Comments on Pitfalls in Multicultural Science Education

All there many “ways of knowing”? Are magic and religon superior to science?

In 1996 I was a member of a Committee on Multicultural Science Education set up by the Michigan State Department of Education. At one session teachers from Detroit introduced several pieces of clearly pseudoscientific Afrocentric material as possible models for the entire State. I wrote this for the group as an attempt to inoculate them against this kind of material.

As a group that is going to be in charge of recommending materials for the instruction of teachers on how to best introduce gender and equity considerations we need to be clear about what is valid science and what is not. I was concerned at our first meeting when the publication “Science Education and Equity” published by the Programs for Educational Opportunity at the University of Michigan was distributed which included a reference bibliography and a critique of “Western” science that are very troublesome. Every member of the committee should read Higher Superstition, [1] but in its stead I have prepared this brief paper for our consideration.

First, we need to get a fuller sample of what the multicultural-post-modernist claims that are being made are. Hunter Havelin Adams is the author of the Portland Baseline Essay in Science that is widely used including in the Detroit School District and was quoted in the University of Michigan publication distributed here. What follows comes from his article in Blacks in Science [2]

p. 31 [Citing Carl Spight on the tenets of Western science]: 1. Science is fundamentally, culturally independent and universal. 2. The only reliable and completely objective language is scientific knowledge. 3. Science is dispassionate, unemotional, and anti-religious. 4. Logic is the fundamental tool of science. 5. The scientific method leads systematically and progressively toward the truth. [3] …[citing Wade Nobles] “Science is the formal reconstruction or representation of a people’s shared set of systematic and cumulative ideas, beliefs and knowledge (i.e. common sense) stemming from their culture.” Thus science cannot always spring from a universal or culturally independent base. It must be consistent with the essentials of its people’s “common sense.” [4]

p. 41 “Nobody has a monopoly on truth. There is no one correct way of knowing: there are ways of knowing. And Western conceptual methodology cannot discover any more basic truths to explain the mysteries of creation than can a symbolic/intuitive methodology.”

p. 43 [citing the mystic R.A. Schwaller-Lubicz who characterized Western science as “a research without illumination”] … Eastern societies, such as those of India and Africa, do not have this problem because there is no distinct separation between science and religion, philosophy and psychology, history and mythology. All of these are viewed as one reality and are closely interwoven in to the fabric of daily life. Astronomers, biologists and physicists are gradually coming around to accepting that there is something transcendental behind the empirical. They are realizing that, despite the exponential increase in information about the universe and about life, they are no closer to the truth they so passionately seek, than when the Greek philosopher Democritus, speculated about the atom 2000 years ago [5] Before there can be a different science in the West, there first must be a transformation of values; a revolution in paradigms.

As Jan Houston director of the Foundation for Mind Research, [6] observes, “we may now be in the early stages of a qualitative and quantitative departure from the dominant scientific and social paradigms.” This change may bring science into a more creative dialogue with other ways of knowing, other intuitive models and methodologies which are synthesized with the empirical mode in the science of early blacks. This science was such a synthesis. It was a sacred science, whose fundamental paradigm was based on a spiritual principle: a principle which implicitly acknowledged the existence of One Supreme Consciousness or Force pervading the Universe, expressing itself in an infinite variety of transformations, from atom to stars, from plants to moon.” [7]

Feminist philosophers of science like Sandra Harding or Helen Longino and post-modernist critics such as Stanley Aronowitz make similar critiques claiming that science is a set of conventions produced by the particular culture of the West at a particular historical period and not a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the “real” world. The agenda, methodology, and conclusions of science are determined by the interests of the male dominated capitalistic system. This approach has been called “strong cultural constructivism” by Gross and Levitt. Because science is just a “situated” mode of discourse and not reflective of the real world, other modes of discourse (feminist, African, Aztec) are equally valid “ways” of knowing (including intuition, magic and religion), and may even be superior to “Western” science. All of these critiques claim that the advent of quantum physics and particularly of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has created a crisis in science because physics can no longer provide reliable information about the world and science has lost its claim to objectivity. Much is made of Heisenberg, Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Paul Feyerabend, and Chaos Theory.

