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Should we use “indigenous knowledge”… even if it’s wrong?

By 30/11/2011

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in international development circles in protecting and using indigenous knowledge. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have set up agencies to systematically evaluate traditional medicines while NGOs, such as Practical Action, evaluate and document indigenous knowledge on a range of topics.

These developments mark a welcome change from approaches that assume that external actors know best. However I do disagree with some international development thinkers who believe that indigenous knowledge is as valid as research based evidence when it comes to deciding what works, and therefore what policies to make.

Indigenous knowledge is the knowledge that has been gained by communities based on their experience and observations, usually over long time periods. The problem with using this to inform policies is that there are many examples of populations which have shared knowledge about what works- which is in fact wrong. Without appropriate scientific testing, this information should not be used to decide policy.

To give an example from my own country, the UK, there is a large population of people who would argue that, based on their experiences and observations, homeopathic remedies work. Unfortunately research evidence tells us unequivocally that this is not true and that in fact there is no evidence that these remedies work better than placebo treatments – although admittedly placebo treatments do work remarkably well!. (Please note, I am referring here to homeopathy which is quite a different thing to herbal treatments.)

Its worth noting that ‘indigenous knowledge’ can be found in a range of different communities. A good example comes from the medical community. For decades, doctors working in emergency settings have treated critically ill children by giving a large initial infusion of saline (salt water). This ‘indigenous knowledge’ had been gained by the population of doctors due to their experiences and observations over long time periods and it was so well established that no one thought to test it. However, recently, to the shock of the medical community, a trial comparing different types of infusion found that the children in the control group, who received no infusion, actually did best.

I am not for one second suggesting that indigenous knowledge should be ignored. For a start, it is a wonderful source of testable hypotheses.  Many commonly used medicines (for example aspirin and quinine) started their lives as ‘traditional remedies’. In addition, it is crucial that we understand what people believe in order to make sensible policy decisions. For example, if many people believe that a vaccine is associated with infertility, policy makers need to respond to that belief even if it is factually incorrect- for example by funding increased education. Incorporating responses to these beliefs also means that we need to be respectful of the beliefs that people may strongly hold.

However, when it comes to figuring out if something ‘works’, indigenous knowledge is not a reliable source of evidence. The whole point of basing policy on research evidence- as opposed to people’s untested beliefs- is that the latter are often wrong.

P.S. I have avoided the questions here of intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge- it’s a really important issue but I will leave it to someone else to blog about…

25 Responses to Should we use “indigenous knowledge”… even if it’s wrong?

  1. There is a lot of indigenous knowledge that is dangerously wrong: bear gall fluid does not cure you; tiger bones are not helpful to health; slash-and-burn agriculture is not a route to food security. 

    • Avatar Kirsty says:

      Hi Pat- thanks for commenting. Yes, I totally agree. I think it is great that people are taking more of an interest in indienous knowledge these days as they are recognising that solutions from ‘outside’ are not always the best BUT I think sometimes I think we have swung too far in the opposite direction i.e. assuming that all indigenous knowledge is ‘right’. If we want to know if something works, it needs to be properly tested.

      • Avatar Kay says:

        This discussion made me wonder about “scientific testing”. How  accurate is this- in the way that we – humans apply it? There are examples where drugs were approved through scientific processes even though those approving it were aware of the risks but chose to not reveal them in the name of money/profits or maybe because the benefits may outweigh negative impacts etc. Of course it is accepted that the author is not trying to imply that we ignore this or that scientific methods are fool proof, but this thought did occur to me – in terms of how despite scientific testing wrong choices are made. So what can we say about how indigenous knowledge comes to being accepted? Is there a process there that is also worth looking at? Is there some science there? 

        • Avatar prifernando says:

          In my experience, a lot of indigenous knowledge is tried and tested in practice, which is why it is also very contextual.  A few decades ago, Practical Action (then ITDG)  did some interesting work on indigenous knowledge through two great programmes: Tinker Tiller Technical Change, and Do It Herself  – the latter looking at how women developed and used women’s technical knowledge, and I recall a case study from Sudan where a Sudanese academic (a bio-chemist) pointed out that much of what the Sudanese woman carries out in her Sudanese kitchen in the preparation of Ramazan-fast breaking food, really follows a series of scientific chemical processes that would need great precision if they were to be replicated in a laboratory.  Currently the network Prolinnova ( does some interesting work on local innovation, mainly in agriculture.   Of course indigenous knowledge systems also display power structures, and hierarchies of knowledge (in Sri Lanka we call this the guru mushtiya – where you keep a certain key element of the knowledge to yourself so it cannot be replicated and shared in its totality) but I think its the being tested in practice that often gives indigenous knowledge its validity. 

  2. Avatar Andrew Clappison says:

    Kirsty, Do you think indigenous knowledge and
    scientific knowledge should be treated the same way when exploring their
    validity? I would suggest that they should be, given that there are a
    number of external factors that can shape science, just as their are
    particular beliefs and traditions that frame indigenous knowledge.

