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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Decolonize Science, says the White Literature Professors

I recently had the opportunity to freeload at ICFA (International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts). By freeloading, I mean attending a science fiction conference where I am not presenting or serving on a panel. As it's usually in Orlando, I had signed up for it last year, figuring the travel wasn't much of an effort. As it went virtual, travel was basically between the home office I'd made of what was formerly a kid's bedroom and my kitchen for food. The theme was Climate Change and the Anthropocene—something right up my alley—so I attended the rescheduled 2021 event.

It's a unique meeting, with writers rubbing shoulders with academics. As very few were hanging out on the Discord channel (the replacement for the hallway meet-ups that are the real purpose of conferences), I attended some of the academics' talks. A lot of them were quite cool, and I left with some new insights. I met some interesting folks on the Discord channel—actually getting to know them in a way you can do when only four people are anywhere but at the panels.

Still, as always when you are in the company of people who spout phrases like onto-epistemological engagement, some concepts felt like they came from outer space. The key one for me was the decolonization of science. Disclaimers first—I'm not talking about soft decolonization. Yes, it's obvious that the money for science is concentrated in the developed world, and more and more in only small, elite corners of the developed world. The science that goes on in many parts of Africa, for example, is parachute science: Western academic with grants in Western country sends people on field visits to the "Dark Continent" and leaves behind teams of scientists at local universities that do the sampling for them. The African university is not allowed the full range of scientific endeavor the elite Westerner gets—only stuff that serves the West's interest, like work on diseases that might cross national boundaries. I'm very much in favor of soft decolonization, and I supported it as best I could when I was an academic. I had a visiting professor in my lab from Uganda and another from a regional university in Southern China (and twenty years ago, China was not the scientific powerhouse it is now). One of the students who received her Ph.D. under me came from China; the other from India. I also mentored an Indian post-doc.

No, these English professors focused on "hard" decolonization. One made the valid and interesting observation that no culture other than Western ever made a hard separation between science and religion/philosophy. Without an ethics to guide science, it got used to create nuclear weapons and toxin-laden Superfund sites and high-fructose corn syrup and fracking. To these professors, the cure is to stop ignoring indigenous and non-Western ways of thinking and allow them a dominant voice in controlling how science is pursued.

When I Googled "decolonize science," I came across video from a conference of a speaker recommending all Western scientific achievement be thrown away, starting over fresh, in a way not dominated by colonialist imperialism and the prerogatives of capitalism.

Similarly, academics, generally white, had been telling Americans for months that Black people weren't going to get the Covid vaccines. Why? The Tuskegee Airmen and other examples of how science had been used to exploit Black people and shunt the benefits to white people. And polls initially backed up this racial divide in vaccine hesitancy.

But then they didn't. Some polls now show more vaccine hesitancy among white people than Black people in the US. Certainly, community outreach had a lot to do with changing minds, but I'd also argue that assuming Black people wouldn't use common sense and were prisoners of their historical narratives was a racist assumption. Similarly, assuming the accumulated wisdom from largely Western science can't be of use to non-Western people is, in my opinion, equally stupid and racist.

Another problem with "decolonialist" thinking about science is the refusal to separate basic science from applied science. Most examples cited are applied science. True, science doesn't operate in a vacuum. Because governments turned to private industry to manufacture the Covid vaccines, the profit motive was pursued, and the West got the vaccine before the global South. There might not have been drones carpet-bombing Pakistan "in pursuit" of bin Laden while the US military set up the ruler of Afghanistan's brother as the world's biggest heroin dealer had avionics technology been pursued throughout the world rather than in US Department of Defense laboratories. With applied science, the problem isn't science, per se; it's capitalism and imperialism.

But what of basic science? The unbiased accumulation of evidence, the testable hypothesis, the positive and negative controls—must they inexorably lead to sweatshops and killing fields?

In a vacuum, maybe. I was an undergrad at MIT. I had numerous conversations with peers with them initially maintaining that designing heat-seeking missiles or their ilk was the most interesting scientific problem around and through pursuing excellent science, society benefits. As a university faculty member, I heard a similar argument from some engineering faculty, that they had to take DoD money because otherwise, they couldn't do the research they needed to achieve excellence.

But couldn't that be a case of not enough exposure to other ways of thinking rather than a problem with scientific methods? I cross-registered at Harvard one semester of undergrad to take a course with Stephen Jay Gould, and he put these things in a way that stuck with me: "Science is about what is; religion is about what should be." To religion, I'm sure he would have added philosophy, ethics, etc. So, maybe learning a bit about Native American spirituality might guide the scientist toward tech that preserves rather than pollutes the environment?

Still another issue with "decolonizing" science is the charlatans it enables. A lack of trust in science is a staple of fascists, authoritarians, and fundamentalists worldwide. Narendra Modi is a key case in point. From a speech of his: "We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realize that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother's womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother's womb." It's a short step from the conclusion that ancient Hindu folks are responsible for all modern science to the persecution of Muslims we see today in India.

The mistake these white literature professors make is to assume an either-or: either the materialist bias—that the world is as we observe it and able to be manipulated—that underlies the Western scientific method is allowed to lead to oppression via capitalism, militarism, and imperialism, or non-Western spirituality supplants it. Both-and would probably be a better response.

So, decolonize our fiction? Absolutely. Give me the non-Western story structures, the magic realism, the narratives drawn from histories other than my own—they're cool! And enlighten me about how my biases and perceptions differ from that of those raised elsewhere.

And teach these things in our schools along with the Western scientific method. Just don't make a standardized test for it, but that's a rant for another day of blogging.

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