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Exploring ‘Other Ways of Knowing’: The New Religious Threat to Science Education

Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last month, an odd pattern has been playing out among major scientific institutions. In their public pronouncements, prestigious journals have not only professed their unqualified support for activists seeking to highlight the pervasiveness of racism in our society. They also have delivered fervent shows of contrition in regard to (usually unspecified) sins they’ve committed in the past and their “complicity” in racism more generally.

The prestigious journal Nature, for instance, issued a dramatically worded statement to the effect that it would be joining a movement to “#ShutDownSTEM #ShutDownAcademia #Strike4BlackLives, an initiative of STEM academics and organizations pausing their standard activities to focus on actions to eliminate anti-Black racism.” It also published an editorial confessing to accomplice status in regard to wide a range of crimes:

We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices. At Nature, we will redouble our efforts to do so, and commit to establishing a process that will hold us to account on the many changes we need to make. In addition, we commit to producing a special issue of the journal, under the guidance of a guest editor, exploring systemic racism in research, research policy and publishing—including investigating Nature’s part in that.

The journal Science was more specific in its own statement of self-incrimination, written by its editor in chief, American chemist Holden Thorp:

The U.S. scientific enterprise is predominantly white, as are the U.S. institutions that Science’s authors are affiliated with. The evidence of systemic racism in science permeates this nation. Why are so few Science authors from historically black colleges and universities? Why are the scientific areas studied more frequently by people of color continuously underfunded by the government? Why do students who are people of color have to remind society that they are almost never taught by someone who looks like them? Why has the United States failed to update its ways of teaching science when data show that people of color learn better with more inclusive methods?

Evidence of racism, such as is presented in these articles, is primarily traced to a lack of racial diversity among scientists. And there is no doubt that some minority groups are under-represented in many programs—this despite the fact that university admission offices and faculties, as well as funding bodies, have, for decades, worked to offer preferential opportunities to applicants from historically marginalized communities. But in recent years, political arguments surrounding the lack of diversity in education have become more intense and rhetorically ambitious. Many advocates now have turned against the very idea of objective meritocratic standards in education. Some accuse entire academic disciplines of being inherently racist.

A popular idea here is that different groups have different “ways of knowing,” different modes of sense-making, and even different epistemic paradigms. To insist on the exclusionary standard of “Western rationality” would therefore amount to suppressing black, Indigenous, or even female knowledges. And, since knowledge and power are said to form an indissociable nexus, the insistence on universal scientific standards is, by this logic, connected to the perpetuation of (male) white supremacy. This emerges from critical theory, a body of thought that casts truth as relative, and asserts that some ideas are accepted over others only because those in power perpetuate them.

The way to remedy this injustice, some therefore argue, is to explicitly politicize science so as to reveal it as a culturally biased enterprise. In Canada, where I live, this political project is often referred to as the “decolonization of the university,” and operates under the institutional umbrella of EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion). Though it sometimes couches itself in utilitarian or incremental terms (a demand for, say, better, more effective teaching methods that serve to develop the potential of all groups), the most far-reaching EDI initiatives effectively subordinate science to political activism and even mystical obscurantism.

In its most elaborate form, EDI subjects science to the same treatment as has already been meted out to the Western literary canon: a relentless deconstruction whereby each axiom, value, and commitment is presented as infected by cultural imperialism. This method of criticism has led, for example, to such oddities as feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding’s suggestion that Newton’s laws might be accurately referred to as “Newton’s rape manual.” These critiques were once confined to social commentary that was distinct from the actual work of scientists. As I’ve learned first-hand, that may be changing.

About a year ago, I signed up for a graduate module on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM fields hosted by the engineering faculty of Concordia University in Montreal. The course, now a full-semester offering, was organized by Dr. Tanja Tajmel, an expert in the area, and featured a week of seminars from international scholars who’d traveled to Montreal for the occasion. The course description indicated that they’d “apply a variety of types of gender and diversity perspectives on knowledge production, such as third and fourth wave feminism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, etc.”