    • Avatar Kirsty says:

      Absolutely. In fact I would argue that untested beliefs held by the scientific community are just as much ‘indigenous knowledge’ as beliefs held by rural villagers. There are plenty of examples ‘flat earth’ beliefs which are widely held by the scientific community but which, once tested, prove to be wrong.

  3. Avatar prifernando says:

    I am sure you are right about the many
    examples of “indigenous knowledge” that has been proved “wrong”  if by wrong one means no longer applicable.  I would argue that there could be just as many that have been proved “right” or to use a less normative term, “effective”.   I come from a country where the development of ayurveda (a system of indigenous medicine) continue to be applicable and effective for certain conditions (though not others).  I would definitely hesitate in suggesting that “scientific testing” can lead to the “right” (opposite of wrong) knowledge.  The many reversals that occur in medicine (see shows us that knowledge generated at a certain point in time can be superceded by new knowledge, and that this is true of scientific knowledge as well as indigenous.

    • Avatar Kirsty says:

      Hi Priyanthi


      Thanks for commenting. Just to clarify- I am certainly
      not suggesting that all indigenous knowledge is wrong. I would completely agree
      with you that many are likely to be effective. I am simply pointing out that we
      need research in order to distinguish between the two.


      I recognise that it can seem as if scientific ‘knowledge’
      is always changing (thanks for that article- very interesting). However it is
      important to note that this does not mean that the research results were wrong-
      it just means that new research has asked new questions and thus broadened our
      knowledge. A key tenet of the scientific method is that results must be
      replicable. It is only ‘scientifically proven’ if it is replicable and
      conversely if it is not replicable it is not proven. Thus if it is scientifically
      proven it is by definition ‘right’ (i.e. replicable) given identical conditions.


      The difficulty with all this is that a scientific
      experiment sets out to answer a specific question but this might not be the
      only question that needs to be answered. For example an experiment might
      attempt to answer the question does this drug, reduce the incidence of
      headaches compared to a similarly administered placebo in a population of
      otherwise healthy women from the age of 20 to 30. If this experiment proves that
      the drug is effective (in these conditions, in this population) and subsequent
      experiments replicate this, it is conceivable that the drug will be recommended
      for use (provided that it has been shown to be safe). However please note that
      the experiment did not answer other questions such as does this drug cause
      weight gain?; is this drug effective in woman taking the pill? etc etc. While
      all drugs are subjected to rigorous safety testing before being used, it is
      always possible that new research asks a new question and reveals new data
      which leads to the decision to recommend its use being reversed. So the subtle
      difference here is that indigenous knowledge on efficacy can be wrong
      (although, as stated above, by no means always). Replicable, scientific findings
      on efficacy cannot be ‘wrong’ but it is true that they may not always be
      sufficient to make policy decisions. 


      One other point, you suggest that ‘wrong’ means no longer
      applicable. In some cases there might be knowledge which was once applicable
      but is now not so. But I would add that there are also some cases of
      ‘knowledge/beliefs’ about efficacy which have always been wrong. I have
      mentioned homeopathy as an example from europe and Pat has also mentioned a few more
      examples in his comment below.

  4. Avatar Fred carden says:

    Before we go too far down the road of scientific truth, we should especially remember the concept of falsification.  It applies equally to formal and informal knowledge.  I would cite the article Jonah Lehrer published in the New Yorker, December 13 2010.  After a lengthy discussion of flaws in scientific method of the phenomenon of decline of findings in many fields, of significant problems with replicability in some of the most widely accepted scientific “facts” regarding gravity among other things, he concludes, “We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us.  But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.  And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.  When the experiments are done, we we still have to choose what to believe.”  

    • Avatar Eponymous Biscuit says:

      I was very interested to read Fred Carden’s comment on Dr Newman’s blog post and his reference to Jonah Lehrer’s widely contested article “The truth wears off”. I think we have to be very careful when talking about “belief in ideas” in the context of scientific CONSENSUS in medical research and other disciplines of the empirical sciences.

      In his article, Lehrer dissects a number of examples of pseudo-scientific practices that can at best be described as of marginal relevance to our understanding of scientific validity, and at worst as a gross and misguided generalisation based on a few anecdotes. In my view, pooh-poohing in such a manner the methodological rigour currently employed by medical researchers who provide the scientific evidence base that underlies the delivery of appropriate health care is unethical and demonstrates what the Germans would call “gefaehrliches Halbwissen” (dangerous semi-knowledge).

      It is interesting to note that Lehrer himself, in his blog “The Frontal Cortex” and in a follow-up article in the New Yorker (“More thoughts on the decline effect”), responds to a plethora of critical comments on his original article by declaring his full support for the modern scientific method.

  5. Avatar Amdad says:

    I do agree that the Indigenous knowledge of scientific issues like medicine may lag sufficiently from  research-based improved modern knowledge. But incase of indigenous knowledge related to livelihood it is not wise to undermine the role of indigenous knoeledge. In our country, Bangladesh, the people of coastal belts has been surviving against the enormous natural disasters like cyclone, tidal bores etc through their indigenous knowledge. They are also managing their lives by adaptation to climate change through their indigenous knowledge. In many cases, Indigenous knowledge may be the basis of improved research and technology based approaches. 

