I seem to be spending a lot of time reading about Mātauranga Māori (the indigenous “way of knowing” of the Māori of New Zealand, henceforth called MM), for there’s a battle over whether it’s to be considered “coequal to science” in New Zealand science classes, and whether MM should be taught with as much intensity, truth value, and classroom time as “modern science”— which is simply what we call “science”. Yesterday I did a two-hour video podcast with a New Zealander on the subject, and it should be posted soon.
In the meantime, I’m looking for specific claims about MM and how it can tell us stuff that modern science can’t, or can somehow supplement modern science.
If you try to run down the claims of the “science” in MM, it invariably comes down to one of three examples.
First, Polynesians learned to navigate by the stars and other signs (this is a form of cultural selection, as those who couldn’t do it didn’t survive), which is indeed a form of knowledge, but doesn’t deserve as much classroom time as, say, the theory and mechanisms of biological evolution.
Second, the Māori teach us proper stewardship of the land. This claim is at best dubious given their historical destruction of the land and its fauna), as well as the value of scientific conservationists, who are using modern methods, for example, to save the kakapo: the world’s only flightless parrot.
Third, we have the recurrent claim that the Māori idea of a water demon in a river taught people that when the demon twitched its tail, the river would overflow, supposedly prompting road builders to circumvent the stream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the water-demon claim adumbrated as exemplifying the true value of MM. But hydrodynamics, which is what the builders really relied on, tells you much more than mythological tales or metaphors about where to put your roads. If MM is so valuable, why do its advocate always go back to the “water demon example”?
The same goes for medicine. Many Māori practice traditional medicine, often involving medicinal plants but also prayer and the numinous. Does it work? It could in practice, because, after all, we’ve gotten clues to modern medicines from observing indigenous practices. The ingestion of cinchona bark, which contains quinine, was a folk remedy for malaria, and 25% of modern pharmceuticals are said to have been derived from plants. But finding out what about the bark was the active substance, and how well it worked, required more than indigenous knowledge.
These examples can constitute knowledge gained from experience, but the gold standard for testing drugs these days is not a trial-and-error process, but the vastly more efficient method of double-blind testing. Below is a paper from Frontiers in Immunology that’s been represented to me as an example of how MM can help science find new drugs. Sadly, the paper doesn’t even come close to doing that. Click on the screenshot to read; you can download a pdf there, too.
I’m not going to go through it. It simply describes how the Māori suffer excessively from type 2 diabetes (this is largely blamed on colonialism, which apparently gave them no healthy sources of food), and that there are traditional plants that they ingest to relieve the symptoms and damage of the condition. They then list all the possible plants, describe the chemicals in them, and say which ones might improve diabetes because rat studies have shown them to effect the insulin/glucose storage pathways. (Many of the plants lack even that minimal evidence.)
What is lacking in the study is this:
a.) Any evidence that these remedies actually work (there are, of course, no double blind studies). The whole paper is full of statements like, “Traditional reports describe compound X as having good effect for diabetes” and “Māori practitioners are known to use the leaves of Y to help alleviate symptoms.” This is assertion based on tradition, not evidence, though it could be evidence were the plants or their extracts tested under proper clinical conditions.
b.) Any evidence that the chemicals in the long list of plants help alleviate diabetes in humans.
c.) Any evidence that the plant “medicines” are better than the drugs currently used to treat type 2 diabetes.
In other words, the studies show a lot of “this is possible” and “that is possible” but give no substantive evidence for the efficacy of the Māori treatment for diabetes. This lack of evidence for efficacy is of course not unique to Māori medicine, but is characteristic of much “alternative” medicine throughout the world, as well as other traditional cures like reiki, faith-healing, and so on. In fact, faith is an integral part of Māori medicine, as the authors note (my emphasis)
Given the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealand indigenous flora, it is likely that new anti-diabetic treatments will be discovered from these sources. [JAC: I am not sure this is at all true. There may be more efficacious plants elsewhere in the world!] The plant vegetation foods, seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits that formed the basis of traditional Māori diet and rongoā would seem worthwhile targets in a systematic search for anti-diabetic agents. It is also important to understand that Māori believe the beneficial effects of rākau rongoā are not due to the plant alone, but are more importantly due to other traditional influences such as faith in Te Atua God, personal mauri (connection) with Papatūānuku (mother earth), a good sense of oneself as Māori, and a good sense of whakapapa (family history). In Māori communities, natural health and traditional medicinal practices are increasingly widely supported (Williams, 2001).
This means that Māori culture plays some ineffable role in the cures. And the need for “faith” to make the medicine works is a blatant way of insulating the potential treatments from falsification.
One such statement:
There has been growing recognition that “health” is more than an individualistic, biomedical concept; health is also determined by social circumstances and contexts (Lines et al., 2019). These social determinants of health involve the conditions under which people live and work, and include diverse factors such as language, culture, and identity. Indigenous culture is a dynamic and adaptive system of meaning that is learned, shared, and transmitted from one generation to the next and is reflected in the values, norms, practices, symbols, ways of life, and other social interactions of a given culture (Kreuter and McClure, 2004). Relationships, interconnectivity, and community are fundamental to these dynamics (Lines et al., 2019).
