Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”)

Quillette remains a good source of liberal but critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by Any One Name.” Dehaas, described as “a Toronto based freelance journalist”, is critical of a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature. It turns out that while some of these “indigenous ways of knowing” may have a valid core, in the main they’re based on revelation, guesses, and tradition—forms of faith. In no way are they, taken together, comparable to the empirical approach used by scientists and science-based researchers, engineers, or even car mechanics—a method I called “science construed broadly” in Faith Versus Fact.

First, the issue. There’s no doubt that Canada treated its indigenous people horribly. Many children were ripped from their parents, sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice traditional customs—an attempt to forcibly turn them into European Canadians. The country has rightfully tried to make reparations for this and similar forms of ill-treatment, and that’s to be applauded.

But in one way these reparations have gone too far. By attempting to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as valid, the Canadian government and its universities are putting truly valid ways of understanding nature alongside ways that are not rigorously tested, and indeed, can be dangerous.

Now you’ve heard this equivalence of knowledge in at least two other areas: religion, which also claims “ways of knowing” based on revelation, dogma, authority, and simple faith, and postmodernism, which in some forms holds that there are many “ways of knowing”, with science just one among many, and not privileged in any way.

But we also have the indigenous ways of knowing held by what Canadians call “First Nation” people. Dehaas outlines how these ways are being validated:

From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

One example:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

That’s not knowledge, but faith that’s equivalent to religious faith!

Now I don’t know how pervasive this kind of nonsense is, but we know that First Nations people have been allowed to impose on their dying children “native medicine” rather than Western science-based medicine, with the predictable results: the kids die.(Sometimes the courts support this travesty.) I’ll count on Canadian readers to inform me if Restoule’s attitude is an outlier. I suspect it isn’t.  It is instead, as Dehaas observes, “a combination of magical thinking and spirituality.”

He adds:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these “alternative ways of knowing” so dangerous.

Now some of you may be thinking, “But many modern medicines are derived from traditional plant-based remedies.” And indeed, that’s true: quinine as a remedy for malaria is the quintessential example. But the evidence that led to these plants being efficacious was still anecdotal: they seemed  to work. Now in the case of quinine they actually did work, but to find out rigorously if they work, you have to do proper empirical testing, using blind tests and statistics. That’s why all plant-based medicines, whether derived from local cultures or not, must be vetted by proper scientific testing.

After all, there are plenty of “traditional” remedies that don’t work at all: have a look at the Canadian Cancer Society’s page on “Aboriginal traditional healing“, which outlines many First Nations methods for cures that aren’t efficacious, including smudging, healing circles, and herbal medicines (some of which have been used on children with cancer). To its credit, the Society notes that there’s no evidence that any of these methods can be used to treat cancer, but the point is that people have used them—because they’re derived from “indigenous ways of knowing.”

Ditto for spiritual healing. That, like religion, is also an indigenous “way of knowing”, and may have some placebo effects, but if you had an infection, would you opt for smudging (inhaling the smoke from burning sacred herbs)— or antibiotics? By all means, if indigenous “remedies” aren’t harmful, make the patient feel more comfortable, and help him to take scientific medicine, use the other stuff as well. But don’t pretend that it’s a cure based on “other ways of knowing.”

Of course people who have been trod upon need their oppression remedied, and the Canadian government has taken admirable steps in that direction. But validating “indigenous ways of knowing”, at least insofar as they are claimed to produce truth about nature and the cosmos, isn’t one of them. There is only one valid way of knowing: a rigorous empirical method designed to overcome confirmation bias, and undergoes tests and replication. It’s called “science”.

h/t: Steve


  1. Posted May 28, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world”

    Like that’s a bad thing!

  2. Posted May 28, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I confess to a prejudice. I tend to look askance at anything coming from a “school of Education, e.g. “Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).” When I was schooled, the School of Education is where you went if you couldn’t hack it elsewhere. It was not exactly a beacon for all the best and brightest to find in the darkness. Having admitted that, I haven’t seen any evidence that the situation has changed since I formed that prejudice.

    If find “different ways of knowing,” just the phrase itself, offensive. I realize that there are different ways of acquiring knowledge, but once one has it there are not different ways one has it. This sounds like another manifestation of Post-modernism gone amuck. I would not object to “different ways of learning” but that phrase would gut the purpose of their message (our way of knowing is as good as yours).

