I’ve seen some rather disturbing reports recently that New Zealand is aiming to insert indigenous Mātauranga Māori beliefs into science classes. While there are, no doubt, many important bits of knowledge, there are also many superstitions such as the belief that “Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.” This is hardly the first time that unscientific, indigenous knowledge has been pushed in this way nor the first time that science has been, incorrectly, criticised as Western, white or European. In 2016, an infamous video did the rounds, showing a “ScienceMustFall” student at the University of Cape Town claiming that some people could use witchcraft to strike others with lightning. Mythical origin stories which claim that certain groups have always caused problems for those studying human migration in both North America and Australia. Many of these criticisms appear to be rooted in the negative way these communities have historically been treated. What becomes frustrating is that there are many legitimate concerns in those criticisms but the push-back becomes an over-correction which now demands an equal place for unscientific mythology which does not belong in a science classroom.
Mythological explanations for the world were developed when we lacked much of our understanding of the world. As our knowledge has advanced, things which used to be attributed to magic or the will of the gods can now be explained in mundane, physical terms. The Ploutonion (site dedicated to the Roman god Pluto) at Hierapolis serves as a good example. The Romans believed a cave near Hierapolis was the entrance to the underworld because animals would just drop dead if they entered it while the priests would be unharmed. In reality, the cave is on top of a volcanic vent which releases carbon dioxide gas. The high concentration of the gas will suffocate animals that breathe close to the ground but humans are generally tall enough not to be affected (carbon dioxide is denser than air and sinks).
Similarly, lightning is not caused by witchcraft any more than it’s caused by Zeus hurling down lightning bolts. Lightning is caused by a build up of static electricity in the clouds which is released, to either the ground or another cloud. There are more detailed explanations and there are still questions which have yet to be answered, but we know that it is not magic! There is no evidence that humans can control lightning nor is there any possible mechanism through which humans could control lightning.
None of this means that these myths have no value. They are important both culturally and historically, enriching our lives and letting us see how our ancestors tried to explain the world. Nick Greaves has several books which collect stories about the world from various African tribes and which I highly recommend. We can still enjoy the Ndebele fable of how the serval got its spots in payment for its kindness to a puff adder while recognising that it’s not true. These stories entertain and impart moral lessons but they are not science; servals’ gained their spots during evolution from forces acting on genes which influence coat colour. All these myths are from a time when we didn’t know better, when we lacked the evidence we have now. They have historical and cultural value but not scientific value.
While science and mythology and religion both try to understand the world, only science can do so because it puts the emphasis on evidence. If we set up several targets and someone was able to use witchcraft to hit them with lightning, we would know it was real even if we couldn’t explain it. That hasn’t happened. When we have a scientific claim, we not only have to support it with evidence, but we also have to consider alternatives explanations of that evidence and test them repeatedly until we are confident that we have the right explanation. Without evidence, which ties scientific explanations to reality, there is no way to reliably produce knowledge. Mythology may explain all the available evidence, such as how the idea that the cave near Hierapolis was a portal to the underworld, but unless these ideas are repeatedly tested as new information becomes available, they will become out of date. We see that in world religions where, while practices may change over time, there are certain tenets that must be accepted as truth, even when all the evidence is against them. Scientific knowledge is different. While there are scientific facts, we also recognise that all conclusions are tentative but supported by the best-available evidence at the time. Or, when the evidence changes, I change my mind.
There is one, single, objective reality. As we collect evidence, we get closer to a true understanding of that reality. What is really great is that everyone gets closer to the same truth. There is no Asian geography where the continents are in different positions. There is no Uruguayan physics with different laws of motion. There is no African chemistry where elements bind in different ways. All scientists look at the same evidence, can test that evidence themselves and so converge on the same set of conclusions. Scientific disagreements occur when there is a lack of conclusive evidence. In the early 1900s, scientists were unsure whether DNA or protein was the genetic material of a cell. But after a series of experiments, the evidence supported DNA as the genetic material. Today the evidence is even more substantial and it would be near-impossible to find a serious scientist who doubts that DNA is the genetic material of the cell. This is in contrast to something like religion where there is no underlying truth and no objective evidence that everyone can agree on. We see religions split, but they do not independently find evidence of the same truth and converge on that truth. This is why we can see religions distributed according to where they originated and who colonised what parts of the world, whereas scientific facts are accepted by scientists regardless of their culture, nationality or beliefs.
None of this should at all imply that all indigenous knowledge is bad; it’s about whether any particular claim is supported by evidence. There’s a saying, attributed to Tim Minchin, about pseudoscientific alternative medicines, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” It’s the same with science. When there is something in indigenous knowledge that has been missed, it can and should be integrated in our global scientific framework. There is no distinction between Western science and indigenous science. If the method is objective and rational, and if the conclusions are supported by the available evidence, then it is just science. Science is universal.