From what I hear from my Kiwi friends in academia, some of whom keep publicly quiet about these developments given the political climate, the government and universities in New Zealand are standing firm in their resolve to teach mātauranga Māori, or “Maori ways of knowing” alongside and coequal to modern (i.e., real) science in both high schools and universities. I’ve described the controversy in several recent posts.
This is one example of a clash between two values of “progressive liberals”: in this case, traditional or indigenous “knowledge” is valued because it is held by oppressed groups, but its assertions, including creationism, clash with the respect that the Left is supposed to have for the findings of science. (Another example is Western feminists deliberately ignoring the oppression of women in some Muslim countries).
I am no expert in mātauranga Māori, but you don’t have to spend many hours reading about it to see that it is a collection of myths, cultural practices, traditions, legends, and also practical wisdom regarding stewardship of the environment, how to capture animals, and so on. It does indeed contain some “knowledge” in this sense, but to verify whether that knowledge really comprises public truths, we have to test it using modern scientific tools. (Note: not all Māori see mātauranga Māori as “Maori science.”)
It’s not acceptable to simply buy indigenous assertions and teach them as science—not unless they’ve been verified as science. Two parts of mātauranga Māori that do not comport with modern science, for example, are its creation legends and its “environmental stewardship”, which in some cases is sound but in others not. Even the Wikipedia article on mātauranga Māori, whose editors are clearly biased towards indigenous “science” (read this bit, for instance), say this:
Archeology and Quaternary Geology show that New Zealand’s natural environment changed significantly during the period of precolonial Māori occupation. This has led some academics to question the effectiveness of Māori traditional knowledge in managing the environment. The environmental changes are similar to those following human occupation in other parts of the world, including deforestation (approximately 50%), the loss of the megafauna, more general species extinctions and soil degradation due to agriculture. The models favoured by academics today describe precolonial Māori as accessing resources based on ease of access and energy return. This would have involved moving from one location or food source to another when the original one had become less rewarding. Historically academic models on precolonial environmental stewardship have been closely tied to the idea of the ‘Noble Savage’. and the now debunked hypothesis of multiple ethnicities being responsible for different aspects of New Zealand’s archeological record.
After the Māori colonized New Zealand around 1300, for example, every species of moa was driven extinct by people bopping them on the heads with jade clubs (with only one natural predator, the magnificent Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle that ever lived, the moas were pretty tame). The Haast’s eagle also went extinct for lack of prey. This is not effective stewardship.
My view is similar to that of Richard Dawkins, who believes that mātauranga Māori is of sociological, anthropological, and aesthetic interest, and should certainly be taught to both Māori and non-Māori students, but should not be taught as an alternative “indigenous” form of science. As Richard wrote in his letter to The Listener:
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.
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.
The article below from the NZ website Point of Order paints a dismal picture of the future of Kiwi science. Scientists throughout the word are objecting to teaching mātauranga Māori as the local equivalent of modern science, but New Zealand’s government and universities plow ahead with considering the coequality of legend with fact. Click to read:
This article reports that Megan Woods, New Zealand’s Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, has set aside $1.6 million to hook kids on “science”, but using “traditional knowledge”.
Expressing herself in the mix of English and te reo that is favoured for communicative purposes by the government and the establishment press, Woods’ press statement said (bolding by article’s author):
“Getting rangatahi hooked on science is a key focus of this year’s Unlocking Curious Minds funding round, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods has announced, unveiling the 13 successful recipients of $1.6 million in Government funding.
“Through the Unlocking Curious Minds 2021 contestable fund the Government is supporting a wide range of really fun, hands-on projects, investigating subjects like nature, climate change, and Mātauranga Māori to empower rangatahi to connect with science and technology in a way that is meaningful to them.
“We know students are far more engaged when they learn about subjects they can relate to. Through activities like participation in Waka Ama, thinking about where food comes from, and personalised stories, we are inspiring future generations to add value to their own lives and as well as that of their local communities.”
This year’s funding round would bring science and technology to a wide range of audiences, including young people from hard to reach backgrounds, Woods said
“By focusing on student-led research and by looking at a range of knowledge systems this funding is designed to reach and inspire a broader base of New Zealanders.”
I’m not convinced that the combination of “personalized stories”, Waka Ama (outrigger canoeing), and “thinking about where food comes from”, or even “thinking about climate change,” much less mātauranga Māori, is going to get kids hooked on science. At any rate, stay tuned for more about how the government and universities will not be deterred in their subservience to “indigenous science”. (See also this article about my friend the NZ philosopher Robert Nola, who signed the original letter in The Listener and has thus been demonized as well as threatened with explusion from New Zealand’s Royal Society. His views about folding traditional knowledge into science if it proves to be science seem quite sensible.)
The article also lists pushback against the drive to insert indigenous “ways of knowing” into science class, including three articles I didn’t know of:
- Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has posted on Twitter the letter he emailed to the chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand in defence of the two society members whose expressions of opinion about the distinction between science and matauranga Maori may result in their expulsion.
- An eminent scientist, Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, has written a letter to the society, too. The letter is included in an article headed “Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class”
- The issue was critically aired in The Spectator in a column by associate editor Toby Young headed Why punish a scientist for defending science?
- Newsroom has published an article which says a debate over the role of Western science in colonisation has spiralled into a disciplinary process within an academic organisation, leading to claims of a chilling effect on academic freedoms. The article is headed Royal Society investigation into mātauranga Māori letter sparks academic debate.
- The Daily Mail has reported developments under the heading New Zealand academic is CANCELLED for opposing plans to teach Maori creation myth in science classes: Now faces expulsion from country’s Royal Society.
- In The Times of London, Rod Liddle has written an article headed We’re screeching into a new Dark Age, and bad scientists are leading the charge. He says New Zealand is providing him with more evidence that what he calls the De-Enlightenment is upon us.
I can’t read the whole Times article as it’s paywalled, but the article above gives some quotes from Liddle:
The argument — facile beyond comprehension — is that science has been used by white, western, developed nations to underpin colonialism and is therefore tainted by its association with white supremacy. As Dawkins pointed out, science is not “white”. (The assumption that it is is surely racist.) Nor is it imperialist. It is simply a rather beautiful tool for discerning the truth.
It is not just New Zealand. Science is under attack in America and indeed here. Rochelle Gutierrez, an Illinois professor, has argued that algebra and trigonometry perpetuate white power and that maths is, effectively, racist.
Oxford University has announced that it intends to “decolonise” maths: “This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics.”
A lunacy has gripped our academics. They would be happy to throw out centuries of learning and brilliance for the sake of being temporarily right-on, and thus signalling their admirable piety to a young, approving audience.
It is an indulgence that, with every fatuous genuflection towards political correctness, is dragging us all backwards.
Well, we don’t see much of this stuff in the U.S. (I didn’t teach Native American creation stories in my evolution class), but, in their haste to make nice with the original colonists of New Zealand, its government and academics are risking not only looking foolish, but, more important, setting back science education and scientific research in their own country.