Advocates of indigenous “ways of knowing” declare them coequal to Western agriculture, poised to ask for equal funding

May 23, 2022 • 9:15 am

Every few weeks something pops up in the news about Mātauranga Māori (henceforth  “MM”), the collection of “ways of knowing” that comprise the Māori heritage in New Zealand passed among generations. MM includes myths, superstition, legend (MM is explicitly creationist), morality, the assertion that everything in the world is meaningfully connected to everything else, but also some pieces of traditional “practical knowledge” gathered by trial and error. Only the latter is something that can be seen as part of modern science, and yet the New Zealand government, in what can only be interpreted as a well intentioned but misguided move to valorize all things indigenous, is embarking on a project to ensure that MM is inserted alongside modern science everywhere it can be.

For instance, there’s a government initiative afoot to give MM equal time with modern science in the secondary-school science classroom. This is also happening in higher education, as I’ve written about a number of times. As I’ve said a gazillion times before, the empirically true bits of MM that constitute “practical knowledge” can indeed be taught in science class, but it’s risible to see MM taught as coequal to modern science. Unlike the latter, MM hasn’t advanced much in hundreds of years, for it has no program for predicting future results and no formal program for how to test assertions.

You may remember the kerfuffle that ensued when seven University of Auckland professors published a letter in “The Listener” magazine asserting that MM, while of sociological and anthropological value as a whole, is not coequal to modern science. As that letter noted (see the full text here):

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.

For saying that, the signers got into big trouble. Over a thousand people signed a petitition objecting to the letter’s assertions and attacking its signers. One signer has since died, others have been demoted, and all have been demonized. Two of them, Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand, were investigated after there were complaints about their signing the letter. The RSNZ investigation found no transgressions, but did not apologize, and the two fellows, Robert Nola and Garth Cooper (the latter of Māori heritage) had a bellyfull and resigned their membership as fellows.

None of these objections to the “scientific” character of MM as a whole, however, will have any effect. The government of New Zealand is absolutely determined to support its indigenous people, which is fine, but to support it by declaring MM coequal to science and apparently to fund MM endeavors on an equal basis to science. That is not fine. The “coequality trope” would represent the dissolution of scientific progress in the country, but apparently it’s more important to NZ to flaunt its virtue than to close the ever-widening gap in science achievement between its students and students in similar countries. New Zealand students keep falling further behind in math and science.

Here’s a new article from the magazine “Stuff” that shows what’s in store for agriculture (click to read)

First, MM is being declared coequal to science in improving agricultural research and knowledge (my emphases):

AgResearch is putting its money where its mouth is after announcing mātauranga Māori and Western science are equal.

The crown research institute has launched its Māori Research and Partnerships Group and said it was central to the institute’s vision to have of mātauranga Māori on an equal footing with Western science.

Group director Ariana Estoras (Ngāti Uekaha, Ngāti Maniapoto) said it was huge that the kaupapa Māori group had been launched and that mātauranga Māori should be seen as adding to the toolbox to tackle the big issues for agriculturerather than something that threatens the status quo.

Estoras said the group was focused on helping Māori-led agribusinesses conduct their research in a safe space, where their mātauranga was protected and respected.

This is pretty much nonsense. The traditions of MM may well have something to add to agricultural research, but I want to see possible examples. None are given in the linked articles, only the repeated declaration that MM is not only useful for modern agricultural research, but “equal”.  None of the links in this article, or in the article before that, suggests any such thing). Note as well the intrusion of the term “safe space”, which apparently means a scientific environment in which the claims of MM cannot be challenged.

But it’s the very essence of science to be challenged, for that’s the only way progress can be made. Insulating MM from challenge is equivalent to saying, in physics, that “the many-worlds hypothesis should be protected and respected”. Such “protection” is nonsense, not science, and the last statement shows quite clearly why MM is not science. Science does not need “safe spaces” free of challenge. In fact, that’s the worst thing that one can do to science, as examples like that of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union show.

Further, the language is confused:  it seems that some MM proponents are being deliberately disingenuous over the equivalence issue. Does this mean that science and mātauranga Māori are considered equivalent in terms of generating universal, empirical knowledge, or does it mean they are equivalent in terms of “value”—or something else? Or does it mean (and this is what I suspect), science and MM should get equal “respect” and funding.

As for what MM can do to help agriculture, I can’t rule out that it could marginally enhance it. But I say “marginally” because the MM advocates never give convincing scenarios of how it could make a big difference in agricultural progress. All they can say is stuff like this (while dissing “The Letter’) that drags in “indigenous knowledge” as some kind of sacred issue:

However, some academics in Aotearoa don’t support the melding of mātauranga Māori and Western science.

Seven Auckland University professors published a letter in The Listener in July 2021 dismissing mātauranga Māori as unable to meet the standards of Western science measures. [JAC: note that the letter says not a word about “standards”, but is about the nature of science versus the nature of MM].

The letter stated indigenous knowledge “in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what can be defined as science itself,” and that “It may help … but it is not science.”

However, dismissing indigenous knowledge meant researchers miss out on a wealth of traditional information that could help solve complex problems, such as climate change, Estoras said

It’s possible that MM may help deal with the problem of climate change, but the link above gives no example or possible example. It’s always just the claim that “Indigenous knowledge can help.” I suspect that the problem of climate-caused extinction in New Zealand, however, will be solved more by conventional science-based methods of conservation, and the simple common sense of stopping habitat destruction (indigenous people in NZ, by the way are responsible for a greater per capita amount of habitat destruction than were the “colonials”).

I also suspect that these unsubstantiated claims, and the desire to create a “safe space” for a gemisch of indigenous practical knowledge, legend, and superstition is a way to leverage not only more respect for MM, but, importantly, more funding  for MM. Underlying all the claims of equivalence of MM and science may be a demand for equivalence of resources.  And that would be a disaster for New Zealand, the first country in the world that’s committing scientific suicide by virtue signaling.

32 thoughts on “Advocates of indigenous “ways of knowing” declare them coequal to Western agriculture, poised to ask for equal funding

  1. I was going to go on a big rant about how they should then test MM science if its to be co-equal. You know, develop hypotheses and do controlled experiments and the like. Let MM hypotheses and theories rise and fall based on the meritocracy of data. But clearly when they say “co-equal” they really mean dogma.

    1. Or re-name any scientific thing (apparatus, theory, fact, etc.) if it post-dates the identical discovery made by the Māori first and independently.

  2. “The first country in the world that’s committing scientific suicide by virtue signaling”.
    Get a grip NZ!

  3. Note that “Stuff” magazine always prefixes “science” with “Western”, as though it were merely the cultural construct of one group, rather than being a worldwide process to which many people from multiple cultures have contributed, and which has largely transcended culture.

  4. Perhaps they are going to copy those noble experiments of the Soviets, where one blade of grass is made to grow where previously two grew.

  5. Reading this I had flashbacks to several encounters with Rudolf Steiner’s “Biodynamic Agriculture.” Popular with new-ages types in the early 20th century, it promised a

    perspective of the farm as a single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock and the creation of a closed-loop system of fertility. Steiner also brought forth a unique and comprehensive approach to soil, plant, animal and human health that recognizes the importance of the healthy interplay of cosmic and earthly influences. With this knowledge, he developed a set of homeopathic preparations used by biodynamic farmers on soil, compost and plants that help build up the farm’s innate immune system and vital forces.

    Steiner of course claimed to be accessing ancient wisdom, but his roots were too obviously European. Maybe Matauranga Māori is like Biodynamic Agriculture. Lots of good stuff on the web.

    1. Wikipedia :

      “As of 2020, biodynamic techniques were used on 251,842 hectares in 55 countries, led by Germany, Australia and France.[10]”

      … strange stuff… blended with sensible stuff…

      I’m lost with how it can be operating in 2020. If it is pseudoscientific, and the boundary between the scientific content in the scheme is blurred – what is keeping methods that work from being usurped by naming them “biodynamic agriculture”?

      So confusing.

