Some correspondence and a statement from from the Royal Society of New Zealand about “ways of knowing” and cancellation

December 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

Here’s a bit more (and I’m not done yet) about the fight to teach valid science in New Zealand rather than teach valid science in science class as coequal with indigenous “ways of knowing.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand has the formal name “Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi”, with the last two words being Māori for “group of experts”. But I’ll just call it the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), for its legal name remains “Royal Society of New Zealand”). It is the Kiwi version of London’s Royal Society (abbreviated RS), and is a group of elite scholars chosen for their accomplishments.  It gives out grants, publishes its own journal, holds meetings, promotes science and technology and, like the RS or the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, provides advice to their government. All of its activities are, by statute, limited to science and technology.

A short reprise. A while back a group of 7 scholars from the University of Auckland wrote a letter, “In defense of science”, published in a weekly NZ magazine called The Listener. You can see the letter here (read it again if you will, as it’s short). It’s largely a critique of the Kiwi initiative (fostered by the Government, by universities, and by many NZ academics) to have complete parity of teaching in science courses modern science with Māori “ways of knowing”, or mātauranga Māori (MM for short), literally “Maori knowledge”. While asserting that it was valuable to teach MM in school for cultural and historical reasons, these seven scholars (one a Māori) objected to teaching what is a gemisch of practical knowledge (sometimes gained empirically), mythology, morality, philosophy, and legend alongside modern science in science class.

Regardless of its intention to “empower” the Māori, the effect of teaching MM alongside real science would be to confuse everybody and wind up lowering the level of science in New Zealand, which has been dropping in international rankings for math, science, and reading scores for over two decades, and every academic in New Zealand knows this. (I’ll give more data on this in a future post.) Yet the RSNZ criticized the seven signers of the letter and, supposedly after a complaint, began investigating the two living members, Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, a Māori (another signer has died).  This investigation that could result in these two distinguished members being booted out of the RSNZ—just for exercising free speech!

Here’s the statement issued in July by the RSNZ (click on screenshot to see it in situ:

I found the statement ridiculous, coming from an institution with the mission of promoting science. It explicitly argues that MM is a “valid truth” (wrong: for one thing, it’s creationist in its view of life and the universe), but also criticizes the seven people, including three RSNZ members, who signed the Listener letter. This is a chilling of free speech; there should be no such public pronouncement by the RSNZ touting MM as “valid truth”, much less demonizing three of its members publicly.

I objected in an email to the Director of Advice and Practice of  RSNZ, which is below:

From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Saturday, 4 December 2021 7:36 am
To: Roger Ridley
Subject: Booting signatories out of the Royal Society

Dear Dr. Ridley,

I understand from the news that New Zealand’s Royal Society is considering expelling two scientists for signing a letter objecting to teaching “indigenous” science alongside and coequal with modern science.  As a biologist who has done research for a lifetime and also spent time with biologists in New Zealand, I find this possibility deeply distressing.

The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.

I presume you know that the Maori way of knowing includes creationism: the kind of creationism that fundamentalist Christians espouse in the U.S. based on a literalistic reading of the Bible. Both American and Maori creationism are dead wrong—refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, and so on. That your society would expel members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like, is shameful.

I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

Richard Dawkins also wrote to Roger Ridley, and you can see Richard’s letter here. I suspect he will get a very long response, for Dawkins’s email and his letter to “New Zealand friends of science and reason“, also published in The Listener, carry a lot of weight!  In response to the barrage of letters, articles, and newspaper articles about the RSNZ’s “investigation,” its chief executive, Paul Atkins, issued a weaselly statement saying the RSNZ was supporting both science and MM and was launching a new program “to deepen understanding of mātauranga”

[The RSNZ will launch] ‘Mātauranga Māori and its Interface with Science’, to be run through our expert advice function, co-led by Professor Rangi Matamua FRSNZ, School of Māori Knowledge Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, Massey University. The aim will be to further explore and deepen the Society’s, its members’ and hapori communities’ understanding of mātauranga and its relevance to science and vice versa. The work will seek input from a wide range of experts, networks and perspectives.

