Education, Features, Science

‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking and Spirituality by Any One Name

At a conference in British Columbia this month, a self-described “Indigeneer”—the word being a portmanteau of “Indigenous” and “engineer”—described the ways in which traditional Indigenous knowledge could be productively injected into contemporary science curricula. “All too often, Western science will make a so-called discovery after years of research really confirming what elders have been telling us for decades, for tens of thousands of years in some cases,” one of the conference hosts told the CBC. “The idea of bringing traditional ways of knowing together with empirical data and science is important.”

Such conferences are part of a larger trend in Canada. From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

It is entirely true that Indigenous cultures have amassed valuable knowledge for millennia—from the creation of beautiful and elaborate origin stories, to the development of ecological know-how, to the observation of basic principles of astronomy. But these elements tend to be universal within all cultures, including Western cultures as they have passed through earlier stages of scientific development.

In recent centuries, the Western tradition has created a suite of intellectual tools that did not develop in other cultures–such as the scientific method, which requires that new claims be tested, replicated and scrutinized by one’s peers before being accepted. As applied through such mechanisms as peer review, the scientific method permits us to separate fact from folklore. To the extent the implementation of IWK would require the dilution or relaxation of these practices, it would undermine one of the primary purposes of our universities since the Enlightenment. Perhaps this explains why the most enthusiastic advocates of IWK specialize in liberal-arts disciplines that apply extremely loose (and subjective) standards to the question of what is true.

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

Even if one is willing to look past the Eurocentric construct of a Venn diagram (the creation of a 19th-Century English logician), a careful reader will note that what Restoule is advocating here is a combination of magical thinking and spirituality. One can imagine how such vague ideas might be applicable to fields that already are premised on a rejection of the boundaries imposed by linear styles of thought, such as meditation, holistic medicine, or highly abstract forms of identity politics. But the encouragement of “dreams” and “visions” isn’t useful—some might even suggest is it dangerous—when one is teaching the principles of, say, pharmacology, electrical engineering or emergency medicine. This is troubling, because OISE is Canada’s leading teacher’s college. What is taught at OISE today likely will become part of curricula around the country tomorrow.

Oren Amitay lectures on psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, just down the road from OISE. He’s one of the few Canadian academics who will say openly what many scholars will only say privately: that IDK is simply a new bottle in which to sell the postmodernist idea that all truths are equally valid.

Amitay has educated himself about sweat lodges and other First Nations practices, and is open to encouraging faculty and students to make sure that Indigenous perspectives aren’t overlooked. But he’s firm on his belief that IWK, to the extent the idea has any substance at all, is antithetical to the accepted methods that universities use to create, test and transmit knowledge. “That PowerPoint presentation didn’t come about because you took caribou skin and carved the presentation on it,” he says, referring to Restoule’s lecture. It came about because of the scientific method.

As Amitay sees it, IWK often translates to a variation of “trust me, we know”—which “has never worked out well.”

“[Someone] could say that ‘trust-me-we-know eugenics is good science.’ Or ‘trust me, we know that the sun rotates around the Earth.’ Or ‘trust me … communism is better for you.’ But it doesn’t make it true, and it doesn’t lead to progress.”

Frances Widdowson, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, also criticizes the aggressive promotion of IWK in university curricula. As with Amitay, her critique is not aimed specifically at Indigenous peoples themselves. Rather, she is deeply skeptical of the manner by which white culture has co-opted certain fashionable Indigenous themes—a subject that she wrote about in her 2008 McGill-Queen’s University Press book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

Indigenous elders who hunt polar bears may insist that they “know” that the polar-bear population is healthy because they’re seeing more bears around their communities in recent years. But rigorous scientific studies have found that bears are wandering further into populated areas because a warming climate is melting sea ice, making it harder for bears to catch seals, thereby inducing bears to engage in unnatural behaviors in order to find food.

Widdowson recounts the story of an Inuit man in northern Quebec who got frostbite so severe that his boots froze to his feet. Instead of going to a doctor or warming up his feet, he turned to an elder, who suggested he pack them in wet snow. Eventually, he was coaxed by the RCMP to a hospital where doctors informed him that his reliance on traditional treatment methods might have cost him his feet.

Many ordinary people already are too susceptible to claims that mainstream medicine and science is trumped by some higher, spiritually experienced system of natural energy flow. A 19-month-old Calgary boy died of meningitis in 2012, for instance, after he his parents chose to treat him with hot pepper, ginger root, horseradish and onion instead of taking him to hospital. Yet, as Widdowson points out, traditional Indigenous healers now are being invited to Canadian medical schools to teach similarly unproven theories.

