Keeping Secrets

gourd vine

I have a quote worth sharing.

The writer pits scientists against journalists, and says, without apology:

The people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honor.

The writer, Dr. Ben Goldacre, of the blog, Bad Science, goes on:

Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years. There is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science–in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them. The media create a parody of science.

Goldacre’s provocative perspective—that journalists have a preference for “stupid stories”–suggests a polarization of science and journalism.

His view is shared by many.

Problem is, scientists may withhold information, fearing misquotes or mistakes.

And some scientists in our country have been threatened that they’ll lose their jobs if they share facts and data about climate change.

Withholding information has had a long tradition in Indian Country, built on a load of mistrust.

Even members of my own indigenous tribe have withheld information because of “stupid settlers.”

For example, a powerful medicine overlooked by settlers was called by one farmer, a “goddamn old vine.”

Osage writer William Least Heat Moon says that’s because the farmer doesn’t know the powers of the vine.

The vine—wild pumpkin—was used by the Osage for soap, protein and rattles, writes Least Heat Moon.

But its properties were lost, because “Whites scorned such wisdom.”

Knowledge “must have been withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions.”

But others take a more open and sharing view, articulated by a team of researchers in science communication at Cardiff University.

The researchers—rather than disparaging journalism altogether—instead offer a hopeful riposte: ordinary muggles can enrich science by becoming “citizen scientists.”

Citizen scientists engage in many ways: they count birds for Audubon or write blogs about the solar eclipse.

Similarly we can learn from American Indian tribes about healing plants by attending to our elders’ stories.

We need not separate science from humanities, as Goldacre foolishly suggests.

Many Indian tribes don’t separate science from art and culture.

Science is integral to every-day living for many tribes: a similar way-of-thinking with Citizen Science.

When we embrace science with the humanities—rather than separating them as Goldacre does–then we reimagine the future.

The future holds a place for embracing science with culture, where knowledge becomes all-encompassing.

Knowledge is no longer limited to the scientist, to the academic, to the scholar.

Knowledge can be gleaned from concrete experience with the world—not driven by beliefs or faith that are rife with error.

Citizens can bring to bear the curiosity and industry of the naturalist, the Cardiff researchers say.

Knowledge, then become democratizing.

What does that mean?

It means we have to resist thinking about science solely in terms that it offers materialistic benefits.

Climate change is decried in tiny political circles in the United States—far outside the center of common-sense understanding–because opponents nonsensically charge that addressing carbon emissions affects our economy negatively.

But science should be valued beyond any reward, looking instead at:

“Cooperation between citizens [of] scientific investigation of the common needs” of human kind.








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.
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