Let’s go back for a tick to the fracas in New Zealand over the government’s plan to teach Mātauranga Māori (henceforth MM) or Māori “ways of knowing”, as co-equivalent to modern science in public school science classes. Universities are following the schools’ lead, and touting MM as an almost untouchable but diverse collection of practical knowledge, myth, theology, and morality. It’s more a “way of living” than a way of knowing, but it can’t be denied that there are bits of empirical truth in it.
I’ve posted about MM at length, and in my view it should be taught as part of New Zealand’s cultural heritage, and perhaps some bits of practical knowledge can be inserted into science classes; but the system as a whole does not compare with modern science as a subject that should be taught to students (for one thing, it is a creationist theory). If you try to figure out what the “scientific” parts of MM are, they all turn out to be “practical knowledge”: ways of catching and harvesting food, or navigating, all derived from trial-and-error experience.
Its advocates always go back to these things as proof that MM is “science”, but the scientific parts of MM have ground to a halt. That’s because, unlike modern science, MM is not a toolkit for producing further knowledge, but rather a set of empirical methods for living off the land that have pretty much run their course. MM cannot, and has not, produced new knowledge outside the practical realm in the way of modern science. (I haven’t even seen new knowledge in any realm deriving from it.) MM is impotent at dealing with things like particle physics, evolution, quantum theory, scientific testing of medicines and medical procedures, and the like. In other words, MM has become lore. Yes, true lore in some cases, but it’s now a fossilized bit of sociology that, while it may change in theological or moral realms, cannot change in empirical realms—except in discovering new ways of catching eels or growing crops—things that modern science is at least as good as.
I may sound harsh here, but that’s because I’ve just read an over-the-top piece by a Māori astronomer on how MM is not only science, but in some ways better than modern science. The author, Rangi Matamua, is identified in Wikipedia this way:
Rangiānehu ‘Rangi’ Mātāmua is a New Zealand indigenous studies and Māori cultural astronomy academic and was a full professor at the University of Waikato. He is Māori, of Tūhoe descent. He is the first Māori to win a Prime Minister’s Science Prize, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
As far as I can see, “Cultural Astronomy” involves identifying stars and celestial bodies that were important to earlier societies—in this case Matamua’s Māori ancestors. It doesn’t seem to involve new discoveries in astronomy, though I may be wrong. At any rate, Matamua himself, in this article from E-Tangata, a Māori website, identifies his big contribution as disseminating the names of 900 stars, 103 constellations, and a passel of Māori “star lore” taken from an older manuscript. So be it.
The occasion for Matamua writing this piece is the new official New Zealand holiday of Matariki, celebrating the appearance of the Pleiades constellation, or the beginning of the Māori New Year. This gives Matamua a chance to valorize MM. Among his assertions are these. (Bold headings are mine, his words indented and mine flush left):
MM is better than science because it involves connecting EVERYTHING. As Matamua says:
From a Māori point of view, there’s no use understanding something in science unless you go on to understand how it’s connected to everything else. A piece of knowledge can be taken out and explored on its own, but, for us, it only has real purpose and meaning when it’s all stitched together in one fabric.
Western science is wonderfully objective and driven by evidence, and it will test and test to come up with rigorous findings, but quite often that happens in isolation, and then it moves on to the next thing. Whereas for me as a Māori scientist, the key thing is the practice of knowledge in everyday life.
This implicit science dissing is wrong in two ways. First of all, everything is not really connected to everything else except only very weakly through the laws of physics. And that’s largely irrelevant. Many scientific theories, standing on their own, are extremely useful without stitching them into everything else. How does the existence of black holes, which we just discussed, fit into MM, much less everything else. Even in MM, I suspect not everything is attached to everything else.
Second, as Matamua asserts, MM deals mainly with “the practice of knowledge in everyday life.” Does he use black holes or quantum mechanics in his everyday life (perhaps he uses a GPS device??s) It’s interesting that he gives not one example of this universal connection.
