Unless you’re a first-time reader here, you’ll know about the fracas involving indigenous ways of knowing in New Zealand, Mātauranga Māori (“MM”), which the government says is to be taught in science classes as coequal with modern science. MM is also likely to receive money commensurate with government grants given to modern science.
The problem with this, as I’ve emphasized repeatedly, is that MM is not only empirical “practical knowledge” (usually “trial and error” determinations, like how to grow crops and catch eels), which does qualify as a subset of science, but is also a mélange of superstition, mythology (including creation myths), morality, and ideology. Only the empirical bits, which aren’t theory-laden and tend to involve the same examples over and over again, even qualify to be taught as coequal with science.
Now nobody denies that indigenous people can have practical knowledge of great value, particularly the value of plants in medicine (about a third of modern medicines derive from plants), but there’s only so much “aspirin-was-derived-from-willow-bark” that you can insert into a modern curriculum on medicine or plant biology. Most of MM should be taught as anthropology or sociology, though it certainly deserves to be taught as part of New Zealand’s cultural heritage.
But in the latest issue of The Spinoff, a New Zealand magazine covering current affairs, there’s an article which shows the extremism of some advocates of MM. The advocate for MM is in this case staff writer Charlotte Muru-Lanning and her interviewee, Ocean Mercer, a scientist who proclaims that MM should be taught, in its entirety, alongside science.
Unfortunately, Dr. Mercer offers virtually no examples that would justify considering MM as science, proferring just the same few tired old instances of “practical knowledge.” Despite that, she thinks that MM should take precedence over science because MM came first! This is truly “ways of knowing” viewed through the lens of colonization.
Click to read; the title tells the tale.
The first one aims to align MM with quantum physics (“entanglement”, or “spooky action at a distance”), but it’s ludicrous in the parallels. Italics in Mercer’s answers below are mine
How did learning Te Reo Māori [the Māori language] open up this new way of looking at knowledge and science for you?
This is a little bit abstract and metaphysical perhaps but as someone with a physics background, I think about the greeting tēnā koe. You could be in the same room as me, and I would say tēnā koe, there you are, in relation to me, because we are connected. Tēnā connects me to you, the person I’m addressing. So whether we’re separated by a few 100 kilometres or you’re in Tāmaki Makaurau and I’m on Mars, it’s still tēnā koe. It doesn’t matter, the distance between us, we’re bridged by that tēnā, which just struck me as being very quantum physical. There is no equivalent in the English language to connect people up in that way. And so it’s just such a revolutionarily different way of thinking about relationships that is so unique.
This tells us nothing about physics; it’s not even a decent analogy, and certainly doesn’t belong in the physics classroom. Mercer also disses science because it’s not “objective” and since the scientists are biased, so must be the science:
So mātauranga ends up getting scrutinised under that western scientific framework?
Absolutely. And that’s where we have problems because the way it gets scrutinised is not scrutinised. So the science lens that is brought to bear on mātauranga goes unquestioned. And that’s because for a long time, those processes have been unquestioned. As much as science tries to be objective, value free, neutral – and you might say, that’s a worthwhile pursuit for that particular discipline – it sort of forgets that it’s trying to do that through humans who can never be objective, or bias free or neutral or value free or a-cultural or apolitical. We can never disentangle ourselves from the society that we’re in and the way that shapes the way we do things. So there is this invisibility in the sciences around those things, which then when there’s an analysis of mātauranga, it’s coming from a place where as scientists we’ve actually forgotten our own biases.
But of course the toolkit of science is designed to overcome those biases. Things like competition between scientists, replication, peer review, blind tests, and so on are all designed to help us, to paraphrase Feynman, “not fool ourselves, because we are the easiest ones to fool.” (If you want to see the various construals of the claim that “science is political and therefore biased”, see this article by Stuart Ritchie on Substack.)
Mercer also claims that incorporating MM into school-taught science will lead to a Kuhnian “paradigm shift”. Perhaps, but one in which superstition becomes part of science! This also shows us how the camel of MM is ready to stick not just its nose into the tent of science, but its whole body, including the non-empirical stuff like creationism:
The way that mātauranga hasn’t been recognised by official institutions in the same way as western science; how has that been for you working within the university?
I would say there’s a shift happening. So for the last number of years, the university, in line with its treaty statute, has expressed quite an interest in incorporating mātauranga into the curriculum, and has put strategic funding behind the hiring of Māori staff and academics to help in that effort. We’re sort of feeling our way through this, because it’s a difficult thing – you’re dealing with a box and the culture and shape of the box is very Western. So there is a sense from my university that we value mātauranga and we want to support its growth through our teaching, but what we’re running into is the lack of capacity to do that. Because universities are not hiring, retaining and promoting enough Māori academics. There’s not enough people to do this paradigm shifting, revolutionary work. And so what ends up happening is there’s bits and pieces here and there. There’s a signal of inclusivity, but not the resources to support us actually putting flesh on the bones of that.
Mercer offers two examples of how MM is equivalent to modern science. Neither is convincing. In this first one, she actually says that science has to be used to do part of an ocean project, but offers no evidence of how MM will beef up to the results (save perhaps, the use of local knowledge of where shellfish are):
Within the research projects that you’re currently working on around the moana, are there any particular examples of how mātauranga and those Western scientific methods are working together?
