Indigenous science center set up at Otago University before they could decide what “indigenous science” consists of

June 24, 2022 • 9:15 am

This short article from Stuff bears on the controversy about whether indigenous Māori “ways of knowing”, or Mātauranga Māori (“MM”)should be taught as science in New Zealand science classes. This is the Ardern government’s plan, and is supported by many Kiwi educators and educational administrators (see my many posts here). I oppose the teaching of MM in general in science classes, as most of it isn’t science.

Like all sensible people, I think that MM is an important part of the history, anthropology, and sociology of New Zealand, and should definitely be taught in classes within those areas. But only a small part of MM can be construed as science: its”practical science”, like how to grow crops or catch eels. The rest of MM is a gemisch of straight-out superstition, theology, legend, morality, and other non-science topic, yet those are to be seen as science as well. And MM is explicitly creationist. Do we want that taught in biology classes.

If you try to learn about MM, as I have, you’ll find it confusing, as different writers, including Māori writers, differ about exactly what MM is—and how much of it is “science”. Some say it’s all science and should be taught as such, others say that it’s completely different from modern science, and should not be equated with it.

This confusion is reflected in this short new article from the mainstream publication Stuff in NZ. Click to read for free:

The report is that Otago University (actually “The University of Otago” in Dunedin on NZ’s South Island) is starting a Centre for Indigenous Studies, which will either include or constitute (it’s not clear from the article) a “Centre for Indigenous Science”, which itself will be within the Division of Sciences.

The first bit of the report (not the liberal use of Māori words, most of which are unintelligible to non-Māori speakers in the country; it is a way of flaunting one’s virtue in respecting indigenous culture—at the expense of clarity.

It’s about being aspirational, inspirational and authentic – from next year, the University of Otago will offer students a different way of learning.

The Centre of Indigenous Studies – a first of its kind – will support and develop scholarship based on ngā kaupapa Māori, Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu o Whangaroa, Ngāti Wai) says.

. . . At a minimum, it would be a nurturing environment for students, or tauira, who would be encouraged to contribute to their communities and the world as well as Māori research, she said.

. . .It would also normalise excellence.

“There might be a student, kid, or whānau member who sees us, and they can see themselves standing right where we are.

“We can teach anyone the academic skills… our graduates achieve highly in their work, but also come out the end of the process as a whole person with their mana intact.”

Indeed! Who would want their mana to be eroded?

But who could object to such a Centre, so long as it doesn’t confuse people about how much of MM is “modern science” and how much falls under anthropology, history or sociology? The problem is that the Centre’s founders don’t seem to have decided what indigenous science in New Zealand really is (my emphasis):

In a statement to media, Jackson said for the rest of the year, she and colleagues would speak with iwi and wider networks to settle on a shared understanding of what indigenous science looked like.

[JAC: “iwi” are large groupings of Maori into what is roughly equivalent to what used to be called “tribes” in the U.S.]

. . . What exactly will be offered is yet to be determined. Like Otago’s other centres, such as the Centre for Sustainability and Centre for Science Communication, it could offer postgraduate or specialist programmes.

The Centre of Indigenous Science would be based within the Division of Sciences. Division pro-vice-chancellor Professor Richard Barkersaid the centre’s time had come.

I think Professor Jackson and her colleagues have things backwards here. How can you set up a center for teaching Māori science when they haven’t settled what “indigenous science looks like”? What courses will they have?

This is of course a reflection of the confusion about the nature of “science” embedded in MM, but the fact that the Centres are done deals shows more than anything that their creation comes from ideology and not academic need or, indeed, scientific reality.  First get your ideology and definitions in place, and then shape the science curriculum to fit it.

There’s a bit more:

“As a country we need to value and apply more mātauranga to help address the biodiversity and climate crises. This is a huge moment for Otago and tertiary education worldwide.”

Maybe when they decide exactly what MM is, and how its rules and methods differ from that of “regular” modern science, they’ll figure out how it can give new insights into the climate and biodiversity crisis beyond that we have already.

