Ways of Knowing

Starla Jackson

Starla studies chemicals.

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40 Responses

  1. CJColucci says:

    This makes good sense. That said, it might be the case — I don’t say it is because I haven’t looked at it — that the dominance of white, western maleness in science may skew the topics of interest or favor certain techniques of investigation, to the detriment of advancing scientific knowledge. This is a topic that could be profitably explored, and has nothing to do with “ways of knowing.”Report

    • pillsy in reply to CJColucci says:

      Yes, there is a lot to talk about here. And it’s not even that; it may not be (after investigation) that research has not been as skewed as all that, but I still think it’s actually interesting to note how scientific and mathematical research are done, and how the fact that they’re done by humans through a fundamentally social process [1] shapes how they approach the underlying truths they’re trying to grasp.

      This is why I was so annoyed by Eric Weinstein on Twitter, without even really noticing the original controversy that spurred his wrongness.

      [1] For one thing, I think the dominance of white Westerness in science is rather overstated; maleness perhaps not so much.

      [1] Peer review! Argument and counterargument! Replication of experiments!Report

  2. Road Scholar says:

    Well said. I very quickly lose patience with this line of pomo hooey.

    On a side note, the epistemology course I took a few years back was literally titled “Ways of Knowing”. I enjoyed that class immensely.Report

  3. JoeSal says:

    Excellent post.
    Recently I have found it useful to parse a discussion into social objectivity or empirical objectivity.

    Of course these different objectivities rely on the resolution of their social truth or empirical truth components.

    Postmodernism can only survive in a framework of social objectivity, where the social truth components are unresolved.

    What I find rather comforting is empirical truth doesn’t require defending. It’s outside of the realm of feelz.

    Again, great work.Report

    • pillsy in reply to JoeSal says:

      What I find rather comforting is empirical truth doesn’t require defending.

      Well, not unless you want to know what that empirical truth is. If you do, you have to deal with the (empirically true) fact that feelz are indeed real, and may obscure your own perspective (not to mention other people’s perspective).

      Science is, so far, the best method we have of doing this, for a wide range of empirical truths.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to JoeSal says:

      What I find rather comforting is empirical truth doesn’t require defending. It’s outside of the realm of feelz.

      Isn’t “comfort” a feeling?Report

  4. pillsy says:

    Really good post.

    I really appreciate it when people, instead of simply dismissing the “postmodern-ish” ideas or arguments, engage with them critically enough to separate wheat from chaff. And yes, doing that often (but not always, IME) yields a whole lot of chaff.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    Maybe we could figure out a way to have science give better results to people with higher Adversity Scores?Report

    • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

      This made me roll my eyes so hard I just got a nosebleed.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

        I originally wrote a comment about Foucault and it wandered into power dynamics and the whole wealth/money absolute good/positional good thing and I re-read it to edit it and it was pretentious as hell so I just deleted it and wrote that instead.Report

        • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

          Being a scientist is arguably a positional good (though it seems there aren’t actually enough of them if you count industry demand); science itself certainly shouldn’t be.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

            Science is the absolute good. Talking about it is the positional good.

            Science discusses the things that… oh, let’s say… the things that seem to be and haven’t been falsified.

            It’s when you start talking about this and jockeying for position on top of it that weird things happen. Let’s say that there is a discovery done or engineering achievement made.

            Who do you take a picture of and make the face of the event?

            You might think that this is a silly question, but there have been two controversies in the last handful of years where they took a picture of someone and it caused an outcry.

            The NASA guy who wore a tacky shirt.
            The NASA gal whose code may or may not have been used to find the picture of the black hole.

            And the debate is about something else entirely now. It’s about culture war forever. It’s about jockeying for position.

            Do you even remember what the achievement was for the guy who wore that shirt? I sure don’t. I just remember the backlash to the shirt. Lemme google. Oh yeah, he landed a spaceship on a comet.

            There’s also some stuff related to the dialectic involved in the whole YEC vs. Evolution thing but we got into that a million years ago.

            Nothing’s about what it’s about.

            Well, except science, I guess.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

          Foucault discovered eddy currents in copper and worked on a better governor for steam engines, but power dynamics?Report

          • pillsy in reply to George Turner says:

            Wasn’t power dynamics more Watt’s thing?

            I assume we named the unit after him for a reason.Report

            • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

              Yes, but shouldn’t we come up with a more inclusive measure for power output? Converting Watts to man-hours is problematic because “man-hours” would reflect the linguistic patriarchy, and also reinforce rankings on such masculine measures as strength and size. We need a new unit to measure power output in terms of exploitation. The new unit could not only encompass feelings like rage and bitterness, but could also incorporate elements of historical sexual disparities, racial exploitation, colonialism, and ongoing habitat loss and the potential for species extinction.