  6. Avatar Gilchriste Ndongwe says:

    This brings the question, what instrument or tools can be used to measure the validity and reliability of indigenous knowledge systems and techniques..

  7. Avatar Nnenna says:

    Some “scientific” knowledge have been proved wrong, dangerous.  That explains why some drugs no longer exist.  In most cases, it is just that “the packaging ” of the knowledge for human use has included stuff that have made it ultimately dangerous.

    I am leaning to thinking that it is the same with “indigenous” knowledge.  Several of its application given conditions may present them as wrong, dangerous.

    I grew up in the eastern part of Nigeria.  This is a region where the sun rises +/- 20 minutes around 6 am  and sets +/- 20 minutes around 6 pm everyday, every month and every year. 

    So “indigenous” knowledge  for my small village has it that “the sun rises at 6 and sets at 6”!

    Is this wrong? 

    Yes. It is. 

    In  truth, the idea that is wrong is that “the sun rises and sets”. The sun neither rises, nor sets..

    But we still keep that “scientific” ‘non-indigenous” knowledge!


    • Avatar Kirsty says:

      Hi Nnenna
      I think we need to be clear about what ‘scientific knowledge’ we are refering to that is ‘wrong’. Of course the BELIEFS of the scientific community can be wrong. Likewise the INTERPRETATION of a scientific finding can be wrong. But, as I have outlined in my comment below in response to Priyanthi, if something is scientifically proven, it is by definition replicable and therefore ‘right’- i.e. it holds true if the experiment is repeated given the same conditions. If it is not replicable then its not scientifically proven.

      • Avatar Nnenna says:

        That is, also, about my point, Kirsty. Being replicable under the same conditions  is important for scientific knowledge.  I am happy about the article.  My point is, before indigenous knowledge is declared wrong, its underpinnings need to be cleared measured and understood.

  8. Avatar James H says:

    Kirsty, thank you for such a thought provoking article.

    The rights and wrongs of indigenous knowledge vs. scientific knowledge are worthy of serious debate but I wonder if there is more at stake than this dichotomy. I think your argument points to other dynamics at play that are worthy of our attention. Perhaps if there is no ‘science’, you do not need ‘proof’ or, put simply, it may be that contemporary development policy has become less scientific overall – possibly to the detriment of taxpayers and aid recipients alike. Hence the trend towards establishing indigenous knowledge task forces of the kind you describe.

    Alas, the idea of scientific rigour may be more interesting than committing to the practicalities involved in testing and proving hypotheses. The danger lies in hamstrung policymakers opting for indigenous knowledge as a ‘soft option’ or ‘line of least resistance’. The idea of all development policy being based on scientific proof is, under present circumstances, probably an utopia. With current trends favouring indigenous knowledge there is a real possibility that scientific proof could one day become an actual alternative.

  9. An article related to the Zambian decision on GMOs has just been published in a new Zambian magazine: I think it is relevant to this discussion an shows how often when we think no evidence or the wrong evidence is being used, it is in fact that those making the choice are open to a debate (or wanting one).

  10. Avatar Samanthi Elapatha says:

    I Was Editing by indigenous knowledge News Paper Column From 1996- to 2005. paper Column Name by “Gamagedara 2010- Thakshana Adaviya” . (early Name “Madam taste”). this Column is part by practical action – Gender and technology project. this column published by Nawaliya women news paper on every week

  11. Avatar Samanthi Elapatha says:

    I was Editing & Writing
    News Paper Column for indigenous knowledge from Sri lankan women. Paper
    Column Name is ” Gamagedara 2010- Thakshana Adaviya” . (early Name ”
    Madam Taste”) published by Every week from nawaliya women news paper (
    1995- 2002) . it is a Part by Gender & Technology Project by
    Practical Action (ITDG). it is a My 1 st Job

  12. Avatar Bashir El Tahir says:

    I thinks the identifications and documentation of IK would be of great help to researchers. They form the bases on research should build up and formulate their new research projects. In rural areas of Sudan there  are wealth of IK about climate change  adaptation strategies, traditional medicine, IK on how to survive drought and famine  by depending on non-timber forests products. IK should not be overlooked because if they are applicable at the moment, time will come for their applications.

  13. Avatar Laniran Paul Tolulope says:

    I believe that indigenous knowledge should not be applied if proven wrong. However, when dealing with rural people especially in Africa, care must be taken in offering explanations and suggesting an alternative.

  14. Avatar Mamesamba2003 says:

    HI newman .yes it can be possible to use indigenous  knowledge at the time that people understand theire way of improving theire condition of life .And so we have to succeed on the implementation of those and modernism.

  15. Avatar Laxmi says:

    Who decides whether indigenous knowledge is right or wrong? With what measures? Often we consider expert knowledge is right and indigenous knowledge is wrong.

    • Avatar Kirsty says:

      Hi Laxmi
      You are right that experts can get things wrong and that conversely indigenous knowledge can be right. I think the question should not be WHO decides which is right but rather HOW do we find this out. I argue that we should try to find an objective and rigorous way to test beliefs and that at present, the scientific method, is the best way to do this.

  16. Avatar Jon Willis says:

    Why would anyone even ask this asinine question?