I’ve written many times about this big kerfuffle in New Zealand. It involves the government adhering to a misguided interpretation of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, in which the British colonists negotiated a truce with chiefs of some (but not all) Māori groups. That treaty guarantees the Māori full rights as British citizens and has other stipulations about land.
The recent trouble started when both the New Zealand government and educational authorities at all levels of schooling decided not only to teach Mātauranga Māori, (henceforth “MM”) or “Māori ways of knowing”, not just in school, which is fine, but in science classes , and as coequal with modern science. This is an untenable position both educationally and politically, for it would not only water down science education, but also degrade the already-declining educational standing of New Zealand among comparable countries.
Most important, it would confuse students as to what science really is, for MM encompasses not just “traditional knowledge”, like how to trap eels, but also a farrago of myth, unverifiable legend, superstition, morality, and theology, which include many bizarre supernatural statements. Imagine that being given equal treatment in science classes! The Māori, for example, have their own creation myths analogous to but different from those of the Bible. Are these to be given equal time in biology class?
Further, the “way of knowing” of MM is practical knowledge (yes, that’s still knowledge), but wouldn’t expose the students to the way modern scientists practice their trade.
Nobody questions whether Māori history and MM should be taught in schools. They are, after all, part of the nation’s history and sociology. But not in science class as a form of science!
A group of professors, perhaps unaware of the conflagration they’d start, made a public statement against teaching MM as science:
Seven professors at the University of Auckland signed a letter in the weekly magazine The Listener that criticized the governments’ and universities’ plans to teach the indigenous Māori “way of knowing,” mātauranga Māori, as equivalent to modern science, though the Māori “way of knowing” includes elements of the supernatural, myths, some practical knowledge, and so on. You can see the Listener letter here or here, and I’ll quote briefly from it:
A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to esure parity for with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pakeha epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”
. . . Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.
To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.
As I wrote, the letter brought down heaps of opprobrium upon the seven signers (one has since died), both from the University of Auckland and from the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), the country’s most prestigious body of science. From my post cited above:
The Royal Society itself issued a statement criticizing the professors, [JAC: that letter has vanished and been replaced by a more conciliatory one; the original version criticized the professors for mischaracterizing science and harming indigenous people] and has launched an investigation of the two remaining signatories in the Academy, Robert Nola and Garth Cooper (Cooper is at least a quarter Māori). Nola and Cooper could be booted out of the RSNZ for simply exercising free speech, which apparently is not “free” in New Zealand if it casts doubt on the truth of Māori mythology. Here’s part of the RSNZ’s statement [JAC: this was the origjnal statement, now retracted and replaced. Bolding below is mine]:
Royal Society Te Apārangi supports, fosters and recognises research within many knowledge systems.
The Society is deeply proud of the rich variety of outstanding work being undertaken across Aotearoa at present. In the past year alone, this includes Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd’s literary scholarship (winner of the 2020 Rutherford Medal), the work of Te Pūnaha Matatini on COVID-19 modelling by 2020 Te Puiaki Pūtaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Prime Minister’s Science Prize Winner (led by Professor Shaun Hendy), and the knowledge sharing of Matariki by Professor Rangi Matamua.
The Society supports all New Zealanders to explore, discover and share knowledge.
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.
Harm indeed. Far more harmful to the country and its youth to teach mythology and legend as science! The RSNZ apparently has no idea what science really is.
But the teaching of MM as science is almost a foregone conclusion for, as the Wokest of Western countries, New Zealanders worship the Treaty as almost the Bible for guiding national behavior, and nearly everything Māori has become sacred and immune to criticism. The many supporters of the “Satanic Seven,” as I called them, were forced to keep quiet, for public support of their stand could do severe professional damage to academics, as it has already. Self-censoring about MM is pervasive in New Zealand, as I’ve learned from many private emails.
This post brings an end to the Royal Society issue, though not to the MM skirmish itself. In short, 5 complaints were made to the RS about Nola and Cooper as signers of the Listener letter (Corballis was also a member, but complaints against him were dropped when he died.) The Royal Society of New Zealand, to its shame, decided to investigate two of the complaints and produced a confidential report.
In the meantime, the kerfuffle came to world attention. It was reported in the Daily Fail, and Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to the Listener supporting the views of the Satanic seven. I even heard that the Royal Society of London wrote a reproving letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand, though I can’t verify this. All this put the Royal Society of New Zealand in a bad light.
The two complaints against Cooper and Nola investigated by the RSNZ accused them of violating these principles of the RSNZ by writing their letter to the Listener:
. . . Members are obliged:
- To behave with honesty, integrity, and professionalism when undertaking their activities;
- To only claim competence commensurate with their expertise, knowledge and skills, and ensure their practices are consistent with relevant national, Māori  and international standards and codes of practice in their discipline or field;
- To undertake their activities diligently and carefully;
- To support the public interest by making the results and findings of their activities available as soon as it is appropriate to do so, by presenting those results and findings in an honest, straightforward and unbiased manner, and by being prepared to contribute their knowledge or skills to avert or lessen public crises  when it is appropriate to do so;
- In undertaking their activities, to endeavour, where practicable, to partner with those communities and mana whenua for whom there are reasonably foreseeable direct impacts, and to meet any obligations arising from the Treaty of Waitangi;
- To safeguard the health, safety, wellbeing, rights and interests of people involved in or affected during the conduct of their activities. . . .