              I suggest the new unit be called the “Wahh”, which is like a Watt but with a primal scream about the unfairness of it all.Report

              • pillsy in reply to George Turner says:

                memo to self: next time don’t play along with the jokeReport

              • George Turner in reply to pillsy says:

                Oh, that’s no crazier as what’s getting published in various journals. Here’s one.

                Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research

                Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers – particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge – remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components: 1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.

                Our ancestors survived the last ice age, but I’m not so sanguine about our prospects for surviving the next one.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

                “Look, we can all agree that a feminist critique of glacial sciences is laughably ridiculous since it’s obvious a male god made them for the benefit of mankind.”Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

            Eddy Currents is an innocent man!

            Sorry, wrong joke. I’ll see myself out.Report

  6. greginak says:

    Good post. There is some good stuff in pomo arena but taken to far, like just abotu evertying, it turns to silliness.

    I think where the “Native” view may have more bearing is in the softer sciences like anthropology. If a scientist is trying to understand the lifeways of people who built Chaco Canyon the distant decedents who still live in the area may have important insights. Does being Native mean you understand how an Up Quark works better then a white person; i’m guessing the answer is no.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to greginak says:

      There was a really interesting article in the New Yorker in 2015 about the risk of a catastrophic earthquake /typhoon in the Portland area (sorry Burt and Tod). They were able to link the geological record with oral history from the local American Indian tribes. So I agree with you 100% Greg. When I was doing archaeology we relied heavily on soft science to add an extra dimension to our hard data.


      • George Turner in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I wouldn’t have even associated that with anything “post modern”. If you were on an archaeological dig at Pompeii or Herculaneum you wouldn’t pat yourself on the back for your culturally awareness after you’d thought to see if maybe the locals had noted anything about the buried cities. That’s just applying “history” as practiced since before Vesuvius blew its top.

        Step 1: Ask folks if they know anything about the topic of interest. If so, write it down.Report

  7. Oscar Gordon says:

    Teach them that the elder means something different by “alive” than the teacher does. Teach them how these definitions came to be, the ways of the ways of knowing.

    I’ve heard the term ‘living stone’ before, in reference to stone that is still out there and part of the organic and geological processes that shape it (wind, water, tectonics); as opposed to ‘dead stone’, which has been removed from the natural environment, and shaped and put to some other purpose.

    Definitions matter.Report

  8. Doctor Jay says:

    I would challenge the premise that white, western maleness dominates science. There are a lot of Asian males (both Chinese and Indian) in STEM. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be referred to as white or western.

    They are male. We teach women in this country, and apparently in others that math and science are male, because they do not involve feeling and emotion. This is wrong on multiple counts.

    Science and engineering do involve feeling, but feeling strongly about something has no bearing on whether it is correct or incorrect in a scientific method. This is critical to the epistemology of science.
    Repetition is the foundation of truth, not feeling. But people can, and often do have strong feelings and artistic expression within engineering and science.

    Furthermore, the idea that women cannot or should not put their feelings aside in the pursuit of scientific truth is also laughable.


    With the business about the Navajo, I’m wondering if they aren’t engaging with a kind of interaction that goes “Grandad says the rocks are alive” and a teacher that says, “That’s silly, rocks have mass and velocity, but they aren’t alive”, rather than “That’s very interesting. AND, rocks have mass and sometimes velocity, and sometimes kinetic energy and and/or potential energy.”

    But you’re right about how frustratingly vague this all is. This stuff is mostly written by people who don’t do science, have never studied science, and usually have a chip on their shoulder about science.Report

  9. Aaron David says:

    Around the time IT went from meaning Industrial Technology to Information Technology, STEM once again took off as a subject. And this caused the humanities to look for something that would bring back the glory they recently had. Hence a 30yo philosophical paradigm, deconstructionism, became en vogue again. Now, as with many phy. paradigms, it can be a useful tool providing a new and different way of looking at aspects of the world. Derrida’s Differance is fairly useful once properly understood, as is much of Foucault. de Man is a very different story, as is Irigaray. I find them much less useful, others disagree.

    How science is interpreted and applied is very culturally specific, as those philosophers show. But, that will not change the underlying facts about the natural world. Pi doesn’t change due to the gender of an observer. While the periodic table may change at various times, none of those additions are due to the race of the scientist. And on and on. And while it can be applied in biased ways, it isn’t that way by some sort of design.

    Science is a methodology, nothing more and nothing less.Report

  10. dragonfrog says:

    Preface: I have not (yet) read the second linked paper, “Cultural processes in science education: Supporting the navigation of multiple epistemologies.”

    That out of the way, the quotes from that paper sound like critiques of how science *education* is done, not of how *science* is done.

    That is absolutely consistent with science – if a teaching approach A serves white pupils well and native pupils poorly, and the reverse is true of teaching approach B – this is a thing that can be studied (with science!) and the findings applied by using different approaches depending on the demographics of a given classroom.