I suspect this is a put-up job which will tout all ways of knowing as coequal. I deeply doubt whether the RSNZ will say flatly that “MM is not, as a whole, science” and shouldn’t be taught as coequal to science, even though several Māori academics have said just that! But we shall see. Will they ask Drs. Nola and Cooper to speak, and even Richard Dawkins?

This morning I finally got a response from Ridley, below (I’ve redacted email addresses):

From: Roger Ridley
Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 2021 9:03 PM
To: Jerry Coyne
Subject: RE: Booting signatories out of the Royal Society

Dear Professor Coyne

Thank you for taking the time to write with your email and views, and apologies for the delay in replying – we have received a lot of traffic on this issue as I’m sure you will know. Please be assured that the Society supports the principles of freedom of speech.  For clarity, the Society itself has not brought any complaints against the authors of the Listener letter.  However, as a professional body, we have a complaints procedure that we are obliged to follow when we receive complaints about a member from another member or a member of the public. That process needs to run its course. Media speculation about the outcome, which could include setting the complaints aside, are completely premature.

On the question of the content of the letter that sparked reaction from various quarters, the Society’s view is that that the current situation is unhelpful to constructive dialogue, and we are therefore putting in place a work program intended to bring the discussion back onto a more helpful footing.

Best wishes for the festive season

Dr Roger Ridley
Mātanga Rangahau | Director Expert Advice and Practice
Royal Society Te Apārangi
11 Turnbull Street, Thorndon, Wellington 6011
PO Box 598, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

I’ve heard from one other reader who got a similar but shorter response; Ridley is not just sending out boilerplate responses, which is good.

However, his letter is still weaselly, and the reason why is detailed in the email I just sent him, which I’ve put below.

Dear Dr. Ridley,

Thanks very much for answering my email and clarifying that the RSNZ hasn’t itself brought any complaints against Dr. Nola and Cooper. But I don’t understand why your “complaints procedure” involves more than a very quick appraisal of the Listener letter and whatever “complaint” it produced.  Your members were exercising free speech in a magazine, and for that reason alone the complaint should be quickly dismissed. There is nothing difficult about this decision.

What bothers me more is that the RSNZ did indeed issue a public complaint about the letter, and implicitly about its signatories.  As you may recall, this is what that statement, signed by the then-President of the RSNZ as well as by the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee, said:

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

If you consider that the “current situation is unhelpful to constructive dialogue”, then your own Society, and the statement above, is largely to blame. This investigation should “run its course” in about one day, and then you should apologize to Drs. Nola and and Cooper (as well as the other four living signers), and issue a public statement that they were exercising their free speech by voicing their opinion in a magazine.

The RSNZ, by trying to somehow harmonize modern science with mātauranga Māori, is not only engaged in a futile task, but also practicing a kind of social engineering with the aim of empowering an indigenous people. This kind of well-meant attempt to reconcile two incompatible “ways of knowing”— and to teach them in science class as both “valid truths”—will result only in a further decline in the quality of science and math education in New Zealand, which as you know has been dropping for over two decades in comparison with other countries.

I urge your Society to act sensibly and stop asserting that mātauranga Māori is a “valid truth”. Some of that endeavor does convey practical truths, but a lot of it doesn’t, comprising as it does mythology and legend.  Defending mātauranga Māori is not the same thing as defending science.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago

If you want to write Ridley, email me and I’ll give you his email address.

21 thoughts on “Some correspondence and a statement from from the Royal Society of New Zealand about “ways of knowing” and cancellation

  1. You have to remember that the NZ Royal Society has accepted the ‘truth’ that ‘White Mans Knowledge’ (aka Science) is mentally, physically and spiritually incompatible with the NZ-IPOC (aka Maori) and therefore they should reject it.

