This summer, I had the honor of watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” A powerful Nigerian author, Adichie cautions and explains how damaging a single narrative of any story is to society and relates back to her own childhood experiences to demonstrate her point. Adichie’s world as a child was filled with stories about young British boys and girls, and she grew to understand the British experience through reading the literature that was widely available to her as a child. Despite never seeing snow in her life and living in Western Africa, Adichie wanted to experience it the way the young British characters of the novels and children’s stories did. From a young age, she had many stories about British life, but because of a lack of Nigerian (or even African) literature, British children would never have the same possibility. The British children would grow up with a singular story of what “Africa” was like; a story that completely disregarded the complexities and riches of the continent. To the British children, the daily happenings of Adichie’s life and therefore her human worth were lost in this larger story while at the same time she was discovering British weather patterns and foods.
When I had the opportunity to listen to Professor Cohen discuss the Scientific Revolution and how it wasn’t truly revolutionary, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this Ted Talk because of the lack of diverse stories and thoughts in the history of science and philosophy. Cohen’s lecture was fascinating and enlightening, and there were two things that particularly struck me and that sat with me after the lecture: the change in the concept of what is “scientific” and his reflection that the Scientific Revolution was dominated by pale males.
Science as we know it has not always been very “scientific”. The Ancients considered philosophy and other abstractions as science in a way that contemporary views fail to encapsulate and understand. The Scientific Revolution helped form science into the empirical, methodical, quantitative art that it is today, but it created a modern conception of the term that has since made it impossible to thoroughly understand the science of the past. The definition of “science” has always been a “moving target” in the words of Cohen, and as definitions have changed and been altered by the ruling classes, the original intent of the “science” of philosophy and the stars has disappeared and been appropriated by white men.
In reflecting on this idea of the definition of science being created by those in power, I wonder how different our world would be if women and people of color in the past would have had the chance to be a part of the discourse. If women and people of color had had the chance to interpret old ideologies and concepts and apply it to the world around them, would things be different? What would our technological landscape look like today if the vast majority of the brains of the world had not been shut out of the process?
The dominant discourse of science is a single story: that of wealthy white men with the luxury of time to devote to study. The past has ignored and therefore erased the narratives of the majority of the population that was closed off and told that they were not good enough for the process. And while the Scientific Revolution certainly created new technologies and accelerated the human race forward, it failed to dramatically alter social and political life for those who didn’t hold the power. It was revolutionary technology but failed to be revolutionary thought.