Weakening of traditional knowledge must be reversed, notes ICSU report

4 June 2002 An ICSU report on Science and Traditional Knowledge has expressed concern at the gradual weakening and disappearance of traditional knowledge. ‘This is a trend that must be reversed’, the authors write.

Published in March of this year, the report makes a number of recommendations for strengthening ties between modern science and traditional knowledge.

These include recommendations that ICSU support societies that are keepers and developers of traditional knowledge, that it foster training which equips young scientists and indigenous people to carry out research on traditional knowledge and that it organize an international symposium on science and traditional knowledge.

The report does not propose any major changes to current activities of ICSU and its Member Organizations to strengthen science education and the understanding of modern science in developing countries. It does however remark that, to be fully effective, science curricula need to interact properly with local experiences and systems of traditional knowledge, particularly in the biological and environmental sciences.

The report recommends the creation of an ad hoc working group on science and traditional knowledge. As a first step, the Study Group recommends that ICSU actively promote cooperation between traditional knowledge and science at the United Nations World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (South Africa) in August 2002.

The first part of the report examines the nature of traditional knowledge and the triangular relationship between science, traditional knowledge and pseudo-science.’ A proper understanding of [this] relationship’, the authors write, ‘is important for the further development of both science and traditional knowledge.’

In defining science, they cite Paul Hoyningen-Heune’s paper on The Nature of Science, delivered to the World Conference on Science.

Although the demarcation between science and pseudo-science is difficult, they note, the demarcation between pseudo-science and traditional knowledge is fairly straightforward. Traditional knowledge, they affirm, ‘has typically originated quite independently of science in a particular cultural setting, mostly also quite independently of Western culture‘. Pseudo-science, on the other hand, competes with science, ‘pos[ing] as science by mimicking it’.

The report was commissioned by ICSU’s General Assembly in September 1999 to make a ‘critical study’ of the paragraphs in the Declaration and Science Agenda referring to traditional knowledge systems. The Study Group drafting the report was also invited to examine how, as WCS follow-up, ICSU might support cooperation between holders of traditional holders and scientists for mutual benefit.

The ICSU General Assembly will formally examine the report in September 2002. Download the report.