Richard Dawkins interviewed in NZ on Māori “ways of knowing”, is grossly misunderstood

November 1, 2022 • 2:20 pm

Here we have Richard Dawkins on an 11½-minute NZ television segment (the “AM”, show, I think), discussing Mātauranga Māori (MM), or the indigenous Māori “way of knowing.”  The two guests who comment on Richard’s interview are Ella Henry, Associate Professor of Int’l Business, Strategy & Entrepreneurship at Auckland University of Technology, as well as an advocate for Māori interests, and Bruce Weir (born in New Zealand), who is a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington.

Richard espouses the reasonable view that if there are “scientific” or empirical truths in MM, they can be taught worldwide, as they are part of science, a universal endeavor. He adds that there is a place for teaching MM in New Zealand, but as part of sociology or anthropology.

The interviewer deems these comments as “likely to be controversial”, for they will be in New Zealand, but they’re sensible. The reason they’re controversial is because many—both Māori and non-Māori—want MM taught wholly as science, a ludicrous but growing idea that will diminish science education in New Zealand.

The comments by Henry and Weir begin at 6:07. Here she and the interviewer misinterpret Dawkins, who’s just said that the empirically true part of MM can be taught as science: he’s not dismissing everything in Māori “ways of knowing” as mythology. Nevertheless, Henry dismisses Dawkins’s views as part of “the Western Eurocentric scientific juggernaut” that doesn’t want to hear about Māori empirical knowledge. She goes on to bring up Polynesian navigational abilities.

Weir, too, is asked about Dawkins’s desire to “keep Māori science secret”, which again is not Richard’s claim. But he is a booster of the Māori and of teaching MM, yet he seems to agree that insofar as Māori do produce accepted empirical science, it should be taught as science.

Henry chimes in again criticizing science that comes from the “northern hemisphere”, and implies that “indigenous science” (which doesn’t use “Western mathematical equations” [!]) is something distinct from modern science—that there is “more than one science.” She claims that it’s quite “elitist” to claim that there is only one science. Oy vey!

Richard says he’s going to NZ next year, and I wonder if he’ll face much pushback.

As one Kiwi wrote me who sent me this video: “The two people that respond just totally misunderstanding Dawkins’ points and this is the embarrassing crap that we have to swallow here in order to keep our jobs.” Well, I don’t think Weir really misunderstands Dawkins’s points, but he also misses the chance to clarify the issue: that scientific knowledge is knowledge no matter where it comes from, and should be taught widely.  But, as one should add, mythology is not knowledge. 

I suppose, since advocates of MM always call attention to the Māori’s careful “stewardship of the land”, I should mention this claim doesn’t comport with long-term history. As The Encyclopedia of New Zealand points out, the Māori engaged in considerable deforestation of the islands before Europeans arrived— nearly as much deforestation as created by the colonists themselves (see the interactive map).

Around 1000 CE, before humans arrived in New Zealand, forest covered more than 80% of the land. The only areas without tall forests were the upper slopes of high mountains and the driest regions of the South Island (which did have small pockets of tōtara). When Māori arrived, about 1250–1300 CE, they burnt large tracts of forest, mainly on the coasts and eastern sides of the two main islands. By the time European settlement began, around 1840, some 6.7 million hectares of forest had been destroyed and replaced by short grassland, shrubland and fern land. Between 1840 and 2000, another 8 million hectares was cleared, mostly lowland or easily accessible conifer–broadleaf forest.

No side is free of guilt from having despoiled these wonderful islands.


Below is an interview with Henry again, who maintains that MM is “equally valid and important” as is Western science, and so are other indigenous knowledge systems.  She accuses the West of having appropriated all Maori “wisdom” in some gigantic act of cultural theft. This, too, is untrue. The woman knows nothing about science or about the history of science. Further, she seems to completely ignore the mythical elements of MM, as well as its dependence on ideology, theology, word of mouth, and uncheckable and unlikely legend (e.g., the claim that Polynesians discovered Antarctica.  There’s science in MM, but it has to be separated from non-science.

Click to watch.

There’s also a long discussion of MM on reddit.


33 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins interviewed in NZ on Māori “ways of knowing”, is grossly misunderstood

  1. It’s strange that the political movement for indigenous validity needs to make everything about indigenous culture equal to anything else that’s gone on in the world.

    I get there’s a background of treating indigenous populations as “lower” and unworthy of the same basic considerations, and these efforts feel like they’re well-intended to avoid further erasure of cultures that were already diminished. But this seems like the wrong way to go about it. Science is an incredibly modern addition to the world, so why would any indigenous culture have an equivalent?

  2. That’s not misunderstanding Dawkins. It’s deliberate; it’s mischaracterization or misrepresentation. Or, put simply, lying.

