By Joern Fischer
One of the big challenges in sustainability science is how to deal with different types of knowledge. This challenge is ubiquitous: For a social scientist to get along with a natural scientist, it’s critical to accept each other’s different ways of knowing; but the same is also true for a scientist to get a long with a farmer, or a politician, or an indigenous person. Different individuals (and groups of people) understand the world differently. Their way of knowing, and what counts as reasonable knowledge is different: they have different epistemologies
Among those engaged in inter- or transdisciplinary sustainability science, it is widely acknowledged that we need to accept and appreciate different types of knowledge.
That’s all fine if the issue is that a social scientist does qualitative work whereas a natural scientist wants statistics. This is a relatively small divide to bridge. What about if an indigenous person tells you about the soul of a mountain, and its meaning? Or what if a politician tells you that climate change is irrelevant? What if this is what ‘they know’, given their knowledge system? How can we accept different knowledge systems if some just seem plain wrong to us?
Reading Berkes excellent book ‘Sacred Ecology’, it struck me that perhaps one way to solve this problem is by looking at the outcome of a different knowledge system. I propose that the question of “what is right” is far less relevant than the question of “what is wise”. Western scientific knowledge has produced a lot of knowledge that seems to be ‘right’: but has it led to wise decisions? Some other knowledge systems have led to sustainable resource use for hundreds of years, to social stability – and in some cases, probably to social justice of one sort or another, too (yes, yes, not all that is indigenous is wonderful — but that’s neither what I said nor meant… now keep reading). Scientifically, some knowledge systems are likely to be plain wrong. But perhaps that doesn’t matter: better to be wise and incorrect than to be correct but unable to turn one’s knowledge into wisdom.