Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Aboriginal Science - Pseudoscience Or Valid Paradigm?

These days, skepticism seems to be all the rage. Thanks to the onslaught of the 'nu-atheism' over the past decade as exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as well as the exploits of celebrity debunkers like James Randi and Michael Shermer, mainstream intellectual culture appears to have taken a much-needed turn away from lukewarm political correctness to the point where skepticism and secular humanism is the new new-age spirituality. While 'atheist' remains a loaded term, 'skeptic' anymore is tantamount to 'intelligent' - at least in the less benighted corners of the developed world.

The Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines skepticism first and foremost as "an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object," while also noting the term's frequent use within the context of religious faith. These days, skepticism is largely synonymous not only with the world's major religions but also with new-age beliefs, alternative healing modalities, traditional worldviews and anything else deemed pseudoscientific. And in the hard-edged world of the nu-atheists, this means a no-quarter attitude to many of the cultural sensitivities that we've learned to take to heart. After all, how can we criticize Southern Baptist faith healing without applying the same standard to Inuit shamanism or Ibo animism. To do so would be cultural relativism, which, the skeptical argument goes, is far more racist and orientalist than applying an even standard to all of the world's cultures and creeds.

The trouble with the skeptic movement - if you can call it that - is that there does exist a fine line between skeptical inquiry and cultural imperialism. And while I agree with Sam Harris and others that entire groups of people can indeed be wrong on scientific as well as moralistic fronts (the Taliban being a textbook case), I also take the view that as skeptical inquirers we need to be careful when stepping onto unfamiliar cultural terrain and indeed 'skeptical' of our own intellectual grounding. Such is the case of so-called 'Aboriginal science', a term that has gained considerable traction in Canada as well as in Australia over the past decade. A growing chorus of indigenous intellectuals, together with their non-Aboriginal supporters, have taken the position that indigenous knowledge has historically been written out of the mainstream (i.e. Euro-American) scientific narrative and that 'Aboriginal science' should be elevated to a position equal to that of 'western science'.

Important learning....but does that make it science?
There are several obvious problems with this argument from a skeptical standpoint. For one, it implies that 'science' is a cultural construct - and that this construct is intrinsically western. It also implies, much the same way that religions do, that there are multiple truths and that all points of view should be given equal weight regardless of how well they stand up to objective 'scientific' scrutiny. At first glance, this argument sounds disturbingly similar to the argument put forth by advocates of 'Intelligent Design' creationism, who routinely cast the mainstream scientific community as a sort of intellectual cartel dead-set on silencing theories that don't mesh with its ideological (read Darwinist) axioms.

At first glance, the Aboriginal science argument indeed sounds a lot like the intelligent design argument. Aboriginal science advocates such as George Hobson argue that western scientists "have a tendency to reject the traditional knowledge of native peoples as anecdotal, non-quantitative, without method and unscientific." A 2005 article in the University of Victoria newspaper The Ring makes similar claims, namely that 'western science' has effectively written out an equally valid scientific viewpoint. In this article, Gloria Snively, an associate professor of science, environmental and marine education, asserts that:

"The big, central questions here are what is science, and is aboriginal knowledge science. 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."

Is this simply pseudoscience along the lines of intelligent design creationism? To my mind, the answer is yes and no. Given that the generally accepted definition of science the world over is that of a quantitative, non-anecdotal approach to studying the universe, it is probably fair to say that the traditional oral transmission of knowledge does not constitute a separate 'science'. Science requires universal applicability in order to be of any consequence, which makes the notion of separate sciences abjectly non-scientific. On the other hand, it's an indisputable truth that North America's indigenous people possess vast knowledge of the lands they have inhabited for millennia, and that this knowledge has been systematically overlooked by Euro-American scholars. In this sense, the advocates of 'Aboriginal science' have a very strong case indeed.

While it's easy for western scientists to reject the notion of an 'Aboriginal science' on the grounds that science is simply science and belongs to no specific culture, such arguments do little to curry favour with ethnic and cultural groups that have for centuries been consigned to the margins of our society. Science may indeed be simply science, but the cultures that have dominated its language, its institutions and its practice have for centuries been white westerners (as well as, of course, men, which remains a significant problem in our culture). Moreover, traditional knowledge indeed has a colossal amount to offer to scientific knowledge, particularly in regards to its practical applications in terms of sustainable living.

It's still a bunch of white dudes.

To mind, the crux of the problem is linguistic and cultural rather than scientific. While few - if any - of my scientist friends would deny the importance of learning from all available sources and maintaining an open mind, most would invariably balk at the notion of separate 'sciences' based on cultural delineations. Science is indeed science - an ever-expanding body of knowledge that has benefited from wave after wave of discovery and innovation, much of which (especially over the past couple of centuries) has come out of the 'western' world. On the other hand, the word 'science' has, thanks to Euro-American parochialism and patriarchy, become synonymous with grey-haired white men in lab coats (in other words people who look and sound like Richard Dawkins). No amount of 'skepticism' can erase this fact, and to those who have been excluded for centuries, this matters a lot.

The word 'science' is a loaded word, a word which to many is - wrongly or not - synonymous with Eurocentric intellectual elitism. This, to my mind, is the main shortfall of the nu-atheism movement heralded by Dawkins and others. While Dawkins is a canny communicator, a phenomenal wordsmith and arguably the best PR man ever thrown up by science, he and his fellow travellers fail to adequately acknowledge their own inherent privilege - and how that privilege is perceived by people from other socioeconomic and cultural background who might otherwise embrace their worldview. If I were a scientist eager to encourage all of humanity to climb aboard Spaceship Science, I would be making it my mission to demonstrate how all cultures throughout history have contributed to the betterment of scientific knowledge and address this all-important issue of privilege. Call it political correctness if you like. I just call it good communication.

We need a lot more of these.
From Aboriginal standpoint, this means not only greater collaboration between scientists and Aboriginal elders but also improved science education in reserve schools, for which increased funding is needed. It means more Aboriginal science teachers and conferences like TEDx Hobbema and TEDx Six Nations. (If we can have a TEDx Mogadishu, surely we can have one of these!) It means a cultural reframing of what science is with a view to making the scientific world friendlier and more inclusive.

It might even behoove the scientific community to follow the example of Canada's Christian churches and embark on its own healing and reconciliation campaign and atone for past indiscretions against indigenous groups, which have included plundering gravesites, trespassing on traditional territories and generally treating indigenous people like lab subjects rather than as equal partners in the pursuit of knowledge.

And as for the Aboriginal worldview, I would argue that it constitutes a school of philosophy rather than a separate stream of science. But then again, who's to say that philosophy is a less important academic discipline than biology or physics? It is, after all, a 'social science'.


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