It is possible that some non-Indigenous Canadians are promoting these ideas, as a Quillette writer recently pointed out, because they believe that Indigenous people, by their very biological composition, embody “quasi-mystical, even magical, properties” that are inaccessible to white people. But my own sense is that most of those who sign on are simply afraid of being called racists.

We also should remember that, however warm and fuzzy the principles of IWK may sound, it also has become a business opportunity. In recent years, the demand for more IWK in curricula has created a niche for those who present themselves as an expert in this vaguely defined area. As with other efforts to expand the influence of other cultures in schools and businesses, IWK draws in educators, consultants and administrators whose job is to help these institutions match action to words. These programs also are sometimes accompanied by demands that those who teach the subject be allowed to do so without the normally required credentials, as is recommended in a recent report prepared for Ryerson University.

Restoule, it should be pointed out, earned $147,588 from the University of Toronto in 2016. James Zimmer, the vice-president who implemented IWK at Widdowson’s university, took home $181,828 that year. The vice-president of equity and community inclusion who co-authored that report for Ryerson University, Denise O’Neil Green, is paid an annual salary of $205,341.

There is money to be made by promoting faddish academic theories, even when there isn’t evidence to back them up.


Josh Dehaas is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.


  1. dirk says

    I can understand that indigenous people stress their knowledge and experience, that’s their pride. I worked for a pharmaceutical Cy and collected curare in the Amazon, this rough curare was worked out further into b-tubocurarine (with a complicated chemical formula) and, after many try outs on animals, worked into a preparation to be used in operations (as a muscle relaxant). Now, the indians invented curare as a muscle relaxant, know how to extract it from certain plants (strength depending on the site where collected) and used it for centuries now (Humboldt saw it already done) in their hunting tactics, blowpipes. Now, who can apply for the patents on the medicine? Do we owe the Indians for appropriation of this knowledge, and the profits made? One thing is for sure: both the Indians and the pharmaceutic Cy have brought in their share of wisdom/experience/knowledge. They should shake hands.

    • dirk says

      Mistake, again: the right name = d-tubocurarine.

    • Martti O. Suomivuori says

      The indians killed prey with their curares. We use their analogues as muscle relaxants to facilitate surgery. But tubocurarine is not in clinical use in anesthesiology since the seventies due to its long duration of action and the severe allergic reactions it caused. My anesthesiology professor in Helsinki loved the product and hang on to it until his retirement. Haven’t seen a single ampoule of it ever since, anywhere.

      Those were the days, today we use cis-atracurium and mivacronium as they are easier to control and less likely to provoke untoward reactions.

      • dirk says

        I know Martti, finally somebody who knows about this stuff, but 1975 we still bought the raw curare from producers in Peru, to the NL, and I even found out in the middle of the peruvian bush how to grow the Curarea (or Chondrodendron sp.) twines (as a crop, it needed a lot of support, but I harvested the first and probably only domesticated curare ever in 1976), however, same as with the Dioscorea plant in Mexico, as the basis for the anticonception pill, it was changed then into more artificial ways of producing, and I also lost my job at the time, the work didn’t need any agriculturists and forest dwellers any more , it was done by chemists only. Nice to hear this from you, greet your professor, I still must have some curare and a blowpipe somewhere stored.

  2. stephen buhner says

    I understand the thrust of your article and you make many good points but unfortunately you are failing to discriminate subtleties sufficiently, which is a common problem when these topics are addressed. In essence this allows an overly binary orientation and an over simplification of the “two” sides.

    I have worked on this topic for over 40 years and written a number of books addressing it in depth. I agree that there are significant vagueness problems in the ways that IWK is presented, that its proponents are often not rigorous, and that quite often IWK is used in socio-political ways that have, in reality, nothing to do with IWK, that, in fact, far too many proponents of IWK are using it to support the incredibly dangerous belief that the biology of individual groups allows them access to knowledge that other groups do not have. That orientation is simply a form of the kind of racism that fueled Nazi ideology emerging once more under the guise of cultural sensitivity and respect.

    On the other hand the way you present “science” shows little understanding of its nature. “Science” does in some respects resemble your description of it, however, any depth research (carefully concealed in open access peer review journals and numerous research analyses contained in books buyable on Amazon) reveals that the practice of what you are calling science is hardly so monolithic. It is in actual fact filled with bias, political motivation, desires for money and power to the extent that the field itself needs to be and should be taken with a very large grain of salt. (The work of John Ioannidis is a good place to start; he is hardly the only one.) Both IWK and science are subject to the same limitations that all human beings have always possessed and those limitations affect outcomes; both, to the unjaundiced eye, possess deep problems. Those problems do need to be addressed. Science, for instance, does need to be understood as only one tool for approaching knowledge about the world, a tool whose use is, like all tools, dependent on the skill of the user, and a method of thought that is far more often than realized corrupted by unconscious processes in the ones using it. These are crucial points and moves any useful discussion of your topic into a more competent complexity.

