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?