Though you cannot fully know yourself, make an effort to detect your biases

Juliana Gallin hosts a monthly science cafe in San Francisco called “Ask a Scientist,” in which local members of the science community give a brief talk on a topic of interest to them and then field questions. It’s not always the speaker’s main focus, as in May of this year, when Berkeley vision scientist Ariella Popple spoke about broader issues of sensory perception, but the subjects are always interesting, and Gallin has built an appealing series with her curiosity and instinct for producing.

Wednesday night, the subject was “Native science,” and two speakers shared the stage: Rose von Thater-Braan and Isabel Hawkins. Thet worked together at Berkeley, where they met in the 90s. Hawkins is a research astronomer, and von Thater-Braan is a little harder to pin down. She seems to be a combination educator and corporate coach, but the CV published at her website is more of a biographical sketch, and it’s not immediately clear exactly what her path was to administration in a Berkeley astrophyics program (until 2000).

Nominally, Wednesday’s talk was about indigenous peoples’ methodologies for developing knowledge bases and how the Western approach to science can gain from a culturally competent understanding of those methodologies. So far, so good. But the result was an unhappy freighting of some words and insufficient precision with others that made it hard to take claims seriously. “The seriousness of environmental issues, a language bridge provided by the quantum world and the existence of a generation of Indigenous [sic] scholars has [sic] fueled the confluence of native and western epistemologies and revealed an emerging vision of a 21st century scientific paradigm.” So begins von Thater-Braan’s description of her Native Science Academy. In the course of the talk, “quantum” seemed to be invoked to yoke a supernatural, animist worldview with the hard sciences. “Empiricism is a first-order approximation [of indigenous science],” notes Hawkins, but von Thater-Braan steps in to stay that this observational foundation relies not only on the conventional senses but on the “metaphorical senses,” to access the spirit and energy that animate all the matter (and other phenomena) in the universe.

von Thater-Braan is Tuscarora and Cherokee, but most of the native science under discussion was Mayan because of the talk’s focus on astronomy. This lack of unity increased when the questions came out. Did the Mayans, with their superior sky knowledge and calendrical systems, understand that the earth was round? Yes, says one of the speakers. (No effort was made to address the difference between a disk and a sphere.) They believed the earth was a square, says the other. Indigenous science is based in the land, von Thater-Braan says. Except for Polynesian science (navigation), which is based in water. Polynesians could navigate the Pacific without timepieces because they used chants to keep time, says Hawkins. Really? Was this superior to their documented techniques of meshing stellar navigation, ocean current and swell observation, and observations about bird behavior – plus a probably healthy dose of trial and error?

There is a fun, anecdotal way to approach this material, and there is a satisfying, rigorous way. And then there is the way it was approached on Wednesday – anecdotal with some of the vocabulary of rigor. I’m not a scientist; in college I read literature, and my confidence in my conclusions had to be based on something other than experimental data. I have great respect for intuition, and I am comfortable with “science” being used as a bucket for various knowledge bases, without requiring “the scientific method” to be front and center. But I don’t see the value of privileging – in a sphere in which concrete answers are being sought – systems that confuse hypothesis with conclusion, that cannot distinguish between mythology and cosmology. If your “ways of knowing” can’t be tested, then how can you be sure they are illuminating rather than blinding?

Most disappointing to me was an uncritical assumption of heightened environmental awareness on the part of indigenous people, drafting the values of harmony and balance. It’s a view that strikes me as a little ahistorical in its lack of depth and attention to more pressing practical issues of geography and population. It was deepened here, though, into an explicit critique of (implicitly inherently) Western mindlessness and unsustainability, happy to name-drop the quantum without so much as lip service to equilibrium or thermodynamics, or to the elegance of seeking the simplest explanation for the broadest base of phenomena.

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