    As to your comments re “dreams and visions.” I have looked in depth at the acquisition of sophisticated plant knowledge by a large variety of indigenous groups by examining the actual words of tribal members who did so prior to contact with Europeans. There is in fact a coherent articulation of a far different method of gathering depth understanding of the world than scientific reductionism and rationality.

    I then looked at historical acquisition of such knowledge in non-indigenous groups (for instance Goethe’s, Luther Burbank’s, Jagadis Bose’s, George Washington Carver’s, and Masanobu Fukuoka’s work with plants). All of them were utilizing the same processes that indigenous plant specialists articulated, in some instances, utilizing the same general wording.

    And lastly I looked in depth at the work of scientists such as Barbara McClintock,superficially at a number of others such as Crick and Watson, Einstein, and Buckminster Fuller. My own early training in mathematics played a part as well. I want to stress that the vast majority of scientists, if they are any good at their work, commonly report that the emergence of the most important insights they garnered did in fact occur in dream states or as a visionary burst that came out of the blue. The dynamic all of them describe, to one extent or another, is not only similar to that reported by pre-European tribal members but also to the state that many writers enter as they develop story, which is one of the primary reasons that art produces insights that are often far more sophisticated than the scientific method does, or can.

    I have to admit that tendency to binary thinking on these issues is irritating to me. The simplicity of thought that leads to such binary thinking that your article illustrates depends to a large extent on actually NOT using the sophistication of thought that you ascribe here to those who utilize science (and who often don’t). It reveals a lack of depth, analysis, comprehension of thought, investigation of the topics discussed, and repetition of cliched ideas that have little basis in reality. The truth is that science as it is now practiced is severely limited, based to large extent on inaccurate representations of the world (which is why so many of its outcomes contain unexpected impacts), and interest group bias. As merely one instance: antibiotic resistant bacteria emerged from an interrelated grouping of inaccurate assumptions about the world around us — that bacteria are not intelligent, that we are, that evolution has ended, that the world is a static background to which we can do what we wish without repercussions.

    What we, as humans, do need to do is create a system of thought and exploration of the world that actually has something to do with the world around us and with who we are as human beings. That means, just as one simple example, understanding the pervasiveness of the experience represented by the phrase “dreams and visions” and the degree of importance it has to understanding the world around us.

    • burns says

      This is a superb response to a somewhat heavy handed article. The fear of being called racist can bring about an over compensatory embracing of identity politics, of ‘white guilt’ that elevates traditional ‘ways of knowing’ to status for which they were never meant. This only reveals there is a lack nuance in understanding exactly what it is indigenous people’s divination practices in there most authentic settings reveal – a meaningful way in which to orientate human consciousness toward the unfathomable mystery and misery of existence.

      That we thought-spoke and experienced reality in a multilayered poetic language which revealed the metaphorical meaning of the reality we inhabited, for most if not all of our evolutionary history, seems to me a fundamental truth, the foundation of who and what we are and how we came to know. We were birthed lived in the realm of metaphor, in the flow of the stream of imagination, and it was brutal and harsh but we survived, in fact we learned to thrive.

      In the trade off off between scientific utility and an animist world view, we over look and excuse Plato’s more mystical inclinations, we write off Jung as a wannabe mystic deluded by a psychotic episode, Goethe as not a ‘real’ scientist like the alchemist Newton, Henry Corbin as a scholar whose work is tainted by the delusion Imaginal projection, and in doing so further alienate ourselves from ‘excursions into enchantment’, the magical alternative ‘ways of knowing’ which connect us to our soul and the soul of the world.

      Scientific reduction-ism, despite it unassailable utility, has diminished and impoverished the rich paradoxical nature of our experience of being, but we can still catch a glimpse of it here and there in “dreams and visions”and we should and we must nurture the vitality this bring to us and our culture. We should do all we can to encourage honour and value appropriately custodians of ancient ways of knowing, and not let this just cause be hijacked as a pawn in the battle for ‘political correctness’.

    • ccscientist says

      It is true that scientists use intuition, and this can differ by culture, but THEN they test it. We do not proceed simply on intuition, which is what some IWK people want (ie no criticism).

    • BillyJoe says

      The scientific method is the only way of finding out what is true. The only way we know to separate the wheat for the chaff. You have confused the scientific method with the all-too-human scientists who practise it. The failures you mention are not failures of the scientific method but the failure of individual scientists. Science works, and that is undeniable. The evidence is all around you.

      Science gave us quantum theory which gave you the computer on which you criticise it. Science gave us relativity theory which enabled us to understand the previously unexplainable precession of the perihelion of Murcury and, from a more practical point of view, the GPS system which needs to be adjusted for gravitational time dilation to be of any use. It has given us cars, planes, jets, rockets, radio, television, washing machines, clothes driers, the Internet,…..

      And of course I agree there is the creative process which often involves intuition, dreams, and trance likes states. But the point is that this is where non-scientific so-called “ways of knowing” mostly stop. The lesson of science is that you have to subject this to scrutiny in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. For medicines you need replicated, peer-reviewed, randomized, double bind trials in order to separate what works from what you only think works. There is no other way to do this.

      The contributions from other so-called “ways of knowing” crumble into insignificance in comparison. Nothing comes anywhere near close to the progress made by science. And this is not racism but undeniable fact that is everywhere in evidence.

      • dirk says

        Just accidentally, yesterday in my newspaper I read that the Bacon method (don’t trust the books and the bible, but your observations, experiments and reasoning) 17th century, was the start for the real science,slowly to grow out, develop and be so succesful later,, though, it was still by Goethe dismissed as an easy sidepath of knowledge. The real science was the dream, the imagination, the ideal plant, and not the lab trials with peas and weeds.

        • dirk says

          As was Goethe’s Farbenlehre, About Colours, with which he dismissed the Newton study (and modern theory) on what light actually was, and how it behaved under certain conditions. Goethe did not consider this method as useful or true, instead he proposed his IWK way of reflecting on the essentials and true values of light. Of course, they were both right, and spoke about different aspects of light (as has been more amply explained here in the comments of Daniel, Stephen and others). Sometimes I think that Peterson’s method more closely resembles that of Goethe, than that of Newton

        • BillyJoe says

          Philosophy is the handmaiden of science, not its leader. Nobody ever made any useful contribution sitting in an armchair philosophising and disregarding the fruits of science.

          • dirk says

            Some philosophers in an armchair Billy, other indigenous pundits under the sky and in the field on mocassins, it’s more gnosticism of course, knowledge from within, a different type (but not completely) as the Bacon methodology, but certainly one with more appeal. A scientific publication is read and understood by 10 or 20 dull colleagues, a philosophy on nature and humanity by millions.

  3. Marko Novak says

    This is simply another attempt to equate feelings (IWK) with facts (scientific method). The progressives are using the indigenous spin to silence dissenters by calling anyone who challenges this racist.

    Yes, indigenous people have knowledge to share, but the act of them sharing it does not make it true. If that were the case, every ancient parable, fable, myth and legend from every ancient religion or culture would also instantly be true. Of course this would also justify the mass murders and genocides perpetrated by these cultures and religions as well. The reasons for these atrocities become validated so they were necessary.

    So very shortsighted.

      • Marko Novak says

        It’s laughable that you only mention that Republicans /conservatives exploit feelings to counter facts. Both sides have been using this, that’s politics. It’s been liberals however that have been using intersectionality recently in an attempt to silence dissenters of their attempts to equate their feelings to facts. If you disagree with their narrative you are accused of being racist, homophobic, chauvinistic, hating children, etc… These are false equivalencies and attempting to paint those who disagree with any singular point of your ideology as evil people is pretty disgusting.

        • Skip says

          @Marko Novak

          Of course all politicians appeal to voter feelings (e.g., emotions, beliefs, predispositions), but the GOP is the past master of using counter-factual messaging in this regard. The time-honored Southern Strategy is a good example of leveraging feelings to blame the economic and other disadvantages of the target voting demographic on that group’s favorite bogeyman. Trump made a lot of hay with this tactic by misrepresenting the overall U.S. economic situation as dire and attributing the plight of those left behind by the modern world on the “other” and the Dems who represent them.

          BTW, I’m not sure how intersectionality — the interconnectedness of the systemic issues of various social groups — relates to exploiting feelings v. facts, but I can assure you that disparaging those who disagree with you is nothing new. In my adult lifetime I’ve seen conservatives brand Vietnam War protestors to kneeling NFL players as traitors, which is indeed pretty disgusting.

          • @Skip: “I’ve seen conservatives brand Vietnam War protestors to kneeling NFL players as traitors, which is indeed pretty disgusting.”

            You refer feelings-based approach of one side to the same approach by the other side.
            And you claim only one of those is “disgusting”. I don’t think it’s disgusting. It’s something else. This is called “politics”. In this context “disgusting” does not describe reality around you, it only describes you as part of that reality.

    • Skip says

      @ Vello Masing

      The “disgusting” referred to vilifying the other side, not to using a feelings-based approach as a political tactic. If you had read more carefully you would have noticed that I view progressives as overplaying the race card and all politicians as appealing to voter feelings. However, it seems to me the insidious combining of making counter-factual assertions with leveraging people’s feelings has become the norm in GOP messaging. Over the past 30 years it has gone from a dog whistle to a bull horn.

