Sillitoe - Chapter 13 | eBooks | Non-Fiction

Sillitoe - Chapter 13

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Counting on Local Knowledge

In New Guinea, people do not count far. Some languages only have two words for numerals — one and two — and some have no words for numbers at all. It will probably strike persons reading a collection of papers originating at a British Association for the Advancement of Science annual festival to celebrate and advertise the achievements of science, with its associated sophisticated mathematical logic and computational power, as ridiculous to suggest that such numerical schemes can teach us anything. But that is exactly the sort of thing that those of us advocating attention to local knowledge are arguing, particularly in development contexts. The contributions to this book intend to convince you that such advocacy is not as daft as it may at first appear. In arguing this position, this chapter takes a cursory look at the approach science adopts to measurement, particularly the numerical scheme it uses to record and manipulate findings.

Science relies heavily on quantification and mathematics comprises an important part of its language. 'Nature speaks in equations. The rules of mathematics ... govern the way the universe works' (Seife 2000: 117). Lord Kelvin, immortalised in the absolute temperature scale, put it clearly in his observation that, 'When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you are scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science' (quoted in Seife 2000: 158). I do not think that such understanding is meagre at all. It has something to tell us. The numerical system science uses has unresolved mysteries at its heart, highlighted by the polar notions of zero and infinity, which possibly compromise the idea of sustainable science and development. When science is harnessed to the demands of the market economy, as has increasingly happened, the idea of sustainability becomes even more remote given economics' apparent aim of endless growth. It is possible that those who count less have some important conceptual lessons to teach us about sustainability.

Counting on Local KnowledgePaul SillitoeIn New Guinea, people do not count far. Some languages only have two words for numerals — one and two — and some have no words for numbers at all. It will probably strike persons reading a collection of paper
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