One thing we know already: when Māori had sole control of the land, they weren’t any better stewards of the environment than were the “colonials”. the passage below is from the “effectiveness of environmental stewardship” part of the Wikipedia article on MM which, believe me, has been scrutinized anything that could be construed as anti-Māori:

Archeology and quaternary geology show that New Zealand’s natural environment changed significantly during the period of precolonial Māori occupation. This has led some academics to question the effectiveness of Māori traditional knowledge in managing the environment. The environmental changes are similar to those following human occupation in other parts of the world, including deforestation (approximately 50%), the loss of the megafauna, more general species extinctions and soil degradation due to agriculture. The models favoured by academics today describe precolonial Māori as accessing resources based on ease of access and energy return. This would have involved moving from one location or food source to another when the original one had become less rewarding. Historically academic models on precolonial environmental stewardship have been closely tied to the idea of the ‘Noble Savage’. and the now debunked hypothesis of multiple ethnicities being responsible for different aspects of New Zealand’s archeological record.

And of course they weren’t very good stewards of the flightless moas, driving all nine species of these magnificent flightless birds to extinction by clubbing them to death for food. I’m not denigrating this environmental degradation, for it was what was expedient at the time, and there was no study of conservation of extinction then.  But since an important part of MM is to pass on Māori tradition, we’ll need to know what unique insights MM now offers into biodiversity loss and global warming. Science has already given us a good idea of what causes these problems—anthropogenic greenhouse gases and habitat loss—and we need to know what new things Mãori science has to offer us.

In the meantime, Otago University had better get its curriculum and construal of MM into place—quickly!



11 thoughts on “Indigenous science center set up at Otago University before they could decide what “indigenous science” consists of

  1. The test will be when someone questions or challenges a Maori Science “truth”. I’m guessing that person will be castigated as insensitive to the culture.

  2. This seems to be largely about funding — creating an institutional vessel that guarantees funding for the foreseeable future, to give certain people with the right ethnic credentials, and at least passably credible academic ones, a secure institutional base from which they can do their work, whatever that is, and thus insulate themselves from having to compete with peers in real disciplines, or show to the satisfaction of anyone outside their insulated world that what they are doing has any actual substance. Students who go there will also be motivated to maintain the facade of respectability for the house of cards, so will have nothing to gain from complaining about any lack of substance in what they are being taught.

  3. Otago is following standard operation procedure. Some time ago, I announced in Butterflies and Wheels my membership in the Neanderthal community, and set forth our community’s demands. The piece ended as follows: “Finally, I will petition my own University to establish a program in Neanderthal Studies. Or rather, a full department, a Center, and a scholarly journal for research in Critical Neanderthal Studies. An ample budget for the department and the Center and the journal will be required, but we can be sure the university administration will find the cash.”

  4. New Zealand is rapidly on its way to being the first European-majority former colony to decolonize. Let’s hope they can build lots of boats.

  5. It is indeed extraordinarily difficult to get a grip on what MM actually is. I recently came across this excellent article by Robert Nola et all grappling with the fundamental lack of clarity of what has been said on the topic:

    This is from the “Shape of Dialogue”, devoted to a podcast containing several interesting interviews on the subject, including one by our host a while back. The links on the site are well worth browsing – it was only from there that I found out that RSNZ has issued a sort of apology to the Listener 7, a fact you would struggle to learn from the local media:

    The extreme version of the rot seems fairly recent. I was surprised to find that as recently as 2007 the government’s “Vision Matauranga” document could say this: ” Scientific knowledge has superseded traditional Māori knowledge in many ways, however, Mātauranga Māori contains suggestions and ideas that may yet make a contribution to Research, Science and Technology.”

    You wouldn’t get away with that now, and indeed the statement has been expunged in later versions. And this reprint of an article from 2012 seems comparatively sensible:

    It’s not just science, either. Recently the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has felt obliged to spout nonsense comparing the institution of which he is the head to Tane Mahuta, the god of the forest and birds (also the name of a very fine big kauri tree).

  6. I think the most fascinating, in a disturbing way is the complete silence from the NZ Skeptics organisation on this matter, if it had been Christian Creationism then I’m sure they would have said something.

    1. Proponents of “scientific creationism” were hobbled by their insistance that their theories were scientific. The modern woke use a much more effective approach: simultaneously denouncing science as a tool of white supremacy while pushing “other ways of knowing” as valid according not to facts — a white Eurocentric social construct if there ever was one– but to an enlightened set of values. “Believe this, not because this is true, but because it is enlightened”.

      Fortunately, the futility of attempts to answer them with facts or reason is becoming more and more apparent to the viewing public. The most effective approach is to simply pin them down on what the heck they are actually talking about.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *