Shaun Stanley
Shaun Stanley

#ScienceMustFall in retrospect: Three lessons to help us move on

I remarked once that, “If the curricula shall be Africanised then, one may presume, we’ll have to find an Africanised version of Newtonian mechanics for the engineers, decolonised theorem proofs for mathematicians and the non-racist equivalent of Maxwell’s equations for physicists, among other things”. I said that this would be to take the call for curricula decolonisation literally.

For my literalist reading I have been criticised and in the article from which that quotation comes I decided to play devil’s advocate, to see what sense might be made of “curricula decolonisation”. I maintain what I then wrote, that “the problem, in one sense, is a problem relating to the environment in which students must study”, and, as video evidence suggests, many UCT students agree. Toward that end, I made some headway in clarifying what the problematic aspects of that environment are. But let us return to that literalism, for it appears to be exactly what Micky Moyo and #ScienceMustFall had advocated.

There are two significant resources one can use in determining what exactly was said that resulted in #ScienceMustFall. They are the full video of the UCT event and a subsequent radio interview in which Micky Moyo, the student at the epicentre of the hashtag, attempted to clarify her position. The temptation that many have succumbed to is to engage with, and sometimes apologise for, Moyo’s statements. I won’t succumb to that temptation.

Moyo is an undergraduate politics, philosophy and economics student at UCT. She admits that she isn’t a scientist and that she does not have a science degree. She has taken physical science and mathematics up to matric. She, then, is not an authority on how higher education institutions should formulate their syllabi and I will treat her accordingly. There are, however, some lessons that we can learn from her statements. The first relates to high school education. The second relates to humanities higher education. The third relates to the questions we may ask of science itself.

Lesson one: High school physical science

Moyo’s statements can be read as an indication that there are lingering deficiencies in our high school science curriculum, or the manner in which it is taught. I remember physical science, effectively, as an activity of learning formulae and applying those formulae to certain contrived problems. I found this, at the time, very unexciting when compared to, say, the richness of an enthralling poem, or the depth of controversies excavated in historical debates. I presume Moyo had similar experiences.

Many have remarked about the absurdity of Moyo’s statements, and they are more incredulous upon realising that she isn’t a science student at all. There is something remarkable about that, but let us also admit this: it is not all that remarkable that a post-matric student should air her grievances about the tediousness and irrelevance of high school mathematics and science. Who wouldn’t sympathise with those grievances except the most impatient among us?

It is unspectacular that a student should leave matric unimpressed by physical science. Some may even come to believe that Newtonian mechanics is effectively a racialised story about how an old white man “invented” gravity. Both of these points should be seen as an indictment of our schooling system.

No one who understands Newtonian mechanics would describe it as Moyo does, which is exactly my point. Rather than chastising Moyo for her lack of understanding, the first lesson I offer up is that we should see her statements as a symptom of a deeper problem. Like many of our social ills, they first manifest in damage to our youth. #ScienceMustFall is a symptom of damaged youth, damage done by inadequate teachers. It is not a symptom of the racism inherent in a BSc degree from UCT.

What Moyo may have done, inadvertently, is to show us not that there is some serious “colonial” defect in our higher education science curricula, but that there are (or might be) serious deficiencies in our high school science curriculum and how it is taught. Those in support of “decolonised education” should think to shift their focus away from the content of university courses and toward the content of, and purpose of, high school curricula. That is my first lesson drawn from #ScienceMustFall.

Lesson two: On humanities in higher education

But more needs to be said, and this brings me to the second lesson. Moyo is not simply to be interpreted as a post-matric student expressing her dim view on her high school science education. To interpret Newtonian mechanics (most minimally, sentences in some austere formal language in which some variables enjoy empirical interpretations) as racialised, ethnicised and as a cultural entity embedded in networks of “social power”, implicated in the “politics of the textbook” and the like, is implicitly to adopt the theoretical terms of certain social theories.

