Wythe Marschall, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University, spoke to students and faculty at Ithaca College about the lack of inclusion of scientific knowledge from marginalized communities.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy Seminar, “Defining, Globalizing and Decolonizing the History of Science: Reflections and Open Problems”, took place on October 19 at the Center for Natural Sciences. Marschall spoke virtually to about 21 members of the campus community regarding the limits of science, as defined by European and American standards.
Marschall noted the history of science as it is known should become more objective in its explanation of scientific knowledge systems. He said there have been several instances in history in which the scientific ideas of marginalized and non-Western communities have often been overlooked – such as the separation from traditional Chinese medicine, a branch of Chinese medicine that encompasses a range of health and healing practices, biomedicine, a branch of Western medicine that combines biological and physiological principles with clinical practice.
“So if science is unitary transhistoric, how do you explain the sudden changes? Marschall asked. “There might be a problem in assuming that there is this one view of reality that we are all working towards.”
When reviewing the history of science, Marschall said it was important to look at three models of scientific philosophy. The first one, epistemic paternalism – withholding evidence from someone without their consent – arises from the idea that interference in another’s investigation could be considered justifiable. Second, epistemic diversity – the capacity to produce rich and diverse knowledge – takes into account the scientific findings of marginalized communities in order to produce a more diverse understanding of the world. Third, epistemic decolonization – criticism of the colonization of knowledge – calls into question the predominance of the Western knowledge system and seeks to give marginalized communities a voice in what is considered to be science.
“The history of science has often been taught for a long time as unitary, so there is a thing called science; we kind of know it when we see it, ”Marschall said. “From a transhistorical point of view, this thing in itself doesn’t really change, although we learn more about it… it’s usually done by people who have more money than others; more social status. It is often masculine and it is often white.
Marschall said that while there aren’t specific ways to ensure a complete redefinition of what is and is not counted in the history of science, much of the work begins with education. He noted universities need not only to start re-evaluating the material taught in science courses, but also to re-evaluate the way that material is taught.
“It’s difficult because you’re in an elite university building, and… even though you’re in a circle, you’re still sort of in a position of epistemic authority,” Marschall said. “So there is a kind of paternalistic work happening in the universities that we are all used to. “
Antara Sen, who helped organize the event, said he enjoyed learning how many scientific discoveries were overshadowed by elitist standards in academia.
“I think talking about these issues helps teach younger students that there isn’t just one way to be a scientist,” Sen said. “Science is really the global act of” making knowledge. ‘“
Sen too noted they agreed with Marschall’s point about epistemic paternalism and that it was an idea that could be applied beyond science.
“The idea that one race replaces all others to the point that other races need their help to survive has been around for millennia,” Sen said.
Eric Leibensperger, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said he was happy that the seminar was able to draw attention to the impact of colonialism in science.
“Although much of what we teach derives from [Western scientists], there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we may not be exposed to and that we may not use to the best of our ability, ”said Leibensperger. “I think it’s a really powerful message to be able to realize that there is a lot more out there and that there is a lot more we can do to give credit where credit is due.”
Leibensperger too noted there should be more consideration in the way science is taught. He said that although science is taught in a linear fashion, it does not reflect the extent of scientific discoveries throughout history.
“There are leaps and bounds; discoveries and all those things, so there are some great monumental moments, ”said Leibensperger. “Progress almost always happens to some extent.”