An avocate of Mātauranga Māori claims that it should get precedence over modern science because indigenous knowledge came first

June 2, 2022 • 9:15 am

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 article begins with a plaint about colonization, the ignoring of indigenous knowledge, and a retelling of the “Listener Letter” tale, which I’ve covered a lot; read about it on Wikipedia. Then the article segues into an interview with Dr. Ocean Mercer, who works on a subproject of a highly funded program of the Endeavor Fund to study climate change and the ocean.  The subprogram aims at incorporating MM into understanding the ocean.
I’ll give a few quotes from Dr. Mercer, which show the low esteem in which she holds modern science as well as some examples she gives that purport to show the value of MM. Quotes are indented.

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.

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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.

37 thoughts on “An avocate of Mātauranga Māori claims that it should get precedence over modern science because indigenous knowledge came first

  1. Yes, and total ignorance came before that, so maybe people should follow that first and foremost?

    Oh, wait a minute…

    1. Yes, remember the first time we saw fire, and Thak stuck his hand in it? We should keep doing that.

    2. Those who want to teach and study the science that the world has used and formulated over the last 1000 years will go overseas and learn at recognized institutions. Those who want to become qualified in MM good luck to them, see how it works out for you outside of NZ

  2. 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.

    Sounds a bit risky but maybe a pragmatic solution to the problem of limited R&D resources. Ideally you’d want to grid the entire area. The data could then be used to check on whether local knowledge was accurate or not (as well as study the shellfish). However if the research project has limited resources and can’t grid the whole area the way they’d like, then using local knowledge about where the shellfish are likely to be, seems like a reasonable way to select where to put your limited grid capability.

    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.

    Not only is this post-hoc like Jerry says, but it would only “help” if MM gave us knowledge that giant supernatural river beings are sinuous in appearance and volatile in personality. How do we know that? How does MM know that?

    Seems like a lot of baloney to avoid the obvious: the empirical observation of rivers as sinuous and changing came first, the spirits were invented with characteristics that mirrored what the Maori saw. They don’t help explain the rivers’ properties any more than a Ford mustang explains why wild horses are powerful and run fast.

  3. This type of argument typically begins with dueling definitions (in this case of Science), and ends when one definition prevails. In an early statement (if I remember correctly, in their response to the original letter in the Listener), the RSNZ dissed outdated definitions, implying that under the ‘modern’ definition, MM qualifies as Science. TMK, they never gave us the ‘modern’ definition. Or did they?

  4. Small correction: the interviewee is Ocean Mercier (not Mercer).

    The whole MM perspective is sad and limiting and parochial. Teaching it as science does a disservice to all students in New Zealand, including the Maori students.

  5. It doesn’t matter, the distance between us, we’re bridged by that tēnā, which just struck me as being very quantum physical.

    Yes, just as Jesus being both fully God and fully Human helps us understand the duality of wave-particles.

    So that science becomes a servant to mātauranga rather than at the moment we’ve got the flip side, which is mātauranga serving science.

    “ The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion—the temporal serving the eternal.” — According to St Augustine

    We’ve been through all this. You can put lipstick on a pig and call it “Louise,” but when all is said and done, a pig is still a pig.

      1. The onliest Holy Trinity I believe in is the one from Cajun cooking — onions, green peppers & celery. Boo-coo good, dat.

      2. I have no problems with the Trinity, I’m a father, a professional and a WEIT reader, and the three are one. Even my bicycle is a Trinity, albeit not holy, it is a means of transport, a two wheeler, and a dangerous implement in South African traffic, and the three are one, what a miracle! (snort).
        I’m sure some more creative readers will be able to find dozens of better Trinities.

        1. I’m a father, a professional and a WEIT reader, and the three are one.

          That sounds like Modalism, doesn’t it? Heretic! 🙂

    1. Like postmodernists and the humanities vs. science arguments that plagued us in the past, they seem obsessed with some sort of abstract academic ranking; is it MM before science, or science before MM?