    The real joke is that the view above is nothing more than a restatement of the 19th Century ‘idea’ that Non-Whites lacked the mental and physical stamina needed to do well in the sciences and therefore they should be discouraged from taking them up.

  2. Dr. Ridley responded to my letter, both of which I include in this comment. You’ll not the similarity of his response to the one he sent Jerry, essentially saying that he needs to follow their protocols for dealing with complaints.

    My original:

    “Dear Sir.

    As a former professor of geological sciences, I’m astonished at the move in New Zealand to force the teaching of Maori myth as science. I’m especially amazed that the Royal Society is seriously contemplating the removal of two scientists for being signatories to a letter objecting to such teachings. These scientists did exactly what they must do—defend reason and truth from the forced teaching of myth and falsehood.

    Scientists around the world are saddened by this turn of events and fearful that the teaching of myth as science will not only disadvantage New Zealand’s students—by forcing them to accept nonsense as truth—but will also erode confidence in the methods and results of legitimate science as well.

    Sir, science needs you to stand up for these Royal Society members who so bravely defend reason and truth. The Royal Society owes them not condemnation, but thanks.


    Dr. Ridley’s response:

    “Dear Norman

    Thank you for your email and views. Please be assured that the Society supports the principles of freedom of speech. For clarity, the Society itself has not brought any complaints against the authors of the Listener letter. However, as a professional body, we have a complaints procedure that we are obliged to follow when we receive complaints about a member from another member or a member of the public. That process needs to run its course.

    Best wishes for the festive season

    Ngā mihi

  3. I had also written a letter (although I am small potatoes), emphasizing that much of MM is not science since it would not hold up to hypothesis testing and revision. Today I also received a reply from Dr. Ridley, although I only got two lines. There is nothing there that bears repeating other than that they are developing a work programme to get the debate onto a more helpful track.

  4. Here’s a bit more (and I’m not done yet) …

    No worries, boss. We all suffer occasional bouts with idées fixes. 🙂

  5. Although I emailed the new Chief Executive of RSNZ, my reply came from Roger Ridley and is similar to others received by WEIT readers:

    Kia ora Jeremy

    My apologies for the tardiness in the Society’s response. As you might imagine we have been handling significant volumes of correspondence.

    I acknowledge there has been considerable debate and reaction following publication of the Listener letter four months ago, inlcuding [SIC] from several organisations and also on social media. The Society is working on moving the discussion to a more helpful dialogue on the important issues raised. In the meantime I can assure you that the Society remains committed to Science, as any persual of our website will show.

    Kind regards
    Ngā mihi

    Dr Roger Ridley
    Mātanga Rangahau | Director Expert Advice and Practice

  6. I think the point Dr Ridley makes about the complaints procedure is fair. They have a process that they must go through.

    To anybody with a passing understanding of science, it is obvious that the complaint is spurious, but there are many people who do not think that this is the case – including, obviously, the complainant. If the RSNZ do what you want and dismiss the complaint out of hand (I agree that is all it deserves), all the people who support the complaint will level charges of whitewashing and lack of transparency. There may even be law suits. They have to do things according to their rules.

    1. The Royal Society should triage complaints, dismissing some in 10 minutes. My university fails to triage complaints, so that I have had to incur legal costs when religious fanatics have complained. The laws protecting free speech and academic freedom are useless in practice because of legal costs.

  7. I wrote to the NZRS, asking for advice on integrating Matauranga Salish into the curricula of Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Paleontology, and Genetics here in the Pacific NW. Alas, I received no reply and thus no guidance on this project from NZ. In the meantime, I notice a related issue which straddles two WEIT threads. Nobel Prizes have been awarded to three NZ natives (Alan MacDiarmid, Chemistry, 2000; Maurice Wilkins, Physiology or Medicine, 1962; Ernest Rutherford*, Chemistry, 1908) but not one of them is Maori. If somebody sends a protest about this to the NZRS, perhaps it will follow its
    normal procedure for dealing with complaints, by appointing a committee etc. etc.

