Just recently, there was a bit of a hullabaloo on social media regarding a paper written about glaciers. The paper was written by a history professor, I think. He wrote about different “glaciologies” or something like that, comparing the way Native people who live near glaciers see glaciers with how scientists see glaciers. The rationale was something to do with how modern science often overshadows all other perspectives, or something like that. It wasn’t a scientific paper, it was a paper about narratives and “different types of knowledge” and stuff like that.
This paper caused some controversy. The funding of the paper came from some entity having to do with climate change, I think, and articles were written with “your tax dollars at work” and whatnot as the theme. It was also believed that the paper was attempting to say that Native myths regarding glaciers were equally as valid (from a scientific perspective) as modern scientific knowledge about glaciers. Many believed the paper was an attack on science, even, like an attempt to de-legitimize science.
This, of course, was not actually the case. Writing about “different types of knowledge” does not imply that all “types of knowledge” are equal.
Think about it this way: one person has a completely irrational but sincerely held belief. Let’s say that somebody sincerely believes that the moon is made out of green cheese. It usually looks white because of a force field around Earth that is generated by the Great Pyramids of Giza, this person believes.
Another person knows this is all BS. From a scientific perspective, of course this person is correct: as everyone who is sane knows, the moon is actually a giant telephoto lens attached to an invisible camera that our alien ancestors from the Pleiades use to keep tabs on us.
Of course that was a joke. But regardless as to whether something a person sincerely believes is true is *actually* true, well, try convincing them it isn’t true. Try convincing someone who sincerely believes that the moon is made of green cheese, etc. that it isn’t.
For that matter, try convincing anyone who believes the glacier paper was an assault on science that it actually wasn’t. It’s not gonna be easy.
People believe what they believe and “know” what they “know” because of the culture they’re from. If a culture is modern and scientific, like ours mostly is, something like a glacier is going to look a lot different than it would from the perspective of a culture that is neither modern nor scientific.
Since we’re talking about glaciers, let’s imagine that a fully frozen and perfectly preserved adult Neanderthal man is found in a glacier somewhere. Let’s also assume that he is brought back to life by scientists, and that he has to adapt to modern life and integrate his prehistoric understanding of the world with everything in the modern world.
Assuming he is able to adapt at all, picture this guy trying to understand how a smartphone works.
Hell, I use a smartphone every day that goes by and I don’t actually have any idea how a smartphone works, from a scientific perspective. I have a vague, weakly articulated approximation of an idea, based on things I have read, but honestly I don’t have a clue.
I know that smartphones work, and I know how to use them. But I don’t know how they work. My approximation of an idea about how they work (which could potentially be embarrassing if I attempted to write it down) is a result of me being a product of a modern country like the USA. I learned about science in school, and I know modern devices like smartphones are a product of many years of scientific research.
The unfrozen Neanderthal guy doesn’t even know what science is. He could potentially be taught to read and write and use something like a smartphone, but how is he going to understand what is actually going on when he uses it?
If he’s like most people — including me — he isn’t going to think about that very much. But assuming he does, and assuming someone asks him how he thinks it works, how would he answer that question? Me, I would say “uhhh, errr, SCIENCE,” but what would he say?
To be sure, I am not comparing an unfrozen Neanderthal to Native people who live near glaciers. Neither am I comparing people who think the “glaciology” paper was an attack on science to unfrozen Neanderthals, hardy har. I am just trying to illustrate that there actually are “different types of knowledge”.
With regard to that paper, I would (and did) argue that Native myths regarding glaciers were worth studying, if only for their value as a part of cultural history.
So why I am only writing this now? Why didn’t I write this while the whole hullabaloo was going on about it? I will tell you:
I just watched part of a documentary about Easter Island. You know, that island with all the huge angular big-headed statues called moai. These statues are all carved from rock from one area on the island, but they are placed all over the island. Many people have questioned how the people who carved the moai moved them, because being that they’re huge stone statues, well, they’re pretty heavy.
Thor Heyerdahl (the Kon-Tiki guy) had a possible explanation. Heyerdahl theorized that the moai were moved by rolling them on logs. I think he may even have demonstrated that it could be done like that, but I am not sure.
Heyerdahl used his knowledge of science to “solve” the mystery of how the moai were moved all over Easter Island. And it’s definitely true that they could have been moved that way.
There’s another possibility, though: according to oral traditions of the Rapa Nui (the culture that produced the moai), the moai “walked” to their current positions.
I think I remember hearing or reading that years ago, in something else I saw or read about Easter Island. The way that’s usually presented is “these primitive people don’t know about science! They think stone statues walked! What a bunch of dumbasses!”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. But this is the sort of thing that I think the author of the “glaciology” paper was talking about: Heyerdahl ignored local legends about how the moai got to their current positions and came up with his own ideas about how they got there. As Heyerdahl was a representative of mainstream Western science, most Westerners believe his theory about log rollers.
And Heyerdahl may be correct. I am not saying he isn’t. The fact is nobody knows for sure. Nobody who actually moved them is still alive, and they were moved centuries before video cameras were invented, so there’s no footage of them being moved when they were originally moved.
And the only historical record from the Rapa Nui is their oral tradition, which claims the moai “walked.”
Do I think the moai actually “walked” to their positions on Easter Island, like I will get up and walk outside when I finish writing this, so as to get a better phone signal while I am uploading this to my blog? Of course not. But I do think Heyerdahl may have done well to listen more closely to Rapa Nui oral traditions:
According to the fellow on the documentary, who I think was Rapa Nui, when Rapa Nui storytellers would say the moai “walked,” what they meant was that the moai were “walked” to their current position much in the same way somebody might “walk” a refrigerator to a different spot in the kitchen: by pushing or pulling one side forward a few inches, then pushing or pulling the other side forward a few inches, and so on. According to the fellow on the documentary, abrasions at the bases of many moai support this theory.
Was Heyerdahl’s log roller method more practical? Perhaps. I really don’t know; I imagine moving one of those things by any method (including with modern machinery) would be quite an undertaking. I wouldn’t want to try it.
Practicality isn’t really the point, though. As mentioned, nobody really knows for sure how the moai were moved.
One theory virtually ignores Rapa Nui oral traditions. The other doesn’t.
Which theory do you believe?
Getting back to the “glaciology” paper, whether any Native traditions regarding glaciers will be useful from a scientific perspective remains to be seen. The paper may indeed be completely useless, from a scientific perspective.
Even if it is, well, we’ll know. And we’ll have documentation of it.
Thank you for reading.