      How about you just serve up both to the kids and let them pursue the studies they want to pursue, pick the subjects they want to study?

      The “why” seems pretty obvious: fear that if they do that – if they don’t yoke MM to a popular subject like science, and coerce anyone interested in the latter to take the former – then very few people will voluntarily pick it.

      1. Moreover, it is wrong, the Ancient Greeks and the Hellenists in Alexandria practiced a kind of science, long before the Mātauranga Maori. They even quite accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth, for example.
        I even wonder if MM even considers the Earth is a spheroid.

    1. Not necessarily, Wegener’s and Du Toit’s ‘drifting continents’ (later proven by Tharpe and Hess) obviously was a paradigm shift. They were not scoundrels (AFAIK). But I agree the term has been abused.

  6. When any New Zealander enters hospital for major surgery, it is the kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga of the surgeon, the surgical equipment, , and the nurses that they surely want to count on primarily. Perhaps we can soon expect a Matauranga Statement to be required for medical licensing. If bureaucrats from Aotearoa receive any emanations from the University of California (by tēnā koe, for example), they will no doubt get this idea.

  7. This stuff is oh so annoying, and indeed New Zealand is shooting itself in the foot. I want to think, however, that this affront to science is self-limiting. Once the country finds itself in a crisis that requires real science or once New Zealand finds itself a laughingstock, or once the brain drain of real scientists fleeing for refuge reaches a critical state, reality will rear its ugly head and this crazy anti-scientific trend will shift into reverse. It’ll take a while—maybe years—but reality will prevail in the end. (I hope.)

  8. What kind of scientist doesn’t understand how science works to overcome biases in scientists? A PhD in physics. She has to know this.

    1. According to Wikipedia her PhD looks like serious physics (Optical Conductivity of Colossal Magnetoresistance Manganites). The word Māori appears once – in the acknowledgments ” I also acknowledge the Foundation for Research into Science and Technology, for their vision and provision of the Tuapapa Pltaiao Maori Fellowship. Last, and most, I thank Jesus Christ, my Saviour, who is a light in dark places. May this work bring glory to Him.”

      I suspect the scholarship provided the most useful contribution.

    2. True. But by definition there is no such thing as science, right? I mean, there are only scientists who practice science. Science can not be practiced by itself. And thus, the science someone is producing will always be affected by who the person is. Of course if what they produce is not scientifically “solid” (not necessarily in terms of results, but in terms of method and inquiry), we should not call it scientific — but they might still have scientific credentials. Check out some of John Ioannidis’ research, for instance, showing that a lot of scientific work that is done is not scientific and essentially is garbage, although it is being presented as being scientific.

      1. But science accepts that it can be corrected. Fraud and error can be exposed through discussion of the published findings and failure to replicate results. There may be an institutional bias against doing so if popular, comforting ideas are supported by the erroneous research and there is strong peer pressure to enforce consensus. But eventually someone does.

  9. Even in the Western colonialist alphabet, “Mātauranga” comes before “Science”. Whakamiere!*

    * “Whakamiere” is the Maori word for “checkmate”.

  10. “We can never disentangle ourselves from the society that we’re in and the way that shapes the way we do things.” – Ocean Mercier

    “It is simply a logical fallacy to go from the observation that science is a social process to the conclusion that the final product, our scientific theories, is what it is because of the social and historical forces acting in this process. A party of mountain climbers may argue over the best path to the peak, and these arguments may be conditioned by the history and social structure of the expedition, but in the end either they find a good path to the peak or they do not, and when they get there they know it. (No one would give a book about mountain climbing the title “Constructing Everest”.) I cannot prove that science is like this, but everything in my experience as a scientist convinces me that it is. The “negotiations” over changes in scientific theory go on and on, with scientists changing their minds again and again in response to calculations and experiments, until finally one view or another bears an unmistakable mark of objective success. It certainly feels to me that we are discovering something real in physics, something that is what it is without any regard to the social or historical conditions that allowed us to discover it.”