    Similarly, I don’t think the 383 USA and 25 Canada Nobelists have included any native American or First Nations members. We can presumably look forward to breathless articles about this systemic intersectional bias; and perhaps anonymous complaints about it can be directed to the numerous Anonymous Bias Reporting Tools that North American universities have so thoughtfully set up.

  8. My understanding is that the RSNZ now covers the humanities as well as the sciences following the passing of the “Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Act 2012”

    From the introduction the the original Bill:

    “In November 2008, the Council of the Society resolved that there was a need to expand the object and functions of the Society to include the humanities. That decision was based on a desire to integrate the structure and function of research in New Zealand, and recognition of the need to build on and integrate the complementary knowledge provided by different disciplines. The humanities share the evidence-based approaches of the sciences.”

  9. To paraphrase an old truism, you are entitled to your own connotation. However, you are not entitled to your own denotation.

  10. The situation is a no-win one for the NZ Society, which they surely realize by now. I have no sympathy for them, they surely should have seen this coming.

    1. And per Andrew S at #9 above, should have recognised the threat when :

      [Andrew S’s] understanding is that the RSNZ now covers the humanities as well as the sciences following the passing of the “Royal Society of New Zealand Amendment Act 2012”

      Well, the dire warning is taken, and any other scientific societies around the world should be extremely wary of “humanities departments bearing horses lacking dental certification”, to mix metaphors.

  11. I’m starting to think the phrase “valid truth” (as in “the recent suggestion … that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi”) is not just a redundancy, but a virtue signal and dog whistle aimed at The Diverse and Inclusive.

    A fact can be true or false, but a valid truth is a fact that’s been stroked, patted, and reassured that yes indeed, you’re just as true as any other fact don’t let those bullies make you think otherwise. Being validated is like getting a sticker saying you’ve got every right to be here. You deserve it. Park your mātauranga in the Physics Department or wherever you want.

  12. One weird thing about the Royal Society in NZ is that it not only serves as a body of distinguished scientists (like the US National Academy of Scientists), it also judges and dispenses the main government-funded basic-science research grants (in the USA, this would be the National Science Foundation).

    The weaknesses of this approach become evident in the present controversy! I.e. is the Royal Society a government body, having to follow those rules, or is it a private association?

    1. It sounds like a quango. The professional self-regulating bodies that issue (and revoke) licenses to practise are constituted under law — the government appoints lay members to the Boards, for example — but function at arm’s length from government. If the RSNZ was obligated by a new law to begin admitting humanities professors, then it cannot be a truly private organization like a club. If it disburses public money, it cannot be a private club…yet you can see why an organization of scientists would make better funding decisions than governments trying to be politically fashionable. If the bylaws of the society, or provincial law in the case of our regulator here in Ontario, stipulate that the Society must investigate all complaints made against its members, then it must do so. If it refused or dismissed the complaint without good-faith investigation the government would have to dissolve the Society.

  13. If the complaint is anything like the typical example of the genre, it’ll be full of hyperbolic accusations verging on malicious lies. They’ll be accused of every -ism and -phobia the accusers can twist some quote into, even possibly something illegal. To see a public case for proof, take a look at the hatchet-job which was done against Pinker a little while ago. No administrator can simply set it aside, the charges would be too serious to do so. The accused will need to formally defend against every single item, to have it on record that the complaint is unfounded. Dr. Ridley can’t just immediately toss the complaint, even if he wanted to do so.

  14. Until recently, MM stood for Mongrel Mob (one of our biggest criminal gangs) in New Zealand. It sounds like the new version of MM, via the RSNZ, is using gang tactics itself. Stand over tactics, fear of loss of funding etc.

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