Is indigenous science actually pseudoscience? Yup

Below are the first couple of paragraphs of two papers I have written about the ongoing problem (in Canada) of “indigenizing” the university, i.e., of introducing so-called indigenous science into standard science courses. Spoiler alert: with all due respect to indigenous people and what they have suffered, I think this is a terrible idea. You can download the two full papers here and here. The full book can be obtained here.

First paper: Is Indigenous Science Pseudoscience? A Response to Gorelick

There has been much debate of late about alternative ways of doing science, particularly within the delicate context of Indigenous practices in Canada, Australia, and other countries around the world. Some authors have called for the integration of what they refer to as traditional ecological knowledge into university science education curricula (Snively and Corsiglia 2000); others have made an even broader call pertinent to science in general (Michie 2002). Some have suggested that not just science education, but science proper, will benefit from the integration of Indigenous methods, especially when it comes to practical applications (Johnson et al. 2016).

The debate is often understandably emotional, as it is set against the background of the lingering aftermath of colonialism (Williams and Chrisman 2013), and within the broader issue of multiculturalism (Race 2015) and the productive coexistence of different traditions within a given society. It is also often framed in terms of pseudoscience (Pigliucci and Boudry 2013), with (some) critics of Indigenous approaches dismissively labelling the latter as pseudoscientific, and defenders of such approaches striving to show that they represent legitimate alternatives to what is often characterized as “Western” science. …

Second paper: Is Indigenous Science Pseudoscience? A Further Response to Gorelick

I wish to thank Root Gorelick for his kind words about me at the beginning of his response, though I would hardly recommend anyone to “revere” me! That said, his second piece is a bit all over the place, which makes it hard to pinpoint crucial aspects to respond to in a short follow-up. Nevertheless, I will highlight what I think are Gorelick’s major points and offer a counter- commentary.

He begins with an apology: “I am defending Indigenous ways of knowing despite being a naïve white person. There is nothing Indigenous about my carpet-bagger heritage.” This (in my view unnecessary) bit of self-deprecation is then followed, later on in the essay, by criticizing me as the white man who has not checked his privilege. For instance: “‘Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury,’ a luxury that we have as professors, being in a place of privilege [implying that I am a hypocritical individual who is unaware of his privilege, since Gorelick has just checked his own publicly] … Modern proponents of Indigenous ways of knowing strive for inclusivity, not usurpation nor conquest [implying that I am on the side of usurpation and conquest].” …

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Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

12 thoughts on “Is indigenous science actually pseudoscience? Yup”

  1. Still working my way through the two papers Massimo but of course you are correct. More broadly, however, aren’t the other forms of the woke-ization of academia subject to the same criticisms? Critical Race Theory? A focus on lived experience rather than scientific data?

    Based on your essays, I would expect that shortly you will be called an “extreme right winger” or even “white supremacist” if this gains traction. After all, even mathematics itself is considered racist by the leaders of the woke:

    https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=10005

    https://money.cnn.com/2016/09/06/technology/weapons-of-math-destruction/index.html

    But “racist” is too vague a term for math, it is really a “white and heteronormatively masculinized space”:

    https://dailycaller.com/2017/08/04/vanderbilt-professor-says-math-education-is-sexist/

    I mean, these days, ripped from the pages of 1984, we learn that 2+2 does not actually equal 4, unless you are a white supremacist:

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/math-professor-claims-equation-2-2-4-reeks-of-white-supremacist-patriarchy

    And I thought it was the right that was anti-science…I guess both sides have their moments…

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    1. Montana, I call it as I see it, we’ll see what others call me when they decide to pay attention to what I say.

      Critical race theory has made some good and welcome contributions to the discourse, but yes, it can and certainly has gone too far.

      As for the cases you mention, more than half of your sources are highly questionable (Washington Examiner, really?), so I’m not going to comment on them. But yes, some of that has certainly been going on, and as you can see I’m willing to stick my neck out when I see it.

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  2. When it comes to the TCM debate, I open up patiently that the Europeans also had traditional medicine, it just happened to be done away with new evidence, even if there was a couple practices they may have gotten right coincidentally. If my point isn’t being received after a few exchanges, I drop it.

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  3. “Indigenous science” is indigenous expertise, technical knowledge, no more no less. But given that political theorists are now called scientists and the Holberg Prize covers theology I’d say Gorelick has plenty of company.

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  4. If you accept there’s less bullshit in Kristeva’s feminist criticism than Elster’s “Analytical Marxism” or anything having to do with “rational choice” we might agree.

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  5. Regarding the habits of polar bears, in case of disagreement I’d take the word of local Inuit peoples over that of visiting scientists from down South, no question. Ditto probably for other sub-polar species. Regarding biological classification, I’d at least give Inuit methods a hearing, since the ‘Linnean’ method is itself rather ad hoc. The further we get from actual experience and into theory, the more weight I’d give to non-Indigenous perspectives. The best ‘Western’ scientists who do fieldwork tend to listen a lot to the locals anyway.

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    1. Martin, that’s right, local knowledge is valuable, and often integrated into the broader scientific perspective. But it doesn’t constitute a “different way” of doing science.

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    2. This is an an argument among rationalists.
      Science and history are empiricist. Descartes thought history was bunk. Philosophers worry that history gets in the way of philosophers “doing philosophy.” That’s the point were rationalism becomes either formalism –art for art’s sake– or irrationalism.
      https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/money-and-the-early-greek-mind-homer-philosophy-tragedy/

      “The best ‘Western’ scientists who do fieldwork tend to listen a lot to the locals anyway.”
      It’s still debated. There’s no expertise divorced from politics. See “doing philosophy” above.

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    3. @Massimo: continuing with the example of biological classification: the Linnean system is actually rather a dog’s breakfast, combining structural, ecological, functional and genetic criteria in a rather arbitrary way, often influenced more by historical precedents than anything else.

      It’s ‘scientific’ in the anthropological sense that it’s used by scientists, but it’s not ‘scientific’ in the same way as, for example, Einstein’s theories are. The Demarcation Problem is unsolved and perhaps unsolvable, but if a clear line were to be drawn, I suspect the present way we classify species would be on the ‘wrong’ side of it. Another highly intelligent species inhabiting Earth would probably discover General Relativity or a similar theory, but I do NOT think they would come up with the Linnean classification.

      Also, many species are classified by scientists who do not live among the beings they are classifying, but just do a quick ‘drive by’, and thus are probably missing much important information.

      So I’d be very open to Indigenous alternatives to Linnean classification, and think it highly probable that they might incorporate some insights we are currently missing. On the other hand, of course I think it highly unlikely that Indigenous science would have anything useful to say about General Relativity.

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    4. Martin, the Linnaean classification is currently used only as generic nomenclature. Biologists now use cladograms (diagrams summarizing evolutionary relationships) to group living organisms. I think another intelligent species would arrive at the same conclusion.

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