I’m at least getting at something.

    Its always seemed to me that the knowledge as “justified true belief” definition is an impoverished one. At least within my experience, the religious people I know are convinced that their belief in god is justified. However, they also consider their belief in god as fundamentally different from their belief in toasters, which they also consider to be justified. I think people generally recognize that their epistemology is different between the two categories, and usually label one “knowledge” and the other “belief.”

    It seems that categorizing the whole of what is purported as Traditional Knowledge as “knowledge” is an ellision, or an application of the no true scotsman fallacy.

    I do not understand the proponents of TK to be arguing that all widely held beliefs are “knowledge.” Some must be something else. When dealing with TK, how are we to tell which is which?

    That’s where the comment about science came from. It wasn’t meant as a blanket endorsement of science as the only means of knowing, it was meant to illustrate that I don’t see how one could evaluate the varying purported bits of TK, without resorting to non TK reasoning. Which, once you’ve done it, negates the need for TK as anything other than a source for leads to be followed up on by western science.

    Think about how it would play out, in real life. Here comes an advocate from an aboriginal people. This advocate gives you a list of claims, which they purport to be Traditional Knowledge. These include, variously, 1) don’t eat the red berries on the plant with the jagged leaves, 2) when sick with shivering chills, eat roots from the plant with the fluffy cattails, 3) our people have lived in this exact spot since the beginning of time, and 4) this dance ceremony, if properly performed, will improve harvests.

    Some of these are “knowledge,” and probably some are not. Now, we could just perform an ellision, and call all of these Traditional Knowledge. Or, we could perform a no true scotsman, and say that only those claims which are justified true beliefs are Traditional Knowledge.

    But of course, we don’t know which are which, do we? Or if we do, its because we resorted to double checking these claims via another epistemology- and our tool for evaluating competing claims about the manner in which the world functions is science.

    On related, and shorter notes,

    1) As a law student, if I EVER hear someone describe witness testimony as “knowledge,” I will bust my gut laughing.

    2) I never seen anyone actually arguing that aboriginal peoples have different “ways of knowing.” I’ve seen them use the phrase, but they’ve always been referring to aboriginal peoples having different “sets of things which they claim to know” than does the western world. Is there anything I could read that would explain what these “different ways of knowing” actually are, in terms of the different methodology? Are they really that different from what your average westerner does on a daily basis? If the issue is not “means of knowing,” but rather “competing sets of assertions about the world,” suddenly I think this gets a whole lot simpler. When dealing with differing epistemologies, you can be philosophical. When dealing with competing claims, one side gets to be wrong.

  8. Patrick:
    You’re defining knowledge as a justified true belief (a classic definition from epistemology). And, if you want to define it that way, go ahead. But I don’t think there’s any consensus out there about whether knowledge has to be a JTB (let alone correspond to some exterior reality). Personally, I think Gettier poked holes in that argument.


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