I don’t want to recount the whole story about how seven professors at Auckland University, three of them members of the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), wrote a letter to a magazine (“The Listener”) questioning whether Maori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or “MM”) should be taught along with and coequal to science, as the government is planning.
Because they questioned whether MM,, which is a collection of myths, superstition, legend, morality, some practical knowledge, and misinformation (i.e., creationism) should be taught as “science”, the “Satanic Seven” were largely demonized as racists. Two of the members (one recently died), were chastised in a tweet from the RSNZ, and then were investigated by the RSNZ because there were ludicrous complaints that their letter caused “harm”. They were eventually exculpated, but at the beginning the RSNZ put this statement on its website:
This statement criticizes the signing members by asserting that MM is science, that the modern definition of science is “outmoded” (presumably it should include creationism), and simply rejecting the assertions of their three members. This announcement is invidious, and eventually the RSNZ, after what seems to have been a complaint from London’s Royal society, took it down.
You can read more about this, and see the petition described below, at an earlier post. In the meantime, 73 fellows of the RSNZ—a substantial portion of the members—signed a petition complaining about the Society’s behavior and making three motions:
We therefore move that:
1. Both the Society and Academy write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the Estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.
2. The Society reviews its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters.
3. The entirety of the RSNZ/RSTA entity be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests.
The RSNZ responded that it would hold a special meeting on Wednesday to consider this petition. It did, but, as the notes below show, the RSNZ didn’t do squat, much less even vote on the motions.
An RSNZ member who will remain anonymous conveyed these notes to me abut the meeting. (Note: “RSTA” in the text below, which stands for “The Royal Society Te Apārangi”, is the same thing as what I’ve been calling RSNZ—”Royal Society of New Zealand”—whose full name is “Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi.” The notes taken by the member are indented, while the are mine. Note the quotes from Māori experts affirming that MM is not science!
Notes on RSTA meeting 13 April 2022
The RSTA meeting involved about 100 people on site in Wellington and over 100 people online.
The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, which means participants can report on the “information received” but not on the identity of the speakers or their affiliation. This is supposed to facilitate open discussion. Of course participants were not allowed to discuss the Rule.
The next procedural matter participants were told was that there could not be a vote on any of the motions proposed.
One of the two facilitators explained that the President of RSTA, Brent Clothier, and the Chair of Academy Council, Charlotte Macdonald, would not be answering questions since this was about “you having your say.” To many it seemed, rather, that the facilitators were there to serve the RSTA executive in damage control. In accord with this rule the President and Academy Chair did not have to answer questions, repeatedly put, about how the message they both signed, denouncing the Listener letter-writers for things they did not actually say, and kept on the RSTA website for months, was decided upon and worked out.
After the mover of the motions spoke to them at length and corporate governance was then also spoken to, there was a little discussion of the ruling that there could be no vote on any of the motions proposed. But further discussion was blocked (except for one objection) when it was reiterated by the “independent” facilitators that it was “inappropriate” to have votes today, “not possible” because the rules of the Society do not allow it. True enough: this was one of the complaints, of course, that there is almost no way Fellows can have input, either by putting items on an AGM or calling for another meeting (at least RSTA agreed to this meeting, knowing that the widely-supported request for it had already become an embarrassingly public fact) or voting on issues.
There was some discussion of mātauranga Māori and science, including one early speaker who claimed that there were racist tropes in the Listener letter [JAC: You can read the letter here.] because it claimed that “indigenous knowledge is not science” and this was like saying “indigenous art is not art.” It was not said at the meeting that it is very strange to claim that it is racist to suggest that “indigenous knowledge is not science,” in view of the fact that leading Māori advocates of mātauranga Maori, Professor Sir Mason Durie, and of the decolonisation of education and research, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, say the same thing:
“You can’t understand science through the tools of Mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand Mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up. “
Sir Mason Durie, Vision Mātauranga Rauika Māngai [2nd Ed], 2020, p. 26
“Indigenous knowledge cannot be verified by scientific criteria nor can science be adequately assessed according to the tenets of indigenous knowledge. Each is built on distinctive philosophies, methodologies and criteria.”
