Understanding Team Biden’s Push for ‘Indigenous Knowledge’

Earlier this week, the invaluable Washington Free Beacon published a fascinating story on the Biden administration’s efforts to update the “scientific guidelines” for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to the story, a newly released document—a “draft for public comment”—mandates that “going forward, agency staff should employ ‘multiple forms of evidence, such as Indigenous Knowledge,’ when analyzing data.” The paper continues, noting that “‘Indigenous knowledge’ posits that native peoples possess hidden wisdom about the workings of the universe” and that all of this is part of the “agency’s ‘support’ for ‘equity, justice, and trust.’”  Finally, the Free Beacon reports that “the proposed guidelines are on track to be finalized this year.”

As ridiculous as this might seem, it’s really no laughing matter. Indeed, there are several possible explanations for such a bizarre and groundless shift away from science and to pseudo-scientific superstition, none of which is especially reassuring.

The first of these explanations is that which one might call Chesterton’s Maxim, in that it proves the most famous thing that G.K. Chesterton almost certainly never said or wrote (but for which he is enduringly credited): “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.” As our society—and the political left in particular—has moved further and further away from its traditional religious foundations, it finds itself increasingly willing to accept almost any substitute. The Enlightenment’s destruction of conventional faith has not resulted in the adoption of purely secular and rationalistic thinking, as its philosophies promised, but has rather fostered the disposition to believe almost anything else that can be seen as a safeguard against traditionalism. Being non-Christian or non-European, the incorporation of “indigenous knowledge” into “scientific” research satisfies the post-Enlightenment desire to move beyond the traditions of Western Civilization, even as it clearly introduces new and wholly subjective religious beliefs into the process.

Relatedly, the move to incorporate indigenous knowledge into the scientific guidelines for such HHS agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control confirms the observations made by the mid-20th-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who posited that much of the contemporary left is “Gnostic” in its worldview. Gnosticism, both in its ancient heretical form and in its contemporary incarnation, maintains that some people possess secret, hidden wisdom that enables them—and them alone—to chart the path to salvation (temporal salvation in the contemporary version). Voegelin argued that, in many ways, the left’s vision for society constitutes a perversion of the Christian salvation narrative and that it assigns to itself and its adherents the role of spiritual guide, of Gnostic. This, in turn, results in the fabrication of a “dream world” in which the reality of flawed logic and bad decisions serves only as proof of the Gnostic’s righteousness:

In the Gnostic dream world … nonrecog­nition of reality is the first principle. As a conse­quence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be con­sidered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream con­ception of cause and effect.

A third explanation for the Biden Administration’s apparent desire to incorporate indigenous knowledge into its scientific guidelines is the contemporary left’s philosophical predisposition to find reality itself objectionable.

For more than a century, the West and its institutions have been overwhelmed by anti-realism, the primary premise of which is that “truth” and “reality” are mere constructs that can and should be manipulated to serve broader ends.  Whether it’s the Pragmatists and their insistence that objective truth is a myth and that the good in the world is defined by what “works;” the Marxist revisionists and their belief that the masses are dissociated from their true consciousness by the culture and its institutions; the Critical Theorists and their fetishization of Freud and his belief that civilization suppresses the id; the post-modernists and their determination that truth and reality are linguistic concepts created and manipulated by power relationship; or any of the countless offshoots of these epistemologies, the West in the 20th and 21st centuries has been defined by an unwillingness or inability to see, much less accept reality.

In short, the institutions of the West—academy and government, most notably—no longer believe in, much less care about, the supposition that the scientific method is the accepted methodology by which to arrive at objective conclusions about the physical world. Indeed, it no longer cares about objective conclusions about the physical world at all. For all its self-promotion as “the party of science,” today’s Democratic Party cares less about the objective validity of research conclusions than it does about the manipulation of language and power to mold a version of reality that is inclusive and affirming, hence its “support for equity, justice, and trust.”

Taken together, these three ubiquitous characteristics of the contemporary left likely explain the majority of the Biden administration’s efforts to supplement science with indigenous knowledge and other pseudo-science. The portion that these three leave unexplained can probably be attributed to good, old-fashioned interest-group pandering. While it is important to recognize and understand the ideological motivations of our thoroughly politicized administrative state, it is also important not to forget the influence wielded over the bureaucracy by partisan interests. As the first Democratic administration in decades to struggle to prove its dedication to and affinity for minority voters, this effort by Team Biden to adopt nontraditional pathways to knowledge is undoubtedly an effort to create a narrative by which it demonstrates its multicultural bona fides. Whether it will prove to be an effective effort is dubious at best.

But then, “dubious at best” applies to so much this administration has done.

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

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