Since my own research focuses on the obscurantist undercurrents associated with some of these theories, I was curious to see how they could be adapted to a scientific framework. I expected a clash of first principles, and was curious to see how such conflict would be handled by scientists, as opposed to cultural theorists (whose primary commitments I already knew well).

Central to Tajmel’s approach is the aforementioned idea that true inclusivity requires a metaknowledge of “other ways of knowing.” In its weak form, this principle gets to the uncontroversial (and even banal) proposition that every student learns best through a somewhat different pedagogical style. As such, many sensible (if sometimes impractical) recommendations have been put forth to help different kinds of students. To foster more egalitarian access to education, EDI experts argue, we should diversify our ways of teaching, create less hierarchical classrooms, value story-telling and other culture-specific ways to impart knowledge, pay attention to the inequities created by language differences and by the cultural biases of teaching materials and of professors, pay attention to the power dynamics in classrooms, actively encourage the participation of students whose identities have historically been socially framed as less scientifically adept, and so on.

In its stronger formulation, however, the idea of “other ways of knowing” goes further, to the assertion that not only is our way of learning essentially culturally-specific, but so, too, is our most fundamental mode of making sense of reality. In Canada, this translates into a demand for the inclusion of  “Indigenous knowledges,” which are typically understood as being attained not through traditional scientific or rational means, but through a unique understanding of the universe that is particular to Indigenous peoples thanks to their relationship to the land and their singular cultural practices.

It’s worth noting that, in my experience, when Indigenous people speak of inclusivity, they usually tend to stress the importance of keeping scientific and cultural traditions separate, and of honouring each on its own terms. But to the (mostly) white professors who run universities and academic departments, the preferred approach—at least in theory—has become the opposite: to inflate the idea of a uniquely Indigenous way of knowing reality as a means to challenge the very idea that trans-cultural science can lead us to objectively understand a testable reality.

Dr. Tajmel leads an ongoing initiative—with Ingo Salzmann, associate professor of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry at Concordia University, and Dr. Louellyn White, professor of First Peoples Studies—which proposes to “decolonize” light by challenging “the reproduction of colonialism in and through physics and higher physics education.” The project is funded by the Canadian federal government through its New Frontiers in Research Fund. “Even more than other sciences, physics is a white male dominated field and, thus, a mirror of colonial patterns and social inequality,” reads the website. “Despite this fact, physics is considered as ‘hard’ and objective science, disconnected from social life and geopolitical history. This narrative both constitutes and reproduces inequality, which is reflected by the underrepresentation of women, racialized people, and Indigenous peoples in physics.”

This EDI initiative proposes to do what the editor of Science magazine seeks: achieve greater diversity amongst the ranks of physicists by deconstructing its white- and male-dominated culture of physics. But then comes the obscurantism:

Everybody knows light and every culture has knowledge about light. However, only the physical knowledge is regarded as scientific. We are interested in investigating how colonial scientific knowledge authority was and is still reproduced in the context of light. Decolonizing Light follows complementary approaches: We are engaging Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies for knowledge creation, we are studying colonial anchor points in the history of physics in the context of light, we are studying the views of scientists on colonialism, we’re investigating the discourse on contemporary largescale light experiments.

EDI advocates tend to utilize the opaque jargon germane to the critical humanities, which can serve to shield them somewhat from public scrutiny. But a clue as to what this jargon means comes from the reference to “Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies.” Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a prominent instigator of the ontological turn in postcolonial theory, argues that the metaphysical assumptions undergirding the scientific project are little more than cultural biases, and calls for “the practice of the permanent decolonization of thought,” which, according to his English translator, philosopher Peter Skafish, would require that we start taking the knowledge of mediums and other supernaturalists seriously.

And, after all, why not? Even in Western culture, there was, until recently, a “diversity” of explanations for such basic phenomena as the movement of planets and the origin of humans—with many of Europe’s most important intellectuals insisting that the Bible provided an authoritative account of the universe. Now that we are regressing to this state of affairs in the name of inclusivity (albeit in non-Christian form), it would be hypocritical to discriminate between mysticisms. Skafish, unlike others, isn’t embarrassed to spell out the logical conclusions of this line of thought.