There are empirical accomplishments of MM. Matamua mentions two: the navigational abilities of his Polynesian ancestors (not really Māori, who arrived in NZ in the 13th century, but let’s let that go), and their use of the configuration of the stars to figure out when to plant crops. The rest is irrelevant to “science”. I’ll quote at length:
Our knowledge systems are still so often seen as “myths and legends”, as if they’re devoid of proper science. But there is empirical science that sits at the heart of mātauranga Māori. You don’t traverse the expanse of ocean that our ancestors traversed by riding on myths and legends. You need to have your science down.
The difference is that mātauranga Māori and Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to connect that knowledge to the people.
Let’s take Matariki as the example.
Matariki is part of a very detailed stellar lunar calendar system. In the modern world, we are accustomed to 365 (and a quarter) days for a year. We travel around the sun which gives us our year and our time system, regardless of any other environmental factors. But Māori followed localised calendar systems built off the lunar calendar, which is 354 days long.
Our ancestors knew about the apparent magnitude of stars and they knew that Matariki needed to be a certain height on the horizon, while the sun is below the horizon, for it to be visible. So, they triangulated the position of the sun, the visibility of the stars, and lunar phase to tell where they were in their calendar system, and the correct lunar month. Because of the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is 11 days, over three years there was a 33-day slippage.
So, every three or so years, they’d introduce an extra month into the calendar system. It’s called intercalation, or an intercalary month, and it’s the same concept as a leap day being inserted every four years to the solar calendar. That’s how my ancestors managed their system of time. Which is very scientific.
Then, to make it all have meaning and purpose, which is essential, Māori cultural practices and even spirituality were built around this movement of time.
This meant more than just “knowing” the information — it needed to become part of their practice. So, they lived it every day. They hunted, fished, gardened, undertook every activity, by the moon, the position of the sun, the pre-dawn rising of stars. Their whole lives were orientated not just around the sky, but their environment.
Mātauranga Māori had the ability to take the scientific principle and demonstrate to people that if they followed that star, they’d arrive at a certain location. Then, to make the premise have deep meaning to the people, that star became a deity.
Or we knew that when a certain star was visible, the birds would fly in a certain direction. So that star was named after those birds, which would lead to a particular land area, which was then embedded into a ceremony so that it had a tangible connection for people.
Here we have navigation and planting again—practical knowledge guided by trial and error—as the “science” in MM. Yes, it’s practical truth, but how is this coequal with modern biology, physics, and chemistry as a way to teach science (not anthropology or sociology) in schools and universities? That would shortchange the science. The stars, birds, and ceremonies are irrelevant to science; that is anthropology.
Oh, and there’s gardening:
Mātauranga Māori is not locked in the past. It is still evolving and developing. It is a framework for our Indigenous knowledge systems, whether they are still purely traditional or whether we have incorporated other thinking and concepts and added elements of our Māoriness to them.
I think, for example, about how our ancestors were excellent gardeners. When new variations of crops like potatoes and pumpkin were introduced, they quickly adapted to those and incorporated them into their world. But they still planted them using the lunar calendar, even though they were introduced species.
But he gives no evidence that MM, or at least its practical knowledge, is “evolving and developing.” In the meantime, we have the Green Revolution, transgenic plants, and other accomplishments of modern agricultural science—which, by the way, is connected to people’s lives.
“Western” science (Matamua’s word) is impotent at importing its findings into people’s lives. I find this claim unbelievable, and do remember that Matamua is a fellow of New Zealand’s Royal Society.:
It’s a waste of time trying to argue with those people. Debating in that way just sets up the idea that mātauranga Māori and western science are adversaries. They’re not. In fact, they connect very well together. The important difference, for me, is that Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to link people with the scientific concepts in a meaningful way.
There is clear evidence, for example, that we are heating up the earth. Scientific evidence. We are emitting carbon, we are polluting. Western science is saying: “Here is the evidence.” Yet the science has failed to embed that knowledge in the everyday practices of people. If western science was all knowing and all perfect, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where we continue to destroy the only livable planet we have that exists within any manageable distance from us.
So, when it comes to these really important issues, we can’t assume that one way of knowing is superior to another.
It’s not the science that is deficient here, but humans’ lack of will. It is not the job of science, but of public policy to decide what to do with the science. To diss science for not making people accept and do something about global warming is simply a misplaced accusation. This, in fact, makes me think that Matamua doesn’t understand what modern science does.