      1. Most pseudoscience (and religions) combine reasonable stuff with the nonsense. Sometimes the nonsense either falls away or becomes “metaphorical” — but the potential for nonsense is always there.

        1. I find it interesting how, ostensibly, biodynamic agriculture might have acted as a scaffold for extant practices – that is, “organic” produce wasn’t created ex nihilo.

          That the “new age” mindset would be associated with it / them also makes sense.

    2. Holistic thinking is not in itself woo, but it is often woo-adjacent. The notion of systems or things being interconnected is often used as a justification to reject some empirically supported observation of science, rather than being used as an hypothesis for how a system works which is then tested. Science has no problem with the latter sort of holistic thinking…but critics of science typically only use it for the former. For a set of things, they have no interest in determining whether “these things are interconnected” is accurate, they are only interested in using it as a rhetorical argument-ender.

      1. That’s a really good point. Physiology is interconnected intimately, ecology also but less obviously and totally, astrology not. (I don’t mean to imply that ecology is less scientific than physiology, just that the interconnectedness is different.) The danger with some ways of holistic thinking is that there is no way to actually learn physiology holistically. You have to be reductionist and then add in holism as you go. With astrology there is no reduction, so you go whole hog holistic from the get-go. This appeals to people who don’t care at all about mechanism, much less to test hypotheses about it.

        1. i’m not sure why you think ecology is less interconnected than physiology – the subject is surely fundamentally about the interconnectedness of populations and communities of organisms with their environment (predators, prey, competitors, climate, geology, nutrient cycles…). I do agree though that the way to understand this is not to sit back and say ‘wow it’s all connected’ but to focus in on individual components or sub-systems of the ecosystem separately to understand them and build up an understanding of the whole from its parts.

  6. The prime minister of New Zealand is the Harvard commencement speaker on Thursday. A friend of mine will be there for her son’s graduation. I will ask her to listen for any references to NZ current programs and plans in national approaches to science teaching and research. I still have to believe that much of this mishigas came about when the NZRS added the humanities into their membership about twenty years ago. Before that it was, since founded, simply a society of science as I read its history.

    1. The addition of Humanities membership to the NZRS was no doubt justified as being “progressive”.
      The assertion is that scholarship in the Humanities reflects “progress” in knowledge no less than Science. For example, in Science we are now able to manufacture mRNA vaccines, and to send vehicles to the planet Mars to explore its surface. And in the Humanities, we have Luce Irigaray’s discovery that E = mc2 is a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds”; and Judith Butler’s discovery that “insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power”, whatever that means. Clearly, Critical Gender Theory, no less than Matauranga Maori, is a way of knowing in the same league as physics and molecular biology. New Zealand can look forward to a dazzling future.

  7. … I put a great Feynman quote here,… plus a bonus….. I wasn’t aiming it personally at anyone… or trying to attack anything.., was just a deep, grand quote from Feynman about science, was all… apologies…. I guess the intent might have been taken different…

    1. This is the one I always think of with these discussions:

      Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

      If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

      The reference to a “safe space” is a huge red flag. It suggests that MM will be protected against the last part i.e. “if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong”.

  8. “[the Maori] assertion that everything in the world is meaningfully connected to everything else. . . .”

    I recently mentioned Alexander von Humboldt as an often neglected influence on Darwin. Given that, it’s hard to imagine that Darwin wasn’t aware of Humboldt’s central notion of the interconnectedness of all things. I don’t know of any source that sheds light on this issue, but perhaps some readers more familiar with Darwin’s thinking can elaborate on that? Here’s a good summary of Humboldt’s thought:

    Alexander von Humboldt, a German scientist and explorer of the 19th century, viewed the natural world holistically and described the harmony of nature among the diversity of the physical world as a conjoining between all physical disciplines. He noted in his diary: “Everything is interconnectedness.”

    In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, published in his book On the Origin of Species (1859). He used Humboldt’s documents as a kind of a lexicon, appreciating the precision of the descriptions and the quality of specifications.

    Humboldt in fact viewed nature holistically, and tried to explain natural phenomena without any appeal to religious dogma. The natural systems (physical, geological, biological, chemical, social, and economic) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts.

