Making Science more Inclusive: The history of knowledge production
Science, Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation
CTA Advisory Committee Meeting, Johannesburg, 22-26 Nov. 2010
Ecole normale supérieure (Paris)
Last night, I decided to re-arrange my talk, after listening to the keynote lecture on Science, Indigenous Knowledge & Innovation – Challenges for Development presented by Professor Jacobus Nicolaas Eloff, leader of the phytomedicine programme at the University of Pretoria. Indeed, his brilliant and convincing fresco over the ancestry of herbal medicine, and its vast promises for the future, raised an implicit yet major question : why and how has modern science - as it developed in the West during the last four centuries - been so blind about the high value of these domains of investigation ? In brief, why such a long phase of neglect/contempt for traditional and indigenous knowledge?
In a corner of our room, I put for display a poster entitled Milestones of science, produced in 2004 by AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and featuring around ten dozens of entries. Probably, the designers of this history chart thought of themselves as enlightened and open-minded because, among the 24 faces of pioneers illustrating the poster, four are feminine. Indeed, six years later, this Chart is still advertised at the website: http://promo.aaas.org/kn_marketing/milestones.shtml
The initial entry of the Chart reads: Prescientific Era : Phenomena explained within contexts of magic, religion and experience. As if experience, in whatever other contexts, could not produce valid and useful knowledge. Then follow nine entries about Greek science, over one millennium (from -500 BC to +500 AD). The first, and sole mention of a scientific milestone contributed by China arrives late, in 2001, with this entry : Chinese farmers find feather-covered, duck-like dinosaur fossil ! But perhaps the most revealing entry, about the prejudices of western/modern science toward traditional knowledge, is this one : 1720. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu -> Introduces early technique of immunization against diseases. Actually, the distinguished British Lady introduced (into Europe), early (for Europe), ageless ottoman practices of vaccination against smallpox (probably originating from India or China around 200 BC) which she had learned about while her husband was ambassador in Istanbul – a respectable act of knowledge transfer indeed, but hardly a universal milestone in the history of science.
The European renaissance (rinascimento in Italian) expressly referred to greco-roman antiquity : revival of fine arts, rebirth of academies. The intermediate period was dubbed ‘medieval’, and became perceived as ‘dark ages’, a somber interlude between two shining phases of civilization. Moreover, in the wake of the Renaissance, came a series of divorces:
- divorce between politics and religion (Machiavel), as a consequence of the religious wars following the Reformation ;
- divorce between science and religion, after the trial of Galileo by the Vatican.
An impressive list of such divorces appears in one famous sentence of Robert Hooke (1663), composed for the statutes of the British Society : The business and design of the Royal Society is to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful arts, manufactures, mechanick practices, engynes and inventions by experiments (not meddling with divinity, metaphysics, moralls, politicks, grammar, rhetorics or logick).
Thus jointly emerged a claim for autonomy, and an emphasis on exclusivity:
- excluding charlatans and pseudo-sciences (astrology, alchemy),
- but also ethics, because morality was often linked to religion,
- and much traditional knowledge coming from observations and prolonged experience, rather than through clear-cut experimentation performed in laboratories.
Of course, Newtonian mechanics was an outstanding success, unifying celestial and terrestrial mechanics: it was mathematical, deterministic, quantitative and predictive. And it became a symbol of triumph for hard science over the soft Ptolemaic theory, backed-up by religious superstition. However, crises occurred later on, because several sciences did not really fit the Newtonian paradigm. The most conspicuous crisis occurred with the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is non-mathematical, non-deterministic, non-quantitative, non-predictive. And yet valid and relevant! Newtonian mechanics itself later proved to be only an approximation-to-the-truth at high velocities (relativity theory), and at small sizes (quantum mechanics).
Actually, there is not one science, but a plurality of sciences. Thus the historian T.S. Kuhn introduced the notion of scientific revolutions, which puts focus on this diversity. A short-list of about twenty major scientific revolutions may be selected, either due to conceptual breakthroughs or to experimental findings. Another source of deep trouble came with the recognition that modern science was producing many undesirable effects, such as:
- weapons of mass destruction (lethal gases in WW1, nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WW2) ;
- radioactive and chemical pollutions, financial crises, exhaustion of natural resources, climate change, etc. etc. ; thus raising social resentment from outside (among the general citizenry), and causing an ethical surge from inside (within the scientific community).
The ethical movement in the sciences may be seen as a moral revaluation, an expression coined in analogy with the term scientific revolution. Examples of moral revaluations are:
- abolition of slavery,
- liberation of women,
- replacement of war by law,
- the European construction (as strategy for the elimination of war inside a continent),
- and the ethical movement in the sciences, including respect for traditional knowledge and care for indigenous people.
Some significant events, which occurred during recent years, deserve mention here :
- at the World Conference on Science, 1999 in Budapest (the previous one had been held 20 years before, in Vienna), emerged 3 areas of consensus - in favour of stronger interactions between social and natural sciences, more opportunities for women, ethics of science - and 2 areas of dissensus - about intellectual property rights, and traditional knowledge. Around this last issue, an acute crisis burst within ICSU, the International Council for Science, and prompted the Norwegian philosopher Dagfinn Follesdal to write a masterfully clarifying article : Science, pseudo-science and traditional knowledge, published in the Biennial Yearbook 2002 of ALLEA (All European Academies) ; this paper is available at www.allea.org ;
- the project of SCIence and DEVelopment NETwork, launched by science journalist David Dickson (London) ; the website www.scidev.net has now become a precious reference, attempting to provide a model example of fair-play between developed and developing countries ;
- the writings of the Indian philosopher Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel laureate in economy; two of his conferences Democracy and its Global Roots, 2003, and Democracy as a Universal Value, 1999, have been translated in French -> a little book whose title became : La démocratie des autres. Pourquoi la liberté n’est pas une invention de l’Occident, 2005. Our meeting here carries a similar flavour, and could have been renamed, for mainstream-educated scientists like me : The knowledge of the others, and its proper recognition.
In ethics, as in science, the message is in the method : a circular collective process, moving from hypotheses to facts, and back, and again, eventually converging to a reflexive equilibrium, which may always be modified via new facts, or new hypotheses, or new arguments. Promotion of the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind is among the constitutive missions of UNESCO. Our common universal ambition is to reach a higher wisdom.
According to Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), and his theory of corsi e ricorsi, each period of history may be seen as the projection, on another plane, of a model already observed in a previous cycle. Thus history would unfold as a spiral. That evolution pattern has been felt in South Africa, where the wicked period of apartheid has been followed by the advent of a rainbow society, which may be perceived as a revival of ancient fair-play traditions (cf. Amartya Sen).
Worldwide, a helical unfolding may also be observed for traditional knowledge, after a period of marginalisation during the western/modern era. In both cases, the move from exclusivity to inclusivity implies an aggiornamento, a deep and wide change in mindset.