      Tell me, though, what does this actually mean in more straightforward language: “In this context ‘disgusting’ does not describe reality around you, it only describes you as part of that reality.”? I was an intelligence officer and a weapon systems engineering manager, and over 50 years removed from university and the sophomoric need to appear clever when handing out insults.

      • Skip says

        Edit: “…engineering manager so I’m partial to clarity, and over 50 years…”

    • Skip says

      @Victor Lestyan

      Thanks for the links; interesting stuff. While I’m not familiar with those mentioned in the essays, I can more prosaically cite Frederick Loewe to say “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.” 😉

  4. defmn says

    //In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective.//

    I guess it is fair, then, to point out that the knowledge that all ‘knowledges’ are subjective is, itself, subjective. 😉

    It is a weakness of the rhetoric supporting the democratic way of life that over time the political myth of equality conflates with equality of knowledge – not to mention all other aspects of the human condition.

    Lacking a metaphysical structure to support the concept of standards inevitably leads to the conclusion that all perspectives are equally viable.

  5. marigold says

    “It is entirely true that Indigenous cultures have amassed valuable knowledge for millennia… But these elements tend to be universal within all cultures…In recent centuries, the Western tradition has created a suite of intellectual tools that did not develop in other cultures.”

    In other words, only white people can claim to have developed unique intellectual traditions. This idea is so ridiculously false it’s almost not worth addressing, except that there are so many people taking this website seriously. Look into disciplines like permaculture to see the many, many ways that academics are learning from IWK. Horticultural societies, in particular, provide an incredible amount of skills that are essential for alleviating the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Many of these skill sets are not found in agricultural societies, including virtually all of those that define the Western tradition. Maybe the author of this piece could try looking into the huge amount of research done in this field of study instead of whining about how IWK proponents are getting defensive, since it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t done his research. Two excellent places to start are Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison as well as Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson. Anyone interested in studying higher education could benefit from understanding how direct experience could benefit disadvantaged students while also providing knowledge that will benefit society. For example, many people might learn biology more effectively in a greenhouse rather than a lab. While the current trend of postmodernism is almost entirely destructive in nature (sometimes necessarily so), the IWK tradition can, by contrast, provide a paradigm of practical learning that is sorely missing in today’s academic climate.

    • BillyJoe says

      This is not about identity politics. The scientific method works. It doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is.

  6. ga gamba says

    European folk remedies were amongst the first knowledges subjected to the scientific method. Yet, prior to the age of discovery a scientific method was occurring in Europe. By about 1100 AD philosophers, clerics, and physicians had organised five Latin texts into a textbook called Ars Medicinae (“The Art of Medicine).

    Remarkable, right? Apart from perhaps improving the patient’s mood (the placebo effect) most of the regimens and prescriptions in the texts would not have cured any condition. This was determined by testing them using the modern scientific method.

    The underlying principle of medieval medicine was the theory of humours. This was derived from the ancient medical works, and dominated all western medicine until the 19th century. The success of herbal remedies was often ascribed to their action upon the humours within the body, and herbs were selected based on their resemblance to the afflicted part of the body. It was thought God created these as a sign.

    Modern botany arose in the 16th century, and it was at this point that clinical pharmacology as we understand it emerged and the importance of resemblance began to weaken. In the 19th century pharmacology as biomedical science was established.

    I’m not disputing the potential that Indigenous treatments and remedies offer benefit to a patient, but certainly they must be tested with the same rigour as all others. But herbalism is a challenge to study because in most herbal traditions, the patient is diagnosed, s/he’s given an herbal remedy, and s/he returns. If the patient’s symptoms have changed, s/he may get different herbs, s/he may get different doses. How do you study a model where things are changing as you go along? Do we want to squeeze this all into the Western medical model, or is that going to change the whole way that this medicine differs from purified-compound medicine? Treatments certainly don’t deserve carte blanch simply because they came from an indigenous community, and if they are to be integrated they had better be done for reasons of science and not to assuage white guilt or placate “restless” natives.

    Understand this: The West used the scientific method to eliminate resemblance, humours, and even astrology (Ptolemaic Universe) from its own long-ago medicine, thereby tossing the past and its own traditions into disrepute, and it should continue with such a standard.

    To be fair, even Indigenous beliefs aren’t alone in dodgy practices. This US doctor deliberately misconstrues the title of the aforementioned old text, writing:

    Arts and medicine were always connected: Ars Medicinae, “The Art of Healing.” Due to the rapid development of technology in the last 100 years, our attention was drawn to the physical realm, and we lost our connection with the deep and powerful mystery of our consciousness. Re-integrating arts and medicine can restore that connection. […] The same artwork that you might see in a gallery or at the exhibition radiates completely different energy when you interact with it in a hospital. In places where people come to heal, different communication channels are open.