My first response is to ask why in the world we are getting into questions of epistemology, quantum mechanics and chaos theory in materials intended for grade school teachers? As we will see, the valid questions that arise from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle have little to do with the types of topics dealt or the level of presentation in K-8 or even K-12. Henry Bauer [8] makes a very useful distinction between “Frontier Science” which is necessarily volatile, unstable, and proceeds by stages, and “Textbook Science” (such as Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion or the Laws of Thermodynamics) which is well established and almost surely correct. In schools we are dealing with “Textbook Science” and it is not in crisis. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Thomas Kuhn, and Chaos Theory are not listed or discussed in the most discussed proposals to reform science education. [9]

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg studying the behavior of electrons concluded that it was not possible to simultaneously know exactly the position and the momentum of an electron. [10] This became known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It was certainly important in the development of quantum physics, but it is not an important factor in the daily practice of science except for nuclear physicists. In my fifteen years of research in organic chemistry, I never had to consider the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in planning or interpreting my results. A somewhat simplified explanation is that Heisenberg is only important in the case of very small particles (atoms and smaller). The uncertainty in these cases comes from the fact that the size of the instrument (let’s assume a photon of light) used to try to determine the position of an electron is in the range of the electron itself. The moment the photon hits the electron to determine its location; the collision of the photon pushes the electron changing its momentum. Thus another name for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is the “observer effect.” Imagine trying to determine the position of billiard balls on the table using the cue ball as an instrument. However, when we are dealing with the kind of experiments or sizes that teachers and students would be dealing with there is no problem (and no crisis). A photographer could take a strobe photograph of a baseball pitch in the World Series and we would be able to calculate both its momentum and position at any time accurately even though it is “being observed” by countless photons and thousands of observers. The reason is that the mass of baseball is enormous compared to the mass of the photons and they bounce off with changing its motion. Similarly, the uncertainty about the location of the desk in your classroom is zero because it is not moving and therefore its momentum is zero.

Similarly, post-modernists make much of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, but again they are off the mark. Kuhn [11] described the process by which a “normal” science paradigm (a commonly held theory of a group of scientists and a model about how to solve scientific puzzles) becomes increasingly unable to explain observations. A “revolution” occurs by which it is replaced by a new paradigm, which in turn is accepted by the scientific community becoming a new “normal” science. The most recent example would be the replacement of the classical physics of the 19th century by quantum physics. Several points need to be made. A paradigm is not just discarded or overthrown; it is replaced by a paradigm that has wider explanatory power. A scientific revolution does not change the fundamental characteristics of science as described below. Quantum mechanics still functions in the natural world without supernatural explanations; still uses the experimental method; still makes predictions and attempts to verify them; and still must be accepted by the scientific community.

Kuhn, in a postscript to his 2nd edition, diplomatically pointed out that his ideas had been [inappropriately] extended to social sciences and to the humanities because science does make progress and the “developed” (i.e. hard) sciences have comparatively few competing approaches. In these sciences the only audience and the only judges of the scientific work are to a large extent the members of that particular community. [12] Kuhn [13] also points out the characteristics that both an existing normal science paradigm and one that is proposed as a replacement must meet. This certainly does not support the idea that new “scientific” paradigms would include “symbolic/ intuitive methodologies” or religion.

First, a theory must be accurate; within its domain, that is consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently acceptable theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third it should have broad scope; in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, and subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that, in its absence would be individually isolated, and as a set, confuse. Fifth – a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions – a theory should be fruitful of new research findings, it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known.

Paul Feyerabend, who is quoted almost as much as Kuhn by post-modernist critics of science, and whose work eventually led to the cultural constructivist view of science now feels that things have gone too far.

Physicists take facts for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning point in thought – and they includes fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts – get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology. [14]

That is, we have to remember that science makes predictions that can be verified, and further that we have evidence in our daily lives that science works.

