Indigenous knowledge and science can complement each other in education

22 February 2024 | News

Lincoln University's Professor Amanda Black says the argument over whether Indigenous knowledge should be considered science has become unnecessarily polarised.

In a new paper in Science that she co-authored with her Bioprotection Aotearoa colleague, Professor Jason M. Tylianakis, she argues Indigenous knowledge should not "usurp the role of, or be called, science".

Instead, Indigenous knowledge should be taught alongside science in the classroom.

"We need to respect Indigenous knowledge for its inherent value and the philosophical reflections it can provide science to improve outcomes," Professor Black said.

"To step from 'not science' to 'therefore not as (or at all) valuable and worthy of learning' is not logical, is based on personal values and is not a scientifically defensible position."

The researchers suggest that many of the arguments used to "defend" science by presenting Indigenous knowledge as inferior are themselves rooted in logical fallacies.

"Some societies, such as many Indigenous groups, lack traditional written communication and thus transmit knowledge within memorable framings, such as stories or myths, to ensure their longevity. This is often used to depict Indigenous knowledge as purely metaphysical justifying its displacement by science.

"However, science also uses abstractions and stories (such as models) to facilitate knowledge transmission and illustrate concepts or key messages."

The paper stated both simulation and statistical models can require simplifications that are known to be false.

Bohr’s model of the atom and Newtonian physics are still widely taught in schools as easily understood approximations, despite their limitations with respect to quantum mechanics. By analogy, dismissing Indigenous narratives on their verbatim interpretation risks missing considerable opportunity to learn from the knowledge and experience encoded within them.

Indigenous knowledge "is also well known to be dynamic and continuously updated critics do not afford it an equal right to correct itself".

"For example, 'pity the moas were all eaten' is commonly used rhetoric to imply the failure of Māori knowledge around conservation of a giant endemic New Zealand bird in the 15th century. Yet this reasoning mistakenly conflates the validity of present-day Indigenous knowledge with 15th-century knowledge and decision-making."

She said this extinction was two centuries before British colonisation would produce such mass environmental devastation in its colonies that the Western conservation paradigm would be born.

"In fact, evidence has shown some present-day Indigenous managed lands to have much higher biodiversity than some Western conservation managed lands.

"Arguably, the ignorance toward Indigenous knowledge and its application is only slightly greater than ignorance to science methodology. We think this is the strongest rationale for teaching them both in schools," Professor Black said.

"Indigenous knowledge can and has contributed empirically generated, intergenerational knowledge, making it an increasingly valuable tool in environmental management, particularly around rare but increasingly frequent natural events such as large-scale deadly bush fires that plague Australia and parts of North America."

She said Indigenous Australians had been managing the landscape for at least 40,000 years, leaving a deep human imprint that has been nearly erased from living memory.

"However, in parts of Australia, local authorities, scientists, and Indigenous communities are now coming together to revisit Indigenous fire management and reframing science through Indigenous knowledge to better understand these modern environmental dilemmas," she said.

A parallel understanding of science and Indigenous knowledge systems would be complementary, emphasising their similarities and cultural differences.

Professor Black said an example specific to Aotearoa New Zealand would be that Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) uses an intergenerational lens inclusive of the observer that gives cultural integrity to questions and generated outcomes, whereas the scientific method strives to be disconnected from that which it observes.

"We see the potential for all students to benefit from exposure to Indigenous knowledge, alongside a science curriculum, as a way of fostering sustainability and environmental integrity.

"Given the societal and environmental issues facing the planet, providing an intercultural understanding that leads to a more balanced and connected worldview can result in positive outcomes, including effective science education.

"We urge both education policy analysts and scientists engaging in this debate to draw on evidence rather than caricatures of Indigenous knowledge and a partisan approach to knowledge generation.

"Knowledge is produced in many traditions. The scientific method is one of those, Indigenous approaches are others, and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive."