RIP Robert Nola

October 25, 2022 • 8:30 am

I am sad to report the death on Sunday of Robert Nola (born 1940), a retired philosophy professor from the University of Auckland and one of the “Satanic Seven” involved in the kerfuffle about the Listener Letter—a letter he signed with six others arguing that while Mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing”, should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes, it was not the equivalent of “science”(see the original letter here) and should not be so taught in science classes. This plunged Robert into a deep controversy, culminating in an investigation of him and another Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Though they were cleared of what was in effect a charge of “disrespecting indigenous knowledge”, Robert and his colleague Garth Cooper (a Māori) publicly resigned as fellows. (The kerfuffle and his resignation are detailed in this series of posts). Here are the final two paragraphs of the letter:

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.

Signing the Letter, and resigning from the RSNZ, was an act of bravery, and showed the Royal Society for what it was, a bunch of invertebrates unable to distinguish true science from superstition.

But I met Robert well before these culture wars occurred. When I went to New Zealand and asked readers if they wanted to get together. Robert wrote me and invited me to stay with him and his wife Jan at their house in Auckand. And so I did—for the last few days before I left the country. It was a delightful visit in a spiffy house with a gorgeous garden that even had a bit of rainforest and a a lava tube. As a philosopher of science, Robert took the trouble to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and I fondly remember long talks over breakfast about Kuhn, Popper, and the lot. You can see Robert’s list of books and publications on his Wikipedia page.

We continued to correspond after I left New Zealand and the “Listener wars” began, exchanging news and publications (including my posts about Mātauranga Māori).  Then the correspondence stopped; I was told that Robert had gone to the hospital and then, on top of that, caught covid in the hospital. My last email from him explained that he had finally returned home after several months, and was recuperating slowly. Then this morning the news came from Jan that Robert died two days ago, peacefully and at home.

I was much looking forward to seeing him again on my next trip to New Zealand, which I hope will take place before too long. Alas, that is not to be. He was a good man, gentle and wise, but with a will of iron.  I and all his friends will miss him.  My condolences to Jan.

Here’s a photo of Robert and Jan I took during my visit in April five years ago.

13 thoughts on “RIP Robert Nola

  1. Condolences to his family and friends. A loss to what little rationality science in New Zealand still has (publicly, at least). RSNZ should be ashamed of how he was treated by them.

  2. I became acquainted with Prof Nola about twenty years ago, after I came to Auckland. Not being part of a university, I used to attend after-hours public lectures in anything to do with the arts at U Auckland. After a while I noticed he was one of the faces I used to see regularly at classical music concerts, as well as in the audience at these UoA lectures. I went to say hi to him before a NZSO concert, and he invited me to a public lecture he was giving at UoA the next month in philosophy of science. I found him the most approachable of the UoA philosophy dept staff, insofar as I wasn’t a student or dignitary, but just a random person off the street. ( It took me a while to work out he was married to Jan, as he used to attend classical concerts with somebody else. Naturally I drew the wrong conclusion until he noted that his wife wasn’t as interested in Western classical as himself!)

    Presumably others in NZ who knew him will chime in on this thread, but I can offer a small nugget which may be of relevance to the ongoing MM debacle and the intellectual corruption in NZ. Prof Nola once remarked to me, why did I still know and was able to discuss Popper, Lakatos etc, because I was just about the only non-academic member of the public who had ever engaged in non-trivial conversation about such topics with him. I’d told him that I’d studied the philosophy and history of science at U Otago back when I was an undergrad, but that was some time ago. Despite the lapse of time, I was still an avid reader of magazines [ all non-NZ ] that discussed these people and issues eg NYRB, LRB, Prospect, Sci-Am in its prelapsarian state, etc.

    He and I had came independently to roughly the same conclusion about what passed for ‘NZ intellectual life’. Basically, if one peruses NZ broadsheet newspapers and monthly magazines, and specifically excludes content syndicated from overseas media, the NZ public is regularly exposed to complex prose about high-level analysis and strategy in only one domain of general public interest : sports. It’s true! There’s fantastic detailed public discussion in media about rugby union, cricket, and sailing in particular, then other sports. While North America, Europe, Australia have media that discuss with meaningful detailed critique 1) the arts eg very long book reviews of literary fiction, 2) as well as equivalent articles for the sciences elsewhere, 3) international relations : these are almost non-existent in NZ cultural life except in a very abbreviated manner.

    NZ uni graduates get a good education at local institutions, but outside of the university environment, when they join the workforce like me, they enter a largely intellectually impoverished environment, and a negative feedback loop is in effect. A well-educated arts or sciences graduate [ unless they end up in certain think-tanks, etc ] does not encounter in everyday life the same stimuli, which means this knowledge in them is atrophied, so they become less able to contribute to intellectual debate and so on in a death spiral. This was what was most disheartening to me about the ongoing Matauranga Maori debacle. On the one hand, NZ uni vice chancellors and others regularly tout ‘the value of arts degrees as a degree in critical thinking’, yet many of those who attacked Prof Nola and the others who wrote a well-argued letter in the Listener, were those who held a degree from a NZ university and yet proved singularly incapable of exercising any ‘critical thinking’. And it’s a shame that of the many UoA students who Robert Nola taught, I saw almost none who were publicly prepared to support him.

  3. Like everyone else, I am very sad to hear this news. I spoke to him in a Zoom call very briefly earlier this year when a group of us were trying to support the seven Auckland University professors who were under attack after publishing the famous letter to The Listener. He and the others deserved better than what they got and let’s hope that New Zealand has learned a lesson from that affair. David Lillis

  4. RIP you intellectual badass!

    And honestly, you really want to come back here? We’re more of a dump now then 2017. Though a new trip to Te Papa may interest you.

  5. My condolences to Jan. I have fond memories of staying with Robert and Jan many years ago. I felt very much at home.

  6. As a fellow New Zealand philosopher of science, but from a different generation and based in the US, I did not know Robert well, but I enjoyed my few interactions with him. He was a clear thinker and not one to hold back his opinion when he encountered poor reasoning. I found him to be refreshing, entertaining, hospitable, and a fine role model to aspiring philosophers. He will be missed.

  7. On behalf of Robert’s fellow Listener-letter authors, thank you all for your thoughts. It’s a sad time. I’ve sent the link to this site to his wife Jan, and I’m sure she’ll also find them comforting, and yet more evidence that she had a husband to be proud of.

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