    1. If there is any valid scientific knowledge in the Maori teachings then they will become part of science. THose who attack Richard Dawkins may be doing so because they are scared that their myths and teachings are like the druidic practices of Dawkins’ Britain, fascinating, but not science.

      1. Not unlike ID wanting to join the academic world, textbooks, etc. without the work of even clearly defining what part is sciency, and why.

    2. Yes, exactly. These are people whose livelihoods literally depend on presenting and upholding falsehoods, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they deliberately misrepresent whoever opposes them.

  3. Ancestors of the actual Maori also hunted the Dinornithiformes (moa) to extinction. Was that careful “stewardship of the land”?

  4. Have any proponents of MM as Science explained how one resolves major differences between their “truth” and that of other Indigenous peoples?

  5. Tim Minchin famously asked — and answered — the question “What do you call Alternative Medicine that works? Medicine

    What do you call Māori Science that works? Science.

    This entire argument over there being “many sciences” and the suppression of all but one by the hegemonic establishment of so-called experts has been the relentless complaint of Alternative Medicine advocates. Sometimes the claimed remedy had supposedly indigenous origins and they played this to the hilt.

    And, like MM, Alt Med has made shocking inroads into mainstream schools and hospitals, supported by academics who Should Have Known Better. They have instead been caught up in an exciting narrative of rebellion against convention in the cause of people being allowed to choose which form of “science” is right for them. Social justice for the Oppressed is icing on the homeopathic cake.

  6. One of my students asked me to look over his paper where he stated that time in a sweat lodge removes toxins from the body. I asked for examples of toxins and he listed off a few heavy metals. We dug into the research. In the end the paper addressed the history and current sweat lodge practises, as well as the connectedness it can achieve between participants. He was able to talk about heart rates and the process of sweating. The removal of heavy metals from the body did not make the cut. Luckily we have the liver, kidneys, and bowels for that kind of thing. We both learned from the process.

  7. Dr Henry was as tiresome and racist as the rest of this discussion. I think academics in NZ are silenced by moral blackmail to toe the party line of MM nonsense. Science in NZ is a pretty small community and racism is an unprovable (and one with no real defense against) charge. Like witchcraft.

    As usual, my vote is with Dawkins and Coyne. Utterly.


  8. It would be nice if primitive cultures were good stewards of the land, and if they actually lived in harmony with nature and each other.
    It would be even better if they held secret knowledge about personal fulfillment and enlightenment, as well as special insights about medicine and the natural world.
    There is no evidence at all that any of these are the case.
    I guess it is a human tendency to want to believe that someone holds those answers. Marketing that belief is big business not far from here, in New Mexico. Brian’s sweat lodges are part of it, but all sorts of craziness is sold, mostly by people who don’t even have the traditional expertise or heritage they claim.
    Of course, whether the ritual is actually an ancient Navajo one or something cobbled together by some hippies from California is irrelevant, as far as effectiveness is concerned.

    I read a story somewhere about a guy in a 3rd World country who built a helicopter. More of a helicopter shaped object. He assembled it from junkyard scrap and pieces of lumber, and he seemed confident that it would safely fly.
    His problem was deeper than not having the engineering knowledge to build an aircraft. He did not understand what engineering even was.
    It is very difficult for those of us with a conventional western education to comprehend the thought process that leads someone to believe that the helicopter would fly. My experience leads me to believe that such views are actually fairly common.
    Sure, some people are pushing indigenous beliefs to make money. I think we tend to underestimate how many people just see science as a different kind of magic.

    1. Did the writer try to convey this guy’s thought processes? It’s not necessarily belief in magic. It can just be not realizing some of the scales involved. For example, in history, people would notice birds flapped their wings and would fly. Then an inventor would make a big pair of human-size wings, strap those wings to their human arms, flap their arms, and try to fly. It didn’t work. But it wasn’t a bad idea as far as it went. The missing concept was knowing just how much effort would be needed to move the amount of air necessary for a human, who weighs much more than a bird. And that’s it’s not possible to do it with human muscle. Maybe this guy is in the same situation. He’s not dumb, quite the opposite. He’s trying to replicate what he observes in “nature” (counting a helicopter). He just doesn’t realize all that’s involved, because he doesn’t have the background for it. But did anyone ever try explaining to him: You have the basic idea right, but the blades need to spin very very fast, and you don’t have anything that can make them spin so fast, and they have to be very hard so they don’t break when they spin so fast, etc. That’s not incomprehensible at all.

      1. I was not trying to mock the guy, and I don’t remember the tone of the article being negative, either.
        Nor do I discount all the failures that come with experimentation. I was trying to convey my belief that lots of people, perhaps most people, perceive the world in a manner where MM is not absurd.

        The guy who makes a set of wings and jumps off a cliff is part of the early stages of the process, and probably happened more than once in earlier eras. I think the story would be very different if someone did that not in ancient Greece, but today, and was someone who owns a motorcycle and lives near an airport.

