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.