Language and identity? But wait; there’s more:
For Māori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, there is an intrinsic connection between the health of the people and the health of their land (McGowan, 2017). Māori developed mātauranga of their whenua over centuries, which was passed down from their ancestors who originated from Hawaiiki (Smith, 1898). As such, mātauranga Māori is about connection to Papatūānuku or whenua land (McGowan, 2017). Once those connections are broken, mātauranga Māori becomes less of a living knowledge. A disconnection of mātauranga Māori commonly occurs when it is taken out of context in which it originated.
That makes no sense at all to me.
So we see how MM can be rendered immune to falsification, which is a way to say that it’s “not science”. Anything that can’t be falsified shouldn’t be taught in science class.
Futher, you can say, as advocates of paranormal stuff like ESP often do, that “it won’t work if taken out of context”. An example (don’t ask me to translate). Emphasis is mine:
Many Māori support the use of animal testing to understand the effects of rongoā at the physiological and molecular level, if that knowledge is unknown. Many Māori support animal testing of rākau rongoā if the research is conducted under the guidance and protection of a Māori kaumatua (elder), kairongoā (rongoā Māori practitioner), and Māori kairangahau (researcher). As mentioned earlier, Māori have strong interests in kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga, and support animal testing of rākau rongoā if it is preserved and governed under their guidance.
Māori view the intake of rongoā by animals as a very natural process, which can help guide laboratory research if conducted in a culturally humane and safe environment for the animal and rākau rongoā under investigation. Furthermore, it is important that a karakia (prayer) is given by a Māori kaumatua before the research commences and ends, including when the animal is euthanized humanely.
The requirement that you must have specific Māori elders around to do the research properly, and to recite a specific prayer, is another way of immunizing this kind of MM against falsification.
Finally, the authors disparage modern medicine simply because it’s “colonial”. I found the statement below amusing—but also infuriating (remember, this is a peer-reviewed paper in an immunology journal):
Mainstream health systems are constantly charging Māori to validate the efficacy of their rongoā Māori practice based on mainstream health systems, without recognizing that Māori have their own body of knowledge and practice systems based on mātauranga Māori and tikanga Māori (traditional kaupapa Māori protocol) (Koia, 2016). This is viewed as institutional racism and Crown inaction on health equity in New Zealand (Came et al., 2019). Furthermore, this also supports historical practices of colonization and forced assimilation enacted by the Crown as profoundly racist (Smith, 2012). Furthermore, colonial policies informed by superior Pākehā people, institutions, and systems, have allowed entitlement of Pākehā to resources and power, including those related to traditional rongoā Māori practices. As such, the New Zealand Crown are thought to be in breach of Treaty of Waitangi obligations in terms of inequity between mainstream health systems and traditional rongoā Māori healing practices.
In other words, “We don’t need no stinking tests because that’s just racist colonialism.”
As I said, there may be value in investigating “traditional” plants used in indigenous treatment of diabetes. But you can’t just assert that or say “traditionally, plant X has been used and seen to be helpful.” Further, new remedies have to be at least as useful (taking into account side effects) as the ones already in use. There may be no plant as effective as insulin in some severe cases of type 2 diabetes. I find it ironic that the authors note this at the end of their paper:
Based on traditional reports and knowledge, karamu, kūmarahou, and kawakawa each display anti-diabetic potential. Remarkably, no molecular or biomedical research has been conducted to confirm the anti-diabetic efficacy of these rākau rongoā and to understand the mechanisms by which these effects are achieved. Although early phytochemical studies confirm known constituents, research is yet to be performed to validate anti-diabetic agents of the given rākau rongoā. 2D cell culture and animal model systems provide ways to study the effectiveness of anti-diabetic agents sourced from rākau rongoā.
Translation: those plants have chemicals in them, but we’re not sure whether they work.
That’s an admission that they have no idea whether any of the plants they suggest are of even potential value (the “potential” here is defined very thinly). Finally, the efficacy of the plants is said to defend on the need for a specific Māori harvesting protocol that comes close to religious practice (my emphasis):
The preparation of rongoā from these should be performed following certain principles and Figure 2 illustrates a kaupapa Māori molecular research scheme to undertake pre-clinical and clinical studies to test efficacy of karamu, kūmarahou, and kawakawa rākau rongoā in T2DM “mate huka.” Harvesting and aqueous extraction of rākau rongoā ought to be performed under the direction of a kairongoā or Māori kaumātua. In line with traditional Māori protocol, karakia is essential to acknowledge and thank the gift of Tane Mahuta prior to harvesting any rākau rongoā plant material. Harvesting rākau rongoā involves considering the needs of others, ensuring sustainability in the forest, being gentle with footprints in the forest, harvesting the eastside of the plant by hand, never harvest in the rain and to harvest leaves during growing season (Kerridge, 2014
The east side of the plant? Harvesting during the growing season alone? I can think of reasons why one might do the opposite—and at least you should try a variety of protocols, like harvesting on the west side of the plant!
I found little of value in this paper, but was astounded to see how infused the medicine is with prayer, proper Māori elders, and unjustified harvesting practices, as well as having some unspecified but necessary connection to the land. There are ways to do double-blind tests on the plants even without a clinical study, but none of that has been done in this case.
I will continue to read defenses of MM as being scientific or supplementing science, but I tell you, it’s a mental beating. And imagine what’s in store for New Zealand medical schools if MM is required to be taught, as it may well be, as an alternative and equally valuable way of treating disease or injury!