As I wrote yesterday, a big woke fracas is brewing in New Zealand, with the universities and government on the side of the woke, and the science professors (by and large) on the side of the angels. Since my piece appeared, I’ve gotten half a dozen emails from academics in New Zealand, objecting to the University of Auckland’s new policy to teach Maori “ways of knowing”, which include creationism, alongside modern “real” science—and in science class! This all started last summer, and is still going on.
This notion of “different but equal ways of knowing” is palpably ridiculous, and while I don’t want to denigrate the Maori people or the efforts that both Maori and New Zealanders are making to achieve harmony, I cannot abide the insistence that Maori “wisdom,” which is a combination of mythology, religion, and questionable assertions about the Universe, to be taught as scientific truth. As the saying goes, “You are entitled to your opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Clearly, this drive to incorporate indigenous beliefs into the science curriculum is part of an effort of the government and universities to placate and make reparations to the Maori, who were badly treated by European colonists. I applaud the drive for comity, but I deplore those who want to replace modern science with a melange of myths and faith. Yes, “indigenous knowledge” can be valuable, but its claims must always be tested using modern science.
The misguided effort to teach Maori indigenous knowledge as coequal with science will not only confuse the Maori (and everyone else!), but disadvantage those who embrace indigenous ways of knowing. Suppose, for example, that a Maori teenager wants to be a physicist. Well, there are no positions for “physicists doing Maori string theory”; there are only positions for physicists. There is no Maori physics or American physics or Indian physics, there is just “modern physics”.
I also wrote yesterday that seven academics from the University of Auckland wrote a short piece in The Listener (read it here), objecting to the insertion of Maori Matauranga (ways of knowing) into science curricula. Instead of their fellow academics defending them, the “Satanic Seven,” as I call them, have been demonized. Their jobs have been threatened, the Vice Chancellor of Auckland University has said the seven don’t adhere to the University’s “values,” and two of them are being threatened with expulsion from New Zealand’s Royal Society.
Here’s the message that Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater sent to the University of Auckland community, noting the equivalence of Maori and scientific “ways of knowing” and—playing the ultimate trump card—claiming that denying that Maori “ways of knowing” constitute science has “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.” I hate to be brutal here, but that hurt and dismay counts for nothing in this debate. The issue is about what is true, what is not true, and how to find the truth. (Click to enlarge).
This antiscience drive, in the service of good intentions but deeply misguided, must be stopped. If you want to see what Kiwi scientists are up against, read this piece (click on the screenshot):
Here’s just a bit:
Secondary science teachers may believe that teaching science through the scientific method aligns with tertiary science education, making a strong rationale for them to reject the proposed changes. But this belief is flawed on two grounds: first, since contemporary philosophy of science accepts that there is no one ‘scientific method’ (Okasha, 2016); and second, because tertiary science educators are also under pressure to introduce Māori knowledge into their curricula, and may well expect their secondary school colleagues to share this responsibility. The next section considers how science teachers could respond to the challenge represented by these changes in relation to each of the three Māori concepts in the titles shown above.
. . . . We argue that the introduction of carefully selected Māori concepts in NCEA Science is a positive move. It challenges deeply-held teacher assumptions about science and Māori knowledge, and encourages science teachers to consider the philosophy of science in more depth. On its own, such a change cannot overcome the entire history of lack of Māori participation and achievement in science education, but it is an innovative and interesting way to bring Māori concepts into school science. Arguably it does so in a more meaningful way than ‘translating’ science into Māori, which means the invention of a pressure-cooked lexicon (Stewart, 2011).
There’s a lot more, and I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that a lot of involves forcing Maori concepts into the Procrustean bed of modern science through selective interpretation. (One also sees this in the ways some Muslims claim that the Qur’an anticipates all of modern science.) It is a mess. Maori anthropology and sociology should of course be taught to all Kiwis, for the colonial and Maori cultures are trying to effect rapprochement, and Maori culture is very deeply embedded in “colonial” culture. But there should be no compromise when it comes to teaching science.
One way to stop this insidious debasement of science is for the international community to call out New Zealand for what it’s doing. That is the route Richard Dawkins has taken, and more power to him. First he issued this tweet after he read my piece from yesterday:
Creationism is still bollocks even if it is “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” bollocks. Doubtless of great anthropological and aesthetic interest but not science and not true.
SHAME on the NZ Royal Society.
Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org://t.co/e88enDLV1c
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) December 4, 2021
And yes, write to Roger Ridley at the NZ Royal Society (he’s the chief executive) objecting to its contemplation of ejecting two scientists who signed this reasonable letter. Richard gives the email above, and I put up the letter I wrote to Ridley yesterday (bottom of post). I urge you to drop just a short email in defense of science, for I think it will have an effect.
Richard has also written to Ridley directly, and has given me permission to reproduce his email. Here it is:
Dear Dr Ridley:
I have read Professor Jerry Coyne’s long, detailed and fair-minded critique of the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.
The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Maori myths. Why choose Maori myths? For no better reason than that Maoris arrived in New Zealand a few centuries before Europeans. That would be a good reason to teach Maori mythology in anthropology classes. Arguably there’s even better reason for Australian schools to teach the myths of their indigenous peoples, who arrived tens of thousands of years before Europeans. Or for British schools to teach Celtic myths. Or Anglo-Saxon myths. But no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.
The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.
If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country who will? What else is the Society for? What else is the rationale for its existence?
Yours very sincerely
Richard Dawkins FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford