January 15, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Will Decolonization Destroy Science?

A complex issue could have positive and negative effects.
One of the negatives could destroy Western science.

 

In its rush to appease woke radicals, Big Science* is not thinking clearly. It is embracing the leftist terms diversity, inclusion, equity, and the rest, while trying to show remorse for its past sins, like scientific racism and eugenics. While some of these moves are overdue, some could backfire. One leftist tactic is to pre-judge any institution they don’t like with the term “colonial” to brand it as racist. The emotional effect of this half-truth is to cast automatic suspicion on anything coming from Europe or America, including (but not limited to) western science. The twisted thinking is that the founders of modern science were predominantly light-skinned and must be judged as “white supremacists” automatically without further discussion. Some “woke” activists have gone so far as to assert that mathematics is racist, and almost anything white people do is racist. Conversely, they think anything “indigenous” must be embraced as pure and undefiled by colonialism. (see “Woke Science Is Dead Science, 12 June 2021, and “Wokeism Will Destroy Science,” 8 December 2021).

There is truth in the history of white European colonialism, but behavior is not the same as worldview, and should be kept distinct from it. History also shows examples of colonialism up to and including slavery and genocide by non-whites going back to the dawn of civilization. Because of the tendency to paint people groups with a broad brush, wisdom requires differentiating behaviors from worldviews. The historical fact that science was birthed in Christian Europe since the Middle Ages has nothing to do with skin color or colonial behavior per se. The founders of science intended for the scientific method to be a boon to all people, as it has been. The scientific revolution is now broad-based across all continents and people groups. Nevertheless, there have been abuses by white scientists against indigenous peoples.

With that background, let’s examine Big Science’s latest attempts to “decolonize” science. We will try to distinguish between bad behavior and worldview. Be aware that a worldview can certainly motivate good or bad behavior, but again, painting with a broad brush is ill advised. Some people with dangerous worldviews can act nice in person. Some people with constructive worldviews do bad things.

*Big Science is our term not for individual scientists, but for the journal editors, academic deans, media moguls, lobbyists and other power brokers who say they “speak for science” while censoring anyone who doubts the “consensus” as determined by themselves.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge into the scientific method (Nature). This “Career Feature” posted January 11 by Nature, edited by Saima May Sidik, gives space to five promoters of the decolonization of science. Let’s begin by noting commendable points.

  • Indigenous people usually have valuable knowledge of nature, such as which plants are good for food, how weather patterns or river floods will typically behave, and how to get from one point to another. This knowledge is useful to visiting scientists.
  • Indigenous knowledge was not gained by the scientific method, but was gathered and handed down over centuries as part of their folklore. Nevertheless, it sometimes can be true and useful.
  • All people deserve respect as human beings, whether or not they have a scientific education. Scientists should listen to indigenous people with humility.
  • Indigenous knowledge can help scientists on their projects, and should be compensated fairly.
  • Big Science and many leading evolutionary scientists have been the worst offenders in scientific racism and eugenics. There is a dark history of this in western science needing correction. (See 3 June 2021, 28 Dec 2020).
  • White colonialists (e.g., British Empire, the Dutch in South Africa, Belgians in Congo, white settlers in Australia) often came with a superiority complex, running roughshod over local traditions and cultures and displacing them from their land. Often the scientists that followed shared that attitude.
  • Some scientists have been elitist, coming into a tribe and expecting cooperation and assistance without compensation (e.g., 17 May 2009). Sidik writes,

Many scientists rely on Indigenous people to guide their work — by helping them to find wildlife, navigate rugged terrain or understand changing weather trends, for example. But these relationships have often felt colonial, extractive and unequal. Researchers drop into communities, gather data and leave — never contacting the locals again, and excluding them from the publication process.

Resting on the shoulders of giants: Caltech scientists, c. 1950, including Einstein. Their achievements were not due to their skin color, but to the worldview that bequeathed to them the value of reason, mathematics and rigorous explanation based on tested observations. The institution should have been more welcoming to non-white students and scientists (see 27 Nov 2021), but did not have to embrace unscientific worldviews.

