What is science?? Not just the scientific method…

This is a tough question even through it seems so simple.  In our daily lives, we see science all around, in cars, medicine, construction, nature. We view it with hope for fighting diseases, climate change, solve the riddles of the Universe and basically improve the lives of people everywhere.  At least, that is what we tell ourselves.

Is this science?  Maybe at least in part. Science can be one way to pursue those goals. But, science also allowed for the industries that help create our climate crisis, the pollution that contributes to cancer rates, etc.  Science is not the moral authority and is also viewed as the mad pursuit of knowledge by power-hungry scientists.

So, what is science, if not a moral authority, is it unbiased and pure?  Does science see ethnicity? Is it influenced by culture and dominant ideas?

It is a hard question for me to ask.  I work in a university, trying to understand stars and the Universe.  I live inside the bubble as it were. But, when I explore history, I see that the modern University is a product of European development via the Enlightenment and can be traced back to lectures by Aristotle and Socrates and other great Greek philosophers.  When I read texts, I learn about Newton, Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo, but not the Chinese astronomer Guo Shou Jing and certainly not African astronomers or First Nation astronomers. When I read about the sky, I learn about stars and constellations named from Greek, Latin and Arabic traditions.  I learn about Ursa Major but not Muin and the Hunters.  I learn about Polaris and Tatapn nor Sky Coyote.

Beyond the university, sciences faces controversy from historical experiments of First nations peoples up to building telescopes on traditional Native land and elsewhere despite the significance of that land to those people.  Scientists now denounce the horrors of medical experimentation even though the damage is done. Yet few scientists denounce telescope building in the face of anger from First Nations peoples.  Some call protestors “anti-intellectuals” or “creationists” if not more derogatory words.  But, this suggests science and its culture is not pure.

All-in-all, science is not for all people and carries no moral authority.  I am beginning to see how science (and scientists) can be narrow-minded, that in the vast ocean of possible knowledge, science is but a few drops.  However, because we view science as the exploration and not exploitation of the observable Universe, we place those few drops on a pedestal above the rest of the ocean and build walls to prevent any mixing.  This belief system has its roots in the Enlightenment, a revolution in European culture and philosophy.

Yet, the Enlightenment spread across the world with Imperialism and colonization.  We have no reason to expect the cultures of first peoples to have world views consistent with the Enlightenment or chose science as the way.  Marie Battiste (Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit, 2013, Purich Publishing) notes that “Indigenous  science embodies a holistic view of the world in  which all human, animal and plant life are perceived as being connected, related and interdependent”.  Western science seeks universal laws independent of observer, directly contrasting indigenous science.

Science is biases by culture and society.  But, so what? We, the gatekeepers of science, need to be more vigilant and continually reflect on whether our “facts” are based in nature or our world view.  We need to become more considerate and listen, intently and openly, to other ideas, step beyond the philosophies of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.  We need to ask ‘does our knowledge creation benefit us and harm others and are the axioms upon which that knowledge is derived based on one knowledge system or not.

Science is not universal; it, like most everything in humanity, is cultural and biased by our beliefs.  We, as scientists, need to remember that more often.

About Me

Hi, welcome to the site.  I am an astronomer at the University of Toronto (all opinions here are my own only).  I work on stellar astrophysics and the evolution of massive stars from their nuclear-burning centers to their surface and winds.  I also work in the field of Indigenous astronomy, bring Indigenous knowledge of Universe into the classroom.

Please note the website is a work in progress.