Richard Dawkins writes to New Zealand’s “friends of science and reason”

December 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

As I’ve written a couple of times, New Zealand is undergoing a dilution of its science education since the increasingly woke government and university administrators have decided that indigenous ways of knowing, called “mātauranga Māori”, should be taught as coequal with science in both high school and university science classes. But the Māori “ways of knowing” are a mixed bag. There’s some “practical” science there, like how to determine which areas are likely to flood, and how to catch eels, but there’s also a whole bunch of mythology and superstition that are simply refuted by modern science. These include a creationist view of existing plants and animals. Teaching both in a Kiwi science class is like teaching evolutionary biology alongside creationism in an American evolution class: it’s a recipe for confusion and divisiveness—and an impediment for those Māori who want to become scientists.

Of course “mātauranga Māori” should be taught in some academic venue, as Māori culture is pervasive and influential in New Zealand.. But the venue should involve anthropology or sociology, not science.

A short while ago, seven professors from Auckland University wrote a letter objecting to the proposed coequal teaching of science and mātauranga Māori. Called “In Defense of Science,” it was published in a weekly magazine called “The Listener”, and you can see it here. In response, the Royal Society of New Zealand is considering punishing or expelling the two signers who are members of the Royal Society of New Zealand. And many NZ academics signed a petition objecting to the letter (do read it; it’s inoffensive to anybody who’s sapient). Dawn Freshwater, the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University, calling attention to the letter and its signers, declared this:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether Mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

As I’ve said, it’s not clear whether the Vice-Chancellor has any authority to declare what the “views of the University of Auckland” are, nor whether there are any official views. It’s clear she is demonizing the professors at the same time she says well, they have the right of free speech—but note that the University can officially criticize them and the Royal Society can punish them! As for the Vice-Chancellor emphasizing the “considerable hurt and dismay” at the University, I consider that a ludicrous form appeal to emotion rather than reason. Are you, as a Kiwi, hurt or dismayed by that letter? Too bad. If you have counterarguments, express them, not your emotions.

In response to the threat of punishment of the letter signers by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which has made that society into a joke, Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to the then chief executive of the Society (you can see his letter here), and also issued a tweet:

Now, in response to a request from some of the letter’s signers, Richard has tweaked his letter and aimed it at the people of New Zealand, not at the Royal Society of New Zealand. It has just appeared in the online version The Listener (bad screenshot below), and will be in the paper edition this weekend. I have permission to publish it, and so have put it below. The original title that Richard gave it was, “Dear New Zealand friends of science and reason,” which the editors changed in the published version below. (They also eliminated a reference to “bollocks”.) I like the original title better.


Since the subject of mātauranga Māori was raised through Letters in July, a global response has been building against the ludicrous move to incorporate Māori “ways of knowing” into New Zealand’s science curricula, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what the society exists to do.

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 evidence­based, 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.

If a “different” way of knowing worked, if it satisfied the above tests of being evidence-based, it wouldn’t be different, it would be science. Science works. It lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, dates the origin of the universe, and reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed moa.

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? I hope you won’t think me presumptuous as an outsider (who actually rather wishes he was a New Zealander) if I encourage you to stand up against this nonsense and encourage others to do so.

Richard Dawkins, DSc, FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Under­standing of Science, University of Oxford

I especially love the one sentence, “If a ‘different’ way of knowing worked, if it satisfied the above tests of being evidence-based, it wouldn’t be different, it would be science.” That’s classic Dawkins.

Screenshot of above in online version:

If you are a Kiwi scientist who has the bollocks (or ovaries) to stand up to the government’s, universities’, and Royal Society’s nonsense, and to stand up for reason and the value of science in the only institutionalized “way of knowing”, I ask you to join Richard and the “Satanic Seven.” Yes, I know there are real threats of reprisal should you defend evidence and reason. And you remain silent out of fear, I won’t criticize you. But I suggest that you consider joining Dawkins and the Satanic Seven, lest New Zealand science go down the loo.

31 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins writes to New Zealand’s “friends of science and reason”

    1. Grin. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. One of my favorite jokes:
      Q: How do we know alternative medicine doesn’t work?
      A: If it worked, we’d call it medicine.

  1. Since I’ve long admired Dawkins, I’m quite happy to see that his new letter makes many of the same points that my own blog piece made. I am extremely disappointed with the Royal Society of New Zealand though, especially since these attacks on science are quite frequent and we need to stand up for science.

      1. Wikipedia says that the moa went extinct within 100 years of humans arriving in NZ. Worth remembering the next time someone extols aboriginal ‘ways of knowing’ and care for the environment over and above that of us degenerate colonialists.

