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Greater efforts are needed to integrate the insights of traditional knowledge into modern science, as applied to practices ranging from medicine to environmental management. This requires redefining our concept of the 'scientific world view'.


Earlier this year, a proposal by the government of Kenya to introduce a new law allowing the provision of herbal drugs to hospital patients provoked a storm of protest from the country's doctors. Critics argued that the effectiveness of such drugs had not been scientifically proven, and that their potential dangers were unknown (see 'Kenyan doctors oppose herbal remedies ').

The Kenyan government's decision reflects a growing awareness by those responsible for health policy in both developed and developing nations that traditional medical techniques have much to offer modern medicine (an awareness that, ironically, now creates its own problems in the form of 'biopiracy'). The objections of the Kenyan Medical Association, however, reflect the fact that tensions between traditional knowledge and modern science continue to reverberate.


Indeed the issue — and the tensions — highlight an increasing awareness of the value of traditional knowledge not only in medicine but, more broadly, in the whole range of social practices required to promote sustainable development. To put it at its starkest, many of the industrial processes and related agricultural techniques associated with unsustainable patterns of growth tend to be based, directly or indirectly, on the products of modern science. In contrast, traditional knowledge tends to be associated with lifestyles that have survived successfully and relatively unchanged for centuries. In other words, with lifestyles that have proved themselves to be sustainable.

Of course this is something of a caricature. Not all traditional ways of life have been sustainable (witness the large tracts of forest destroyed by over-grazing in North Africa and the Middle East); conversely, not all the products of modern science point in the other direction. But a clear tensions exist, fuelled by the accusations of many scientists that traditional knowledge, where it cannot withstand close scientific scrutiny, is dangerously misleading, if not dishonest.

ICSU's contribution

Given the heat that this debate can generate, the International Council for Science (ICSU) has performed a valuable task in convening a working group to address the issue. The origins of the working group themselves reflect this underlying tension; endorsement of the contribution of traditional knowledge to modern science at the World Conference on Science in Budapest three years ago generated a hostile response when they were presented to the general assembly of ICSU — a co-sponsor of the conference with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) — a few months later.

The main fear expressed by several delegates to the ICSU meeting was that opening the door too wide to official recognition of traditional knowledge risked bestowing similar recognition on movements attached to 'pseudoscientific ideas'. The most frequent example of this is creation science, which denies the legitimacy of Darwinian evolution on the grounds that it conflicts with the story of creation in the Bible.

Recognising the value of traditional knowledge

The report of the ICSU working group sets out in welcome details some of the many ways in which traditional knowledge and modern science can, and frequently do, work closely together (see 'Litmus test proposed for 'pseudoscience'). It points out that traditional knowledge has often played a role in the development of modern science, citing, for example, Linneaus' use of folk taxonomies in his development of biological classification systems.

It also describes how, more recently, scientists have begun to work closely with indigenous communities to promote a mutual interest in sustainable agriculture and ecological practice. "Such work is likely to increase in importance during this century, both because of the recognition that many environmental problems are local in nature and the need for the cooperation of traditional peoples in addressing global issues," it says.

The report also suggests a useful set of tools — some sociological, some epistemological — by which both 'legitimate' modern science and traditional forms of knowledge can be distinguished from unscientific claims. Anyone who has tried to argue with a supporter of creationism knows how difficult this can be. For example it requires a mutual awareness exists of the complexities of scientific practice (including, for example, an acknowledgement that there is no single 'scientific method', but a range of methods in different disciplines).

Challenging 'instrumental' views of nature

If there is a weakness in the working group's report, it is the fact that it appears to underestimate the extent to which the 'modern scientific world view' lies embedded at the heart of the knowledge economy. Perhaps the prime example of this is the field of modern biotechnology, made possible by the techniques of genetic engineering. Despite the success of these techniques, for example in reducing pest damage or increasing crop field, they symbolise the 'instrumentalist' view of nature that so many now criticise.

We have learnt a lot about the shortcomings of this instrumentalist view, at least to the extent that it includes our views of the natural world, in the 30 years since the first global environment conference was held in Stockholm in 1972. One is that it tends to encourage a narrow outlook on problems; for example, it can promote agricultural productivity without adequately addressing the disruptive impact of agricultural techniques on ecological cycles. And this narrow outlook in turn has therefore been the cause of many of the environmental problems the world currently faces.

A second shortcoming, now thankfully being redressed, is the way that this instrumentalist view has marginalised other more holistic approaches, a hallmark of traditional knowledge systems. A third one, less often talked about but no less significant, is the role it has played in turning students away from scientific subjects at school and university, as many such student are unable to reconcile their perception of the role of modern science in mankind's desire to control the natural world with a separate desire to respect nature.

New commitments

Those attending the World Conference on Science endorsed a commitment to a 'new social contract' between science and society. Part of the thinking behind this phrase, vague as it remains, is that instrumentalist attitudes represent one aspect of the old contract that needs to be left behind. In its place needs to be inserted the holistic attitudes that will determine whether development policies, while making full use of modern science, are also truly sustainable. If this can be achieved, much will also have been done to resolve the tensions between modern science and traditional knowledge.

The problem, of course, is that instrumentalist attitudes also determine the way that science and technology are embedded in modern economies and policies towards research, particularly at a time of increasing privatisation of the whole research enterprise. Think, for example, of the way that intellectual property laws are written, or the reasons that private companies invest in research. Neither, in their present form, have much to gain by adopting a non-instrumentalist, holistic view of the world.

What this means is that efforts to reconcile traditional and modern forms of scientific knowledge — one of the issues to be addressed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August — are only likely to succeed as part of a broader strategy to revise the way we think about science, both intellectually and politically. Both sets of revisions will need to be compatible with what science has achieved, and can do so in the future. But both also require the creation of forms of authority that are not imposed from above or outside, but originate, like traditional knowledge, in the needs, views and aspirations of the communities they seek to serve. That is a political task, not one for the scientific community alone.

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