    He declares doing arts and crafts in hospital will make patients feel better. Perhaps so, and in conjunction with real medicine at least these practices don’t violate the “do no harm” principle. Yet, the doctor I think over-eggs the efficacy of art.

  7. Frances Widdowson says

    This is an excellent article. Are we finally realizing that the Emperor has no Clothes? I discussed many of these same points in a presentation at Wilfrid Laurier University on May 9 –

    The only thing that I would disagree with is that science did not develop exclusively in the West. It occurred also in Arabia, China and India. The take-off of scientific research after 1500 relied on a foundation that was developed by many cultures.

    The sophistry of the “earth poet” above (Stephen Buhner) is a distraction from the fact that science is a rigorous methodology. The general observations of all of our ancestors were protoscientific; they lacked the disciplined methods to prevent us from being misled by an unrepresentative observation. The fact that various biases creep into scientific research is irrelevant. This constitutes a contamination of scientific methodology, not evidence that science itself is biased.

    The “dreams” and “visions” that are claimed to be a “way of knowing” are nothing of the sort. We do not “know” something because we saw it in a dream. The only way that something can be “known” is if the belief is shown to be based on the best evidence that is available. You might have a hypothesis that you develop from a dream, but the only way that this could become knowledge is if there is evidence to support it and this evidence is more comprehensive than that which supports other competing explanations.

    • stephen buhner says

      The lack of intellectual rigor in your response is astonishing. If you have not studied in depth what i am speaking of, then all you are doing is repeating something you heard somewhere or superficially considered. again, not very scientific. Forty years of focus on this exact topic makes clear that rigor was very much a part of the type of knowledge acquisition i am speaking of, whether in precontact tribal groups or earlier European and Asian cultures or even now in our own scientists who do understand what i am speaking of.

      Science can be a rigorous methodology in theory but as a rule it will always fall short of becoming error-free. Having read extensively in the history of science, the works of those who analyze the work and methodology of scientists, and some 35,000 peer review journals the past decade i can tell you with great certainty that what you call science will always have methodological problems, one of the most serious being that its proponents inevitably believe it the ultimate form of inquiry into the nature of things — itself an obvious and unprovable bias. That bias, in and of itself affects outcomes. Without multiple systems of thought, each used to check the blindnesses of the others, error is increased significantly. Science, as its knee-jerk proponents often discuss it, is in fact more often a description of a belief system that has devolved into a cult — the mark of which is that it or the beliefs that its proponents have about it cannot be questioned (similar in that way to the current problems among my liberal tribe).

      I actually believe quite strongly in the usefulness of what you are terming science and believe, as well, that when used intelligently it contributes significantly to human understanding of the scenario in which we are embedded and from which we have emerged. It is, however, like all human endeavors flawed and will remain so. your comment that biases that emerge into scientific methodology are irrelevant because the system itself will eventually correct them is one of the most common of the defenses that its proponents utilize to silence salient observation of its limits. I could just as well turn that around and say that because there have been errors in other ways of knowing that does not make those ways of knowing irrelevant but of course you will not be able to accept such a statement due to your bias. Your reasoning here, as usual with blind proponents of science, shows that you really don’t know what you are talking about. But then, that was my seminal point in my original post.

      And by the way, sophistry is the use of fallacious arguments, usually with the intention to deceive. I had no intention to deceive, and still do not, only to communicate an understanding based on over 40 years of study and research. However, if sophistry is the use of fallacious arguments solely, then all of us are sophists since there is not a one of us who has not used, and will not in the future use, fallacious arguments in attempting to communicate something we wish to convince someone else of, as in your case here.

      • BillyJoe says

        You’ve read one journal every day for ten years? Maybe you should get your nose out of those journals and look around you at the progress made by the scientific method (despite all the failures of its practitioners). The world contradicts you. And, despite your qualifications and “pulling rank” on Frances Widdowson, her criticism of your writing is spot on.

  8. I understand science as a process of challenging existing “knowledge”, in its best form I think science is like philosophy, a wandering dialogue with the unknown. And like any human enterprise, the process of science can be contested, corrupted and used for selfish ends.

    There is really a lot that we don’t understand, and that includes indigenous knowledge. The indigenous knowledge that I am aware of is incomplete, inchoate and constantly revealing itself, just like our western knowledge. I frankly think anyone teaching the young should show them how to be skeptical, how to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves, to be playful and compassionate.

  9. I appreciate the viewpoint of anyone who brings different perspectives to a scientific discussion. What bothers me is those who want to monetize the indigenous perspective. As the author states:
    “We also should remember that, however warm and fuzzy the principles of IWK may sound, it also has become a business opportunity.”

    It reminds me of the quote by Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket”.

