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Dismantling Experimental Boxes: Transitions Toward Scientific Self Recovery

Can you separate ‘Self’ from science? Pamela Wong brings awareness to the territory of scientific rationalism and the transition towards more inclusive pathways that look to other ways of knowing and being to understanding our reality.

Published October 9, 2022

The Bhagavad Gita begins at the Kurukshetra battlefield. Two armies representing different ideologies stand before a catastrophic war. Prince Arjun, leading one side, asks his charioteer (who later reveals himself as Lord Krishna) to drive him to the center of the battlefield so can see who his opponents are. He beholds his beloved relatives, friends, and teachers. Paralyzed by doubt and a moral dilemma, his dialogue with Krishna begins and, through that dialogue, Self is revealed. 

Introduction (the Exclusive Self)

Colonialism, along with capitalism and modernity, continue to fragment and disassociate identities—generating ideologies of independence—whereby the Self is no longer able to recognize itself as part of the natural world (Redvers et al. 2022). Symptoms include entitled ownership and commodification of the environment (as well as all beings within it) without responsibility or reciprocity (Redvers et al. 2022). Autonomy rules over accountability. The Self seems to be caught in a kind of madness, frantically seeking and accumulating the external world to satisfy its insatiable hunger. Here we are, in the age of the “Anthropocene”, where global environmental and climate change trajectories are increasingly uncertain, irreversible, and marginalizing in their impacts (Matthews 2020; Redvers 2020; Saldanha 2020). 

The Self seems to be caught in a kind of madness, frantically seeking and accumulating the external world to satisfy its insatiable hunger.

How do we make sense of this world to justify continued dispossession, extraction, and consumption? This is an invitation to examine Western scientific inquiry as a system that positions Self as external to—and at worst, above—biological phenomena, as requisite to accumulating and consuming knowledge and, hence, decision-making power. Consider the implications when Western science is the dominant sense-making informing environmental assessment and decision-making. Consider the likelihood that objectivity is always flavored by subjectivity and, at the end of the day, dominant subjectivities rule. 

Let us breach the incarceration of our own Self-making: what do “we”—Western scientific contributors, practitioners, and consumers—need to transition from Self-centric toward more Self-as-part-of perspectives? How might we hold ourselves accountable while making way for the revival and survival of Other ways of knowing? Would we abandon our beloved relatives, friends, teachers (scientists, academics, leaders) in the name of a paradigm that privileges voices and ways of thinking that place, and teach us how to return to, Self within an interconnected world? 

Disclaimer (my “Self”)

My positionality certainly contextualizes what follows and may inform your interpretations (Lowan-Trudeau 2012). I identify and present as a woman, born in Canada and raised by first-generation immigrants from China and Hong Kong. I hold a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. My dissertation included a mixed bag of interdisciplinary methodologies (Indigenous knowledge, anthropology, oncology, and psychology research). I am a technical advisor from a different cultural background employed by an Indigenous organization in northern Canada, which positions me as an outsider (Innes 2009; Smith 2012) “from the south” (which, in northern Canada, geographically refers to Western culture). I’ve had 14 years of professional and personal relationships with these communities and co-witnessed “Kurushetras” between natural versus social sciences, Western sciences versus Indigenous knowledge, and culturally expected versus unconventional ways of doing things. 

My references to traditional knowledge are based on my experiences as an outsider and/or draw from published research; they are not meant to represent any particular group of peoples and/or their knowledge, or imply that I hold such knowledge in any way. Much of the ideas, thoughts, stories, and information I present here originated from other authors, scholars, and teachers, and I cite them throughout. Unless indicated, I was not given explicit permission to reference their public material and, thus, exemplify a research tendency to select, consume, and synthesize information originating from other sources in a linear, rather than discursive way. I will use “science” as a term referring to dominating quantitative and “hard” sciences in the West, excluding the more qualitative social sciences and humanities, and other-than-Western forms of science that are still actively practiced (e.g., traditional knowledge). I will focus on ecology as the dominant way of generating, accumulating, and using knowledge about the environment in Western forms of governance, as it is in Canada. 

My intention is to look sternly at Western science as an exclusive (rather than inclusive) tool and gesture towards other ways of knowing that might offer a much needed and overdue ethics for science practice and use. As you read, you are invited to contemplate your own reflections, contexts, and perspectives. 

