Oct 14 2016

Science Is Not Colonialism

science-fallismThis Youtube video is making the rounds. Relax, tape a deep breath, and take a look at the video.

The core point that the primary speaker is making is this: Science is nothing but Western colonialism imposed upon the African people (and presumably others). The only solution is for science to “fall” – she would like to wipe away all of science and start with a blank slate, so that Africans can develop their own knowledge.

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

After stating that practitioners can summon lightening, someone in the audience shouted “It’s not true.” While this might be considered rude, it is an understandable impulse. The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize. 

Science It Not Colonialism

Of course, I understand the historical context here. Europeans, with their “guns, germs and steel,” and a massively racist outlook on the world, did some pretty horrible things to indigenous people in the name of colonization. This did include imposing Western culture onto colonized populations.

I also have no problem with reasserting indigenous culture, which can be considered decolonization. That’s all fine.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Science is simply different than art, religion, and music, despite what the radical postmodernists would have you believe.

Science is transcultural. Science is, I would argue, anti-culture, it is inherently, therefore, anti-colonial. That is because the very essence of science is to seek objective truth that is separate from the assumptions of any particular culture. Science is about breaking cultural assumptions, dethroning authority and tradition, and using a transparent and egalitarian process to figure out what is really true.

If science is working correctly, then a lab in Japan should get the same result as a lab in Sweden. There is an international community of scientists collaborating and working together to push collective knowledge forward. Science, therefore, belongs to humanity, not to any one culture.

Of course the history of science is full of failures to achieve this ideal, because science is a human endeavor. The process of science has been subverted in order to pursue cultural and ideological ends, trying to prove that one race or one gender is superior to another, for example. Science is subverted when it is used in an attempt to prove that a religious belief is factual, or to write history in a way that is pleasing to one cultural group.

The speaker’s summary of our knowledge of gravity is simply wrong. This was not one white guy imposing his beliefs on the world through Western colonialism. Understanding the nature of gravity, and of mechanics, was the result of a process of discovery and experimentation. Not only that, Newton was later overturned (in a way) by Einstein. His description of gravity was correct, but incomplete, and had to be revised by general relativity. Our understanding of gravity is not imposed by authority, but is questioned, tested, and challenged. We provisionally accept it now because it has withstood dedicated attempts to disprove it.

The irony is, by advocating for the abolition of “Western” science in favor of “African” science they are promoting a cultural and colonial view of science. They are arguing that science does not belong to humanity, and that African scientists would come up with different answers than other scientists. What they clearly really want is for science to authenticate their cultural beliefs, so they are making the same mistake as creationists, deniers, and revisionists.

This would be a massive disservice to Africa and Africans. This would, again ironically, be magnifying the harm that colonialism did to the continent, by motivating them to separate themselves from the collective human journey of science, to reject the principles of science itself, and to enslave themselves to the traditions of their past.

In fact, part of racism is to deprive indigenous people of the opportunity to participate in science. Arguing that Africa should rid itself of science is therefore playing into the hands of horrible racism.

The witchcraft that the speaker apparently wants to preserve from the discriminating eye of science is not a good thing. Belief in witchcraft victimizes children, and albinos, and women. It deprives Africans of effective medical care, and has greatly magnified the HIV epidemic in that part of the world.

This problem, of perceiving science as Western colonialism and advocating for indigenous science, is not unique to Africa. Unfortunately it has significant ideological support from well-meaning people who are appropriately horrified by racism and exploitation. Attacking science is just misguided, and will achieve the exact opposite of what its proponents hope.


There is no Western science, or African science, or Asian science, or Native American science, or any modified science. There is only science. Science is only science when it strives to rise above authority, above the assumptions of any one culture, and when it is open and transparent.

The ideal of science is that ideas are judged entirely by their merits, by their logic and evidence. Anyone wishing to oppose racism or colonialism should therefore enthusiastically embrace the principles of science.

Rejecting science in favor of a cultural subversion of science is harmful on many levels. It mostly harms the people who embrace such notions, and ironically magnifies the harm of racism and colonialism.

Unfortunately the video, in my opinion, shows people who have the certainty of self-righteous fury (even if the fury itself is historically justified), and who believe that shutting down discussion and shaming those who might disagree with them is the way to advance their misguided cause.


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