Indigenous Knowledge and Science

September 2021

In considering contributions by Canada’s Indigenous People’s knowledge [IK] to university scholarship and teaching, observe that good ideas develop in many cultures. For example, historian Paul Johnson observes that, in the centuries following the Judean revolts of 66-70 and 132-135 CE, rabbinical Judaism “enlarged the Torah into a system of moral theology and community law of extraordinary coherence, logical consistency and social strength.”1 Rabbinical Judaism had all the humanitarian characteristics of modern constitutional government: the search for peace, widespread literacy, a compulsory welfare system, rationalism, the rule of law based on acceptance by the community as a whole, and the role of courts in interpreting the law.

We distinguish between practical or traditional knowledge having an uncertain origin on the one hand and knowledge derived from scientific investigations on the other. Traditional knowledge can be invaluable; an example is the sailors’ bowline knot: having a simple structure, it will not undo under load, and is easily undone when unloaded. Undoubtedly IK contains valuable knowledge, but is it scientific knowledge?

Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye’s analysis of the Christian Bible provides useful insights through his depiction of language development from Greek antiquity.2 The languages involved pass through three distinct modes from before Plato to modernity: (1) poetic or metaphorical; (2) metonymic; and (3) descriptive.

Frye’s poetic mode has “relatively little emphasis on a clear separation of subject and object,” falling instead on “the feeling that subject and object are linked by a common power or energy.” Also, “Prose in this mode is discontinuous ... a series of ... oracular statements that are not to be argued about, but must be accepted and pondered, their power absorbed by a disciple or reader.”2

The metonymic mode developed at the time of Plato: “The intellectual operations of the mind become distinguishable from the emotional operations ... abstraction becomes possible” together with the development “into the conception of logic.” Plato’s use of language is based on Socrates’ teaching method: “wisdom ... emerges from a dialogue or group discussion. Socrates does not...utter discontinuous aphorisms to be pondered and assimilated...but orders his discussion in a sequacious argument.” This style is associated with the development of continuous prose. Also, as “Christian theology gained ascendancy, thought began to take on a deductive shape....”2

The descriptive mode “begins roughly in the sixteenth century [attaining] cultural ascendancy in the eighteenth.”2 English literature associates it with the ideas of Francis Bacon [1561-1626]. It grew out of dissatisfaction with the metonymic mode: “Syllogistic reasoning, it was felt, led to nothing genuinely new ... Continuous prose is still employed, but all deductive procedures are increasingly subordinated to a primary inductive and fact-gathering process... [t]he ideal to be achieved by words is framed on the model of truth by correspondence.”2 It is essentially the foundation of the scientific method, and is effectively Bayesian inference: as evidence consistent with a hypothesis accumulates, the probability that the hypothesis is true increases.3

Although this method is often said to be European in origin, its elements were first identified in the 10th Century Muslim wor1d. Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965-1040 CE) used experiments and mathematics to test hypotheses, and is reputed to have said “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself the enemy of all that he reads...”4 Following its recognition in Renaissance Europe, with the availability of printing, it rapidly spread internationally. Thus, despite Tsarist Russia’s economic and political backwardness, its scientists made many valuable contributions from the 18th to the early 20th Century. An example is polymath Mikhail Lomonosov’s chemistry experiments which led him in1756 to identify the principle of the conservation of mass, one of three principles underlying much of physics.5 Also, Japan began importing European books on astronomy in the early 18th Century.6

Bayesian inference is found not only in the so-called “hard sciences” such as physics, in which repeatability of experiments plays a key role, but also in historical sciences such as archaeology and history itself. As physicist Alan Cromer put it: “as long as investigators can search for their own bones and pots, or can examine those found by others, the critical reexamining process of science remains intact.”7

Intrinsic to the scientific method is methodological naturalism: it assumes that “everything is composed of natural entities.”8 This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: it forces one to reject convenient supernatural explanations, but it cannot address concerns intrinsic to the human condition, such as ethics, religion and the law. Nevertheless, this principle is internationally recognised as essential: for example, objecting to references to Christian dogma in European astronomy texts, early 18th Century Japanese scholars emphasised naturalism’s necessity.6

Modern cultures express ideas in all three of Frye’s modes. Thus, the physics describing the motion of liquids and gases is metaphorical: their molecular nature and their different observable characteristics are irrelevant: they are both modelled as compressible continua.

Any evaluation of IK shows that it contains much to admire, including detailed understanding of local climate, geology and biology, together with care for the environment that “settlers” would do well to emulate. Nevertheless, I suggest that difficulties in incorporating IK into university studies stems from the fact that—being the product of oral cultures—aspects still operate in Frye’s poetic mode, and cannot be described as scientific. I cite four reasons: (1) apparent lack of distinction between subject and object; (2) emphasis on inclusion of religious and other spiritual knowledge; (3) absence of a written record available for the debate that al Haytham and others recognise as essential; and (4) unwillingness to participate in that debate.

