“The HPS department facilitates the only undergraduate courses available to students taking Science Tripos’ which actually provide the tools scientists so desperately need to decolonise their disciplines.” Geograph

Once walked by famous figures such as James Clerk-Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford and J.J. Thomson, the halls of the old Cavendish Laboratories are now home to Cambridge University’s History and Philosophy of Science Department. In the very same rooms where the electron was discovered some 130 years before, we are now beginning to reconstruct our conception of science by moving away from a series of celebrated individuals, and towards an acknowledgement of the deep colonial roots of what we now call ‘science.’

Whilst the romanticised argument for a science built by western icons is somewhat convincing, it lacks an appreciation for the darker forces of exploitation, industry and imperialism. By situating the history of science and medicine within its colonial roots, we are now able to address the current of untold stories and unseen perspectives of non-western voices. Such is the aim of the ‘Decolonising the Sciences’ movement.

We might have lost some of the undergraduate physics students at this point, but this is exactly the problem. Since science is perceived to be the most important way in which modern knowledge is produced, it is thus one of the most crucial disciplines in need of a new, decolonised approach.

‘Decolonisation’ has become a cultural and academic buzzword, manifesting as an ambition, a strategy for critique, and a perspective we should all be aiming to take. Broadly speaking, the movement challenges the way we think about the impact of European colonisation on global cultural infrastructures. It strives to recognize the systems of oppression that have been made implicit in our methods of knowledge production, and to break them down.

“This would debunk the myth that science was produced in Europe and then diffused globally”

The HPS department facilitates the only undergraduate courses available to students taking Science Tripos’ which actually provide the tools scientists so desperately need to decolonise their disciplines. It invites a meta-study of science; an analysis of how theories and methods are constructed and inevitably situated within broader social, political and economic contexts. As a result, the engagement of this department with decolonial sentiments is essential for the reconstruction of science from the bottom up.

The roots of the problem

The decolonisation movement rests on the view that Western science should not be thought of as the sole basis of human logic. It should not be considered as a standard to which other traditions of knowledge are to be compared. This necessarily involves reconstructing indigenous and other non-western knowledge systems as equal to Euro-localised traditions.

Essentially, scientific decolonists aim to challenge the conception that modern science was born with the British Empire, despite the fact that what we learn today under the title ‘science’ has its precise origins in this period. The science we are taught to accept as dogma today is a colonised science.

With this in mind, it is important to appreciate that there is no straight line from a colonised science to a decolonised one. There are many different avenues to explore when pursuing this path depending on which dimension of ‘colonisation’ we choose to tackle: Geographical? Ideological? Thematic? Here, we present a ‘food for thought’ introduction to some of the strategies on the table for decolonising HPS, and for thinking more generally about what we believe should constitute a ‘science’.

The problem with the problem

It is one thing to proclaim that all of modern science is colonial. It is an entirely different matter to display and change this narrative. We were invited to a department open meeting, hosted by Rory Kent, a PhD student passionate about decolonisation, where a range of practical decolonial strategies were debated.

The first to be suggested was diversifying the geographical locations taught in the course to ‘de-Euro centralise’ the study of science, and help reconstruct knowledge from various indigenous populations. Increasing the breadth of knowledge systems studied is an approach that has already been in place for some time.

Dr. Richard Staley, a lecturer and research fellow at the department, highlighted HPS’s ‘commitment to diversifying its teaching.’ Dr. Mary Brazelton also teaches courses on the modern history of East Asian Science, allowing undergraduate science students to recognise that there have always been other important systems of scientific knowledge production outside of Europe.

“It is clear that the ethically dubious origins of much of what we call ‘science’ today are shielded from us as students and as scientists.”

However, it seems unsustainable to spread the course thinly over the whole globe. Making a conscious effort to include some localities over others adds yet another dimension of complexity to the issue at stake. This necessitates a complicated trade-off between breadth and depth that stands at the forefront of discussion surrounding the restructuring of curricula to highlight decolonial sentiments.

In terms of increased depth, another suggestion has been to organise the course thematically. Introducing different themes, such as instruments, or the use of calculation, to bring together different scientific traditions would permit the drawing of parallels between the production of science in a range of localities and backgrounds.

This would debunk the myth that science was produced in Europe and then diffused globally. Treating scientific traditions not as universal truths but as the expression of different themes would allow for the safe comparison of knowledge created at different times and places, without the implication that one is superior.

Moreover, it was suggested that the inclusion of ‘bad works’ in the curriculum (predominantly Eurocentric and racially motivated pieces of literature) would allow students to recognise what is ‘bad’ scientific reasoning. Comparing ‘bad works’ with contemporary approaches permits aspiring scientists to understand first hand how scientific literature should not look.

Should we colonise the sciences before decolonising them?

A most intriguing proposal was suggested by Professor Simon Schaffer, who argued that it was first important to colonise the sciences before decolonisation could take place. In other words, it is necessary to encourage those entering scientific disciplines to engage critically with the dogmas they are taught to take for granted. Decolonising the sciences will begin and end with a re-evaluation of how science is taught – both in HPS and beyond – by integrating the themes explored here into mainstream curricula. As Dr Staley put it, ‘understanding the significance of scientific involvement in colonisation is central to many of the issues important in decolonising different fields’.

It is clear that the ethically dubious origins of much of what we call ‘science’ today are shielded from us as students and as scientists. It seems intuitive that the first step in decolonising the sciences is to remove the wool from our eyes by learning how to critically question what is dogma and what is constructed. Surely, this is the first step in the right direction.

The meta study of science provided by HPS is crucial for this very reason. It provides an ‘insider-outsider’ perspective on what occurs in science. Through studying the history of what we call ‘science’, it can be ‘colonised’ by permitting scientists to understand their discipline’s interaction with imperial geopolitics. Only then can we enter a new stage of decolonial science by consciously throwing off the yoke of science’s past.

Sponsored links

Partner links