For a while now I’ve been discussing the row in New Zealand about whether indigenous “ways of knowing”, Mātauranga Māori (“MM” for short), should be given equal treatment in the science classroom to modern science. The short answer for those with any neurons is “no”. While MM does comprise some “practical knowledge” like how and when to pick berries or catch eels, it also comprises a mélange of legend, superstition, moral dicta, and palpably false empirical claims (one being that Polynesians discovered Antarctica, another being divine creationism as the source of life). As a whole, MM should be taught in New Zealand as part of local history and sociology, but not as science.
That was the position of seven University of Auckland professors who wrote a letter to the magazine The Listener pointing this conflict out (for relevant links, go here). They did not impugn MM as a subject worthy of teaching, but did say that it shouldn’t be taught as co-equal to science in school—a movement pushed by NZ’s woke government and academic authorities. The seven signers—or “Satanic Seven”—were demonized, though they had lots of silent support (to criticize MM as science is decidedly unfashionable, since it’s seen as an attack on the indigenous Māori.
Two of the seven professors, philosopher Robert Nola and biochemist Garth Cooper, were further demonized by being singled out for investigation as members of the prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ). They were accused by two people of writing a letter that violated the Society’s regulations (see this link for a fuller epxlanation). The complaints didn’t go very far: the RSNZ convened a committee to study the two sets of complaints, and then concluded that the complaints, all involving bad or unethical behavior, as well as harm to people (i.e., Māori) were not worthy of further investigation. Cooper and Nola were thus vindicated, though, in a last slap at them because of the trouble they caused, the RSNZ removed this sentence from their final report (it was in an earlier version):
The Panel considered there was no evidence that the Fellows [Nola and Cooper] acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.
Removing that sentence was just a nasty piece of work. And now, after. being vindicated, both Nola and Cooper have resigned from the RSNZ, as recounted in this article in Point of Order. Click on screenshot.
I had a feeling resignation was in the air, but haven’t been formally informed by either man, though I’ve asked them for statements (stay tuned).
I think they did the right thing. There was no point in staying on to change the RSNZ “from the inside,” as the institution has shown itself refractory to change, as well as ignorant and vindictive. And the pair have already gotten their honor of being elected; there is no additional honor accrued by staying on. Why would they want to remain members of a society that issued this statement about the Listener letter that Cooper and Nola signed?:
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.
These are people who don’t know what science is, but they’re woke enough to defend superstition when it’s unscientific but purveyed by a local minority. In other words, theyre cowardly and ignorant.
I won’t go on except to give a few quotes from the Point of Order piece. The second is self-aggrandizing.
Two distinguished scientists – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
. . .The resignations of the two luminaries follow the society’s decision – announced last week – not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as Fellows of the Society for being among seven University of Auckland professors who signed a letter to the New Zealand Listener headed ‘In defence of science’ in July last year.
The self-aggrandizing bit:
The society’s decision not to proceed has spared it the prospect of being criticised – if not mocked – by scientists around the world.
Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, pointed out that mātauranga Māori contained strong elements of Creationism (“refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, and biogeography”) and that “expelling members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like is shameful”.
He concluded his letter to the society by advising:
“I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughing stock.”
But they don’t mention that a much bigger fish, Richard Dawkins, wrote letters to both the RSNZ and The Listener defending science against MM, and Richard has a big microphone. Also, there are rumors that I can’t confirm that the BIG Royal Society, the one in London, wrote to the RSNZ chewing them out for investigating Nola and Cooper. That would have shaken up the people in Wellington!
And so all’s well that ends well:
In the upshot, there have been no expulsions – but the professors have decided they no longer want to remain members and fellows of this society.
But it’s not that simple. The RSNZ, made to look like fools, have been suitably chastened, and Nola and Cooper have been exculpated. But the battle for the hegemony of MM continues and shows no sign of abating. All over New Zealand, science students should prepare themselves for a dire watering down of the curriculum.
14 thoughts on “Nola and Cooper resign from New Zealand’s Royal Society after being exculpated for criticizing indigenous “ways of knowing” as “science””
Here’s hoping that as policy goes from national down to local administrations down to school and uni classrooms, the dilution itself gets diluted.
Though that in itself is a bad outcome and a shame. It’d be so much better just to treat MM as part of Maori culture and history, and give students a solid grounding in it that way, vs. it becomes the unit in science class that induces student eye rolls and facepalms.
