Thinking Out Loud

Havasupai woman by Edward Curtis

I hope you’ll bear with me as I struggle over the application of my work and think out loud.

In a nutshell, I look at how meaning is constructed, assuming that language gives us an excellent pathway to deconstruct meaning-making.

More specifically, I examine how scientific issues that arise in public discourse tell us about what meanings reveal.
To describe it more narrowly, I trace how the use of language in news coverage is traced back to the sources who are called on to present their views, and the social structures that undergird how language produces meaning.

This arena of research illuminates how science is discussed in popular (and academic) discourse, and the conflicts that arise in Indian Country offer a bountiful landscape to analyze the language of science.

Take the recent example of the Havasupai Tribe of the American Southwest. According to news accounts, tribal members allowed researchers to extract their blood with the promise that information gleaned from genetics studies would help curb diseases such as diabetes.

Tribal members learned, however, that the researchers were using their blood samples to examine a host of other questions, including how DNA can pinpoint human origins. Problem is the Havasupai embrace beliefs and values that link people to place: core to their worldviews. Geneticists say they can link DNA to all human origins in Africa and Asia, counter to the Havasupai tenets of being and meaning.

The Havasupai sued.

As the story unfolded in news discourse, scientists and pundits took up the mantle of ethics. Some folks cried foul over “bad science” versus “good science,” assuming a kind of scientific literacy about research methods and the application of research findings. The use of humans in research and what we call “informed consent” peppered the airwaves and blogosphere.

When the New York Times reported on the lawsuit last spring, the reporter said “the case raised the question of whether scientists had taken advantage of a vulnerable population.” But reporter overlooks issues about the primacy of Western scientific views over Native views—the heartbeat of my research.

The geneticist involved in the research defended herself, saying, “I was doing good science.” But I argue that descriptions of “doing science” assumes a common scientific literacy on the part of readers and newsmakers: we all know (supposedly) what constitutes “doing science.”

My foray into Native Science shows a much different approach. It’s not about “doing science.” Rather, it’s about how you move through your lived experiences. The geneticist, in fact, was “doing work” that is grounded in her ways-of-knowing. I imagine that having a cache of blood samples from an Indian tribe offers a rich opportunity for scientific study. She’s just doing science. She’s just doing her job.

But, in order to do her job, she must follow the Western scientific tenets of reductionism that separates data into discrete bits—all the better to conduct research objectively.

And that presumes that you can be objective and de-personalize the objects of your study.

It’s this nexus wherein the Havasupai can claim that by de-personalizing research, the scientists lose a central perspective that’s inseparable from traditional Indian ways-of-knowing. The blood cannot be separated from the individual and community and location from which it was extracted. The linkages between the objects and their meanings are indelibly woven into human practices, whether it’s called science or story-telling or farming.

It’s not about ethics: it’s about the lived experience


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, health, human origin, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science, writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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