Methods (the Scientific Box)

Ecology draws from the Greek word oikos, meaning household (Odum & Barrett 2005); ecology is learning about the household. It is the science that attempts to capture the relationship between living things and their environment (Haeckel 1866), the causes of biodiversity, and how processes interact over space and time to produce these phenomena (Andrewartha and Birch 1954; Coelho et al. 2018). In environmental assessments, ecology is usually prioritized to seek “enough understanding as quickly as possible to predict future ecological conditions” (Mayr 1988; Belovsky et al. 2004). However, ecology is criticized for being biased, aligning with “liberal” or “environmentalist” agendas and, hence, is not always taken seriously (Brittan & Bandyopadhyay 2019). Evolutionary biology holds promise for anticipating, managing, and even manipulating the adaptative potential of organisms (Carroll et al. 2014), but in practice this is “easy to do badly and difficult to do well” (Welch 2016). It is perhaps because of these criticisms that ecology and evolutionary biology are particularly concerned with objectivity. In practice, the Scientific Method is the hallmark for testing claims in an objective way (Brittan & Bandyopadhyay 2019). This objectivity is established through guiding principles—and, more explicitly, statistical frameworks—that are rooted in science philosophy.

Evolutionary biology holds promise for anticipating, managing, and even manipulating the adaptative potential of organisms (Carroll et al. 2014), but in practice this is “easy to do badly and difficult to do well” (Welch 2016).

Francis Bacon initially proposed that verifiability is the basis for all scientific knowledge, “the empire of man over things” (Bacon 1620). Karl Popper recognized that no number of verifying instances can ever guarantee a hypothesis to be true (nor may the exhaustive search for them be feasible), yet a single disconfirming instance can demonstrate that a hypothesis is false (Popper 1959). In other words, one could claim that all swans are white and attempt to encounter an innumerable number of white swans to verify this, but one encounter with a black swan is enough to refute the claim (Hakan 2021). According to Popper, falsifiability distinguishes science from non-science: for a theory to be considered scientific, it must be conceivably proven false (Popper 1959). For scientists, a hypothesis could never be proven, only disproven and, in the evolution of scientific knowledge, the fittest hypothesis survives. Phrases such as “scientific proof” or “science has proven…” are moot.

one could claim that all swans are white and attempt to encounter an innumerable number of white swans to verify this

Despite the oikos, ecologists (and evolutionary biologists) assume that an experiment can be designed to “box” in a microcosm of reality that is separate from Self. Observations are sampled from the environment to test hypotheses about what is (or is not) creating patterns in them (Wisz et al. 2008). The more intensive, replicable, and non-biased (non-Self) the sampling is, the higher the likelihood that this assumption is met (Wisz et al. 2008). In practice, mathematical models articulating environmental relationships are fit to observations and tested against “null” hypotheses (to disprove them and demonstrate a causality). Patterns in observations due to subjectivities are ruled out. Plausible models are elected based on goodness-of-fit (e.g., maximum likelihood) and parsimony (Coelho et al. 2018), balancing explanatory power (of experimental samples) with predictive capacity (Belovsky et al. 2004; Yates et al. 2018). If a model reflects reality, it should be repeatable and relevant across studies in different ecosystems over time, no matter which Self is conducting them.

The Scientific Method, then, arms scientists with an ability to test or corroborate claims about environmental phenomena, presumably in the absence of any personal and/or political agenda. Models can be used, for example, to propose, predict, and explain environmental impacts of an oil or mining project. Specific thresholds can be used to trigger or lobby for government action. This information might look like a line on a graph where, “if environmental changes exceed or have surpassed this limit, we intervene”. All of this is to say nothing of the Self who is responsible for monitoring and detecting those changes; who is providing the resources, capacity, and funding to generate reliable scientific data (large enough datasets); and who owns, controls, accesses, and possesses the resulting data (but see OCAPTM). 

Results (The Scientific Brand)

Thomas Kuhn noted “traditions of scientific research” (Kuhn 1962) are unified by and emerge from paradigms. According to Kuhn, paradigms are “universally recognizable scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (Kuhn 1962); simply put, ideologies and belief systems, rather than methodological rules, shape how science is approached and applied. 

