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.
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.
Department of Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago
If you want to write Ridley, email me and I’ll give you his email address.