        Discussing the serious issues with MM is pretty easy among those on this forum. We have wildly differing levels of expertise, but there is a baseline of logic that most of us share.
        On the other hand, it would be much harder to explain our arguments against MM to someone who believes they can paint a screen on a block of wood and use it to make phone calls. That example is probably an exaggeration, but it is less of one than it should be.

    2. It’s basically the latest iteration of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ idea.

      Funny, though: once fashionable — see the embarrassing Kevin Costner movies, ‘Dance with Wolves,’ for example — the noble savage was for some time deemed offensive.

      But now, guilt-stricken progressives the world over are clambering to outdo one another in the noble-savage sweepstakes.

      It really is such a strange and condescending idea. The (American) Indian people I know (virtually none refer to themselves as Native American, a fact many wokesters don’t know) shake their heads when progressive-splained-to about their supposed inherent ‘spiritual wisdom,’ ‘connection with the earth’ and the like.

      1. My brother-in-law is an enrolled tribe member, and they still live near his ancestral lands. He worked at Sandia lab, and has very little tolerance for all the new age garbage around here.
        Thinking about it, if his elementary and high schools had taught some sort of indigenous spirituality instead of math and physics, he would never have been able to achieve what he has.

  9. Just today, continuing to read the brilliant but also dense (for my fading powers) CYNICAL THEORIES, by Pluckrose & Lindsay (2020) which IIRC Jerry recommended a while back. I second that and raise it! Just today, reading about the particular species of Postcolonial Theory was apropos of the discussions here and quite timely. Point is, they are already armed with Theory ways to dismiss the notion there is any sort of universal scentific or mathematical truth. That is now just a way of knowing, and in fact, in the search for Social Justice, is to be demoted below Other Ways of Knowing, in this case MM. The lived, spiritual, racial, religious, traditional, etc etc, truths to be elevated above the colonial power arrangements of science, “rationality”, skepticism, secularism — being the peculiar regime of the white, mostly male, colonialists.

    So arguing science and universality of reason is pointless with these Theory folk. They already dealt with that. We’re just playing an obvious confirming role in their master understanding of it all. One hopeful footnote suggested this was now a new form of the emotional “orientalism” that we/they’d been trying to move past for decades now, seminally characterized by Said in his ORIENTALISM (1978) — which I’m reading also, having been inspired by Rushdie’s references to his friend’s book in the brilliant memoir JOSEPH ANTON. BTW, Jerry, Said I belive was working and finishing his book while an Advanced Study guy at Stanford, so maybe you’ll bump into his ghost/legacy.

    1. Sorry to reply to myself, and I’m probably violating a rool … But I wanted to quote the first sentence of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s DECOLONIZING METHODOLOGIES from 1999 (!). I suspect she may be a “seminal” figure in all of this. Anyhow, from page 1: “From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probaby one of the dirtiest words in the indigenouse world’s vocabulary.” I’m excited to think where this book will go from here! No, for realz!!

      [PS. I just found this copy at the wonderful Internet Archive, which I donate to, as an indispensible place for all us netizens to find amazing stuff.]

      1. Dr Henry went so far as to say that the West taking maths and algebra from the Arabs was the same as the Spanish seizing land and gold from the natives of South America, an abuse of language and fact which the interviewer ignored. Where Archimedes and Eratosthenes etc got their maths from, and what the West did with statistics and calculus subsequently to learning from the Arabs is apparently of no significance.

  10. It would be a great advancement in MM science if there was ever an instance where some of their incorrect claims were admitted to and walked back. That would make MM science a bit more like elitist Eurocentric science.

  11. I may regard Dawkin’s as an abrasive snobbish Pom (ANZAC slag for Brits), as a scientist I hold him in high regard.

    As for “destruction of forests” well the only moral high ground may be that it took less time for the colonists as they had metal and wheels.

    I stand that we (New Zealand) just simply get blacklisted from international scientific forums and programs.

  12. Charitably abstract and accurate commentary from Dawkins, as usual, and it is a shame it went so weirdly and quickly unconsidered. But it was interesting to watch any conversation on the matter after only having read about it to this point.

    (I also feel enriched having learned a new pronunciation of “urinal.”)

    1. I assume you are talking about the use of the word right at the beginning of the video. What other ways are there of pronouncing “urinal” when talking about a receptacle to urinate in?

  13. It seems as this is part of a larger trend in academia; namely, the takeover of these disciplines by the very mediocre intellects who tend to focus more on administrative positions, or quasi-academic disciplines such as gender studies.

    There is a both a distinct lack of rigor in the thought processes of those that seem obsessed with “diversity, inclusion and equity”, and also a very cynical use of threats of racism and sexism to suppress dissent.

