A Smithsonian Anti-Science Museum?

The National Museum of the American Indian has opened in Washington, D.C. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t offer my own perspective, but this article in the Washington Post gives grounds for concern. According to Joel Achenbach, the great virtue of the Museum is that it does not attempt a scientific or technical understanding of the history or cultures of American Indians.

Initial disclaimers: of course American Indians have been mistreated historically, and subject to many kinds of discrimination and baseless and embarrassing attacks. Their religious views deserve as much respect as the religious views of Christian Europeans, and their history deserves as much respect.

But for Achenbach, that’s not enough. Instead, the great thing about the Museum is that it “feels more like a cathedral than a museum.” He explains:<blockquote> [T]he National Museum of the American Indian has no anthropology department and likely never will. Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director for the museum and a Plains Cree, says, “Anthropology as a science is not practiced here. . ..” Science is not going to be the final arbiter at the museum.</blockquote>

The article revels in post-modernist notions of “different ways of knowing:<blockquote>“I think there is an indigenous way of thinking,” [says museum curator Gabrielle Tayac]. She quickly notes that there’s not a single native belief system, but there are ways of looking at the world that are common to native peoples throughout the hemisphere. “Things are looked at very cyclically, not in a linear way,” she says. There’s also “this idea that things are alive, that there’s life in everything, that you are a part of it and you fit into it.”</blockquote>

Such notions should disturb those of us who look upon the Smithsonian as a glorious monument to the scientific enterprise. Certainly any attempt to study a culture should be sensitive to that culture–that’s good science as well as good ethics. But it is vital that such sensitivity not spill over into a subjectivism whereby all “ways of knowing” are considered equally valid–because they are not. Science is valid; superstition is not. Calling the scientific method by pejoratives like “linear” and speaking of (undefined) “alternative” ways of knowing as respecting an idea that “things are alive” does not undo this fact (or the fact that things not all things are alive!) As Meera Nanda writes,<blockquote>[T]here is ample evidence to support the proposition that scientific rationality has become “our destiny.” For better or for worse, and not minimizing the impact of colonialism on demolishing the self-confidence of non-Western societies in their own knowledge systems, it is an empirical fact that modern science has acquired a near universal appeal. One need not look beyond the desperate eagerness of Third World societies to emulate the success of technologically advanced societies (often with disastrous results) to be reminded of the deep appeal this cognitive style has come to exert. While one can have reservations about its desirability, the fact that we live in a world where one cognitive style is being sought and adopted by diverse cultures can hardly be denied.</blockquote>

Meera Nanda, The Science Question in Postcolonial Feminism, in The Flight from Science And Reason 426-27 (P. Gross, et al., eds.1996). See also Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden 31-32 (1995) (“Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dully planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don’t.”) Indeed, I would argue that scientific understanding is the only understanding on which genuine respect can be based. The alternative is an attitude of “you believe your thing, I’ll believe mine” which is not really respect, but just mutual silence, which often can breed resentment. Certainly anyone concerned that American Indian children receive a strong education and thereby a serious chance at a successful and happy life does them no favors by failing to teach them with the rigors of science.

Again, I do not in the slightest mean to denigrate from the historical sufferings of American Indians. I am part Cherokee myself, as is my girlfriend; I am quite sensible of the crimes the American government committed against them. But those crimes are not redressed by abandoning scientific integrity and using federal money to create a “cathedral” and call it a Museum.

This brings up another serious concern–the precedent that this sets with regard to the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long held that<blockquote> The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. . .. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”</blockquote>

Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp.,</i> 330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) (quoting Reynolds v. United States,</i> 98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878).)

If Achenbach’s description of the Museum is accurate, it could serve as a pretext for other religious groups to establish “museums” like the Answers in Genesis Creationism Museum to receive official government support. That is a disturbing prospect, indeed.