  2. Watching with great interest.
    What works to turn aside the more ill-conceived aims of the woke? As they tend to be of a revolutionary mind, they seem undaunted by logic and evidence, unflagged by overwhelming opposition, and uncaring about the collateral damage that they can cause.
    So what stops them? Letters like this (and its an excellent letter) may not do it. The Huxley College thing mentioned earlier is a good case in point.

  3. Rationality is no defence – if it runs counter to Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth news it must be Thoughtcrime.

    Just ask Steven Pinker how well his recent books have been received.

    1. You are aware, aren’t you, that although the Left wing media reviewers regularly pan Pinker’s books, that’s for political reasons? More important, you are aware, aren’t you, that every book he put out lately has become a bestseller? The people who are buying them are not “progressive” reviewers who don’t like the idea of progress, they are intellectually curious and rational people who simply don’t like speaking out.

    1. A simple but deeply accurate observation. That an earthy truth – or opinion – is just too much to print. If there was a moment of collapse in the Listener’s fine tradition of free thinking this was it. A banal edit that carries so much significance and sadness for the demise of this great masthead.

  4. Needless to say, I wrote to the New Zealand Royal Society to ask for advice on bringing Coast Salish traditions into the teaching of science in the Pacific Northwest region. Unhappily, the Royal Society did not reply, so I must work out the appropriate curriculum on my own.

    The Coast Salish tradition which charmed me most is the concept that, at some earlier time, all the animals, plants, trees, and geological formations had the power of speech. In line with this view, perhaps we could have an Oceanography class in which students search underwater for messages inscribed in the old days by the salmon people, the molluscs, and the sea anemones. In the Geology class, we will similarly search for written notes left by the glaciers before they retreated northward. Our Astronomy section will include the story of the two sisters who married two stars, went to live in Skyworld, and then braided a rope to climb back down to earth to gather plants. Come to think of it, maybe the design of the sisters’ braided sky-rope could be worked into our Engineering classes.

    1. Brilliant. Gotta say, those are good stories. Too bad some people can’t tell the difference between a good piece of fiction and reality.

    2. You would not be allowed to teach the course yourself though. One aspect of the NZ controversy that is not being confronted head-on is that Indigenous ways of knowing can be taught and researched only by Indigenous knowledge-keepers, as the case is often made openly in North America. The essential spiritual dimension of the knowledge (“guardianship” for Maori) will be lost if the material is taught or examined as a myth or a religion, as colonial faculty would be sure to do. Mere speaking Maori (or a North American Indigenous language here) or familiarity with the culture from academic study or even lived experience in would not be sufficient. One has to actually be Indigenous to be qualified.

      This is of course racism on its face. It’s not even affirmative action. It’s the proposition than only people of a certain race can ever possess certain knowledge or skills because of their race.

  5. “…dilution of its science education since the increasingly woke government” hell, are you calling me woke! I voted for this govt and glad I did because we had no clear alternative. You will find through the pandemic at least they have followed the science and “not other ways of knowing”.

    1. Don’t take it personally. Yes, the government and society, like American society, are increasingly “woke”. That is my impression, one reinforced by lots of emails I’ve been getting from Kiwis that object to the nonsense I’ve written about. That said, of course New Zealand dealt with the pandemic better than “other ways of knowing”, and I admire Jacinda Ardern and the health people for that. I’m just worried that if this “other ways of knowing thing” might affect, for instance, responses to a future pandemic–or many other things.

      1. My take is that governments and professional classes (law, education) are reacting out of guilt to the previous era in which they denigrated and (nearly) destroyed indigenous cultures, languages and people. Now the pendulum has swung very far the other way. Hopefully it will settle back somewhere in the middle.

  6. No offense taken. I was kinda “pulling your leg” as it were. I am increasingly becoming alarmed myself about where we are going. I am assured by the comment (lots of emails) and knowledge that others are keeping pace with the woke progression here.

  7. One of the most ironic aspects of this affair is the way this actually patronizes and infantilizes the Maori culture by denying them access to one of the most important steps in any culture, to admit they are in error and grow from it. The sum total of Maori knowledge and way of looking at the world has been reduced to one point in time, in the past. It would be the same as if we looked at 7th century Britain or Germany as representative of Western ways of gaining knowledge. Cultures grow by overturning the limitations of the past.

