The nonsense of ‘indigenous ways of knowing’

The DEI agenda is a menace to science and reason.

Stephen Knight

Topics Identity Politics Politics Science & Tech USA

There was a time when you could count on the left to defend science with the sort of zeal that would make a religious fundamentalist blush. Scientific knowledge was once gleefully wielded to expose and mock the magical thinking of creationists, anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, astrologers and homoeopaths. However, this staunch commitment to scientific empiricism has recently begun to waver. It is now increasingly coming into conflict with the new tenets of the ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ (DEI) agenda.

You can see this clearly in the Biden administration’s proposed new guidelines for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS). As the Washington Free Beacon reports, staff working in public-health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDA), which are overseen by the HSS, could soon be instructed to consider ‘multiple forms of evidence, such as indigenous knowledge’ when going about their duties.

Put simply, advocates of ‘indigenous knowledge’ argue that various cultures throughout history have their own ways of understanding the world. And these alternative, indigenous ‘ways of knowing’, they say, should be utilised alongside more established scientific methods in research and in policymaking.

Yes, some DEI advocates really do think that public-health bodies should seek the input of tribal elders and spiritual leaders – alongside, say, qualified physicians and epidemiologists. What’s more, they believe that racism is the only reason it has taken so long for indigenous knowledge to be utilised in this way. They argue that science is a ‘Western, colonialist structure’ that has only come to dominate our thinking thanks to white supremacy. This nefarious falsehood began in academia, with calls from activists to ‘decolonise’ science. Now it has reached the highest levels of the US government.

The Biden administration is not even the first Western government to sacrifice science to the DEI agenda. Last year, the government of New Zealand decided that science classes in schools should teach that Maori ‘ways of knowing’ have equal standing to ‘Western science’. Scientists who objected to this found themselves under investigation by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Three of them, including one of Maori descent, resigned from the society in protest.

The claim that science is ‘Western’ is absurd, of course. One of the many wonderful things about science is that it does not discriminate. Science is a universal, cross-cultural concept. It invites anyone and everyone to participate and contribute to our growing understanding of reality. Science does not care about what you look like or where you come from. All science cares about is whether your methods and conclusions are sound enough to survive scrutiny. This clearly cannot be said for indigenous knowledge.

This is why there aren’t any ‘indigenous’ ways of flying an airplane that supersede our scientific understanding of aerodynamics. Or why the NHS doesn’t offer exorcisms as part of its mental-health services. A blood test administered in a clinical setting will yield the same results whether it’s carried out in London or Nairobi – because science actually works anywhere you do it. It’s about the ‘how’, not the ‘who’.

If every single piece of scientific knowledge were erased tomorrow and we had to start all over again, we would eventually come to the same conclusions as we have today. This is not true of indigenous knowledge, because, unlike science, it is not underpinned by logic and reason.

We all know that treating indigenous knowledge as akin to scientific evidence is a bit silly. But I suspect that is probably the point. Like with trans-rights ideologues, today’s self-professed ‘anti-racists’ like to frame statements of the obvious as akin to acts of bigotry. It gives them enormous power over the rest of us. We are all essentially being dared to say that relying on indigenous knowledge is a terrible idea. Of course, if you do say this in the wrong circles, you will be accused of racism and you will be silenced.

With modern-day anti-racism, the goal is not to address actual inequalities or to improve the material wellbeing of oppressed minorities. The real aim is to tear down anything that is perceived to be ‘white’ or ‘Western’. And the fact that science is now being placed in the firing line, thanks to racial identity politics, should worry us all.

The suggestion that the gold standard of science is a uniquely white or Western standard is as ludicrous as it is racist. It perpetuates the deeply prejudiced idea that non-Western or non-white groups cannot grasp the basics of science, and therefore it would be unfair to expect them to. This is tantamount to claiming there is an innate quality possessed by white Westerners that makes them uniquely suited to the study and advancement of science. This notion would not seem out of place at a KKK rally, yet it is a depressingly common view among so-called anti-racists. This is the bigotry of low expectations.

The push by the White House to incorporate indigenous knowledge into public-health policy is unbelievably reckless. It arrives in a post-pandemic context when public trust in our scientific institutions is already at an all-time low. Surely, that trust will now only fall further. After all, how can we possibly trust that those tasked with looking after our health are doing so effectively, when their objectivity has been so clearly compromised?

Science often gets things wrong, of course. But unlike indigenous ways of knowing, science rewards you for catching errors. It incentivises the pursuit of truth over accepting received wisdom. There are no religious commandments or cultural dogmas dictating the scope of scientific investigation. Science simply finds out ‘what is’ – and to hell with any sacred cows that are slaughtered along the way.

Standards of objectivity are essential when it comes to science and public health. We should make no apologies for defending them from the encroachment of pseudoscience, whatever form it comes in.

Stephen Knight is host of the Godless Spellchecker podcast and the Knight Tube. Follow him on Twitter: @GSpellchecker

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics Politics Science & Tech USA


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