9.) To demonstrate and encourage ethical behaviour and high professional standards amongst their colleagues;
It’s absolutely ridiculous to launch a three-month investigation of two honored members of the RSNZ on these bases. They were simply stating their opinion publicly.
I believe there were lots of complaints from other people arguing that, because the Satanic Seven weren’t experts in MM, they had no right to express an opinion about its compatibility with science. That’s palpable nonsense. You don’t have to do much investigation of the nature of MM to see that while, like all indigenous forms of “knowing”, it gives fascinating insights into belief systems not based on empirical science, it’s simply not commensurate with science as it’s practiced today.
Finally, last week the RSNZ came up with its decision: the two members of the Society who signed the letter were fully exculpated. The “confidential” summary of the investigation is below, but I got permission to publish it. That’s no longer necessary since much of it is now public.
But that didn’t stop the RSNZ from pulling a slimy move to get in one last lick against its two miscreant members. The RSNZ issued two statements, the second leaving out out a single sentence from the first. Here’s the original version, but in the final version, now published online, the sentence I put in bold has been omitted:
Royal Society Te Apārangi
Statement in relation to complaints about a letter to the New Zealand Listener
The Society received complaints against Fellows of the Society who were among seven authors of a letter to the New Zealand Listener ‘In defence of science’ _in July 2021. The complaints particularly referred to the vulnerability of Māori and early career researchers.
The Society convened an Initial Investigation Panel (Panel) to consider the complaints as set out under the Society’s complaint procedures. The Society is obliged to follow the Complaints Procedures it has adopted when it receives a complaint about a member of the Society.
The overall role of the Panel was to decide whether the complaints should proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee. The role of the Panel was not to consider the merits of the views expressed in the New Zealand Listener letter.
The Panel considered there was no evidence that the Fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.
The Panel concluded that the complaints should not proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee. The Panel referred to clause 6.4(i) of the Complaint Procedures: the complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion or of contested scientific evidence amongst researchers and scholars.”
In coming to its conclusion, the Panel noted that during the process of their investigation both the complainants and the respondents referred to a considerable number of matters that were outside the Panel’s scope, including the merits of or otherwise of the broader issues raised in the letter or elsewhere. In the Panel’s view, the matters raised are of substance and merit further constructive discussion and respectful dialogue.
The Complaints Procedures provide that such a decision by the Panel is final and cannot be appealed.
The Society notes that it has been inappropriate to publicly comment about the complaints while the matter was before the Initial Investigation Panel.
This summary is being published on the basis that it may be beneficial to other scientists, technologists, or humanities scholars, as set out in the Complaints Procedures.
Now why would they omit that sentence, which simply implies that the two accused Fellows behaved with honesty and integrity? In truth, it’s even slimier than that: it said “there was no evidence that the Fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.” It’s not a verdict of “not guilty”, but the Scottish verdict of “not proven.” But now even that sentence, which is mildly praiseworthy, is gone.
As I said, the controversy over the hegemony of MM in science continues, and if I know anything about New Zealand educational politics, MM will worm its way into science class. All the new RSNZ statement does is exculpate two scientists unfairly accused of misbehavior and harm for saying that MM, while worthy of being taught, is not coequal with modern science.
The Royal Society of New Zealand has acted despicably during this whole episode, abrogating the free speech of its members. If anything undergirds science, it’s the concept of saying what you think; and criticizing an indigenous “way of knowing” as “not compatible with modern science” is certainly within the purview of acceptable speech.
Except in New Zealand.
The only public reporting I’ve seen on this so far has been in the Kiwi magazine Stuff, in the article below (click on screenshot):
What’s new is this:
The Royal Society’s chief executive Paul Atkins earlier said the organisation was taking the controversy seriously.
“We are acutely aware of the potential for significant damage to be inflicted in multiple directions, not least to relationships and our ability to have a balanced and informed dialogue about important questions for the future of our country,” he said in a statement.
Have a look at that statement and its mandatory genuflecting towards MM. Finally, the University of Auckland promised last year to hold an impending symposium about the compatibility of MM with science, with both sides being defended. It didn’t happen:
The University of Auckland had intended to hold a Māturanga Māori and science symposium in the first three months of the year, but this has been delayed, a spokeswoman confirmed.
And I predict it won’t happen. Unless the University of Auckland stacks the deck with MM sympathizers—and it’s entirely capable of doing this—such a debate, though potentially enlightening, would be perceived as racist, and would be too inflammatory.