    Also the word “tradition” is simply a word meaning “the way we have always done it.” Tradition was an information storing scheme that worked well before we had things like written records and books to store information. If one prefers tradition over other forms of knowing then there will be no innovation, no progress, and no science.

    On Mon, May 28, 2018 at 12:01 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “Quillette remains a good source of liberal but > critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of > Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, > “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by ” >

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Alongside the “School of Education” effect you refer to, we now have an analogous phenomenon: the “Education In X” program. Some academic departments of real subjects now have auxiliary programs in “Teaching” of the subject. And so it is that, now and then, a Professor of “Teaching Mathematics” will observe that abstract thinking in math is patriarchal, colonialist, Eurocentric, and so on. I suppose it is only a matter of time before we get programs in how to teach the teaching of a subject, and so on in infinite regress. In the groves of academe, as elsewhere, the termites are always at work.

    • freiner
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      One thing that seems to have happened in Education at the Education School-level is the virtual disappearance of analytic philosophy of education (in the manner of say R.S. Peters or Israel Scheffler)and its replacement by postmodern / sociological / critical studies fads.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Many years ago someone prepared a graph of average GPA at graduation from each department at that institution as a function of average SAT score at entry. There was a marked negative correlation, i.e., the weaker the entering students choosing a given major the higher the grades that department awarded. Education was at the extreme low SAT high grades end of that plot.

  3. freiner
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    The whole “ways of knowing” way of speaking seems based on any number of category mistakes that conflate knowledge with “worldview,” “belief,” “personal understanding,” etc.

  4. Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    …“Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,”… As soon as you see the word “holistic” you know you are in trouble.

    • Colin
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      The other word which is often used in the cowardly avoidance of critical scrutiny is “sacred”. Listen for it, for it is used all the time.

  5. mirandaga
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    “And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these ‘alternative ways of knowing’ so dangerous.”

    By requiring that any “alternative ways of knowing” must be subject to “rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing,” you are, as Restoule notes, positing Western knowledge or science as the only valid frame of reference. In effect, you’re begging the question.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Right. Only copious amounts of woo are needed to validate alternative ways of knowing. 😉

    • Davide Spinello
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      There is not such a thing as western science. There is science. It is about the method.

      • mirandaga
        Posted May 29, 2018 at 1:20 am | Permalink

        “Western” was meant to go with “knowledge,” not with “science.” I.e., “Western knowledge” and “science” are synonomously opposed to “indigenous ways of knowing.”

        My point was that evaluating the validity of indigenous ways of knowing by using Western standards makes no more sense than evaluating the validity of Western knowledge by using indigenous standards. You can’t understand one way of knowing by using another way of knowing any more than you can really understand qualitative phenomena using quantitative measures (though social scientists have made a career out of trying).

        • Davide Spinello
          Posted May 29, 2018 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          This is not the point. There is value for indigenous tradition and knowledge, but the problem is that the usual suspects want to mix it with science, creating the false dichotomy “western vs indigenous way of knowing”.

          To dignify indigenous culture and tradition we don’t need to morph it into something that is not.

          • mirandaga
            Posted May 29, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            I agree completely, and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. But to the extent that language shapes culture, culture also shapes language—that is, limits those things that we are able to talk about with personal conviction or public credibility. The Haisla people of the Kitlope River Valley in British Columbia express their attitude toward the rest of nature in this way: “We do not own the land; the land owns us.” This idea is so foreign to our Western worldview as to be almost incomprehensible except in the sentimental way that we often interpret indigenous peoples’ concepts. We can pretend to understand it but we cannot, to borrow a phrase, test it against the bone.

            So when I hear people talk about whether our children will be able to forgive us for what we’re doing to nature—destroying biodiversity and so on—I’m inclined to think that what they might be least likely to forgive us for is that we have depleted language to the point where they cannot talk about nature except in material terms. Because if they have no language other than “woo” for the internal or felt experience of the natural world that passes as currency in the public forum, then they will be truly lost. They might well feel that they share a common bond with all living things, but they will have no way to make this real to themselves or to their children, because we will have left them no words with which to express it.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Science works.