Science is not independent of culture, but we must define and explore what that implies and distinguish it from the post-modern definition. [15] It is clear that certain kinds of research get more encouragement (funding, prestige, recognition) in society depending on perceived priorities. For example, cancer, AIDS, and high temperature superconductivity have high scientific priorities both because they are scientifically interesting and because those who have influence on funding of research are interested in them. In this sense it is clear that “western” science is influenced by culture, and is a clear reason for more of our citizens to become literate in science and participate in setting research priorities. It is also clear that in the past science was dominated by white males and excluded and discouraged women and minorities, and that, to a large extent, this continues to be the pattern. This is clearly an egregious fault, and feminist and minority critiques are justified in criticizing this aspect of science. It may well be that, if many more minorities and women became scientists, the agenda and the problems considered interesting and important in science would change. However, critics of science have not provided a clear and specific list of what these different scientific priorities would be, but this could be done. Clearly science is culturally dependent in this sense.

At another level, called “weak cultural constructivism” by Gross and Levitt, it is claimed that scientific debate and how one paradigm is chosen over another is to some degree influenced by social, political, or ideological preconceptions. For example, Stephen J. Gould [16] has argued that Darwin’s view of sexual selection as an important evolutionary mechanism was slow to win acceptance because it went against the Victorian prejudice, that females are by nature passive and lack enough energy to choose mates, as Darwin’s extended-model required. Weak cultural constructivism is reasonable in principle, but the areas of science in which such direct intrusion of ideology is possible are few, and primarily in the life sciences. In this sense, “Western” science is culturally constructed. However, Adams, Aronowitz, Harding and others claim that the very methods (logical/experimental) of science and the answers it gets are culturally constructed, what Gross and Levitt call “strong cultural constructivism.” This is not acceptable. [17] The base sequence of a DNA will be the same regardless of the culture of the person performing the analysis. The trajectory and momentum of a rocket will not change with the amount of testosterone in the blood or the amount of melanin in the skin of the scientist in charge. The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not have a supernatural component.

Adams claims that science is unemotional and does not use intuition, but this is not true. The process of formulating hypotheses and questions to be investigated is described by physicist JT Davies [18] as:

(it) comes from an intuitive leap of the imagination, from inspiration, from induction, or from a conjecture.

Jacob Bronowski [19] compares the creativity of artists and scientists because it involves “finding unity in diversity.” It took a leap of the imagination for Copernicus to ask himself, “What would the solar system look like if I stood on the sun as the center?”; or for Newton to ask, “what would be the effect if the attraction, that makes the apple fall to the ground, extended out beyond the solar system?” Popper [20] cites Einstein on the “the search for those highly universal laws from which a picture of the world can be obtained by pure deduction.” “There is no logical path,” Einstein says, “leading to … these laws. They can only be reached by intuition, based upon something like an intellectual love (“Einfuhlung”) of the objects of experience.” The difference with pseudoscience or with non-science is that a scientist will then take the next steps which are to see what predictions result from the hypotheses and attempt to verify or falsify those predictions in the real world, whereas other “ways” of knowing do not.

Why do Afrocentrists espouse “strong cultural constructivist” critiques of science. In my opinion, it comes from a misguided need to inflate the achievements of ancient Egyptians or Africans. If “other ways” of knowing including magic, are equal or superior to “Western” science, because they both are “culturally constructed modes of discourse” and “Western” science is in crisis, then ancient Egypt can be proclaimed to be equal or superior to modern science. What must be made clear is the difference between magic, religion, and science. Malinowski [21] provided a useful distinction for our purposes. Both science and magic are attempts to control the world, but they differ in that science only deals with the natural world and natural causes while magic recognizes both natural and supernatural causes. Religion resembles magic in recognizing the existence of the supernatural, and differs from both magic and science in that the role of humans is that of suppliants rather than actors. Non-Western societies and the West until approximately AD 1500 do not make a distinction between magic, science, and religion. A crucial step was the gradual separation of science from religion and magic between 1500 and AD 1700, i.e. the Scientific Revolution. Before this revolution, the hand of God was seen in all the operations of the Universe; after it, the operations on the universe became subject to natural forces, and God became the ultimate cause setting these forces into motion. God established the physical laws and then stepped out of the way. [22] Contrary to Adams, science is not anti-religion, it is a-religious.