When interpreting ecological data, a statistically significant relationship usually warrants intervention, yet inaction could proceed if economic, social, or political implementation costs are high; weak statistical relationships could also warrant intervention as a precautionary approach (Underwood & Chapman 2003). Publication (enabling access to results) is also biased toward studies that identify significant relationships, rather than those that fail to (Lortie et al. 2007; van Witteloostuijn 2016; Fraser et al. 2018). Capacity to generate statistical power (scientific rigour) also relies on logistical access to resources; failure to detect an environmental change in response to an industrial project, for example, could be a function of labour and funding to monitor those changes. Data alone do not guarantee intervention (unless it is legislated) and a Self is required to tell a story about the data.  

To examine the impact of a development project under Canada’s environmental assessment process, a Self or group of Selves needs to decide what valued ecosystem components will be monitored (measured observations over time) and how. This process can be complex and is based on a combination of ecological, economic, and cultural considerations. It is easier, for example, to scientifically monitor contaminant levels than it is to monitor impacts to Indigenous land use rights. The latter are difficult to quantify—and also unethical to place—in an experimental box. What stakeholders, local communities, scientists, or regulatory bodies identify as tolerable levels of change will likely vary, depending on which Self you ask. 

Discussion (The Scientific Conquest)

In Canada, traditional knowledge must be considered under the Impact Assessment Act, Canada’s Duty to Consult, and/or co-management obligations as per legislated Treaties and Land Claims Agreements. To meet these requirements, unfortunately, the extraction, reinterpretation, and (mis)use of Indigenous knowledge by non-Indigenous people seems to be commonplace. Perhaps this reflects a Western impulse to place traditional knowledge (TK; or anything for that matter) in an experimental box?

Research literature is brimming with Western science and TK comparisons: science is analytical and deductive, TK is more intuitive and holistic; Western science is positivist and materialist, TK is spiritual and does not distinguish the empirical from sacred; Western science is objective and quantitative, TK is subjective and qualitative; Western science is academic and literately transmitted, TK is practiced and transmitted orally. This duality is also archetypical of Western versus Eastern medicines, shiva versus shakti, yang versus yin, masculine versus feminine, heart versus mind, right-brain versus left-brain. However, distilling “Western science versus everything-non-science” into a dichotomy discounts the innumerable diversity of cultures, ideologies, and ways of knowing that exist within the non-science and non-Western. From the position of the West, everything non-West is not-Self, Other, and less than

…Distilling “Western science versus everything-non-science” into a dichotomy discounts the innumerable diversity of cultures, ideologies, and ways of knowing that exist within the non-science and non-Western.

More context: the denial and denigration of non-Western knowledge has been an integral part of the European colonial strategy to assert the universality of Western knowledge and justify dispossession, destitution, and genocide of populations who are framed as lacking knowledge of universal worth, yet occupy lands of value (Ahenakew 2016; Jimmy & Andreotti 2022). Institutional desire for inclusion and solidarity (as a supposed benevolent practice) also continues to regenerate colonial and performative relations (Jimmy & Andreotti 2022). Academic and non-government organizations tend to select communities and dispositions that will enable them to meet their predefined obligations and agendas (Ahmed 2012). Government organizations lack support for initiatives that are independently driven by the communities they want (and need) to consult with (without strings attached). In this way, institutions strategically exclude what is undesirable to control and contain spaces for diversity to be expressed (e.g., Ahmed 2012; Ahenakew 2016; Jimmy & Andreotti 2022). 

Institutional desire for inclusion and solidarity (as a supposed benevolent practice) also continues to regenerate colonial and performative relations. Academic and non-government organizations tend to select communities and dispositions that will enable them to meet their predefined obligations and agendas

Unfortunately, scientific research also—consciously and unconsciously—tends to cultivate arrogance. Western science, universities, and the degrees they “award” were spread through European colonialism, privileging the elite (Ekeh 1983; I contemplate whether a PhD was my desire, or a product of my cultural upbringing and belief system around personal value). As academics, we are rewarded for our ability to “defend” our hypotheses, our claims, our thesis against Others; to demonstrate infallibility, relevance, and worth; to contribute a “new discovery” that can be consumed in the growing accumulation of knowledge. Perhaps in some way, Popper’s principle for corroborating hypotheses enforces a Self-defense mechanism, rather than a willingness to fail, particularly when financial resources, time, and energy (conceptualized as commodities) have been devoted to a lifelong academic career and identity. We distinguish scholars for their individual achievements and contributions, grant them with intellectual property rights, and might forget “the shoulders of giants” they stand on (Newton 1675). Collectively held knowledge is passed off as lesser, unremarkable, “common sense”. However, acknowledging our weaknesses, breaking points, and areas where we simply don’t know opens us up to cooperation, relationship-building, and reciprocity, while it threatens autonomy, prioritization, and assertion of Self. 