One of my masters students is working on toheroa – the lovely big shellfish – and ultimately she wants to restore the toheroa populations at Kuku Beach, north of Kāpiti, South Horowhenua coastline. And, so in your traditional scientific methods, you’d have grids to find the shellfish and to find the spat (shellfish larvae) and quadrats that you would lay out on a beach to get numbers and a sense of the population. So she will be doing that, but she’s been guided by local knowledge, by mātauranga that’s been built up over many, many years of occupation by Ngāti Tukorehe in the region, and their observations over time of where the shellfish are. You’ve got to be aware of the context, and you need mātauranga to give you that context. You’re just taking a stab in the dark without that.
She’s remarkably silent on what “context” MM can add to modern science here beyond telling us where the density of shellfish is highest. That’s “knowledge”, but it’s specific to this one area and not generalizable to the aims of the overall project.
This second bit doesn’t contribute to science at all; it’s merely a catalogue of 200 Polynesian (not just Māori) names for winds: the local equivalent to the supposed number of different names Inuits have for snow:
When we’re trying to understand the moana and other parts of our environment, why is mātauranga so vital to that?
There are a number of reasons that our taonga tuku iho, our mātauranga that’s been handed down is fragmentary. But, as opposed to a sort of decades long history of observations in science, with mātauranga, we’re sitting on hundreds of years of history and observations. And those are empirical observations, scientific observations. We need to find ways to unpack some of the knowledge that’s hiding in that kōrero, in those purākau, or those whakatauki. They might be wrapped up in a story that looks fantastical and it’s funny as well as outrageous but that’s just to help us remember it and to remember the details. One of my students on the Moana project is Mere Takoko. And she’s identified 200 wind names. Each of these wind names described either a particular direction that the wind was coming from, a particular temperature that it had, a particular force. These names were all remembered and passed down. Those names survive today, and many of them are Pacific names, as opposed to Māori names, so we have to dig really deeply, not just hundreds of years into our history, but thousands of years into our Pacific history. There’s so much there and it’s local to place, so it’s really relevant to where we’re living and the environments and ecosystems that we’re living within and around. Science can probably access some of that, but it’s not ever going to be able to reconnect and reknit the social connections as well, the relationships between people in their environments.
But science doesn’t deal with the social connections involving wind names; that’s a project for anthropology. I won’t go on; you get my drift. The examples in which MM can be taught as coequal with modern science are few, and involve trial and error knowledge that has proven practically useful but doesn’t fit into the framework of theory in which modern science is taught (few classes just give catalogues of examples). Mercer makes no case for making MM coequal with science. And have a look at this last statement by Mercer (my bolding this time):
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there in recovering our knowledges and bringing them to the fore. So a mātauranga that has equal status to science in this system, so that we’re not always having to have science as the core thing where there’s a little thread of mātauranga, like a pink bow wrapped around the science that gives it the flourish, that gives it the culture, that gives it the sort of Aotearoa flavour. But instead, projects in which mātauranga is the key thing and science comes in to support mātauranga – that’s another really compelling model is that we as Māori are defining the problems and the way that we want to do it, and also defining how the science supports our aspirations and the answering of our questions. So that science becomes a servant to mātauranga rather than at the moment we’ve got the flip side, which is mātauranga serving science. Mātauranga was here well before science, thank you very much!
MM was here first, so science should be its handmaiden. There we have it, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends: this is what scientists in NZ are up against. MM should be taught because it was here before modern science. That’s like saying that chemistry should serve alchemy, because alchemy was there first! I pity those who are truly dedicated to modern science in NZ, for ludicrous arguments like this must be immensely frustrating, especially when they’ve backed by the government and other woke academics.
UPDATE: Reader David called my attention to this new piece by Pete McKenzie in the NYT touting MM; click to read:
This describes the problem of the disappearing crayfish of Lake Rotoma on New Zealand’s north island—a problem caused by people releasing their goldfish into the lake. What’s happened is that traditional flax mats (“uwhi’) are being repurposed by stapling them to the bottom of the lake, which stops the weed growth and helps restore the crayfish. The NYT says this:
“This is a perfect example of combining mātauranga Māori” — traditional Māori knowledge — “and Western science,” said William Anaru, Te Arawa’s biosecurity manager.
The use of uwhi is an example of the growing prominence in Western societies of Indigenous knowledge systems, accumulated and handed down over centuries.
Well, what we have here are mats used originally for other purposes (to get across weeds) repurposed for another adaptive use. Is this from MM, and requires MM to suss out, or is it simply common sense. Granted, those mats were part of indigenous culture, but their repurposing, though likely envisioned by a Māori, doesn’t seem to be part of MM. And they were used when other alternatives (including rubber mats) failed.
The NYT further trots out another overused example of the usefulness of MM in science, which, as I’ve argued before, doesn’t really show the usefulness of MM, but is simply an a posteriori invocation of MM to justify interventions based on hydrodynamics:
Understanding a river as the home of a taniwha [giant supernatural beings that live in the water], for example, helps describe its sinuous appearance and warn of its volatility or capacity to break its banks.
This example has been used over and over again to show that MM is “science,” but it doesn’t even show that. The river flooded and was fixed; neither of that ha anything to do with invoking spirits.
Finally, at least the NYT discusses the controversy over equating the whole of MM with modern science:
Additionally, mātauranga is not just a collection of knowledge, but also a philosophy underpinned by values like kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga — guardianship and hospitality.
Many of New Zealand’s more traditionally minded scientists, however, see the spiritual and moral aspects of mātauranga as contradictory to conventional science, which is supposed to be value-neutral and limited to knowledge that can be empirically proven.
“Supposed to be”? Is that a pejorative remark?
The NYT piece goes on to discuss the Listener Letter and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s fizzled-out investigations of signers Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, but remember: you heard it here first! On this topic the NYT is about a year behind the times.