“TRUST THE SCIENCE” – those three words have become the mantra of the global fight against Covid-19. That the population must be exhorted to trust the advice of scientists, however, speaks directly to humanity’s diminishing faith in the scientific ethos. There was a time when politicians didn’t have to ask.Nowhere has this loss of faith been demonstrated more dramatically that on the streets of London, Paris and, closer to home, Sydney. Once revered as a secular priesthood, scientists are now depicted as the willing accomplices of tyrants hellbent on the elimination of all human freedoms. One utterly deranged London protester breathlessly recalled that doctors and nurses had faced the judges at Nuremberg – “and they were hung!”
Leaving aside the absurdity of equating NHS doctors and nurses with Joseph Mengele and his entourage, the reference to the Nazi era is curiously apposite. Scientists of every kind flocked to the new Nazi regime. From rocketeer Werner von Braun, to atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg, scientists embraced Hitler’s new order as the invincible vector of rational modernity. The intellectual promoters of “scientific racism” and eugenics looked forward to working at the cutting edge of a ruthless, ultra-radical, technological society; unburdened by sentiment and driven exclusively by unfettered science.
So, what does this tell us about “the science”? The lesson to be drawn is that knowledge is always and everywhere embedded in culture. That the one cannot be separated from the other. Culture can empower knowledge, or suppress it; advance it or divert it to the utmost wickedness. Knowledge goes where it’s told.
In the guise of scientists, the holders and manipulators of knowledge often pretend to a status entirely independent of the inexactitude of cultural impulses and individual prejudices. But, as the horrific history of the Third Reich bears witness, those calling themselves scientists proved no less susceptible to the ethno-nationalist culture of Nazism than the most thuggish stormtrooper.
Unsurprisingly, scientists resist these assertions with considerable energy. Here in New Zealand, battle has recently been joined between those who argue that “Matauranga Maori”, the Maori way of knowledge, is no less deserving of respect and inculcation than “Western Science”; and those who insist that science and the scientific method transcend all indigenous understandings of the way the world works.
The seven highly respected scientists who penned a letter to the New Zealand Listener (31/7/21) expressing similar reservations, were particularly perturbed by an NCEA working group’s claim that “science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Maori and other indigenous peoples.”
From an historical perspective, however, the seven letter-writers’ objection to this characterisation of science is extremely difficult to uphold. The relationship between race and science in the history of Western imperialism is simply too strong; and the brutal uses to which the fruits of scientific inquiry were put, too irrefutable. Science both enabled – and justified – the European conquest of the world.
By contrast, Matauranga Maori recognises the wisdom of knowledge and culture working together: each one both tempering and expanding the other. Or, as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Dame Juliet Gerrard, wrote back in 2019:
“[Matauranga Maori’s] approach of embedding practice in society and grounding the project in a community of acceptance before it starts is the very model of ensuring impact and connectivity. Often those trained in Western traditions, however fine, struggle to grasp this until it is perhaps too late. How many technologies will be developed in isolation before we learn that we need to engage our publics sooner, not later, to make sure there is cultural license to proceed?”
Another way of describing this approach might be “the democratisation of science”. Certainly, the tradition of citizen scientists, operating independently of big business and the state, and applying their scientific discoveries in ways that brought obvious benefits to ordinary people, goes a long way towards explaining why Europeans initially embraced the achievements of science.
It was what Churchill called “perverted science” that sowed the seeds of popular doubt and scepticism. Science without scruple or sanction; science driven by national self-aggrandisement and/or private profit.
Dame Juliet suggests that: “To turn the tide on anti-science sentiment, we need to reframe our science as ‘here to serve’ and ‘here to listen’.”
This is all Matauranga Maori asks. Not that we “trust the science”, but that we trust ourselves.
This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 July 2021.