    It’s like the dim ones are jealous of the ability of the truly talented scientists and academics to push the frontiers of human knowledge in ways that they never could. Rather than supporting our best and brightest, these mediocrities are transforming science and higher learning into something entirely different…a less rigorous, more political, and ultimately less effective discipline that they feel more comfortable swimming in. And using “DEI” as cover for this coup.

  14. On this topic, here’s what Thomas H. Huxley says in this “The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology” (1880), chapter 1:

    “Many persons seem to believe that what is termed Science is of a widely different nature from ordinary knowledge, and that the methods by which scientific truths are ascertained involve mental operations of a recondite and mysterious nature, comprehensible only by the initiated, and as distinct in their character as in their subject matter, from the processes by which we discriminate between fact and fancy in ordinary life. But any one who looks into the matter attentively will soon perceive that there is no solid foundation for the belief that the realm of science is thus shut off from that of common sense; or that the mode of investigation which yields such wonderful results to the scientific investigator, is different in kind from that which is employed {2}for the commonest purposes of everyday existence. Common sense is science exactly in so far as it fulfils the ideal of common sense; that is, sees facts as they are, or, at any rate, without the distortion of prejudice, and reasons from them in accordance with the dictates of sound judgment. And science is simply common sense at its best; that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.”

    Thus, science & common sense = compatible, but not the same

  15. It is unfortunate that Europeans have not followed the lead of the US and Canada to institute land acknowledgements of their predecessors, the Homo neanderthalensis subspecies. It is particularly offensive (which means harmful) that Europeans do not acknowledge the neanderthals’ careful stewardship of the land. Neanderthals did not put up a single motorway, billboard, slag heap, or townhouse development. And they (I mean we, speaking for that part of my genome) would never have even dreamed of anything like Disneyland Paris.

  16. In Comment #8, Mr. Anderson explains: “… racism is an unprovable (and one with no real defense against) charge. Like witchcraft.” I suggest it is unfair to compare the now commonplace charge of racism to the earlier charge of witchcraft—unfair, that is, to the
    witch-finding school of thought. Cotton Mather himself was careful to write: “do not lay more stress on pure spectral evidence than it will bear”. On the other hand, DEI preachers tell us all the time that racism can be “systemic” rather than personal, and that at the personal level it is generally “implicit”. There have been no warnings against spectral evidence from members of the DEI clerisy analogous to the Reverend Cotton Mather.

  17. There are lots of nuances in this debate which don’t lend themselves well to a 12 minute segment on morning TV news. I have been urging the Royal Society of NZ to take some lead here, and provide forums for informed debate on specific claims or questions with informed moderators. So far, to now avail.

    There are places in this clip where I hear Ella Henry being open to aspects of what Dawkins says, and there are places where Dawkins is clearly out of his depth. The reduction of *all* of what NZers understand as being included in matauranga Māori to “myth” is poorly-informed and it locks out constructive debate.

    This (JC’s) web page has been much clearer than Dawkins is here about trying to define and sift out cases where MM (or any indigenous knowledge) is based on observation and generalisation, myth or scientific practice. Unless Dawkins does some reading and research about the breadth of scientific studies being done under the aegis of MM before he gets to NZ next year, his trip will be a wasted opportunity. He will be tagged as a neo-colonial elitist. I would rather see the NZ science community take real international leadership in this arena, by inviting reflection and discussion that highlights where (on both sides) people are falling into eschatological rhetoric, and where there might be common ground (even if expressed through different terminology).

    Finally, I’d just like to apologise for NZers’ insecurity and fixation on comparison with Australia expressed at the end of the clip. As a Kiwi, I am embarrassed.

  18. Ugh.
    The statistician after Dawkins says it is unrealistic to teach Maori stuff worldwide, and he’d much prefer that Americans taught more of their own Native American history…
    Words matter – I agree – teach their HISTORY. He immediately changes from ‘teach maori SCIENCE universally’ to ‘teach american HISTORY’.
    It is so obvious.
    And in the maori broadcast, they keep conflating ‘science’ and knowledge’ – no one says maori have no knowledge.
    And most of the time their examples are of ‘sailing’ – there is engineering, there is some knoweldge of stars and currents – is it systemised science? Perhaps. So if there is maori science knowledge of sailing, Dawkins would say – write it down and teach it worldwide.
    But then they run, and dissemble, and mischaracterise, and suddenly they know that ‘science’ is different from lived practical knowledge.
    (Hey, maybe they did sail well. How do we know they could not have sailed BETTER? Maybe they lost lots of folk from shoddy ships and techniques. Maybe they DID have science, but it was crap science. So many question that must not be asked).

  19. I’m afraid we’re witnessing one more example of decolonization where hysterical progressivism attempts to cancel centuries of actual scientific progress. It is nothing less than a battle for sanity, and Dawkins and Coyne are the vanguards. I cheer them on

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