And to claim that modern science, in contrast to MM, does not understand how to link people with the scientific concepts in a meaningful way is to make a fatuous and risible claim. How much of our lives are imbued with modern science, from transportation, to medicine, to food, and so on? Are these connections not “meaningful”? Was the saving of thousands of lives with RNA-based covid vaccines (a product, by the way, derived from the pure science that led to DNA sequencing) “not connecting people with scientific concepts in a meaningful way”?
Finally, Matamua gives himself the ultimate out.
You can’t criticize MM unless you can speak Māori. Yes, this is what he sys:
Even for me to be using English now to explain these things misses a whole level of understanding that comes when we talk about them in te reo Māori. Our reo and our practice of mātauranga Māori are such major ways of maintaining our traditional knowledge that I have to remind myself that the opinions of people who have absolutely no understanding of Māori language or customs is null and void when it comes to determining how our knowledge is defined.
I’m spending this time on Matamua’s piece only because he’s big name in MM, Maori astronomy, and is also a member of New Zealand’s Royal Society. But the words that flow from his pen don’t impress me at all.
27 thoughts on “Another weak defense of Mātauranga Māori ”
“… the opinions of people who have absolutely no understanding of Māori language or customs is null and void when it comes to determining how our knowledge is defined.”
Such an argument might be made between a Beethoven audience and a Cardi B audience – neither probably understands the other’s musical experience.
And language has a musical effect to it – recall that John McWhorter suggests a literal musical effect of language. “That’s lovely music” he sometimes remarks.
Perhaps that is what Mr. … Dr.?… Matamua is referring to – the _sound_ of the language, and perhaps the _sound_ of the discourse in the language. It probably sounds great.
… that’s not science though.
Best I can tell from Dr. Matamua’s Wikipedia page, someone mistranslated Matariki as “little eyes” instead of the “eyes of [one of their gods]”. This mistranslation apparently inspired him to search for other misunderstandings and led to his statement you quoted.
I am guessing he found some but can’t say for sure since I am not interested enough to read anymore about him.
His PhD was on Māori radio revitalizing Māori language and his masters thesis was on Māori weapons (so seems dedicated at least).
“…. quite often that happens in isolation, and then it moves on to the next thing.”
This man either knows nothing about science or is deliberately distorting it for political purposes. The essence of science is weaving together all of our observations into a self-consistent worldview. If some theory in geology contradicts physics (as it did in Darwin’s time when geology presented evidence of an earth that was much older than thermodynamics predicted based on heat loss calculations), we recognize that there is a problem and it becomes a focus of research whose goal is to resolve the contradiction and repair the rift in our worldview. Science is a cross-disciplinary tapestry that really does weave together every aspect of our knowledge about the world. And nearly every aspect of our daily lives depends on this body of knowledge, though it is too vast and deep for any one person to know all of ot it and appreciate the explanation for every nuance of our daily experience.
But the nuances are there if one wishes to know them. We can explain in detail the apparent movement of the Pleiades in the sky, what those stars really are, how big they are, how much they weigh, how old they are, how fast they are moving away from us, why they are all moving away from us (though that still has mysterious parts that need work), why the dust cloud around it is blue. We can explain the reasons for the exact shape of the spectrum of light emitted by its stars, why their colors are slightly red-shifted compared to emissions from the same elements on earth, why those elements are in the Pleiades, and why the whole complex would have been in a different part of the night sky millions of years ago. We can apply any of those answers to countless other objects in the sky and in our daily lives. The sky is blue for the same reason that the Pleiades dust cloud is blue. Everything in these explanations is connected and the explanations are not particular stories about singular objects, but real universal explanations that apply to everything across time and space. In fact it is MM that fails to make connections across disciplines or across scales or from one object to another. For them the stars in the Pleiades have no obvious connection to the sun, the glow around the Pleiades has no connection to our own sky, the precession of Mercury has no connection to the red-shift of the light coming from the Pleiades.
“…the opinions of people who have absolutely no understanding of Māori language or customs is null and void when it comes to determining how our knowledge is defined.”
That’s the same thing Muslims say about the Quran. It’s the ultimate “Get out of jail free” card when you have no other defense.
Very good comment, Lou.
