Jun 04 2018

Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Science and the enlightenment are under assault from many directions, and in many incarnations, but they all tend to boil down to the same basic idea – other ways of knowing, and a rejection of the rigorous academic standards typified by science and scholarship.

One form of science rejection is being called “indigenous ways of knowing” (IWK), which refers to the traditions and culture of native people, typically historically oppressed by Western aggression and colonialism. Dealing with this topic can be tricky, because often the grievances are legitimate, and calls for a rethinking of the relationship between indigenous people and their former colonizers is appropriate. The problem comes from science and scholarship getting caught up in the process, being treated like just another example of imposed Western culture.

Josh Dehaas, writing for a Canadian paper, Quillette, discusses the situation in Canada, in which many universities are incorporating IWK into their curriculum. He correctly points out the problems with this approach, but the situation is not limited to Canada.

In Africa there is a similar movement, characterizing science as just another form of Western colonialism. This was a huge part of HIV denial in South Africa and elsewhere – treating the concept of HIV as the imposition of a Western idea onto native Africans, and a rejection of African cultural medicine. While HIV denial is on the wane, defense of ineffective prescientific treatments as “indigenous” is still a thing.

We even this a similar phenomenon when it comes to environmental protection. Saying that we should no longer hunt whales can be seen as just another assault on an indigenous way of life. It’s not their fault that Westerners overhunted whales (or cut down the rain forest, or whatever), so why should they pay the price? They have a point, but that point does not change the fact that some whale species are endangered and we shouldn’t be hunting them.

In the end, this is all just another form of post-modernism wrong applied to science – the notion that all “ways of knowing” and all knowledge are relative. No approach has a lock on the truth, not even science.

The problem with taking post-modernist principles to far in this way is that science and rigorous scholarship are not just cultural ideas, they are methods that have demonstrable value, and have been shown to work. As I like to say, there is nothing magical or even cultural about science. Science is a set of methods used to make our conclusions more reliable. It’s like tempering steel – when used properly it can make steel much harder, regardless of what culture you come from and what part of the world you live in.

Science is about various intellectual virtues rigorously applied: looking at all the data, not just a possibly biased subset of the data, using logic that is internally consistent, using clear and unambiguous definitions, controlling for variables so we know what is affecting what, and being as fair and unbiased in judgments as possible. In order to institutionalize these virtues, science is transparent and involves peer-review.

It is critical to understand that, by definition, any “alternative” to science or “other way of knowing”, therefore, involves cherry picking evidence, using bad logic, using vague definitions, making poor observations complicated by confounding variables, or operating in an opaque rather than transparent manner. None of those are good things, no matter what culture you come from. As Dehaas points out – these other ways of knowing always amount to simply saying, “Trust me, we know.”

Further, regardless of the culture from which scientific ideas historically emerged, they are good ideas. Every culture and all people would benefit from incorporating them into their ways of thinking.

IWK usually involves calling current superstitions and spiritual beliefs “wisdom” and then exaggerating how ancient that wisdom is, coupled with the “argument from antiquity.” Just because an idea has been around a long time, doesn’t make it true. It may just be appealing.

Some ideas are also objectively bad. Slavery, for example, is a bad institution and has no place in a modern enlightened world. I don’t care if slavery is part of your indigenous culture (hypothetically), no one has to respect slavery.

IWK, in my opinion, is also extremely counterproductive. First, it is possible to respect indigenous culture and history without pandering to pseudoscience. Art, language, customs, traditions, and mythology are all an important parts of culture, that can be understood and respected from a modern perspective. The fact is, that indigenous cultures are now part of a modern world. They do not exist in isolation any more. They do need to find a way to survive contact with the modern world, and not be obliterated by it, and I respect that.

That means that they do need to adopt a more cosmopolitan and enlightened perspective. This can actually enrich their culture, as they will see it as part of the complex interwoven history of all of humanity. Their mythology will look different in the context of all human mythology, which they now have access to. This means they can no longer legitimately pretend that their culture’s historical perspective on the universe is still valid. All cultures see the world from their own perspective. Contacting other cultures means seeing the world from many perspectives, and being able to look back at your own culture from a new vantage point.

This should all be seen as a positive thing. Yes, it requires adapting and evolving. Science in particular is a new and dramatic tool, but so it philosophy, and technology. There is no reason why an indigenous culture cannot incorporate the best aspects of the combined human culture into their own. Sure, they have historical wisdom, but so does humanity, and it is a bit hypocritical to demand absolute respect for their culture (regardless of inherent value) while rejecting combined human culture with demonstrable value.

In rejecting science and scholarship in favor of “Trust me” knowledge, they do their own culture a disservice. They also set up a conflict that is unnecessary. They set their culture on a trajectory that, I predict, will not work out well for them in the long run, precisely because it conflicts with objective virtues like honesty, transparency, logic, and consistency (again, that is all science is).

Another way to look at it is this – science transcends culture. That is part of the entire point of science, to rise above the perspective of any one culture, to establish methods that work for everyone everywhere, every time. Science treats knowledge as an open shared human resource. All cultures can therefore adapt their own particular history and customs to the shared human culture that is emerging out of our multicultural world.

No one should expect to be exempt, no matter how historically abused they were. In fact, promoting IWK in my opinion is just another form of abuse, compounding the historical oppression with a new modern oppression. It only serves to deprive people of the best of shared human culture out of fear, xenophobia, and nursing past grievances (if legitimate).

There is a better more enlightened way to respect both indigenous and shared culture.


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