    University programs and assorted consultants seem to be profiting from the business of IWK principles and look determined to make it a racket.

    Thanks for the new word “indigineer”. That must make me a femalgineer. My female perspective on engineering principles sometimes brings a different perspective to problem-solving, but it doesn’t automatically make my input more important. I would feel patronized if I was deferred to because of my gender. I’d like to think an indigineer would want a successful project instead of inauthentic acceptance of their input because of their minority status.

  10. dirk says

    To Josh, Stephen and other commenters here: I donot agree with the terms fuzzy , folk remedies, herbalism, minority wisdom and other denigrating terms. Please read the Personal Narrative of Humboldt, only to be convinced of the opposite, as I was. H. meets a very proud local chief around Esmeralda, now Venezuela. The chief welcomed his visitors , before the show with his curare lab (made from palmleaves and other local material) to extract, filter, evaporate and finish his curare, the arrowpoison, a very effective produce, without which it would be difficut to survive in the bush. H. was impressed, and did not play down the achievemnet for not being ‘scientific’ enough. H. himself was the greatest allround scientist of the world, at the time, measuring and describing everything around, vulcanoes, plants, animals, social systems, landscapes, everything. The chief admitted that the West also could boast on miraculous things, but was proud to show his special guests the fabrication of something they had the privilege of knowing and mastering. It is great reading, I enjoyed, and wonder whether such was an exceptional case, or maybe quite normal, at least, at that time.

    • stephen buhner says

      I am sorry i was not clear, i do know of that book and that story, and a great many others besides. In my use of the term fuzzy i am referring to contemporary inability to reason deeply, irrespective of the group doing so. Another way of putting it might be low-resolution thinking.

  11. dirk says

    I think, Humboldt would immediately agree on such differences in knowledge and engineering, besides, in his time, science , literature and art were not even well distinguished, your high-resolution thinking (dry, and higly specialized) was still in the pipeline.

  12. Gregory Bogosian says

    ““Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”” That is called religion. Having university courses about religion is fine. But holding one religion up as more true than another religion is not ok. They should also offer courses on Catholicism and Buddhism. More to the point, they should be taught as different religions. Not as an alternative to science.

    • Robert Paulson says

      This makes perfect sense. However, I suspect the true goal of these people is to undermine science as part of the larger ideological campaign the Left is waging against Western institutions.

  13. Robert Paulson says

    I question the motivations of white people that present themselves as indigenous advocates. It seems to me like they are engaged in a quasi-therapeutic performance act whereby they play the role of a savior of helpless indigenous folks who have been oppressed and marginalized by their fellow whites. In doing so, they create a moral dichotomy between themselves (“goodwhites”) and everyone else (“badwhites”) that gives them a feeling of moral superiority and righteousness. They could also have an emotional need to take care of what they see weak and helpless people, thus casting them in the role of protector. Then again, they could be cynical careerists who know that this is an easy way to advance their careers since anybody whose opposes them can be called racist.

  14. dirk says

    @Gregory: but be aware that, for centuries (uptil about 1800) theology was the queen of all different types of science/wisdom, also on universities, and taught people to think in a systematic, logic way, and to compare and categorise texts (is something true or not?, and how to arrive at it?). Experimenting and checking (the invention of much later) still had to be hatched. And where would you put IWK in this scenery?

  15. Daniel says

    At the heart of the problem Dehaas is describing is the fact that the scientific method and IWK describe two different things. In fact, they are two different ways of knowing, with different objectives. Jordan Peterson, in his book Maps of Meaning, identifies two ways of understanding the world: as a place of things, where the investigation is of the physical world, and as a place of action, where the significance of things (and our subsequent response) is described, usually through mythology. He elsewhere labels the two kinds of knowledge as: of “matter” and of “what matters,” which is rather clever, you must admit.

    The point is each is valid and important, but shouldn’t be used in the forum of the other. The scientific approach to the world leaves people feeling disconnected, since the knowledge does not extend to describing significance or value. I suspect that indigenous peoples, with their intricate mythologies, traditions that fit those mythologies, and results that create a pleasing harmony of balance with the natural world, are appealing to modern people today. Many of us, after all, feel disconnected from the world.

    The problem arises when we attempt to use a form of knowledge for an alien purpose. Poetry, for instance, is inspiring and deeply meaningful to many people. But it doesn’t describe the physical properties or processes of matter; nor should we use scientific reasoning to investigate it. Imagine Nelson Mandela in his prison cell, being presented with the poem “Invictus”: he reported that that poem, with it’s final lines, “It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishment the scroll, / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” was instrumental in helping him cope with being in prison. Imagine if he’d treated it like a scientist, describing the texture and color of the paper, or counting syllables, instead of reading. Ridiculous, of course.

