It is possible to decolonise science

COMMENT

The call for decolonisation has caused much angst and much debate in academic circles in South Africa. While the call is not limited to South Africa, with our history and the continued economic disparity it has a particular urgency in our country.

Where one can see relatively easily how one might go about such a task in the humanities, the call to decolonise science was largely met with derision. For the most part, science gently ignored the call for decolonisation until the #ScienceMustFall video went viral. Tempers flared and the debate quickly shifted to two intractable positions. On the one hand, a call to equate indigenous knowledge systems with science, and on the other, a complete lack of recognition that science is embedded in and infused with Western individualism.

Our curiosity was to find a way to facilitate a conversation between these two positions. The major challenge was that the grounds on which the debate was considered valid was itself contested because of the difference in the way in which legitimate knowledge is built in science and in the humanities.

Scientific knowledge is objective, but scientists are not

In science, method is independent of the person. Once a method has been described clearly, a second person performing the same experiment can be reasonably expected to obtain the same result. This reproducibility is the deep strength of science. In the social sciences, one learns an orientation to knowledge which is built on theory, but the manner in which one interprets data will be influenced by one’s own history. Part of the beauty of the social sciences is making explicit the ways in which personal experience infuse and influence one’s gaze.

So science prides itself in being objective and frequently dismisses the relatively “soft” approach of the social sciences. Alas, in so doing scientists fail to recognise an important distinction. Scientific knowledge is objective, but scientists are not. They are also profoundly influenced by their cultural heritage.


There is no escaping the fact that science as we know it today has deep roots in Western Europe and that much of the development of science and technology coincided with the emergence of the colonial era. The technological advances made by those societies at that time allowed for the possibility of exploration. This was inextricably linked with the development of refined measuring instruments. For example, chemistry, as a science, only really emerged once we had sufficiently accurate balances. We cannot separate the development of scientific knowledge from that history.

In developing a decolonised scientific curriculum, we are not going to start again. We will still teach Newton’s laws, and the structure of the atom and the theory of evolution. These ideas are far too powerful as explanatory tools to lay them to one side. 

But what we can do is begin to recognise that the practice of science by scientists has been profoundly influenced by Western modernity. The obsession with the individual is highly problematic. Is there a way in which we can begin to recognise that all knowledge is built on the work of those who have gone before and contribute not only to those who follow but to our contemporaries? Can we build a valuation system of recognition of contribution that accounts for the deep web of relationships rather than trying to carve out the individual?

A decolonised scientific curriculum will also have implications for teaching and learning as well as how we perceive and interact with information.  When we use an example to aid the teaching of a concept we have to ask whether that example is experientially accessible to everyone in the class. In other words, does the example lower the barrier to learning or create yet another obstacle?

In a diverse science class it is unlikely that any one example will be accessible to all, so one of the strategies we use is to offer one example, and then ask the class to discuss other possible examples in small groups. These examples can then be discussed in the large class to show which examples work and which don’t and why. This way there is less bias towards just one kind of life experience – that of the academic. 

In the end our challenge is to make more visible the working of culture in academic science. To aim to help academic scientists understand that although their science may be objective, rigorous and potentially groundbreaking, they may be unconsciously perpetuating a culture which is alienating to many students. Both of these things may be simultaneously true. To ameliorate this doesn’t require substituting scientific content with commentary on society, but it does require taking students seriously when they either say they feel like they do not belong or they simply vote with their feet. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Margaret Blackie
Dr Margaret Blackie is a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science
Hanelie Adendorff
Dr Hanelie Adendorff a senior adviser at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University.

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