During one of the EDI sessions, I pushed this point and asked Dr. Tajmel if her project did not, ultimately, amount to the reintroduction of religion in science. She responded, without missing a beat, that science itself was a form of a religion. With political demands increasingly taking precedence over the pursuit of truth, it seems only a matter of time before Science and Nature get on board with that idea.

It seems perverse that the reintroduction of religion into scientific curricula would be seen as progressive—but perhaps no more perverse than the idea that black or Indigenous students must be allowed to take shelter in their own special metaphysical realms and ontological siloes. Just a few years ago, this would have been seen as an ugly form of racial essentialism. Yet racial essentialism is back in style thanks to the rise in popularity of critical race theory and related doctrines, according to which color-blind humanism is just another smokescreen for racism.

Shortly before the above-described seminar on EDI, I attended a conference on education hosted by my university. The panel included an Indigenous scholar and white academic “accomplices” (a term that now is replacing “allies” in the jargon of some activists) who referred to themselves as “settlers,” and spoke of “Canada” in scare-quotes. They described the need to dismantle the oppressive colonial power relations whereby a professor standing before a class imparts knowledge to his or her students (more egalitarian sharing circles are now preferred). They argued for a practice of “epistemic resistance” and “epistemic disobedience” to counter the condescending hegemony of “white knowledge.” As I see it, these demands seem tailored to ensure that students learned absolutely nothing in university except a bloated regard for their own internal realities.

Midway through the week-long EDI seminar, I struck up a conversation with one of the guest lecturers, a physics professor from South America. I pointed out that what many of her fellow lecturers seemed to be advocating for was the outright rejection of reason and logic in the evaluation of knowledge claims, something which, to my mind at least, amounted to rejecting much of the scientific method. “Well,” she said with a knowing smile, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

This line, of course, belongs to the poet Audre Lorde. And one now often hears it cited to signal the need to unmask a racist essence at the core of our liberal institutions. But if the goal of EDI is really to help students of colour succeed in the sciences, does it not do them a disservice to suggest that their unique ways of knowing are somehow at odds with those of their white peers—and, indeed, with the very subject matter itself? Do Dr. Tajmel and her fellow diversity experts care about their students gaining the knowledge required to, say, advance their lives as employable physicists, engineers, researchers, and academics? Or is the point here to proselytize their hatred of the Western intellectual tradition? The two projects seem mutually exclusive.

In his classic account of the university’s capitulation to the politics of resentment, Allan Bloom, commenting on the 1969 takeover of a student-union building by militants at Cornell University, remarked that, at the darkest hour, the humanities and social sciences were left fending for themselves while natural scientists, confident that their disciplines existed safely beyond the political fray, silently watched their colleagues get kowtowed into submission by student activists revolting against what they perceived to be a racist canon. “The community of scholars,” Bloom bitterly reminisced, “proved to be no community. There was no solidarity in defence of the pursuit of truth.”

If the same scene played out in 2020, it seems more likely the scientists would indeed express solidarity—with the students. Recall that numerous public health experts, propelled into Twitter rhapsodies by ideological trends, have just encouraged massive public gatherings in the midst of a pandemic. The goal, one epidemiologist said, was “to change the narrative that those protesting [police brutality] were ‘unsafe’ and ‘putting people at risk.'” The public might be forgiven for finding this sudden change in “narrative” disconcerting on the part of a scientific establishment that, only days previously, had warned us of catastrophic consequences should social distancing measures be relaxed.

But then, perhaps I am just betraying my bias for “objective” reality. As science becomes increasingly politicized, such thinking could become obsolete. Instead, the “other ways of knowing” used to teach students will emerge from the demands of activists, not the fruits of science.

Lenny Pier Ramos is a Montreal-based writer. He Tweets at @lennypierramos.

Featured Image: 2012 Conference on “Indigenizing the Academy” at the University of The Fraser Valley. 

Comments

  1. This sort of thing is bred by taxpayer subsidy. Practical science should be driven by market demand. Abstract science should be driven by institutional competition, the pursuit of excellence.