Reflections (The Scientific Self)

Perhaps the most obvious gap in the Scientific Method is that it seems dissociative, disembodied, and devoid of any personal inquiry. In obsessing over objectivity, ecology abandons the body and becomes a practice of capturing and using what is over there, in that box, not in here. But when looking at a graph of fitted curves or statistical values, how do they make us feel, in here? This inquiry costs us scientific credibility yet certainly colors how those data will be expressed—a pallet of charisma, enthusiasm, conviction, apathy or disinterest—on a canvas of power relations and political structures at the decision-making table. 

My friend Roiana:kens (who I thank for his permission to include this) shared with me that when deer hunting, you must know how deer walks, how deer moves; you must see as deer sees in order to catch deer. When you stop hunting, you lose the ability to think, see, be like deer. A relationship with animals is a practical, personal, and internal one. The ecologist might only ever know deer from the outside, over there, in that box, not in here. To know deer —or anything else—in a different way, we must bring over there in here and dismantle the box.

What is in here points to a Self. Self has values, narratives, and responsibilities. Self motivates morale and ethics. (Self is not always obvious). Western science denies a clear line to Self; how and when science should be used and by whom. Western science doesn’t guarantee protection from violent and destructive uses of its end-products. Western science does, however, continue to trump the very knowledge systems that are embedded in wisdom, environmental stewardship, sharing (education), consensual decision-making, human relationships with all beings, and/or cosmologies (common concepts in research definitions of TK). Attempts to prioritize TK, for example, comes with a tendency to strip factual information from belief and value systems (and people), effectively objectifying, reinterpreting, and rendering such knowledge into a scientifically sanctioned and consumable commodity. 

What if Western science—designed to be transferrable—was instead governed by traditional wisdom corroborated since time immemorial, by Selves who actively (fight to) embody, practice, and preserve right relations? What would we be expecting and from whom? What would we be imposing on them (and their communities)? What would this cost and/or risk? To and for whose needs? Whose benefits? According to whom? Who would fund this work? Why? Are we expecting some one or group of people to save us, share with us, a refuge, a solution? What are we willing to abandon? To keep? To stay for? Would we hold our Selves accountable for the power imbalances and colonialities that we continue to perpetuate and benefit from? For the things we don’t know (yet)? I don’t have answers, only more inquiries. If we want to dismantle boxes, we could start by rediscovering what is most foreign, difficult, and disconnected in Self as a box and box maker: when and where have I formulated boxes around my own mind and body; sampled, colonized or dispossessed parts of my story; fragmented my Self to uphold a dominating narrative—what do (and don’t) I present, embody, and assert? 

Conclusion (The Liminal Self)

In his moral dilemma, Prince Arjun is paralyzed and overcome with humility when he initiates an inquiry into truth (and Self) with his charioteer. To make room for new ways of knowing, we have to be willing to face not-knowing: the space that is liminal, vulnerable, triggering, ungrounding, and uprooting. If we can witness our addictions and consciously let go of our impulses, without rushing into or away from battle, the tension can become an agent for alchemical transformation. It is a space between leaping and landing, a place of un-knowing, no-knowing and uncertainty, a place where we abandon all we’ve known. We have all experienced this kind of place before, a place where things fall apart (if we allow them to). It exists between death and rebirth, where an exhale makes space for an inhale. It exists where we allow our “hungry ghost” (餓鬼) to be hungry and accept insatiability.

At some point Krishna tells Arjun that our work in this world is to release all attachment to outcome; mastery is the celebration of complexity, of failure, of making mistakes, of starting over again and again. This is an invitation to practice, against and amidst and despite promises of modernity and progress. Rather than using one “knowing” to box out, in, or over an Other, we can unravel our Selves until we become the oikos, the household, and beyond-household. In the Shurangama Sutra, it is written that all fingers point to the moon, yet the fingers themselves are not the moon. As one approaches truth, one approaches more encompassing and inclusive ways of knowing not because one craves it, but because one is approaching the source of all knowing itself; not Self over Other, but Self as Other.


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