Beware the Backfire

It would be hard to disagree with any of the above, but Nature goes too far. Its spokespersons suggest that the scientific method itself must become decolonized. For instance, Daniel Hikuroa calls Maori mythology (New Zealand) a kind of “science” that should be woven together with western science to make the two stronger. He doesn’t consider the possibility that combining two unlike things can also make both weaker, such as iron and clay, acid and base, or light and darkness. Dominique David-Chavez speaks of “indigenous science” and similarly assumes that integration of contrasting worldviews is necessarily good:

People often ask how can we integrate Indigenous knowledge into Western science. But framing the question in this way upholds the unhealthy power dynamic between Western and Indigenous scientists. It makes it sound as though there are two singular bodies of knowledge, when in fact Indigenous knowledge — unlike Western science — is drawn from thousands of different communities, each with its own knowledge systems.

These two writers are thinking along the lines of today’s leftist radicals who view the world as sets of “victims” and the “privileged.” This exacerbates the broad-brush characterization of people groups that creates animosity, war and revolution. A Biblical worldview would see every individual as a brother created in the image of God (see 17 Dec 2022).

Although the five writers encourage cooperation and respect for indigenous knowledge, they fail to see that integration of worldview assumptions can backfire. Can belief in witch doctors or spirits in the rivers and trees improve the west’s long effort to build knowledge on testable observation? How can belief in a cyclic universe, or belief that the highest good is to drop out and meditate, be good for science? Modern science was created to bring reason and testability to bear on knowledge of the natural world.

Overall, my advice to Western researchers is this: always be questioning your assumptions about where science came from, where it’s going and what part you should be playing in its development.

It’s ironic that Nature seems eager to import indigenous knowledge and religious myths into science, while they and most other academics are the same people shouting down creationists for their worldview, insisting on sharp lines of separation between “religion” and “science” (see Either-or Fallacy, False Dichotomy in the Baloney Detector). The Biblical worldview supplies a necessary and sufficient cause for the ubiquitous complex specified information seen in nature (i.e., intelligence), while the reigning Darwinian orthodoxy supplies nothing but “stuff happens.” Nature is apparently willing to respectfully listen to the doctrines of shamans but absolutely refuses to consider the vera causa of intelligent design, and continually works to censor it. In that regard, the appeal for Nature to be “questioning your assumptions about where science came from, where it’s going and what part you should be playing in its development” sounds like good advice.

There’s a reason western science has spread across the world and is embraced by most nations regardless of skin color or ethnicity: it is the fruit of centuries of reasoned argument using logic, mathematics and testable observations. Folklore is different. It may be correct much of the time (e.g., by observing that neighbors who eat a certain plant die), but the worldview assumptions are vastly different. From Roger Bacon forward, European thinkers tried to extricate folklore from knowledge by advocating testable observations. They distinguished scientific knowledge from magic and from simplistic explanations for things. They urged rigorous, bias-free observations, and the making of hypotheses that could be tested and replicated. Big Science could destroy this heritage with overmuch penance about past colonial sins. Errors in behavior can be corrected without undermining the foundations of science.

The founders of science were in large part Christians. They believed that the Bible presented an orderly universe that humans, made in the image of God and endowed with reason, could hope to understand. That’s why a sustainable scientific tradition arose in Europe, but not in other cultures, despite their successes in architecture and the arts. Isn’t it ironic that Nature would welcome Maori shamans into the scientific method but continues to censor today’s heirs of Boyle, Newton, Galileo, Faraday, Maxwell and others who revered the Word of God? If they continue on this “decolonization” track thoughtlessly, they could destroy the foundation they stand on.

Recommended Resource: See our biographies of 50 great scientists who were creationists and believed the Bible.

Anecdote: In Current Biology January 10, 2022, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonzo wrote a glowing tribute to George Washington Carver, but completely ignored his Christian faith – arguably the most important motivation for his scientific work, and the leading influence in his life. This is a huge slight against the famous black scientist, but is typical of the censorship that characterizes Big Science. The journals forbid any praise of a scientist’s religious beliefs (especially if it was Bible-based), preferring to portray any and all science as values-free and secular. Read our biography of Carver for a more balanced view.

 

 

 

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