    The exception is, defense related research.

  2. An excellent description of the madness that is haunting our universities, our media and increasingly our societies. The current wave of aggressive „anti“-racism, exaggerated to the absurd, is likely to be the worldwide high point (or rather low point) of wokeness so far, but regrettably it will probably not be the last. The progressive opinion leaders and their willing followers are becoming increasingly zealous and there is no end in sight to the frenzy.

    Seen from the outside, these people look like an out-of-control herd of buffaloes (although, strictly speaking, as individuals they’re actually more like cattle), all galloping in one direction and running faster and faster. It is quite clear that they will trample everything that lies in their path. So, all those poor souls who happen to stand in their way, brace yourselves! At the same time, for every single participant in this stampede it becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, to turn off or stop without getting under the hooves themselves. A telling example of the madness of crowds.

    Gradually the question arises how bad things can still get? How much damage and destruction will they have caused in the end? I wouldn’t venture a prognosis at this stage. The only thing that is already certain is that we will have a hard time making future generations understand how so much insanity could gain so much power.

  3. Oh, we all knew long ago hysterical females and stupid darkies can’t do science and logic. You’re telling me they finally agree, and realize they really do have “different ways of knowledge”, not this icky white-male “science” and “logic” stuff? In other words, they’re hopeless in logic and science but at least have this “female intuition” and “the negro’s low cunning” we always knew serves them as a replacement?

    Well, good; after all, somebody will have to do the housework and drive the cabs, it might as well be them.

    Don’t look at me like that. When a teacher tells a black kid in the ghetto that all they need to study is material “relevant to their daily life”, what they are saying is “you’re black; you can get along in the ghetto with your natural cunning and bodily strength. That is what you’re good for.” Similarly, when a professor tells a women’s study major she has “other ways of knowing”, what she is telling her is “don’t bother your pretty little head with math, darling, all you need in life is your female intuition”.

    Sure, they call “natural cunning” and “female intuition” “emotional Intelligence”, and “brute strength” “physical intelligence”, but those are just euphemisms. I mean, what would you rather have your son be like - to have a high IQ and low “emotional and physical intelligence”, i.e., a smart nerd, or low-IQ but with with high “emotional and physical intelligence”, i.e., a dumb jock that gets girls in high school? You all know the answer.

  4. Until the communists are purged from the school system, until the crypto communist religion of anti discrimination is purged, the future generations will understand nothing at all. They will be crippled by epistemologic retardation.

  5. This is another brick in the “truth of Transgender” campaign.

    The Transgender delusion is defined by “lived experience”. There is absolutely no evidence that “female brains exist in male bodies” and vice versa. There is no objective test for such nonsense; no test can be performed which predicts who will be swept up in the trannie hysteria. There is no scientific demonstration of this that has been published. There is no science.

    There is, instead, the substitution of “lived experience” and “the truth of personal knowledge”. That is, the entire transgender delusion is composed of people asserting that they are transgender and cutting off their breasts or dicks.

    It’s the use of delusion to seek out self-mutilation. It’s completely wrong.

  6. Amen.
    My kid attends a NYC public school that’s considered top notch.
    Well, it’s a daily battle at re-education.

    When a wonderful, dedicated teacher named Rodriguez who teaches 3rd grade English, among other things, sends an email that reads, “Students, remember I aksed you [sic] last week…you were suppose to [sic] finish it…”

    WTF is there left to say?

  7. Please let know when decolonized engineers start designing airplanes, other means of transportation, and dwellings. I will then start walking and living in a tent. BTW the Russians and Chinese must read this nonsense and howl in disbelief. In a few years they will simply have to give the great Western edifice a good shake, and the whole damn thing will crumble to dust. We are allowing ourselves to commit cultural, intellectual, and national suicide.

  8. You need to rethink this.

    This is post-modernism at work. And the true subject of post-modernism is power. The charge of “racism” is, in many if not most situations, completely false, and all know it. But the charge is not made out of the “truth of the racist situation”. It is made out of the “need of the accuser to diminish the accused”. The post-modernist agenda is the replacement of the current power structure with the new power structure - removing old white men and replacing them with young women who are lesbians and POC.

