The Myth of Indigenous Science

In the early 20th century, there was great scientific enthusiasm for “rays”. Following the discovery of ultraviolet, x-rays and radioactivity, everyone wanted to discover a “ray” and stick a letter in front of it. When the distinguished French scientist Prosper-René Blondlot announced his discovery of “N-rays” in 1903, it became a matter of intense national pride.

The problem was, no-one could replicate his work outside France. British and German scientists were particularly sceptical. The entire debate quickly played out along nationalistic lines, in the years leading up to WWI. British and Germans sneered at the shortcomings of excitable “French science”. The French, in their turn, sniffed at plodding “German science” and its limited imagination.

If such accusations seem absurdly racist today, then you’re not keeping up. Racism is very much back in vogue with modern intellectuals, under the guise of “ethnoscience” and “indigenous science”.

There is only one problem: there is no such thing as “indigenous science”.

Science is a Western idea. It is also a very new and unique idea – the very terms “science” and “scientist”, in their modern sense, only came into usage in the 19th century.

Science, according to historian David Wooton was invented in Europe between the 16th and 18th century. Philosopher and physicist Paul Davies is adamant that, had some cataclysm destroyed Europe before then, science would likely never have emerged.

But, while science was invented in the West – and nowhere else – it does not belong to the West. Science is, by definition, universal. That is, scientific results and ideas are judged by their own merit, not by the status or authority of the person presenting them, nor by their identity. A black, homosexual woman measuring the speed of light, for instance, should obtain the same results as a white, heterosexual man.

Science is neither “western” nor “indigenous”. Science just is.

But, what exactly is science?

Contrary to popular imagination, science is not just a collection of facts and observations, nor is it defined by lab coats and technical equipment. Science is a particular way of thinking and organising knowledge. To quote Davies again, “the key elements of the scientific method are scepticism, critical enquiry, subjecting hypotheses to rigorous tests, the importance of advancing explanations that are open to falsification, and the need to change and adapt concepts in the light of new facts”.

Well-meaning as it may be, the push to recognise so-called “indigenous science” is antithetical to real science.

It is true that indigenous people were often acute observers of their natural environment. This should surprise no-one. Their very survival often depended on keenly observing the local environment and changes in vegetation, weather, the night sky, and so on. There is a growing awareness and appreciation of the wealth of detailed observation that indigenous peoples accumulated.

But observation alone is not science. Indigenous star lore is no more astronomy than reading horoscopes.

There is an immeasurable conceptual gulf between observing, say the Pleiades, and concluding that they are the glowing fire-sticks of the seven Karatgurk sisters, or the goddess Freyja’s hens, and modern conclusions that they are a nearby cluster of relatively young stars. The first two – like all mythological explanations of natural phenomena – are supernatural, closed explanations. These explanations are not subject to critical enquiry or scepticism. They belong wholly to what Carl Sagan called “the demon-haunted world”.

“Ethnoscience” is joining “feminist science” in the post-modernist assault on knowledge. Indigenous superstitions regarding human remains are being used to shut down archaeological research which often busts self-serving mythology. Against the patronising, romanticised myth of pre-European Australia as an “Eden of harmony and pacificism”, research conducted on remains suggests that it was, in fact, extraordinarily brutal, not least for women and children.

Such politically-incorrect research is increasingly impossible, as remains are declared off-limits and “repatriated”. Even an exhibition of Viking artifacts was censored by Melbourne Museum to mollify Aboriginal activists.

However well-intentioned, such leftist vanities are inimical to science and reason. At best, “indigenous science” is patronising bullshit, more often, though, it’s racist and anti-science.

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