    Heck, approach B might even have the teacher saying things that many scientists would cringe at – but if the end result is that the kids in a reserve school get better chemistry grades, can better apply the scientific method, end up having better access to scientific fields in both higher education and careers – that’s science working.Report

    • George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

      I would instead look at the teachers. Assuming that Native American Reservations have significant similarities to small towns (I’m thinking of Appalachia), a large number of the kids go to college but only some come back. The ones who come back to teach school are not necessarily a representative sample of those who left and went into teaching, since many of the small town folks who are really good teachers decide to teach in urban and suburban schools in affluent areas, rather than returning to their home town.

      And sometimes it shows. I had a seventh grade science teacher who explained that fission bombs are more powerful than fusion bombs because fission explodes outwards and fusion explodes inwards, creating a suction force (four hydrogen atoms become one helium atom, so there’s less stuff!). I couldn’t design a spherical implosion mechanism at that age, but I’d been to Oak Ridge National Labs and I was 100% certain that he had no idea what he was talking about.

      As for Native American beliefs, they deserve no more respect in a science class than all the old wives tales and folk traditions of Appalachian’s or anyone else sitting in a science class. “But teacher, my granddad says that them rocks was…” I would fight the temptation to retort “But Johnny, you’re granddad is a moron,” and instead explain how everyone used to think that a century ago, including perhaps my own grandparents, and then launching into a fascinating tale of how we found out we were completely wrong about so many things. What I wouldn’t do is indulge him, arguing that “These hillbillies have their own way of knowing about rocks and we have to respect that.” Unfortunately, we kind of did that anyway because we were up to our eyeballs in young Earth creationists.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to George Turner says:

        You’re missing my point, I think. I’m not talking about giving “equal weight” in science class to religious traditions holding that rocks and streams have spirits and so we have an opportunity to calculate the heat capacity of a rock spirit by exposing living and dead rocks to sunlight or something.

        What I’m talking about is, you communicate with people based on where they’re at. Some examples of what I’m shooting for:

        If your curriculum design work was all done in model classrooms with kids from middle class-ish white-ish families, your teaching methods have a good chance of internalizing certain middle class-ish white-ish assumptions about what “everybody” knows and doesn’t know, and will then leave behind the kids who lack that knowledge / experience, and miss opportunities to teach them effectively because they tend to possess other shared reference knowledge / experience that it never occurred to you to lean on as a starting point for your teaching examples.

        Learning styles differ – this is of course a person-to-person different thing, but it’s perhaps also a culture-to-culture different thing. These are made up examples but
        – if you’re teaching kids who since early childhood have been expected to act with a lot of independence, work together, do fairly advanced chores, etc. – then you may have a class that will be able to get a lot more out of group projects, don’t have to be hand-held as much, etc.
        – if you’re teaching kids who since early childhood have been expected to be “seen and not heard”, not ask too many questions but just observe and imitate how adults do things – then you may have a class that you can’t just assume are going to ask questions when they don’t understand – you’re going to have to do more quizzes to assess where they’re at with each day’s lessons.

        I mean, yes, it is possible that reserve schools don’t draw the best teachers. That is also a thing to look at (check all the hypotheses!)Report

    • Starla Jackson in reply to dragonfrog says:

      If they had measured success through chemistry grades and applying the scientific method, the paper might have really challenged me to rethink some things! But instead the only thing they used as a sign of success was whether the kids thought what they learn from tribal elders was “science.”

      In fact one of the things that annoyed me was a before/after interview with a little girl. In the before interview she talks about chemicals and earthquakes and twisters and she seems perfectly knowledgeable and enthusiastic–but apparently this was deficient in some way because she didn’t seem to be thinking of “Native science.”Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Starla Jackson says:

        Hrm, that is… That’s… Wut?

        Yeah, that’s unfortunate.

        I mean, it’s probably worth emphasizing that science is not bubbling beakers and oscilloscopes and white lab coats, but rather forming testable hypotheses, testing them, and updating our knowledge based on the outcomes of the tests, and so instances of careful and systematic observation in non-industrial societies are more scientific than science-buzzword quackery in industrial ones. And, to the extent that kids see science as something that is consistent with staying true to their heritage, that’s probably good both for both science (more qualified scientists) and for native societies (more native people seeing and pursuing their potential in more fields).

        But I don’t think that adds up to a whole revolutionary teaching approach.Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    Just want to say this a great piece.

    My own 2 microquatloos is that some of this is a manifestation of the peculiar (and mostly false) manichaeism one see sometimes between “STEM” and “Humanities” and a related thing where people use and/or make demands on Science!(TM) that is totally not its purpose.Report

  12. What a fab piece! I really enjoyed it and best of all, walked away knowing more than I did to start with. Thank you for writing it!Report