Decolonising science?


Plato in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Recently, students at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London demanded the elimination of white philosophers like Plato from their courses. The great Greek philosophers have had a huge influence on the modern world (and even on the medieval Arab world), but now it seems that their skin was the wrong colour.


Zulu sangoma’s set of divining bones, mid 20th century (photo: Anthony Dekker)

Even more disturbingly, this famous videoclip shows students at the University of Cape Town calling for science to be “decolonised” by removing modern “white” knowledge and replacing it by traditional “black” knowledge (like that of the sangoma). Some academics have condemned this as incipient Lysenkoism or otherwise misguided. Others appear to support the project.

I have previously written about when and why science began. Modern science is a product of medieval (not modern) Europe, but its roots lie further east. Today, however, it has become a truly international endeavour. Every nation contributes (see the infographic below), and science does not care what colour your skin is – only whether your ideas work. To deny science to Africans would be to condemn them to poverty, ill health, and (ironically) neocolonialism by the better-educated – so I hope that this call to “decolonise” science gains no traction.


Scientific publications by country in 2012 (from this Nature news story)


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3 thoughts on “Decolonising science?

  1. Nice post! I am afraid that “decolonising” much of science, given many subjects are so fact-rich, as opposed to subject to alternative explanations, is damn near impossible. It may not matter, for example, that Escherichia coli is named after someone (a DWM) called Escherich; it certainly does matter, however, that it is a commensal of ALL human colons, ad that it can be a pathogen.

  2. Pingback: Newton, gravity, and the apple | Scientific Gems

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