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.