Saturday, 22 October 2011

Science and indigenous knowledge (part ii)

Believe it or not, I'm actually a strong believer in scientific principles and consider "science" one of the great achievements of humanity. What I find uncomfortable is how "science" is often used against the lay-public in much the same way "ideology" is used to limit and direct the public's attention away from the inevitable contradictions that unvoiced assumptions (any assumption, really) inadvertantly generate in the political discourse in favour of proponent's views on a given issue.

Granted, science is a conservative, skeptical endeavour because its whole purpose is to try and minimize "noise" and preconceived notions in examination and reflection of facts. This is what gives it nobility, subtle nuance and rational other-worldliness so rare in our human world. In Bob Berman's column in Astronomy magazine called, Strange Universe (June 2011 issue) entitled, High Confidence; how much of the cosmos do scientists actually understand with certainty? he writes:

"Astronomy is a fascinating mixture of stuff we're learning, processes we're merely guessing about, and information we've nailed down cold. But most articles and news stories omit such nuances. Instead, they present everything in the same high-confidence tone as the salesman who convinced me to buy the most expensive vacuum cleaner in the solar system."

It is not just the science of astronomy that make up this "fascinating mixture" but all of science (all of human knowledge) is really like that. It's just that some are more willing than others to admit some uncertainty and falliability in the interpretation of data rather than pretend that the pope is really God's representative on Earth.

Berman, in his article, commends the National Weather Service (in the States) in how they deal with confidence:

"On their website's 'discussion,' the NWS plays it straight with readers by sometimes saying, 'This is a low-confidence forecast.' They don't flat out admit, 'We're stumped,' but still, bravo for them. They essentially tell you when they're guessing, and this is useful to know."

(you may check out the "Strange Universe" archive: www.astronomy.com/berman)

I once saw population estimates for polar bears in South Baffin that stated that the population projections had a 95% confidence interval for such and such number the technician had generated (see: A confidence interval gives an estimated range of values which is likely to include an unknown population parameter, the estimated range being calculated from a given set of sample data. (Definition taken from Valerie J. Easton and John H. McColl's Statistics Glossary v1.1)) and proceeded to justify recommended allowable harvest levels without so much as accounting for hunters' observed claims that the polar bear population was rather a bit higher than what the equations and projections had churned out.

As it turned out (as with bowhead whale numbers or polling results in any given election cycle for that matter) the on-the-ground observations/ariel population counts were closer to the hunters' claims than the equations had generated. Inuit hunters are out there almost 365 days of the year and there is a solid, organic communications network they rely on to get crucial information on weather and environmental conditions as well as anything that hunters have seen in any given area. Granted, they do not know the exact numbers and claim their knowledge is always falliable because of the uncertainty pricinple, but the body of knowledge is built-up over a very long time and is rather more sophisticated and rational than what the bureaucrats are willing to admit.

My question then is: how much does the "culture" of a given scientific discourse adversely affect the reliability of interpretation of data when unchecked egos and ideological agendas play such a pronounced role in government-aboriginal relations?

I personally think that even the peer-reviewed academic papers and "findings" in such a culture are less than useless, given that these self-same documents/canons are used as reference material to grant diplomas and degrees in turn. I mean, up until a couple of years ago, snowy owls had never been observed by european eyes to hunt and scavenge out on the sea ice, so such claims by Inuit hunters were never believed and so easily dismissed as bunk.

At the turn of the last century, Hilbert issued a seminal challenge/program to mathematics to reexamine and confirm every theorem of its foundations in a rigorous and honest way; I think it's high time to do the same for the "scientific" discourse that impacts upon aboriginal-government relations.

Jay

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