Oh not this again. Pretty much every woomeister, every postmodernist, every shallow critic of science has their own flavor of this: western modern science is reductionist, while we are holistic. Therefore, we are better! […please ignore the success of that reductionism and the failure of our holistic method sitting behind the curtain…]
Prompted by this, I looked up historical deforestation in NZ. From Maori settlement (1300) to colonialism (mid 1800s), the Maori burned about 6.7 million hectares of forest. From colonialism through 2000, the European settlers burned or cut down about 8 million hectares. Leaving about 6.2 million hectares of forest left. It really doesn’t look like MM as an ideology did any better than western ideology. If you count hectares burned per year, they did better. If you count per capita supported, they probably did worse. Prior to an increased awareness of environmental policies in NZ in the 21st century, neither the native nor the western approaches to forest management were sustainable.
Maori “stewardship” of the land wasn’t great on the wildlife, either. Not if you like large flightless birds. They were quickly driven to extinction upon Maori arrival. (the Moa, early ratites I think).
on 16 May last year, Matamua featured on an Auckland Writers Festival discussion panel ‘On Science’. In earlier AWF blurb, Matamua was described as a ‘revered Maori astronomer’. I didn’t attend this meeting, which also featured the ( half-Hong Kong Chinese ) materials engineer Dr Michelle Dickinson [ google ‘Nano Girl’ ], and the former NZ science advisor Peter Gluckman, who is a proper FRS, rather than the Lysenkoist RSNZ version.
A friend of mine attended the session and reported to me later that the chair had introduced all three panellists as ‘scientists’. Apparently Gluckman responded with words to the effect that while anyone could comment on science, he ( Gluckman ) and Dickinson were the only actual scientists on the panel. This is the only public clarification in Auckland I am aware of that a PhD in Maori radio broadcasting is not the qualification to be a scientist, let alone an ‘astronomer’.
I was delayed responding to this thread for good reasons. The NZ Human Rights Commission have agreed on the merit of my complaints, and midweek filed papers on my behalf against the Auckland Writers Festival, the Auckland Arts Festival, and Auckland Council ( cultural amenities branch ) for potential anti-Asian attitudes that amount to institutionalised discrimination against Asian cultures and languages under the NZ Human Rights Act. All three entities are requested to enter mediation with me to resolve my complaints. Failing that, I can take each to a branch of the NZ court system, the Human Rights Review Tribunal, for rulings.
My complaint about the Auckland Writers Festival was that last year it changed from being a standard literary/book festival such as those in Sydney, Melbourne, Jaipur, and innumerable lit fests in N America and Europe. From 2021, the AWF avowedly also became an organisation to promote Maori language and culture, with extra use of Maori language, and potential over promotion of certain Maori eg Matamua as a ‘revered astronomer’ or celebrity Maori with no knowledge of Asian art Chelsea Winstanley ( ex-wife of Taika Waititi ) as the ‘best person in NZ to interview Ai WeiWei’.
The NZ Human Rights Commission views as a credible breach of the Human Rights Act, since Auckland in the 2018 census had 28% Asian population, 16% Pacific, and only 11% Maori, that an AUCKLAND Writers Festival has little right to declare itself willing to promote Maori language and culture everywhere in its fabric WITHOUT extending the same proportionate support to Asian cultures and languages ( and also Pacific ).
“If western science was all knowing and all perfect, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where we continue to destroy the only livable planet we have that exists within any manageable distance from us.”
Unlike religions, “western” science (i.e. just “science”) makes no claim to be either all-knowing or all-perfect – quite the opposite in fact. Scientific knowledge is always provisional and subject to revision or disproof, and the bottomless reservoir of things that we don’t know is what keeps most practicing scientists inspired and motivated to continue their work. And if the author is claiming that Matauranga Maori is a superior pathway to sustainable resource management, perhaps we could ask the nine species of moa that his ancestors found roaming New Zealand what they think about that – except that we can’t, because they’re all dead.
I find the the claim the you can’t criticize MM without speaking Maori to be the most unscientific claim of all, and just a variant of Myer’s “courtier’s reply.” Something that can be expressed in another language stands a good chance of not being universal, and reminds me of magic.