  8. I’m delighted Richard Dawkins’s astute and witty letter has appeared in The Listener – tino pai! Sadly the bland and parochial media over here has given the matter a wide berth, despite assurances from the Dominion Post to me that they were working on the story. Nothing on Radio NZ National either. It’s worth pointing out that the new chief executive of the Royal Society is Paul Atkins, who replaced Roger Ridley 12 days ago, but no doubt the deluge of emails is being forwarded, a baptism of fire if there ever was one. Don’t expect any intervention from the government which, quite apart from ‘arm’s length’ policies, is scared stiff of provoking any controversy over Mātauranga Māori. The problem is compounded by the fact that the new opposition spokesperson on Science is Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins, the unpopular and recently ousted leader of the National Party. I regret to say with friends like her, our cause needs no enemies. If the Royal Society is obtuse enough to censure or expel the two brave Fellows before Christmas, I’m certain it WILL be news – and in the aftermath as Aoteaora NZ Inc closes down between 24/12 and about 10/1 and there’s a dearth of news. On present form, they may well! The founders of what became the Royal Society, such as Sir James Hector, will be turning in their graves. This whole sad and unnecessary controversy has at least produced one hilarious moment – the witty pun about the principal weakness of Mātauranga Māori creation science is that it puts the Force before Descartes. May the force be with the two Fellows and thank you Richard Dawkins.

  9. I note that Richard has included his DSc (Doctor of Science) rather than his DPhil (DPhil itself being the Oxford abbreviation of Doctor of Philosophy; PhD).
    Confusingly, the DSc is the standard science doctorate name at PhD level in some countries. In the UK though, the DSc ranks above a PhD as the highest academic qualification possible and indeed it is actually named a ‘higher doctorate’.
    Richard rarely states or mentions his DSc, I suppose he wanted to put his full weight alongside FRS in this specific quarrel.

  10. Is the New Zealand government, in being scared stiff of this controversy, worried that if they don’t keep escalating the appeasement of an aggrieved underperforming minority of 15%, the majority will somehow lose control of their country? Is that what this is all about?
    Does appeasement ever prevent that?

    Or are they just trying to be on the right side of history but are blind to the risk that letting guilt inform everything they do transmits a confession of illegitimacy to the other side who will use it cynically against them? The fatwa joined by Vice-Chancellor Freshwater and young scientists over the Listener letter is deeply concerning.

    Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith 1999 must be well-known to the NZ scientific and education community. I haven’t read it. I have read perspectives on Indigenous research in Canada sounding the same themes as below, just less confrontational. (There are also many fewer Indigenous scholars at senior academic levels than in New Zealand.)

    From the Wiki entry: **The book begins with the line “The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.” Smith contends that Western paradigms of research are “inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.” Ranginui Walker [Professor and Head of Māori Studies at the U of Auckland, died 2016] described the book as “a dynamic interpretation of power relations of domination, struggle and emancipation”. Laurie Anne Whitt [possibly the author — there could be more than one LAW — of a paper, “Resisting Value-Bifurcation: Indigenist Critiques of the Human Genome Diversity Project”] praised the book as a “powerful critique of dominant research methodologies.”
    . . .
    Smith concludes the book by articulating how she believes Kaupapa Māori research methods could be implemented.**

    (I used asterisks to enclose the quotation because the original already has two layers of quotation marks and I don’t know how to indent.)

    Tell me if you like not to stick my nose into the internal affairs of a faraway country that I have visited only once but I think this goes deeper than re-jigging a few science courses. That young Paheka scientists seem enthusiastic about demonizing those who question it is deeply troubling.

  11. You are using a straw man as a starting point. As Wikipedia defines it ” Mātauranga is a modern term for the traditional knowledge of the Māori people of New Zealand. Māori traditional knowledge is multi-disciplinary and holistic, and there is considerable overlap between concepts.”

    This is the problem with using non-English terms, not properly translated. We are referring to traditional knowledge – not “ways of knowing.”

    The traditional knowledge of Māori that has survived and commonly used (and also by scientists especially in environmental areas) has survived because it is tested in practice.

    It may not be modern “science’; in a rigorous sense. But neither is the traditional knowledge of the Italians (Galileo) or English (Newton). Just as we have (largely) rejected the creation mythology of Galileo and Newton, in the is day and age we are certainly not required to accept the creation mythology of Māori just because we make use of the valuable traditional knowledge accumulated by the people of the Pacific.

    Why should we try and reinvent things, ignoring the existing knowledge, when we are dealing with the important local issues of the environment, horticultural and land and water management.

    That would be a waste of resources, lead to faulting knowledge and immensely insulting to local people who have lived here much longer and had to deal with these issues themselves.

    Please stop using straw men.

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