Misguided defense of science?

Science is being attacked from lots of quarters (the most grievous being in Congress), so it seems funny to pick on a defense of science.  Yet, you know, the advantage of being grumpy is, well, you can grumble about anything.

The piece in question, a post (op-ed?) in the New York Times by George Johnson, points out that scientists are being stymied by native peoples in various places; he particularly points out some Hawaiian opposition to the 30 m telescope for Mauna Kea and repatriation of Indian bones and artifacts to tribes. How bad is this? “The most radical among [Native tribes] refuse to bow to a science they don’t consider their own.” Er, when did we mandate that all must bow to the great god Science?

This is the kind of help that is, well, unhelpful, and every bit as insensitive and tone-deaf as calls to enforce political purity on scientific research.  He compares this to teaching creation science in science class, which scientists vigorously oppose.  Um, sorry, it is not.  A science class is a science class, so science is what should be taught; the equivalent to that is, say, reading Darwin (or the Karma Sutra) in a Southern Baptist Bible School, not opposing scientific occupation of a perceived sacred site. The equivalent to arguing against siting a telescope on land valued for other reasons? That might arguing against the Dean killing the major you teach because the other majors need the resources you use: you are welcome to protest and argue, depending on the quality of the argument, you might win or lose.

There is a very real and highly sensitive tension between Native communities and archeologists and paleoanthropologists. David Meltzer’s First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America addresses this tension in detail and is far more nuanced than the sledgehammer approach in the NY Times piece. To simply assert that science should always be the victor in these disagreements is like saying that the government is always right. Why are we repatriating remains from museums? Because in many (not all cases), we do know who these belong to, because they were taken without permission to start with, because, usually, because it is the right thing to do.  Now something like Kennewick Man might be a different case, and the tangled web of that find and the court cases developed out of that do little credit to those involved on both sides. Does this mean that Native tribes might shield some of their history from scientific research? Sure. Is it being done by people who have little or no respect for scientific knowledge? Can be.  Does it deprive all the rest of us of some knowledge? Yes. The key is, is the acquisition of that knowledge more important than the injury done to the tribes from whom the knowledge is derived?

Look, we live in a multicultural age.  Science is but one of many interests competing for money, space, resources.  You can oppose something for any reason you want; that is your privilege in our society.  You cannot demand or deny all on your own; there has to be some balance in our society between competing claims.  Just as those demanding that we teach all children the Bible and creation science are not recognizing this, so are those who would have scientific needs trump all others.


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