Perhaps the speakers of Maori could just discuss MM between themselves in that language, and leave real scientists to do real scientific work using the language of science. A bit harsh on real NZ scientists who are required to kowtow before this drivel, but I guess we’ll have to get along without them for a bit.
Just as one who can’t speak/understand Arabic is allegedly not qualified to hold forth on Islam or the writings of Mohammed.
… And, a person who does speak/understand Arabic and holds forth unorthodox opinions on Islam and the writings of Mohammed is a heretic who must be killed.
The true “interconnectedness” of these non-scientific belief systems is become more and more apparent.
The University of Waikato lists as “research publications” by Rangi Matamua things like talks at a high school and media articles mentioning him. E.g. link. No actual research publications in science, though, as far as I can see.
Hard to add much more beyond what is already said in these and earlier comments. I did find the calendar system to be interesting, and it conveys an intimate and unique understanding of Maori reading of the heavens. They are welcome to it. But that highly insular world view should not be a required education for everyone down there.
For those interested in Mātauranga Māori, here are some essays by enthusiasts, including Prof Mātāmua – I read just the first – that was more than enough.
The first essay takes a holistic approach based on the notion of Mauri, often translated as life-force, but defined in this essay as ‘life-supporting capacity or potential’, as evidence of the inadequacy of Western Science and the excellence of indigenous knowledge. Apparently some local bodies intend to employ Mauri ‘experts’ to assess the health of water etc.
Here’s part of a paragraph knocking science.
Furthermore, much contemporary science and engineering (applied science) is based on statistical probabilities. The assertion of the scientific truth of this knowledge system in this way is on shaky ground, as the statistical means of compliance are rarely absolute, and so repeatability and predictability are not always assured.
And the triumphant concluding paragraph.
The concept of mauri, equally important to Māori, is also an attractive force, but it provides an understanding of the relevance of the non-physical attributes of our universe that Western Science is as yet to comprehend.
Woo is me – NZ science, progressing into the Neolithic era.
Return to chamanism it is not hopefully. The Romans built buildings based on science (at least, technology), still they had priests and other inspired pick fated days of working and placate spirits. Coexistence indeed.
“You can’t criticize MM unless you can speak Māori.”
And why should speaking Maori matter? Grasping at straws, perhaps? I’d like to hear his reply when a Maori speaking scientist tears his arguments to shreds, in Maori. With a translator, of course.
When I was on my way out of Mormonism, one of the Mormon apologists’ arguments was that to judge a particular bit of their non-evidence for the Book of Mormon, one had to have twenty years’ experience as an archaeologist. When archaeologists with 20+ years experience spoke up and said their arguments were, indeed, utter BS, they responded “Okay, but to understand this stuff you have to have the Spirit of God”. When faithful Mormon archeologists replied that their arguments were BS, the debate devolved into ranting about how to know when someone *really* has the Spirit, with the apologists’ consensus being that accepting their BS arguments was prima facie evidence for that proposition.
I finally came to the realization that if *this* was the very best the church’s best and brightest could come up with, that itself was strong evidence. They had looked under every stone for me; did all the intellectual heavy lifting. They demonstrated by example, again and again, that there was no “there” there.
I’ve finally come to understand that having academic training in science is no guarantee that someone has a scientific worldview, or any clue whatever about what science really is and how it works. And (IMO) a key test is whether they can discriminate science from pseudo-science. Just as a medical diagnostic test that can with high accuracy state when one has a disease but not when one does not have that disease, is actually worthless.
What annoys me is the idea that astronomy has anything at all to do with creation myths or vague senses of “interconnectedness” so ably dissected by Lou Jost at #2.
Closer to home, a remarkably similar formulation from CBC News 17 Oct 2021. (Found it while looking for something else.)
Indigenous knowledge keepers teach others to look to the stars | CBC News
Two traditional knowledge keepers say that looking up at the stars in the night sky will help ground Indigenous people in who they are.
The piece describes a Cree “astronomer”, Wilfred Buck, (he is really an astrologist, not a qualified scientist, despite a B Ed. from University of Manitoba) working with Douglas Sinclair, an Ojibway knowledge-keeper to interpret the stars for Indigenous youth in northern Manitoba for spiritual purposes.