    It’s a big mistake to consider it entertainment. Like the Thermidore period in the French Revolution, no one took them seriously until they were in the line to be guillotined.

  9. Read “The strange death of Europe”, in which Douglas Murray, a very sensible fellow, discusses oikophobia, or the hatred of one’s own culture, and the irrational and completely insane elevation of foreign invaders into the Holy Children of the Children’s Crusade.

  10. About a year ago, I interviewed two young women scientists for a university publication about a group they formed to promote social justice in science.

    During the interview, one of them explained the idea of “other ways of knowing,” mentioning personal experience, indigenous knowledge, folklore, religion and the like. I pressed her, asking whether ultimately, regardless of whatever “other ways of knowing” might be employed, science should not ultimately come down to the scientific method, i.e. empirical data, falsifiability and so on.

    To my astonishment, this PhD biologist could not bring herself to agree with that proposition.

    I got more specific, proposing a hypothetical example of an indigenous person claiming that a certain dance or ceremony could bring rain, and whether or not the scientific method (and even common sense) might be used to evaluate such a claim.

    Again, she would not go there. Astonishing.

    In the end, right or wrong, I left the whole anti-science “other ways of knowing” nonsense out of the story and simply wrote around it.

  11. Newton’s laws might be accurately referred to as “Newton’s rape manual.”

    Right, so things like orbital mechanics are now cancelled. I keep wondering where the bottom is. There must be a bottom, mustn’t there? Some point at which things completely stop? Or some point at which someone starts to giggle? Newton’s Rape Manual, that’s so transcendent. They say that on his death bed Newton was asked what his proudest accomplishment was and he replied that it was dying a virgin. Lousy guy to be writing a rape manual if you ask me.

  12. This is just downright depressing. I still have 3 kids at home, all hoping to go to college. I am speechless to try to advise them of a ‘safe’ place to go - and I dont mean on the ‘safe space’ way. I mean where can they go to learn how to think, and not just get eaten by the insatiable woke college machine. I find it disheartening.

  13. The Dark Ages called. It wants its eschewal of reason back.

  14. Duh Canada… I was so glad to escape a small petty world of Canadian academia (after getting my Ph.D. in Physics and bouncing for a few years around NRC labs) for, what was back then, a no nonsense Silicon Valley. Twenty years onward we have arrived: our CEO (DJIA forming corporation) sending us (90% white 10% Indian, 60% immigrant workforce) mind boggling virtue signaling horseshit about slave ownership guilt, while proclaiming his solidarity with BLM by cutting his pay (but getting compensatory extra stock options - you have to really dig it in WSJ to find out)… One might believe in learning about light as Manitou spirit would have you. That’s ok. The sad thing is that Fabry-Perrot interferometer in your internet switch will work and Manitou based wouldn’t. (Because it doesn’t). So, once the last ones of the former reached end of life, that’s all folks. Back to storing corpses on trees as sacred Haida people used to do. Pity one wouldn’t be able to share the magnificent contraption on Instagram.

  15. The momentum is gathering in respect of the recognition of the dangers of the cancerous cocktail mix between post-modernism, critical theory and Marxism. As the author correctly points out, people in the hard (and even not so hard) sciences would historically have winked at each other while passing by lecture halls filled with students attending critical feminist theory, critical race theory and similar lectures, and then returned to the business of trying to cram for their exams to secure their majors. These domains did not warrant any more intellectual attention than that. After all, these critical theory graduates were not a threat to the social sciences (economics), business or STEM majors as they stood zero chance to competing with the “Enlightenment graduates” or critical thinking (as opposed to critical theory) for quality employment.

