I think people too often discount indigenous traditional knowledge when they really should be commending indigenous people for a job well done. If we sit back for a moment shed away all our biases to look at what they’ve accomplished, the results are pretty remarkable. Indigenous people had no formal academic training in sciences, and yet through generations of trial and error, they made countless discoveries that were way ahead of the curve than discoveries by Western scientists of the day. In some ways they are still ahead.

A well-known example comes to mind – herbal knowledge that the shamans of the Amazonian rainforests shared with Western scientists directly led to the development of many modern medicinal cures and treatments. In a sense the trials and errors were no different from what we think of as the classical scientific experimental process: observation, hypothesis, test the hypothesis, then either accept or reject the hypothesis. Just because human senses are crude instruments, and that indigenous people may not have an atomic understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, does not mean that the indigenous discoveries are any less valid.

Before I lose track and go off on a tangent about how indigenous knowledge of African elephant migration routes are more crucial for conservation than creating more wildlife conservation parks, let me bring this back to the issue of using local knowledge mentioned in Jason Corburn’s book “Street Science.” The author states that ” ‘street science’ does not devalue science, but rather re-values forms of knowledge that professional science has excluded and democratizes the inquiry and decision-making process.” The author goes on to cite the success of indigenous knowledge in environmental work in developing nations and claims that likewise in environmental and public health in the developed world local knowledge would make a difference.

I agree that incorporating local knowledge and including locals in decision-making helps. But what I’ve learned in this class is that as humans make increasingly complex and toxic chemicals, the traditional ways of sensory perception increasingly breaks down. I’m referring not only to the invisibility of toxins (such as radiation poisoning, which manifests as symptoms that could be symptomatic of many other possible illnesses), I’m also referring to the idea in the Adams’ article “Radiated Identities” that toxins have evolved temporally beyond our perceptive abilities; symptoms may manifest many years later. This certainly doesn’t make it any easier for locals to understand and subsequently share local environmental health knowledge with scientists. This is where I see an inherent limitation of local knowledge compared to the indigenous knowledge counterparts. The dynamic interactions of toxins external and internal to the human body in such an environment seems to give some possible answers, but perhaps raise even more questions and uncertainty at the end of the day.

Referring here to an earlier post by Sam on the same topic, I think he got it right when discussing the possibility of having locals trained in sciences and study the toxic local environment. Either that, or the scientists have to live in those neighbourhoods to really understand what’s going on.