Paraphrasing (from the video), Moyo tells us that “science” is a product of “western modernity” and may, for that reason, have to be scrapped in favour of something else. She envisions a “science” reborn from an “African” (or, perhaps, “Black”) standpoint. “Western knowledge”, she further explains, is “totalising” and needs to be augmented by knowledge “produced by us”, through our “lived experiences”. Only by repudiating one’s own internalised “eurocentrism” could one come to appreciate her views.

The terms in quotation marks are, in other words, jargon terms of the speculative social sciences. The meanings of these terms are determined by how they feature in those speculative theories, and whether or not these terms refer is partly to be determined by the empirical success of those theories. It is a curiosity of our time that our social discourse has so readily and uncritically adopted these terms of art, and thereby saddled itself with the metaphysical burdens of those social sciences.

Yet those speculative theories are among the most degenerate scientific enterprises. Notoriously unstructured and empirically unfruitful. In the minds of some (e.g. Rosenberg 1980), they have failed in their scientific tasks, and only radical revision could augment that failure. All of science is fallible, every part of it, including social science, is open to revision, supersession or, indeed, elimination. Just how we should regard the theoretical terms Moyo made use of is, therefore, a matter of controversy. At least, we should treat these terms with tentative scepticism. And, yet, many seem to have imbibed these theoretical notions and accepted them wholesale, not just as one fallible, potentially false, view on the world, but as the “truth” (and one apparently not to be questioned). To paraphrase Robert Price, “in the lexicon of some fallists, you look up “truth” and it says, “see post-colonial theory”.

Moyo reflects the nature of our social discourse generally. It is one where the theoretical terms of the speculative social sciences are accepted, more or less without question, on pain of some social sin, probably racism. This brings me to the second lesson. It is that #ScienceMustFall should cause us to introspect about the nature of, and social role of, the social sciences and how we communicate this to our students and the public.

We need not think of #ScienceMustFall as evidence for some “white” conspiracy against indigenous “knowledges”. We can see it as the predictable result of a student body and a public inadequately resourced to fairly and critically evaluate their social world. Certain portions of our humanities subjects (of which the social sciences are normally a part) are, or may be, sometimes composed, taught and learned badly, that is, uncritically, as if, perhaps, they were infallible. Evidently also, academics have failed (putting my own head on the block, compare these two articles) to publicly communicate, and to be honest about, the nature (and fallibility, and infirmity) of their enterprises.  Rather than beseeching science faculties with unlettered recitals from post-colonial theory, we might do better to introspect about how we conduct our own enterprises.

Lesson three: Philosophy of science

Media and commentary on #ScienceMustFall and the “decolonisation” debate generally, has failed to focus on the role of the social sciences and our high school curriculum. As noted above, I think that is a mistake.

Now, one of the interesting questions Moyo asks is (in paraphrased form) this:  Why is it that we so readily accept the reality of entities like electrons which cannot be directly observed, but we find ridiculous the possibility that some may be capable of controlling lightning (electrons, electrical discharge, allegedly) even though they allege first-hand experience of this? Her explanation is a simple sociological one. “Electrons” form part of a western scientific theory and we fetishize the west. “Lightning-as-a-weapon” forms part of an African magical capacity, and we are wont to denigrate anything African.

I think that is a bad explanation. But the question is nevertheless interesting. It represents a well-known problem in the philosophy of science: whether we should be scientific realists or scientific anti-realists. That is, whether we should regard the theoretical entities of science (like electrons) as real, or as in some sense non-real (say, as a useful fiction). The brief irony is that had Moyo waited for the second year of her degree she would have had an opportunity to engage with this question directly in the course offered on the philosophy of science.

In that course, students would engage with the very questions Moyo (according to my paraphrases) asked. Is there something distinctive about “the scientific method” which sets its results above and superior to other “ways of knowing”? What, anyway, is the “scientific method”? Is it guaranteed to produce “objective” (whatever that means) results? Can, or do, scientists stray from objectivity and truth through political, social or cultural influences and distortions?