      • mirandaga
        Posted May 29, 2018 at 1:20 am | Permalink

        Science “works” (and works brilliantly, I might add) by reducing reality to those things on which it works—namely, what you can measure. Hence, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count; if it isn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. When, on a previous thread, I ventured that “Not everything that is important is measurable, and not everything that is measurable is important,” someone responded, “How else do you know the truth if you do not measure it?” If someone can ask such a question, I can’t even begin to think how to go about answering it.

    • BJ
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      If basing knowledge on evidence is considered “Western” science, rather than just “science,” then what are other types of science, and how do they confirm whether or not things are true?

    • Sastra
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      By complaining that we’re “begging the question” when we ask for clarity and evidence, you’re using a logical Western framework to defend a form of knowledge which is apparently untainted by concerns about such fallacies. Given the situation, then, I think you might need to answer our criticisms about “alternative ways of knowing “ using science-and-logic-free “alternative ways of disagreement.”

      Not sure what this framework would consist of. Maybe it involves rocks.

  6. Mark Perew
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink


  7. Dean Reimer
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I have to quibble with this statement: “…a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature.”

    I saw nothing in the source article that suggested this was a government initiative, nor any links to substantiate that suggestion. It seems this is coming directly from universities, on their own initiative.

    Which, of course, does not negate the thrust of your argument. But the wider implications, at a societal level, are different when it isn’t government-directed.

  8. Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have to check out the article. But after the Jeffrey Tayler articles, there’s a massive drop off in quality at Quillette, IMO. Also, they’re guilty of some religious/magical thinking of their own.

  9. Richard Guérette
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    • Richard Guérette
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, I should had have the title do the link. How Canada’s Cult of the Noble Savage Harms Its Indigenous Peoples… via @QuilletteM

  10. DW
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Professor, you need to decolonize your science! Your feeble european science cannot explain how black magic can send lightning to strike someone!

    In all seriousness, there is something very odd running through all this: The idea that culture is biological. The alt-right keeps trying to push this nonsense from the other side of the equation. They assert that only white people can understand european science and culture. And here we have the left declaring the non-white people have a completely difference “way of knowing” that is exclusive to them.

    It is insanely racist to declare that because someone isn’t white. they can’t understand all that book-learning science. But it seems the alt-right and the ctrl-left have decided this is the case.

    • df
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Can you please provide a link to an alt-right article arguing about only whites understanding European science or science?

      • DW
        Posted May 28, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Here is Jared Taylor talking about how he believes that race is indelibly connected to western culture:

        I don’t think he mentions science there, but modern science is usually lumped in with white culture (or hu-ite culture, as Taylor calls it) when I’ve seen it expressed elsewhere. I don’t have a library of alt-right links, so I don’t have a perfect example for you.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I have no doubt that Native Americans are far better at tracking animals in forests, navigating in the wilderness, starting campfires, predicting the weather based on observed animal behavior, etc., etc.

    I don’t know that it amounts to another “way” of knowing other than a well-honed intuition on certain matters of interest.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      If true, I expect it is experience and practice (i.e., included in Jerry’s “science construed broadly”) rather than intuition.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      In our past, non-Native Americans also had these skills. It is not exclusively a
      Native American “way of knowing”. Nor is it too much to expect that Native Americans can learn science as a “way of knowing”. The problem came about with government forcing the issue one way then, and another way now.

      I have no problem with efforts to teach Native Americans knowledges and skills that once upon a time were integral to their culture before European/American education was required of them. It would be akin to my trying to go back to learn the very different homemaking skills of my great grandmother.
      I can appreciate that knowledge while being grateful that I don’t cook on a campfire, brick oven or wood stove, and don’t have to make all the family’s clothing from the raw materials of wool, flax or cotton.

      But, I do object if non-scientific ways of knowing are taught to Native American and non-Native America students as of equal value or to replace science. No!

      • Steve
        Posted May 28, 2018 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        Well said. There’s a big difference between “ways of knowing” and equivalency between that and scientific or technical knowledge gained through the scientific method. Knowing something implies it’s based on fact which can be tested and repeated; otherwise, it’s just belief. Knowledge and belief are not the same at all.

