​Can Western science validate and acknowledge First Nations Peoples’ traditional knowledge in journals and reports?

During an interview with Brad Moggridge, the challenges around bridging the gap between traditional knowledge and scientific journals and reports was discussed. Traditional knowledge is composed of a body of evidence that spans generations. It is fundamental, valid knowledge that is used for decision making and environmental management at the community level. However, this knowledge doesn’t always fit perfectly into the research paradigm. In the interview, some ways that this bridge can be gapped were explored. This article looks more deeply at this issue and outlines ways forward proposed by other thought leaders working in this area.

The traditional knowledge of First Nations Peoples exists in numerous formats: songs, dance, stories, artwork and ceremonies. This knowledge is based on thousands of years of observation, living on the land and caring for country, resulting in a strong understanding of natural patterns and systems.

Modern scientific knowledge, more often comes from experimentation and developing hypotheses, then interpreting the data before replicating it.

The two systems have often operated outside of one another. However, traditional knowledge has a lot to offer Western science.

What can traditional knowledge show?

Traditional knowledge might be used as evidence for Western scientists to use to challenge their hypotheses about patterns in nature. Traditional knowledge is founded on natural patterns that have been observed and codified by First Nations Peoples for generations. This knowledge can validate hypotheses, offer predictions, and offer more context and deepened understanding of natural systems, leading to improved management of resources.

Validating traditional knowledge

“You’ve got some of the oldest knowledge and its an old business for Aboriginal people, dealing with water, but I suppose it’s a new journey for the Western paradigm, Western science and Western policy to deal with an old knowledge system,” says Aboriginal water expert Brad Moggridge in the interview.

“That’s hard because science needs validation and you need to test it and re-test it and get the same result,” he adds. “I suppose that with traditional knowledge, it’s hard for us to validate our knowledge in Western ways.”

Nevertheless, traditional knowledge still offers a useful line of evidence that can be used to evaluate a researcher’s hypotheses. If through time traditional knowledge is found to be consistent with other lines of evidence used by Western scientists, or even to provide more useful information, says Moggridge, perhaps its use will become more accepted for scientific validation.

We already see this in areas such as health, wellbeing and medicine, where Western science is looking at traditional health practices and evaluating them for their effectiveness, on their own and as compared to modern Western medicine. This approach has led to a greater acceptance of traditional medicine around the world.

Learning from traditional knowledge

For traditional knowledge and Western science to work well together, parties must understand the value of their shared principles, as well as the value of their differences.

A paper by Fulvio Mazzocchi, ‘Western science and traditional knowledge: Despite their variations, different forms of knowledge can learn from each other,’ sums up this theory as such:

“First, a renewed approach to dialogue among cultures is required. Such a dialogue can only take place if there is a common principle shared by all participants. All humans from all cultural backgrounds have the same biological nature. At the same time, however, a dialogue is only possible because there is diversity at various levels. Eliminating these differences or staying in rigid isolation eliminates the conditions needed for a potentially mutually beneficial converse.” Fulvio Mazzocchi

Learning from traditional knowledge, and including it in decision making and research, should lead to placing a higher value on this important information. As traditional knowledge is increasingly understood, validated, and seen to be vital, it will be more frequently included in Western scientific journals and reports. As this happens, it is critical that First Nations Peoples receive acknowledgement for their contribution to the improved understanding.

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