There are other “ways” of knowledge, but they are not science. They function in other important areas where science has nothing to say. Science has nothing to say about religion, about forms of government, about ethics, about standards of beauty, or about the ultimate causes of the universe. Science can talk about the evolution of humans but not about why or for what purpose we are here. This separation of science and the supernatural is crucial and a defining characteristic of science. The key question is whether children in public schools are going to be taught that religion (under the guise of “Egyptian science”) equals science. This is the same question which was roundly forbidden by both lower courts and the United States Supreme Court in the case of so-called “scientific creationism.” The essence of the decision of Judge Overton in McLean vs. Arkansas [23] was that science does not allow an appeal to the supernatural for explanations. He outlined the essential characteristic of science as: (1) It is guided by natural law; (2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) It is testable against the empirical world; (4) Its conclusions are tentative; i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and (5) It is falsifiable.

It is perfectly feasible to teach what I call “culturally relevant” science. The Arabs, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Aztecs, American Indians, the people of Africa, and other non-Western peoples all have agricultural practices, mathematics, and technology that can be used to teach science and to illustrate scientific principles. All that has to be done is to strip away the religious motivation. Religion in the past was a powerful motive to seek knowledge. Newton’s motivation for much of his work was his deep religious conviction that he could glorify God by showing the beauty and harmony of the arrangements in the cosmos. What distinguished Newton is that he did not invoke supernatural explanations for his work in optics and mechanics. Similarly, the motivation for the Maya’s intensive study of the skies was their religious conviction that they had to be able to predict astronomical events in order to survive and prosper. I teach Maya religion as social studies. Maya astronomical, calendric and mathematical achievements can be taught as science separate from the motivation that impelled them just as we study Newton’s mechanics with no concern for his deep religious motivation.

We are now ready to propose a definition of science that is different than the straw man set up by Adams which may reflect the perception of the layperson. Science does not claim to be the ultimate, or the final truth. Science is both a special kind of information and a method. Strahler [24] defines it thus:

Scientific knowledge: the best picture of the real world that humans can devise, given the present state of our collective investigative capability. By “best” we mean (a) the fullest and most complete description of what we observe, (b) the most satisfactory explanation of what is observed in terms of interrelatedness to other phenomena and to basic or universal laws, and (c) description and explanation that carry the greatest probability of being a true picture of the real world … scientific knowledge is imperfect and must be continually restudied, modified, and corrected; it will never reach static perfection. Scientific method: The method or system by which scientific knowledge is secured. It is designed to minimize the commission of observational errors and mistakes on interpretation. The method uses a complex system of checks and balances to offset many expressions of human weakness, including self-deception, narrowness of vision, defective logic, and selfish motivation.

To this must be added the scientific community; the worldwide group of people engaged in science. This community is a key component of the scientific method because it serves as the self-correcting and error minimizing component. The prevailing ethic is honesty. As Bronowski [25] put it “We OUGHT to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so.” Truth in science in particular means truth in the process of carrying out research. The scientific community will attempt to verify claims, hypotheses, and observations made by others, and therefore the ethic in science is for members of the community to be independent, original in thought and to communicate fully and openly. The more important or unexpected the result, the faster and more thoroughly will a claim be investigated. The recent case of cold fusion is a good example of the speed with which a claim can be falsified when it is both unexpected and potentially very important. As in all human institutions, there will be scientists who will fail to act according to the ideal, but to a greater extent than other professions, violation of standards such as honest reporting of data will lead to professional death. The scientific community is worldwide, and includes Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Argentineans, people of all races, ethnic groups and sexes. Science is attainable to people of any ethnicity of gender who agrees to follow certain procedures and abstain from others. Thus a deeply religious scientist would still agree with the atheist that the supernatural is not an explanatory mechanism is scientific dialogue. Japanese high energy physicists organize and conduct their research according to Japanese patterns of organization and hierarchy but follow the “universal” science rules about evidence, verification, and the use of natural laws . [26] To claim that science and its methods are the creation and possession of white, Western males is equivalent to condemning women and people of color to the use of intuition, magic and the supernatural as tools with which to improve their lives. Educationally, the effect will be to discourage women and minorities from following scientific careers, after all “Eurocentric patriarchal science” is “not their thing.” What is needed is to provide the very best science teaching to girls and minorities to enable them to become part of the science community and to participate in formulating an agenda that will better reflect the interests and needs of their communities of origin.