Bob Joseph, founder of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc (Port Coquitlam, B.C), gives a good summary of Canadian IK attributes and virtues.9 Joseph lists fourteen; five illustrate my concern. First, it is said to be holisic: “all aspects of life are interconnected … spirituality, history, cultural practices ... language, healing.” Second, knowledge is transmitted orally through “stories, songs, ceremonies, legends and proverbs.” Third, the knowledge is said to be moral: there is a “right and wrong way to interact with nature” including “a responsibility given from the Creator to respect the natural world.” Fourth, time is said to be cyclical, as opposed to the scientific concept of progress in one direction. Fifth, knowledge is spiritual, that is “all parts of the natural world are infused with spirit. Mind, matter and spirit are perceived as inseparable.”

Insistence on the spirituality of knowledge is widespread amongst North American indigenous peoples. An example is a discussion by Rosalyn Lapier, who is a member of both the University of Montana’s faculty and the Blackfeet Tribe.10 Frye observes that “Many ‘primitive’ societies have words expressing [this spirituality] which are untranslatable into our normal categories of thought but which are very persuasive in theirs...”2

Openness to debate can be contentious. In 2017, Canadian academics Gabor Cspregi and Rodney Clifton observed that those who assume that indigenous science claims are open to debate and experimental refutation “have often been given a very rough ride…. Current political thinking in both Canadian wider society and universities holds that indigenous knowledge comes from the elders, whom respectful people—whether indigenous or non-indigenous—cannot legitimately question.”11

The conceptual differences seem profound. In a review of the relationship between IK and science, Bohensky and Maru note “the tendency of IK holders to reject what they view as Western philosophy’s obsession with truth, belief and world-view. What matters most to indigenous North Americans is how one lives, not what one believes.”12

All these features are present in a description of IK by Indigenous academic David Newhouse of Trent University.13 Thus, IK “doesn’t just engage the intellect, it engages mind, spirit and body.” Truth is said to be “subjective”, and this “contrasts with the European truth tradition, in which multiple truths are positioned in competition with one another, and only a single, agreed upon the process of challenge.” Hence how “does one practice respect for [IK] in a community based on the notion of challenge as a fundamental approach to determining truth?” Also, “if we criticise something our spirit being may take on the very things we are criticising.” This aspect of IK seems to be operating in the poetic mode, giving insights into the human condition, but it is not scientific.

Some have sought to characterize IK as pseudoscience but, as I understand that term—cherry-picking evidence to reach a pre-ordained conclusion—it is not. Using the term “indigenous sciences,” Carleton University’s Root Gorelick argues that IK is the result of Bayesian induction and uses metaphors which differ from those of Western cultures.14 But, as the following example suggests, in the absence of both a written record of investigations and openness to discussion, it should be considered traditional knowledge.

The distinction between practical and scientific knowledge is illustrated by the development of the steam engine in 18th and 19th Century Britain. Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 oscillating beam mine-pumping engine used a vertical axis cylinder having a piston connected to one side of the beam, and the pump to the other. With the piston’s upper side open to atmosphere, a boiler below generated steam near atmospheric pressure for the lower side. Admitting steam caused the pump to move the piston upwards. Shutting off the steam and spraying water into the cylinder to generate a partial vacuum caused the piston to move down and the pump shaft to move up. To reduce fuel consumption James Watt in 1776 introduced a separate condensing vessel, thus eliminating the losses incurred by the cyclic heating and cooling of Newcomen’s cylinder. But these engines could not propel railway or road vehicles, and Richard Trevihick developed engines using cylinder inlet pressures above atmosphere, while exhausting directly to atmosphere. Eliminating the condenser enabled him to build and demonstrate in 1801 a steam road vehicle.15 Experience showed that these engines used less fuel, with consumption falling as structurally allowable boiler pressures increased; this property was soon widely exploited.16

The reason was identified by the science of thermodynamics. In 1824, the French physicist Nicholas Carnot published Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which argued that raising temperature and not pressure is the crucial factor in increasing efficiency. In a series of experiments beginning in 1843 the English physicist James Joule convincingly demonstrated that heat and work are different manifestations of what we now call energy, with quantities of one proportional to quantities of the other. With the concurrent discovery of what was then called absolute cold, by the 1860s physicists had expressed Carnot’s insight as the ideal heat engine theory, which states that the maximum possible efficiency is the fraction (TH − TC)/TH where TH and TC are the absolute temperatures of a heat source and a heat sink. This result was not exploited by engineers until the 1890s, when they devised superheaters to raise steam temperature beyond that generated by the boiler.