Durie, M. (2004) ‘Exploring the Interface between Science and Indigenous Knowledge’. 5th APEC Research and Development Leaders Forum. Capturing Value from Science.
And from the intellectual leader of the decolonisation movement, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2016):
“[S]ome aspects of IK mātauranga are fundamentally incommensurate with other, established disciplines of knowledge and in particular with science, and are a much grander and more ‘mysterious’ set of ideas, values and ways of being than science.”
Smith, L., Maxwell, Te K., Puke, H., Temara, P. (2016) ‘Indigenous Knowledge, Methodology and Mayhem: What is the Role of Methodology in Producing Indigenous Insights? A Discussion from Mātauranga Māori’. Knowledge Cultures 4(3): 131-56.)
But it was said that while it would now be racist to claim that indigenous art is not art, partly because art has fuzzy boundaries and because indigenous art contains such treasures, science has much sharper boundaries and rules, especially that anyone can propose or challenge ideas in science, and that there is no final say—positions directly at odds with the claims about mātauranga Māori by leading Māori:
“Māori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, its transmission, its protection.”
Aroha Te Pareake Mead, Rauika Māngai, A Guide to Vision Mātauranga, p. 33)
Most of the discussion of MM (and there wasn’t much) consisted of affirmations that it is valued (often as if this is an argument for its being science). No one of course argued otherwise at the meeting, and the Listener letter writers had explicitly affirmed its value, including for science, and that it should be taught—just not as science.
More of the discussion was on governance and RSTA’s engagement, or lack of it, with Fellows, and discouragement of free speech. There was certainly widespread agreement that there was insufficient engagement or space for input or discussion among Fellows.
A number of Fellows independently called for the apology to Garth Cooper, Robert Nola and Michael Corballis’s estate in motion 1 to be sent out by RSTA, and no one spoke against it. No one maintained that the RSTA acted correctly in their website denunciation or the removal of the exoneration of any suggestion of bad faith on the fellows’ part from the report of the Investigating Panel. To many, however, it seems unlikely that RSTA will take this request on board, although signed by the seventy-plus signatories of the letter to RSTA and supported again viva voce in the meeting.
On the other hand it does seem likely that the RSTA officers will have to take on board the widespread criticisms of the lack of accountability and engagement. But that seems entirely up to them and their readiness to move beyond protecting their positions. There is no concrete pressure on them except the moral pressure they may feel from the unhappiness of many about the current system.
The two “independent” facilitators will write a report to go to the RSTA executives, which they can then do what they like with it.
Those present at the meeting in person or online have also been given an email to write to, until late (5pm? midnight?) on April 14 (i.e. the day after the meeting) where they can send in written comments to the RSTA executive. [JAC: Of course I don’t have this email, and even if I did I would not publish it because it is for Fellows alone.]
So there it is: a meeting RSTA didn’t have to call (although it would have elicited still more international embarrassment had they not), but with the predetermined rule that there was to be no vote on any motion; and with wide affirmation of MM and RSTA’s support for it (whether or not as science was much less clear); and wide criticism of RSTA’s corporate structure and lack of accountability, of its poor engagement with its Fellows and discouragement of free speech; and an emphasis on the RSTA’s need to clarify its function and to shape its form to fit this function. But this criticism is at this point to be responded to entirely as they see fit by a self-policing executive.
In other words, the Royal Society of New Zealand feels no responsibility to respond to its members’ motions, or to investigate its own behavior. It can if it wants, but if it doesn’t want to—and I suspect this will be the case—it doesn’t have to. They’re likely hoping the kerfuffle will blow over. As for “meeting”, it was simply window-dressing: giving its members a chance to blow off steam.
The RSNZ has come out of this with not just egg on its face, but a massive omelet draped over its body. They were wrong to demonize and publicly disagree with their members, they were wrong in their characterization of MM as “science” (do they even know what science is?), and they were wrong to stonewall and not respond to the members’ call for apologies and structural form.
The two members who were investigated, Drs. Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, have resigned from the RSNZ. A large number of the other members are disaffected. The RSNZ won’t do the right thing because it would be considered “racist”.
The institution is ridiculous and and should be mocked.