Direct quotation from the story continues between the lines:
“We can’t just compartmentalize and look at one little star, and talk about that little star . . . because that little star affects everything else around it and it affects us. So it’s all related,” said Buck,
Taylor Galvin, a fourth-year environmental studies student at the University of Manitoba, has been working with Buck for 10 years.
“I’ve heard many creation stories and a lot of them do start in the star world.”
“Technically scientists should be learning from us, not the other way around,” said Galvin.
“So I think our knowledge, which has been around for a lot longer, should be welcoming to science, not science being welcoming to traditional knowledge.”
Oh really. (Notice the subtlety in the use of “welcoming”. We welcome science but only in the sense of hosting it as long as it behaves itself and shows proper respect.) This poor woman. Is she going to have anything from her degree that will allow her to contribute to Env Sci or to the economy?
The author of the piece is himself an Indigenous employee of the CBC but the network clearly sees no conflict in letting him report this woo so uncritically.
The remarkable similarities between Maori and Indigenous Canadian perspectives indicate that these are universal truths that settlers are just unable to see. Either that or they e-mail one another.
Dr Matamua is not a scientist. I believe he is currently a professor of Matauranga Maori at Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, which is the Massey University School of Māori Knowledge. He is referred to as a “Maori Astronomer” because he has an interest in interest in traditional Maori astronomical teachings as collected and written down in the ethographer Elsdon Best’s interesting 1922 book “The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical”. Dr Matamua’s grandfather handed down an annotated and corrected version of a manuscript of this to his grandson, who has made a minor industry out of discussing the contents.
The context for the E-Tangata article is the first occurrence of a new public holiday Matariki on June 24. This allegedly celebrates the “Maori New Year”, as marked by the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, or Matariki. In fact this was far from universal among all Maori, and in some areas the New Year was marked by the rising of Rigel, or Puanga, and in other areas by various other methods. Overlain on this is a lunar calendar which is taken to mean that the New Year isn’t marked until the last quarter of the current lunar cycle. Dr Matamua has written a whole book on this stuff and was part of a government-appointed commission to determine the “correct” dates of Matariki for the next 50 years – see here:
I am reminded by all of this of a passage in Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilisation in China”:
“The complexity of calendars is due simply to the incommensurability of the fundamental periods on which they are based … Calendars based on [the synodic month], depending only on lunations, make the seasons unpredictable, while calendars based on [the tropical year] cannot predict the full moons, the importance of which in ages before the introduction of artificial illuminants was considerable. The whole history of calendar-making, therefore, is that of successive attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, and the numberless systems of intercalated months, and the like, are thus of minor scientific interest.”
I continue to be unexcited about cultists who mis-use the term “science”. The mere fact that those pretent-scientists keep referring to the “Western” concept of science proves that there is science and non- or other-science. They can have the latter two.
I was amused recently to see that Prince Harry flew to New Zealand to announce his new website that lets you calculate how many tons of carbon dioxide your next flight will release into the atmosphere. Why NZ? And why on a Maori TV channel? Apparently in recognition of their excellent stewardship of the land. Cue hollow laughter from the shades of all the species they hunted to extinction. They were very good at it.
Did he (they?) pay “carbon offsets”?
If you can’t criticize MM unless you can speak Maori, then you can’t understand or defend it either, so how can it be taught beyond the culture of it’s origin? Is it untranslatable?
Seems like a natural outcome of holding to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: concepts, and even individual psychology, are downstream from language/culture, so if you don’t speak the language as a native speaker, then you can’t “get” the idea.
Adding that you then have no ability to comment on it, is a recent add-on from the woke idea that only members of specific ethnic/racial/gender/etc groups have the right or even ability to comment on specific topics.
That is perfectly fine. Then statements and possibly controversies about MM can only prosper within that community, and their concept of science is unassailable, hence a-scientific and also mostly useless (to the non-Maori-speaking eye, if I can say so) . This language restriction perfects the circularity of this non-issue.
(been looking back at old articles)
I’d say one thing though, adding 33 days on at the end of the third year is cleaver regardless of anything. Then any fool would catch on that the lunar cycle is not as a solar one but after a few cycles and a bit of counting anyone good with numbers should be able to do it.