    Similarly, steer me clear of any poems that helpfully explain Benford’s Theorem or Bernoulli’s Principle. Ye gods!

    We’ll need to know just what role IWK plays in human understanding before we can effectively synthesize these two knowledges together. The dangers Dehaas described above seem to come from blindly applying IWK remedies to scientific problems.

  16. dirk says

    Fully agree Daniel, and it describes more amply what I meant with the Humboldt way of performing science/wisdom/poetry, as wonderfully dealt on in a book about his life, The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf. My field is agriculture, and also there, the meaningful and organic ways of practice (biodynamic (astrological) and what not all) is gaining acceptance, much to the chagrin of the real, rational, ‘scientific’ agronomists, who have always fought against it, but now slowly are accepting it, partly, saying – if some people like this way of production, and feel good with it, well, then it has to have a chance, we don’t want it to be seen as nonsens and myth (though, this is how they still see it, of course, you can’t change your heart).

    • dirk says

      Examples of ” what not all”: Stephens’s Fukuoka and Goethe, on the ideal plant(not considered botany by later scientists, and fiercely attaqued as of speculative only.

  17. Interesting report and analysis. In the field of Indigenous Studies we have seen the steady decline of any real scholarship or research, the crisis (also in the United States) in academia in general deepening with the penetration of post-modernism into one department after the other. One of the puzzles in all this is how its proponents have successfully presented themselves as “progressive.” It’s almost Medieval. Where did this all come from? Part of it is the old paternalism stoked by liberal guilt. But this can only be part of the explanation.

  18. dirk says

    Behold, Norbert, in the end we all want to eat the cake, instead of hot air, and ineffective practices and theories will vanish. The Russian Lysenko with his false, ideological correct, but scientifically wrong ideas on genetics , in the end, had to give way to the real geneticists and plant breeders, why? Because of politics or ideology? No sir, but because of the results (ever better, higher yielding and more robust wheat varieties, etc). In the humanities I see more problems, but also here, after enough theses and anti-theses, some sound synthesis will evolve. Only, It takes time, same as in all evolution.

  19. I admit, Dirk, that I was thinking primarily about the crisis in the humanities. I sincerely hope that you’re right. The corrective, though, might be more difficult than what it was for genetics in the USSR. It will take a concerted pushback and lots of debate. There’s too much at stake.

  20. Rick Phillips says

    If ways of knowing that make truth claims about why things are the way they are… are not amenable to testing, potential rejection and/or modification then they are inevitably destined to remain within the realm of magic or religion. Whether magic or religion should be given equal footing with science in science courses would appear to be a reasonable question.

    • Rick says

      Note that the point requires the assumption that the truth claims generated by “ways of knowing” are not amenable to testing.

    • “Whether magic or religion should be given equal footing with science in science courses would appear to be a reasonable question.”
      With respect, it’s not even a reasonable question. The answer is self evident: magic and religion have absolutely no place in science education.

  21. ccscientist says

    “liberal-arts disciplines that apply extremely loose (and subjective) standards to the question of what is true.” what is true has not much to do with it. They are focused on a narrative (feminist, native american, communist, whatever) that is fundamentally political. Discourse is only valid if it supports the narrative. That is, truth is oppressive, we discard truth in favor of power.

  22. ccscientist says

    ” they believe that Indigenous people, by their very biological composition, embody “quasi-mystical, even magical, properties” that are inaccessible to white people.” this is simply a variant on the “magic negro” where a minority is fetishized but not treated as adults.

  23. And then they wonder why universities are becoming a sad joke among thinking people. Another politically correct attempt to present patent nonsense as serious theory. But as the author points out, there’s gold in pushing “academic” fantasies of this variety.

  24. dirk says

    In a conversation/discussion as rhis one on IWK you can’t avoid the start with:
    – state clearly what you mean by science, if you want to say something on science, donot mix it with technology
    Hunting with curare and blowpipe is a highly sophisticated technology, at a par, or superior to hunting with a gun, but it is no science of course. Polar explorer Amundsen learned from the Inuit how to be dressed in the freezing cold, and how to train dogs, also no science.
    – explain clearly what your idea of science is, do you consider Plato, Aquino and Augustine as scientists, or learned savants? Everybody will agree that Einstein and Maxwell were pure scientists, but what about historians, economists and sociologists? And theologists? If values and holism is at stake, is it still science? Or is science something reserved to isolated facts and formulae, math and statistics?
    Humboldt might easily be the last holistic scientist/savant/poet in the western hemisphere, I adore him!

  25. Pingback: Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”) « Why Evolution Is True

  26. Pingback: The N Word, Pirates and The Noble Savage

  27. Pingback: Indigenous Ways of Knowing | NeuroLogica Blog

Comments are closed.