I would hope that THE Royal Society might make those two professors FRS’s (as Commonwealth citizens they are perfectly entitled to be Fellows)……
I have some mixed feelings about the resignations. In some ways I understand and if other NZRS members (a large enough number) resign in support then it makes sense. On the other hand being on the inside, and being visible to the NZRS administration and being thorns also make sense.
+1. I can’t blame them for not wanting to stay, but am conflicted about whether leaving was the best way of effecting change.
I’ve wondered about this strategy before, in different circumstances. My experience (in a different context) is that trying to make changes from the inside rarely works when set against the inertia of the status quo. Plus the organisation can choose to ‘assume’ that no change is necessary when nobody leaves.
If you are a ‘consumer’ of services with little impact on what is delivered then the situation is clearer. Leave, or cancel your subscription. Over the long term these commercial consequences stand the best chance of effecting change. There are no guarantees, and it will probably take a long time, but at least you are saving money to spend on something more worthwhile.
As the MM as science push continues, I suspect that a majority of students themselves will not accept a watering down of instruction. I think we’ll see a refreshing refusal to accept superstition as science. After all, the students aren’t dummies.
I agree with rom above. I think resignations like these are a bad thing. We need people who are willing to push back in positions within the institutions that are being captured by the current Woke onslaught. They give courage and support to others who feel as they do but are, at current, too afraid to speak up. They also can change things from the inside, if they first build up enough of a network and power.
Institutional capture will continue until people within those institutions push back successfully; while we can hope for outside support (e.g. government intervening when legal rights are being abrogated, as in the US with public universities and free speech), it’s the people inside who have the most likely chance of any success. This nonsense will continue unabated, , with increasingly disastrous consequences, until there’s a sufficient number of insiders willing to act. As one of my favorite bloggers recently noted, one of the best strategies for opposing this capture is a “Fabian strategy”: bide your time, build up connections and future support, and strategically choose battles in which the Woke people will disgrace themselves in front of the public.
Resignations will only take possible fighters off the field of battle for these institutions.
Admonitions that begin with “We need someone else to . . .” are just virtue signalling. The heavy lifting is being asked of others to provide a benefit to the person calling for the sacrifice. I no longer listen to any “We need . . .” utterance, since I no longer have a boss that tells me what to do, using this construction to make me see her needs as mine. If someone says, “I will . . .”, then I’m all ears. I might even lend a hand.
The two scientists are older men, and one other has died. If they decide the politics of the Royal Society that tried to ostracize them are no longer worth the candle and they would rather enjoy life with family, or gardening, or doing their science and teaching in peace, more power to them.
Resignations are a signal that they have given up .
They should have stayed and pushed for extensive discussions.
All the parties involved , being in academia are not completely ignorant about the drawbacks of their positions.
Surely a more intelligent outcome could have resulted from this issue .
This way the other side is not being heard .
This is tragic.
Giving up is not always irrational or dishonorable.
Steven Pinker was unimpressed with the treatment of the “Satanic Seven” too, of course – not least the RSNZ’s tardy response to the death of his former teacher Michael Corballis: https://www.nzcpr.com/a-professor-without-honour-in-his-own-country/
The Society does have an obituary of Corballis on its website now, albeit merely a reproduction of the one produced by the University of Auckland.
As chance would have it, the RSNZ, or Ngā Ahurei hou a Te Apārangi as it seems to be called now, has just announced the appointment of 23 new fellows “for their distinction in research and advancement of mātauranga Māori, humanities, technology and science”, science coming last in the list:
The Society has not been exclusively focussed on science for some years, and this is reflected in the interests of the new fellows, one of whom, for example, is “the foremost scholar of New Zealand arbitration law”. I don’t in the least blame the two professors for resigning. They have been shamefully treated by the Society, and I would judge that there is essentially no chance of reforming it from within.
The Wikipedia page for Garth Cooper is interesting.
This was from the English version of Wikipedia, so why use a Maori term for “European”, especially when the article on Pākehā makes it clear the terms aren’t synonymous.
The seven original scientific worthies should each be given a medal for holding the line against superstition, while those other ‘academics’ who lined up behind Siouxsie Wiles should be cited for gross cowardice and stripped of their credentials.