    • freiner
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      This sounds similar to the concept of “know how” that Gilbert Ryle distinguished from the propositional “knowing that” of justiifed true belief. Of course, to see if someone genuinely had “know how” of a particular skill would require empirical tests.

  12. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Once again, one might ask proponents of the Indigenous Way of Knowing what they do when they have a toothache. Do they consult a dentist, or an indigenous healer? And if any members of the TRC had to consider undergoing surgery, would they pay equal respect to a “Western” scientifically trained surgical staff on the one hand, or, on the other, to shamans filled with the Indigenous Knowing.

    Moreover, wouldn’t it be dreaded “cultural appropriation” for a non-indigenous individual—like, say, any of the deans of the Canadian universities mentioned—to even talk about the First Nations’ cognitive system, based on an ineffable, holistic sense of the way of the cedar, the salmon, the woodcock, and the gooseberry?

    • BJ
      Posted May 28, 2018 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Way of the Gooseberry is how I defeated the Cobra Kai at my karate tournament.

  13. Sastra
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    This seems like trying to rectify a country’s history of misogyny and sexism by promoting the view that women aren’t like men, they have their own special little ways of thinking and Manly- Man science and logic just aren’t part of their world. In both cases, the remedy looks suspiciously like the original problem.

  14. Steven E
    Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    The problem comes from a mixing of different ideas which get mixed up with post-modernism into one big toxic stew…
    – first is seeing racial (genetic) identity with cultural identity as interchangable – ie if one has indigenous genetic ancestry then one automatically should have indigenous cultural identity. We see this when people discover indigenous ancestors and then decide that this means they must have the cultural traits associated with them. (Really this is just racism in a new guise – assuming traits based on ancestry)
    – second is the mixing of knowledge of verifiable facts held in cultural contexts such as stories, ceremony and traditions with the idea that all stories ceremonies and traditions represent verifiable facts. In an effort to validate these traditions many Canadians have taken the stance that all indigenous traditions hold special connections to reality.
    – third is the valid criticism that science tends to try and remove items from their context to try and study them independently of their environments, and that this can lead to faulty or at least limited conclusions. This is the source of some valid uses of the idea of holism – that some things only make sense when examined in context, however when mixed with this handwaving about nature and the spirit world then it goes off the rails.

    I think semantics plays a big part in it too. There seems to be an effort to claim the worth “truth” to mean something that is meaningful in some way rather than something that is factual. This allows people to make claims about their own “truths” or perspectives that do not rely on data.

  15. FB
    Posted May 29, 2018 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    What they want is to see more indigenous people teaching university courses, and ASAP (that’s the problem) CBC, May 17

    Halifax university’s decision to hire white prof for residential schools course ignites controversy


    [audio src="" /]

  16. Posted May 29, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    My Inuk friend Raven and I debated this sort of thing more than 10 years ago. I think we eventually came to the following conclusions:

    1) There is likely valuable *knowledge* to be systematized and analyzed and put into the world system that is being overlooked or in danger of being forgotten because of the previous (and ongoing, in some cases) histories of racism and violence
    2) There is no such thing as “other ways of knowing” – the abductive methods that Native Americans and others use are the same that every (neurologically developed enough – i.e., not ancephalic babies or the severely mentally handicapped) normal human grows up using.
    3) Nobody really believes that any human is infallible, so by giving anyone a “veto” on criticism is to patronize them and not take them seriously. Popper says somewhere that the most respectful thing one can do to an idea is to take it seriously enough to see whether it is correct or not.
    4) In order to accomplish what has been forgotten in 1) one has to use the best available approaches. This means *combining*, and building something *together*. A recent book about Inuit knowledge is a great example. It uses a technique from elsewhere to help preserve what might be valuable and otherwise lost or ignored.
    5) There’s a great bit in _The Arctic Sky_ which results in asking some Inuit what they made of a bunch of shells stuck in rocks somewhere (fossils, by the scientific understanding). One of the respondents thought there was nothing unusual about them – it just suggested to him that once long ago the ocean was in a slightly different place and that part of it had dried up.
    6) There is a wonderful book _The Cognitive Basis of Science_ which has a comparison of the skills of the hunter and the skills of the scientist. Both are full of hypothesis-and-test type activities, for example.

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