A striking example of traditional knowledge is the salmon fishing practices of the Indigenous Peoples living near North America’s Pacific coast. Since time immemorial they “maintained sustainable salmon harvests by using in-river and selective fishing tools….”17 One example is the fish wheel, which “spins with the current, scooping fish out of the water and dropping them into a holding box unharmed.” In scientific terms this is a fluid turbomachine, the dynamics of which is well understood. Furthermore, techniques of this type are usually the purview of colleges devoted to skilled trades as such as carpentry. But their practices provide examples that conservation scientists use to advocate development of sustainable policies, thus promoting improvement of modern commercial fisher’s practices.

In well-meaning attempts to advocate including IK in academic programmes, certain educators seem prone to obfuscation. University of Saskatchewan’s Glen Aikenhead and Kobe University’s Maskata Ogawa define science as a rational perceiving of reality (italics in original), and assert that scientists won’t accept it “because their identities seem to rest on their ownership of the word science” (sic!).18 But this definition ignores the crucial distinction between practical knowledge and science: Given their knowledge, both Watt and Trevithick were acting rationally.

University of Victoria’s Gloria Snively and John Corsiglia adopt Aikenhead and Ogawa’s definition, and then, in using the term “Western Science (WS)” they assert that “WS has been implicated in many of the world’s ecological disasters.”19 This ignores the basic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is value-free, and Western use of it, which is not. Furthermore, in labelling established knowledge such as Newton’s laws of mechanics as “WS,” they muddle the crucial distinction between the origins of such knowledge, and its subsequent universal acceptance. They express dismay that, while Westerners freely acknowledge the value of many aspects of indigenous cultures, individuals like me cannot accept “the concept of Indigenous Science.”19

Canadian universities are now widely viewed as having an obligation to include IK in scholarship and teaching. However, Frye’s observation on IK’s avowed spirituality suggests that this presents difficulties in certain disciplines. Nevertheless, in facing these difficulties, universities must not compromise their fundamental scholarly role: critical analysis. In this respect, note that Indigenous scholar Leroy Little Bear sees IK as contributing to the humanities, but not to the “hard sciences.”20


  1. Johnson, P. 1987. A History of the Jews. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 148-150, 154, 156-157.
  2. Frye, N. 1982. The Great Code: The Bible and literature. Toronto: Academic Press Canada, pp. 6-8, 10-13.
  3. Wikipedia. Bayesian inference. Accessed March 21, 2021.
  4. — . Ibn al-Haytham. Accessed March 20, 2021.
  5. —. Mikhail Lomonosov. Accessed April 24, 2021.
  6. — . History of science and technology in Japan. Accessed March 21, 2021.
  7. Cromer, A. 1997. Connected Knowledge: Science, Philosophy and Education. New York: Oxford University Press, pp 57-61.
  8. Audi, R. Editor. 1999. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 596.
  9. Joseph, B. 2021. “What does Indigenous Knowledge Mean? A Compilation of Attributes.” Accessed March 27, 2021.
  10. Lapier, R, 2021. “Why Native Americans do not separate religion from science.”
  11. Csepregi, G., and R.A. Clifton. “Should Canadian ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Be Open to Challenge?” SAFS Newsletter, September, 2017. Originally published in Times (of London) Higher Education, 9 March 2017.
  12. Bobensky, E., and Y. Maru. 2011. “Indigenous Knowledge, science and Resilience: What Have We learned from a Decade of International Literature on ‘Integration’?,” Ecology and Society 16 (4) 6-17.
  13. Newhouse, D. 2018. “Debwewin: to speak the truth—Nishnabek de’bwewin: telling our truths.” Academic Matters (OCUFA, Fall issue).
  14. Gorelick, R. 2014. “Indigenous sciences are not pseudosciences.” Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. 7, 43-55.
  15. Wikipedia. Richard Trevithick. Accessed April 26, 2021.
  16. — 6, 2021. Cornish engine. Accessed April 26, 2021.
  17. Wild Salmon Center, Portland Oregon, 2020. “Indigenous Fishing Practices Hold Promise for Future.”
  18. Aikenhead, G. S., and M. Ogawa. 2007. “Indigenous knowledge and science revisited.” Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (pp. 539-620).
  19. Snively, G., and J. Corsiglia. 2021. “Indigenous Science: Proven. Practical and Timeless.” Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book 1.
  20. Little Bear, L. “Traditional knowledge and humanities: a perspective by a blackfoot.” Contours Journal, Simon Fraser University, 2012.