    In the preface of ‘Cosmos’, Humboldt wrote: “The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.”

    1. And even in a modern synthesis this connectedness is there:

      Quantum mechanics predicts our future in terms of probabilities rather than certainties, but those probabilities themselves are absolutely fixed by the state of the universe right now. A quantum version of Laplace’s Demon could say with confidence what the probability of every future history will be, and no amount of human volition would be able to change it.

  9. Well, the rush will be on for regular agribusinesses and Uni agricultural departments to hire Maori CEOs and researchers (respectively), so that they can apply for this AgResearch money. Or some big regular agribusiness will partner with an existing, small, Maori business, offering them a comparatively small share of the grant award in exchange for putting themselves on the application.

    Either way, I’m guessing not much of the underlying work changes. Same agricorps, different day.

    1. Your comment made me laugh. I think you hit it on the head, what it really means is Maori will get a share of the pie (cash available) feel included (inclusive) and mana (pride) restored.
      Real science will plough on but with a waiata (song) before every meeting… I jest (or am I) but I am disappointed that Maori themselves can’t recognise the hole they are digging for science. I don’t give a rats what country it is even as I am part Maori, science is going to get us out of holes (problems) monies miss spent is a waste of wealth and that, is a very common problem.

    2. Wait a minute. If MM methods make for better agriculture, agribusiness would already be using it because any business not using MM methods would be at a competitive disadvantage.

  10. Equal is a strange word here. It feels moral rather than practical in application – like that it’s a comment on the legitimacy of the practice rather than an equivalent path to knowledge.

    The difficulty, I think, is that agriculture generally is practice-driven and what techniques are used have more to do with history rather than whether they are scientific. In that sense, it’s hard to see what the problem is in investing effort in techniques that align with a particular culture. Would bet that there won’t be much the body of knowledge in agriculture gains from this, but it’s hardly different to the organic and biodynamic practices that are practiced now.

    1. Given that the bulk of NZ agriculture uses non-indigenous plants and animals, it’s somewhat difficult to see how MM applies.

      One occasionally sees a claimed MM application, eg, the experimental use of traditionally-woven mats of native plant material to suppress aquatic weeds in a lake; but will the outcome be evaluated scientifically with proper controls, accurate and independent analysis of effectiveness and cost-benefit, or just hailed as a success of MM? Who knows?

      NZ is so much in the grip of anti-scientific attitudes that scientists wishing to use gene editing to develop better crops for NZ are forced to develop and test them overseas rather than locally.

      A problem with adding MM is that NZ has been dropping for 50 years down the OECD because of low productivity growth. Research and investment dollars and talents diverted to MM procedures which will then be deemed unquestionable will contribute to our decline.

    2. To scientfically test traditional agricultural practices, optimize them and experiment with new ones is the task of agricultural research institutions (Fisher developed inferential statistics for agricultural research). None of us here would mind if relevant MM or other traditional practices were tested at agricultural research institutions. The problem here is that MM is apparently going to have its separate but equally funded and respected safe space where it will be immune from scientific testing methods. At least that’s what it sounds like.

  11. Throwing piles of money at indigenous folk may be seen as modern “indulgences”, but actually relying on stone age agricultural practices will result mainly in increased food imports and cost.
    Most of the food grown in NZ, and pretty much all ag products exported from there, are species introduced after European contact.
    I did read a bit of what Elsdon Best wrote down about traditional Maori agriculture, and much of it seems to be about religion. Here is a typical passage-
    “The planter, facing the sun, held up the seed tuber at arm’s length about the height of his head prior to planting it. A conciliatory offering, usually a bird, made to the gods prior to the commencement of the planting was alluded to as a marere. A west coast authority tells us that men performed the digging and that the actual planting was done by women. On the east coast these women would not have been allowed in the field.”
    There is a lot of detail about when feathers should be tied to the digging stick, the importance of fasting while planting, and lots of religious rules to be followed during the steps involved.

    Like medicine or any other branch of science, one tries to look for what has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect, practices which are then integrated into the mainstream practice.

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