    And so the “classical” students but more criminally the universities turned a blind eye, despite the humanities degenerating into “academic disciplines” in which the central tenants are diametrically opposite to Enlightenment Values and for which 80% of academic papers attract zero citations. I am no expert on post-modernism & co, (and I am willing to stand to be corrected), but the fundamental axioms appear to be something along the following lines:

    • There are no objective facts
    • Experience is subjective
    • There is no canonical interpretation of different interpretations
    • Enlightenment values (reason, logic, open discourse, the scientific method) are tools of the oppressive European cis-hetero patriarchy
    • Society and hierarchies are organised based on power
    • The oppressed need to defend against and overthrow the oppressors (a marriage of Marxist social theory)

    This list is by no means exhaustive. But assuming that this list is even directionally correct, then here are some fundamental questions that deserve consideration:

    1. Why would a university allow for this type of subject to be taught? The job of the university in a Western democracy such as Canada/Quebec is to defend Enlightenment principles which are axiomatic and transcend both time and borders. Ideological teachings have no place in universities, unless you study Epistemology or the genesis of ideological beliefs (or similar) [Partial answer: the slide towards the political and radical Left within the Academy has been documented by Jonathan Haidt and cited by Steven Pinker, and means that more and more professors would have been sympathetic to ideas with a Marxist genesis ]
    2. Why would the tax-payer tolerate financing young people to go ahead and be indoctrinated in such nonsense fields? [Partial answer: because the public are still unaware that such fields truly exist or that this is not some kind of parody. If I lived in Quebec, I would protest for such programmes to be de-funded].
    3. If there are no facts or reason, and that life is nothing more than a collection of personal anecdotes and subjective experiences, then why ask students to pay to attend class and be graded on homework, and even learn how to write for that matter? [Partial answer: because these departments need more victims to indoctrinate and to help perpetuate and fund the growth of such operations. If such graduates face poor employment prospects, then this creates an incentive for such graduates to remain connected to the field, which correctly predicted that the (unqualified) graduates would be oppressed by society [which is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy that relates to the state of inadequate education received by the student].

    And it would appear that the victims keep arriving on conveyor belts, in large part to the Left-wing ambitions of having 50% of society graduate from universities. But as we know, cognitive ability is normally distributed with a mean of 100. So if the aim is to educate 50% of the population at the university level, then you are necessarily admitting people with an IQ of 100. What kinds of fields can such kids realistically manage to graduate from? Partial Answer: any field that does not believe in logic, reason, or science. If all experience is subjective, then I see no reason why anyone should fail these classes?]

    Call me elitist, but universities should be reserved for people who wish to pursue careers as white collar [including lab coat] professionals or who wish to remain in Academy - both of which have until 2020 required critical thinking as well as Enlightenment Values legacy toolkit of reason, open discourse, the scientific method . Governments have also absolutely neglected hyper valuable trade schools by selling the utopic dream of university education for all.

    The city of Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 and the Catholic Church would quickly come to dominate all aspects of religious and social life including education (which was reserved for the select few). It was not until the conquest by the British (who were predominately Protestant) in 1759 that any form of challenge to the status quo would emerge. When the Canadian confederation laws were passed in 1867 (over 100 years later), the intention had been to devolve powers to the provinces (including what would become modern-day Quebec) in matters concerning education but the very powerful Catholic Church sought constitutional guarantees in respect of their jurisdictional right over matters relating to education. And it was only in 1964, pursuant to the passage of Bill 60, that the province of Quebec would finally be able to create the Ministry for Education (and the Counsel for Superior Education), both of which were critical to the secularisation and democratisation of education. Less than 60 years later, Quebec joined the ranks of first-world, modern-day nations. [The pace of progress and development of the province of Quebec is really an astonishing case study for those who don’t know about it]

    So the author is 100% correct. Nietzsche’s Death of God, combined with the universities having turned a blind eye has created a vacuum which has now been filled by this ideological cancer of critical theory and post modernism, which means that we are now facing the possibility of handing back the gains made since the Enlightenment, and it would appear that the universities are more keen to virtue signal and coddle students that they are do defend axtiomatic pillars for quality education and are presiding over their own destruction.

    Amazing that the Institutions under attack do not have the fortitude to save themselves. Governments need to intervene. This is the great catastrophe of our times.

    And why serious scientist or intellectual would ever purchase Nature or Science ever again?

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