Bernard Ortiz de Montellano
Anthropology Department
Wayne State University


[1] Gross, P.R. and N. Lecitt. 1994. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

[2] Adams, H.H. 1983. “African Observers of the Universe: The Sirius Question.” In Ivan Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. 27-46. New Brunswick: Transaction Books

[3] This is a straw-man as we will see below.

[4] B O. De M. – no scientist would agree with this definition.

[5] This is patently ridiculous on its face. Do we really know as little about atoms today as Democritus did? Daily, we can see the results of science and technology at work in real life.

[6] This foundation was set up by R. Houston to prove the validity of Laetrile, a substance supposedly obtained from peach pits and shown to be a fake, as a cure for cancer.

[7] This sentence is New Age science babble, mystical and religious, but not science.

[8] Bauer, H.H. 1992. Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

[9] F.J. Rutherford & A. Ahlgren. 1990. Science for All Americans. New York: Oxford Univ. Press; American Association for the Advancement of Science. Project 2061. 1993. Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press

[10] More exactly, the product of the uncertainty in the measurement of a particle’ momentum and the uncertainty in the measurement of its position must equal or be greater than 6.626 x 10-34 joule-sec. For example, if a mass of 1 kg is moving at 1 km/sec and the velocity uncertainty is 1 micrometer/sec, what would the uncertainty in position be? X (positional uncertainty), Y (momentum uncertainty) X x Y = 6.626 x 10-34; X x 1 x 10-6 kg-m/sec = 6.626 x 10-34. The positional uncertainty comes out to be 6.626 x 10-28 an extremely small uncertainty.

[11] Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

[12] Kuhn (1970: 208-209)

[13] Kuhn, T.S. 1977. The Essential Tension. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 312

[14] Feyerabend, P. 1992. “Atoms and Conscience”, Common Knowledge 1 (#1):157-168.

[15] Much of what follows comes from Gross and Levitt, pp. 43-45

[16] Gould, S.J. 1992. “The Confusion over Evolution”, New York Review of Books, November 19: 47-54

[17] Walter Rowe, Professor of Forensic Science, George Washington University (personal communication 1995), points out that strong cultural constructivism is applied to mathematics, so that, for example, the value of pi should be regarded as merely a social convention, and there could be cultures (as in the Bible) where pi could be 3 or 2.5 or 4. Would members of the committee like to ride in an automobile designed by engineers whose calculators were all programmed to give pi a value of 3?

[18] Davies, J.T. 1973 The Scientific Approach, NY: Academic Press, p. 12

[19] Bronowski, J. 1956. Science and Human Values. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 27, 35.

[20] Popper, K.R. 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, p. 32.

[21] Malinowski, B. 1954. Magic, Science, and Religion. New York: Doubleday Anchor, pp. 1-87

[22] Marks, J. 1995. Human Biodiversity, Genes, Race and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, p. 228-230

[23] McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education. 1982. “Creationism in the Schools: The Decision in McLean versus the Arkansas Board of Education”. Science 215, 19 Feb 1982: 934-943

[24] Strahler, A.N. 1992. Understanding Science. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, pp. 27-28

[25] Bronowski, 1956, pp. 65-94.

[26] Traweek, S. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press