    (Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory. New York: Vintage, 1994. p. 188)

  11. There’s something deeply worrying about the most important newspaper in America printing anti-scientific articles and cheerleading anti-scientific movements in other countries. It feels like a sign of decay.

  12. The second article is more reasonable about what to make of that knowledge : complement science, next step, contribute, next step have input into…this is all there is . Of course there will be professionnal profiteers of the trend, just like there are about race and gender matters. But overall, piecemeal knowledge that cannot be theorized and contradicted is not science and never will.

  13. Quoting from first article “And I’m not saying that mātauranga should slot inside sciences, because that’s not a safe space for mātauranga, but there’s absolutely potential for working together at a kind of interface. ” So even the researcher admits that this thing is just contributive.

    As to “We need to find ways to unpack some of the knowledge that’s hiding in that kōrero, in those purākau, or those whakatauk”, knowledge that hides behind jargon is not worth learning about anyway.

  14. You are really uneducated on Rongoa Maori and Maori science I must say and this is a very biased and poorly researched argument, many of your comments such as the Willow bark and Aspirin comment are so far from Aotearoa history,we don’t even have those things here. Māori we’re the first voyagers, we read the stars as a map that guided us to this land. Also all of your comments are straight racist and I don’t know why you are leaving them up but it speaks for itself. Kia Ora.

    1. Sorry, pal, but you’re the ignorant one here. I’ll say just two things. First, I used aspirin as one way that indigenous knowledge (not Maori knowledge) has contributed to well being and science.

      Second, if you think the Maori were the first voyagers, you’re pig-ignorant. The POLYNESIANS preceded them and in fact got the ancestors of Maori to New Zealand. In the meantime, others in other parts of the word were voyagine BEFORE tha Maori, who didn’t “voyage” must after they settled in New Zealand.

      Your ignorance and inability to understand an argument is not doing your cause, the promotion of Mtauranga Maori, any good. In fact, it makes the cause look worse. Go away and do some reading.

    2. An Indigenous advocacy group seeks to privilege traditional ways knowing as a tool to extract more power and money. It objects that publication of facts that have the effect of frustrating that agenda is racist, the ultimate taboo. Now where have I heard that before…?

  15. The first one aims to align MM with quantum physics (“entanglement”, or “spooky action at a distance”), but it’s ludicrous in the parallels.

    It was “spooky” for Einstein but only because he wanted to shoehorn his classical physics of locality into modern relativistic quantum physics. There field entities are non-local by nature (but can be localized by higher energy interactions). Action at a distance was already a “spooky” observation for Newton and others, who wanted to adhere auxiliary mechanisms to the field.

    So today we have entanglement, but it is a) unique due to the Bell tests (no hidden variables, merely entanglement correlations) and b) applies mostly to microscopic entities. Meaning a physicist should not pretend that a greeting (which tēnā koe seems to be) is a shared emotional state that have quantum properties including entanglement. We know it doesn’t.

    And since we know the analogy failed, I assume an honest scientist would say that the supposedly significant hypothesis failed and that we should be *more* suspicious over claims that myth is science.

    1. Taking one advocates view and picking Matauranga maori apart doesn’t seem to be a scientific method, seems more of a bias is at play here.

      MM is source of knowledge and should be treated as such. Look at the development of the Hangi feast, over time with new technology and knowledge it evolves.

      Wouldn’t a more positive approach be to include MM into education as an indigenouse knowledge based source much like Wikipedia is (and we know all the flaws there too). I think the writer is falling into the Anti Maori brigades desire to attack all things maori as inferior and should show a lot more tact given he or she represents a science based voice.

      1. You don’t seem to know that MM is a mixture of practical knowledge, superstition, ideology, and morality, only a small bit of which deserves to be taught in science class. Much of it isn’t “knowledge” at all–like the claim that the Maori discovered Antarctica.

        You are the one who is biased. First learn what MM is before you tout it as coequal with modern science. In other words, do your homework

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