Aussies school Kiwis on limits of “traditional knowledge”

May 27, 2022 • 10:45 am

If you’re bored with the science debates in New Zealand, skip this article. But do realize that I post these only because they show the power of ideology to affect science education in a bad way, but also to make them available to New Zealanders, many of whom silently agree with me but are scared to voice their opinions. The hegemony of indigenous culture worship in New Zealand has grown so strong that it’s created a climate of censorship, chilling the speech of those who disagree with what the government and educators are doing and saying.

Because New Zealand’s press, about as woke as a press can be, effectively prohibits criticism of the government’s initiative to push “indigenous ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or “MM”), into the science class, it takes the Aussies to smack them on the tuchas. (See this post from yesterday as an example.)

It took me some time to find this new article in The Australian, which is paywalled (inquire judiciously for a copy), but the skills of the University of Chicago’s librarians are unlimited. I’ll put the headline up, but you won’t be able to get access. (UPDATE: I just found a clickable copy on the New Zealand Initiative Website).

I see from Wikipedia that this paper is supposed to be “centre-right”, but others have told me that that’s the Aussie equivalent for “center” in America. Be that as it may, Johnson’s article is about as good a summary of the difference between MM and science as you can read, and tells explicitly why the NZ government’s initiative to have the two systems taught as coequal “science” is barmy. I’ll give some quotes. I have a few quibbles with Johnston’s characterization of modern science, but on the whole this article should be dropped by planes as millions of leaflets over New Zealand.

Note as well that Michael Johnston is a Kiwi who trained in both Oz and NZ (he has a Ph.D. from Melbourne), and now lives in Wellington as a senior fellow of the New Zealand Initiative. Why didn’t he publish this in the New Zealand media? I’m sure it’s because none would dare print it.


If it is properly contextualised, including mātauranga Māori in the school curriculum stands to enrich young New Zealanders of all cultural backgrounds. To do that successfully though, we must be careful not to attempt to force it into a place in which it doesn’t fit.

Pre-colonial Māori had an impressive amount of knowledge about many things. For one, they were astonishing navigators. By observing the stars, sea currents and the flight patterns of birds, they were able to traverse millions of square kilometres of open ocean in small outriggers, to successfully locate, and land on, tiny islands.

An important subtlety lost in the media storm over the Listener letter is the distinction between knowledge itself and the methods by which it’s discovered. Did the navigators of the Pacific Ocean develop their knowledge through a process of explicit theory testing like that used in Eurasian science?

It wasn’t until 1959, when philosopher of science Karl Popper published his book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, that this approach was fully articulated in Eurasian scientific thought. The idea of making predictions from generalisable, universalist theories, though, has been around for considerably longer.

Even so, while Māori almost certainly developed their knowledge on the basis of systematic observation, they probably were not motivated to construct generalisable theories. Mātauranga Māori is more concerned with the local and particular than with the universal and abstract.

Philosophically, this is probably one of the two truly substantive differences between Eurasian science and mātauranga Māori. Whereas the former seeks to make claims that are true everywhere and always, the latter is often more concerned with what is true in a local area, for the benefit of the people living there.

You may not know that Popper worked in New Zealand, fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937 and staying in NZ until he left for Britain in 1946. Several Kiwis I know still remember the guy (probably from Popper’s later visits there).

Popper’s Big Idea was, of course, that the hallmark of a scientific theory is that it must be falsifiable (i.e. there must be conceivable ways of showing its claims to be wrong), and if it’s not falsifiable it’s not science. Surely lots of MM would fall as “not science” in this classification (including its creationist view of life), but philosophers of science have their own issues with the “falsifiability” demarcation. (For one thing, they say that “falsified” theories can often be saved by making post hoc assumptions or assertions.) In general, though, I think Popper’s views have merit. Eventually, if a theory can’t be tested against the real world and conceivably disproven, people stop paying attention to it. This is likely what is happening with “string theory”. But I wouldn’t call such theories “not science”, for some day somebody might think of a way to test them.

Further, there are a lot of modern scientists finding out things that likely don’t fall into the Big Theory category, but are still of interest. The phylogeny of, say, ants doesn’t fit into a theory (though someday it could), but is still useful knowledge of the world and can even predict future findings. Overall, however, what has moved understanding of the Universe forward are big theories: Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, the special and general theories of relativity, evolution, the “central dogma”, atomic theory, the “germ theory of disease,”and so on.

MM is not placed to produce such theories because of its particularity: it is aimed at improving people’s life in specific areas, like how to grow crops and catch eels. Its factual claims are practical, and based on trial and error alone.  Its absence of theory, and lack of drive to construct theories, is one reason it shouldn’t be taught as equivalent to modern science. Also, as Johnston notes, early forms of modern science, like that of Galileo, were not dualistic—they did not invoke spiritual forces. MM, on the other hand, is dualistic, and explicitly so.  Here’s a trenchant example of that dualism:

Whatever the precolonial Māori worldview was like, it was not dualistic. Everything was at once material and spiritual. This is perhaps the most important reason not to try to shoehorn mātauranga Māori into the science curriculum. To do so would be a disservice to both knowledge systems.

When pre-colonial Māori were on the ocean, they would chant karakia (prayers) to Tangaroa (the god of the ocean). Apart from expressing deeply held beliefs and imbuing mariners with courage in their perilous endeavours, these chants may well have had practical import. The practice might have been a way to keep track of time, or to keep rhythm while rowing. These possibilities illustrate the internal coherence of a non-dualistic worldview.

Contrastingly, a draft biology standard recently produced by New Zealand’s Ministry of Education claimed that fermentation can be enhanced by chanting karakia. This illustrates that trying to force a non-dualistic belief into a materialist knowledge system produces incoherence and confusion. (That standard, thankfully, has been revised.)

Rather than attempting to mix chalk and cheese, we’d do better to represent each knowledge system in its own right. If we do that, instead of sowing confusion we might start a conversation that will provide food for thought for generations to come.

This is hardly inflammatory, and there’s not much to argue with. But so keen are the NZ government, public, and educational authorities to avoid the appearance of criticizing anything Maori, that they’re not only dismantling the country’s science, but they’re starting to censor “unofficial” opinion.

12 thoughts on “Aussies school Kiwis on limits of “traditional knowledge”

  1. Jacinda Ardern (the Kiwi PM) spoke at the Harvard’s commencement yesterday, and called for an “end to tribalism”. She might want to start that task with the NZ educational system!


    1. You forget that she thinks this is being inclusive and anti-tribalism and that’s the problem. What she really thinks I don’t know. The solution which is being ignored is as been started here, it’s anthropology, put it in it’s rightful place but it is not science.

  2. MM may not be like science as we all do it (or used to), but it is exactly like the academic life, including STEM, that the woke establishment is busy constructing. Consider: “When pre-colonial Māori were on the ocean, they would chant karakia (prayers) to Tangaroa (the god of the ocean). ” Now consider the incessant chanting of the magic words Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that fills academic life today; and notice that applicants for some (soon to be most) positions in the
    academic world are required to chant a Diversity Statement, which is a karakia to the gods of DEI.

    1. Forgive me, but I can’t resist the urge to say this: There are no gods but DEI, and Ibram X. Kendi is their Prophet.

  3. I can’t but notice that ‘DEI’ also means ‘from God’ or ‘of God’, Deus.
    Just a coincidence though, I guess.

    1. I doubt it, one of the old RAND corporation political-military wargames in the 1960s used a ‘Wild Card’ idea in which a new faith arrises who’s fundamental tenet was that ‘white people’ were literal demons. There’s also a novel by John Brunner called ‘The Jagged Orbit’ which dates from 1969, he took a straight line extrapolation from what had been going on and there are some eerie parallels with some aspects of Wokeism, but also a lot of mismatches.

  4. There is perhaps a monetary incentive at work in not publishing articles critical of MM.

    The government has a Public Interest Journalism Fund which media can apply for, but it comes with conditions, including: 3. Actively promote the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner.

    The Fund also specifies promoting Maori and Iwi journalism which is defined as content made by, for and about Māori that prioritises the perspectives, issues, needs and interests of Maori.

    Many Maoris are of mixed ancestry with mixed social practices and religious views, but academia and newspapers seem to be greatly influenced by a conservative and essentialist view of culture, by the notion of Active Protection, and there is the usual fear of being deemed a racist for ‘punching down’.

    Of course, media deny that they have been politicised by accepting the conditions of the PIJF.

    1. I took the step of contacting the Australian Skeptics about this, given their long fight with ‘Christian Creationism’ encroaching on science classes and the response was that they were going to have to be very careful, they didn’t want to be ‘…called racist at the drop-of-a-hat’. It is of note that the NZ Skeptic community has not said anything about this either.

  5. One problem with Popper’s falsifiability criterion is that…

    “…it has the untoward consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just so long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came to pass) would cause them to change their minds.”

    (Laudan, Larry. “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem.” In /Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis/, edited by R. S. Cohen and L. Laudan, 111-127. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983. p. 121)

    For more on the demarcation problem—the problem of how to distinguish between science and non- or pseudoscience—, see:

  6. Thank you for following this issue, PCC(E). Not only is it interesting to me as somebody who lived in both Australia and NZ (as it seems with many of your readers), but the whole indigenous myths encroaching on science and other areas of society is very important. This even includes archeology: skeptic
    Woke Archaeology and Erasing the Past (Elizabeth Weiss)

  7. “Contrastingly, a draft biology standard recently produced by New Zealand’s Ministry of Education claimed that fermentation can be enhanced by chanting karakia.”

    I wonder if a NZ biology student could test that hypothesis? Or would it be like research on gun violence in the US- shut down before it has a chance to see the light of day?

    Or perhaps some Aussie researcher could do the research, with some NZ ex-pats helping with the chants. Leaving nothing to chants, as it were…

  8. One question that occurs is to what extent those who promote a science/MM equivalence have actually checked with Maori natives as to their preference. Do they want their kids to believe in such an equivalence? How representative are the views of the advocates of the people they claim to be speaking on behalf of? Any sociological studies?

    I admit I only know about the debate to the extent I have encountered it on this site.

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