These are all well-worn questions in the philosophy of science. That Moyo asked her questions indicates that she did not take this course, or that she is unaware of it. And that others have been baffled by her questions (and have battled to formulate defensible answers to her questions, save for calling her names) indicates that others too are ignorant of the philosophy of science.

The third lesson to draw is that on a charitable interpretation of #ScienceMustFall, what is really being called for is the proliferation and popularisation of the philosophy of science. It is self-serving of course, but I would happily endorse this call.

Why think this way? Moyo, in her radio interview, appeared (among other things) to be at pains to explain that a “conversation” about the nature and scope of scientific knowledge, particularly in relation to “other ways of knowing” had yet to take place. But I think this is plainly mistaken. The philosophy of science, and its history, represents one long conversation about the nature and scope of science, and it is accessible enough for anyone who is interested to join in. The problem isn’t that we have yet to have such a conversation. The problem is that many appear to be unaware of the nature, or existence, of the philosophy of science. Charitably interpreted, then, we can see #ScienceMustFall as a call for increased access to courses in the philosophy (and, perhaps, history) of science.

There are two ways to practically interpret this call. Either, what is called for is that all students enrolled in BSc degrees should have the opportunity to take a course in the philosophy of science. Or, what is called for is that all such students be obliged to take a course in the philosophy of science. I prefer the first interpretation, for it retains a certain freedom of choice for students, the second one seems too draconian. One could speculate further and suggest that humanities students be provided with the opportunity to take more science-centred courses as well.

Practically this means that we may have to re-evaluate the way our university courses and degrees are structured, so as to give students in any faculty more freedom to choose among alternative courses. The BSc student who enrols for a course in the philosophy of science may become as enriched as the BA student who enrols in a course on mathematical logic.

Of course, that isn’t really what Moyo said. But, as noted before, she isn’t an authority on this matter, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Let us take what we can from what she said, and leave the rest. If we wish to, we can interpret #ScienceMustFall literally as an injunction to “wipe the slate clean” and purify our minds of “western science”. But that is foolish. We don’t have to interpret it that way. We can interpret it as an indication that our science and humanities curricula may be insufficient in philosophical depth with regards to the nature and scope of the natural sciences. One possible solution to that problem would be to liberate students from the borders imposed on their subject choices by our artificially separated schools and faculties.

Closing Remarks

I said, to begin with, that I wasn’t going to apologise for Moyo’s statements, but it looks like I have, at least insofar as the lessons I’ve drawn are important and sensible. So, let me close off by explaining what I think I have done. I have not engaged with Moyo’s statements as she made them. In and of themselves, they represent deep gaps in her understanding. But Moyo is an undergraduate student and has a lot of time to correct for that.

Many focusing on the flaws or merits of Moyo’s actual statements have ignored the three lessons which I think can and should be drawn from #ScienceMustFall. Our high school science and mathematics curricula may require re-evaluation. Some of our humanities subjects, their content and their pedagogy, and their public communication, may require re-evaluation. Subjects like the philosophy of science should be more accessible to science students and, as I suggested, non-science students may benefit from greater access to science-centric courses. Maybe these lessons are to be ignored, but I think they are worth discussing. There is more promise for progress, anyway, in allowing our conversation to be thus guided than in arguing about how science can be “decolonised”.

Arguing about that is to saddle ourselves with the metaphysical burdens of the speculative social sciences. We don’t need recourse to that highly controversial set of theories in order to discuss (basically) how best to improve the higher education sector in our country. None of what I’ve said, anyway, is a roadmap to “decolonising” science, charitably interpreted or not. Rather, what I’ve said represents a demonstration that we can meaningfully talk about the problems of higher education without pretending to vanquish the demons and phantoms of “coloniality”. In fact, when we decide to take #ScienceMustFall at face value, as seriously putting on the table the option to “wipe the slate clean” and purify our minds of “western science”, we then see a vivid demonstration of the infirmity of the decolonial discourse and the racialised language on which it relies.

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