The meager results of the fight to decolonize “Western science” in New Zealand

June 23, 2023 • 11:45 am

In this article we have the usual suspects, professors who write tons of papers, all of this “research” consisting on trying to “decolonize Western science” and put Māori “ways of knowing” in its place  (Mātauranga Māori). The problem, as usual, is that the article is full of lots of assertions about the need for and value of indigenous knowledge but only a single example.  The example, below, is of “practical knowledge”, the one part of MM that does constitute something empirically true or useful. (The rest of MM, also scheduled to be shoved down children’s throats in science class, involves myth, religion, morality, and tradition—things manifestly unscientific.

I see article after article like this: long on ideological blather, victimization claims, and threats to dismantle “Western” science (an insulting misnomer: science belongs to the world), but short on example where MM actually contributes to MODERN science. It’s also full of Māori words, a kind of performative demonstration given that almost no New Zealanders, including the Māori themselves, can speak the language (1%, with 2.7% able to have a basic conversation). I’m starting to learn individual words, though, and will translate what I can below.

Click to read the piece on The Conversation:

Excerpts (translation in brackets are from me)

But progress has not been straightforward, with some scientists publicly questioning the scientific value of mātauranga. [Cue the “Listener letter“.]

At the same time, Māori scientists have drawn on and advanced mātauranga and continue to make space for te reo [the Māori language] , tikanga [Māori practices] and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi [the Treaty of Waitangi, used to justify every attempt of the Māori to appropriate scientific power or money] in research.

Our recent publication explores pūtaiao – a way of conducting research grounded in kaupapa Māori. [As one scientist told me, “Pūtaiao is a word that was invented because Māori did not have a word for ‘science’. It was used to mean ‘science’, but as the article indicates, it now means something different].

In education, pūtaiao is often simplified to mean science taught in Māori-medium schools that includes mātauranga, or science taught in te reo more broadly. But science based on kaupapa Māori [Māori philosophy and values] is generally by Māori, for Māori and with Māori.

Our research extends kaupapa Māori and the important work of pūtaiao in schools into tertiary scientific research. We envision pūtaiao as a way of doing science that is led by Māori and firmly positioned in te ao Māori (including mātauranga, te reo and tikanga).

Note in the last two paragraphs that the Māori “ways of knowing” that will be incorporated in science aren’t offered to the world like the rest of science. Instead, these endeavors will be “by Māori, for Māori and with Māori” and “a way of doing science that is led by Māori and firmly positioned in te ao Māori (including mātauranga, te reo and tikanga).”  It’s far from a universal endeavor.

Science that is practiced only by Māori, imbued with Māori values and ideology, and led only by Māori—is that science or ideology? If the practices produce scientific knowledge, it automatically becomes part of “modern science” (NOT “Western science”).  So I’m not sure what they mean by “decolonizing science” except to either push modern science aside in favor of pūtaiao, which is not good, or incorporate Māori discoveries into the worldwide stream of science. The latter is what should ideally happen (and of course Māori should be given every opportunity to do science and become scientists), but it seems that that’s not the plan.

Instead, the plan involves power: taking over science and science education, and there are few scientists and academics in New Zealand who are brave enough to resist. As the scientist who sent this to me wrote:

Even the title is crazy. Why would we need to decolonise science to “respect” indigenous knowledge? Really, this is more about pūtea (money or funding) than pūtaiao. Effectively what’s going on is a scheme to use science funding to support Māori who want to learn and transmit mātauranga Māori. They started out by claiming that Māori were under-represented in science, which was true. They then said we needed to consider the environment provided for Māori science students so they didn’t feel alienated. This is largely nonsense of course, as the vast majority of Māori who attend university are middle-class. Now the project involves turning science into something else and claiming that it belongs to Māori. It doesn’t make any sense, but institutional leaders seem paralysed by fear over criticising any of this.

I don’t think we’ll make any progress in stopping this unless we can make institutional leaders realise that what they’re dealing with has nothing to do with indigenous knowledge and a lot to do with social justice ideology (especially CRT), political control and access to funding. It’s a progressive move to redefine science in a way that will privilege Māori.

Them’s strong words, but I think he’s right, and I don’t think that “stopping this” will happen. Science in New Zealand is circling the drain, and nobody beyond some scientists (who are afraid to speak up) seems to care.

But I mentioned that there is some real knowledge adumbrated in this paper. Here’s where it’s mentioned, embedded within the “dismantling” scheme (I’ve bolded the science bit):

Decolonising science is at the heart of pūtaiao. It challenges and critiques the academy and disciplines of Western science. Decolonising science requires a focus on histories, structures and institutions that act as barriers to mātauranga, te reo and tikanga.

We argue that decolonising science is a necessary step before we can Indigenise science.

. . . Captain Cook’s “scientific voyage” to Aotearoa is a great example of how colonisation occurred under the guise of science.

. . . Kaupapa Māori, as articulated by distinguished education scholar Graham Hingangaroa Smith, requires two approaches to decolonisation: structuralist and culturalist.

Culturalist approaches centre te reo, mātauranga and tikanga. The groundbreaking work led by professor of marine science and aquaculture Kura Paul-Burke, using mātauranga to enhance shellfish restoration, is an excellent example of a culturalist approach to decolonising science.

A structuralist approach means paying attention to and dismantling the structures within science which continue to exclude Māori knowledge and people. It encourages us to think about the colonial roots of science and how science has been used to justify colonial violence and oppression of Māori.

You can go to the paper at the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, and see that this is the kind of practical knowledge that MM yields:

The transdisciplinary project worked with a traditional Māori master weaver and kaumātua (tribal elders) to develop biodegradable taura kuku (green-lipped mussel spat settlement lines, hereafter taura kuku) made from traditional Māori plant biowaste and other natural materials. The taura kuku proved a successful tool for the recruitment and settlement of wild mussel spat assisting shellfish restoration and increasing marine biodiversity in the culturally and ecologically important mahinga kai (traditional food basket) of Ōhiwa harbour.

Here’s a photo with its caption from the paper:

Images of Ngāti Awa taiohi or youth (L) removing mussels from spat settlement lines; (Centre) mussels collected into bins; (R) mussels being relocated to last traditional bed in the harbour (Images by Paul-Burke & Burke).

And I wouldn’t for a minute say that this isn’t practical knowledge, nor that it didn’t require Māori knowledge to produce these biodegradable settlement lines. It’s very clever, and it is practical knowledge. But others have figured out that what really attracts mussels (an important “crop” in New Zealand) turns out to be chemical cues from algae. That was NOT done by MM or pūtaiao but by modern “Western” science done largely by researchers at the University of Auckland.  And those cues are probably why these spat lines work.

You can guess where modern science would take this: first, identify the chemicals promoting settling (in the past, wild mussels were harvested from algae beds), and then impregnate the settling lines with either brown algae or the chemicals themselves. In other words, identifying why the settling lines work will enable further progress. This progress would be due to a combination of “practical knowledge” from Māori tradition and extended by modern science in the lab.

That is how fruitful collaborations work, and they don’t require dismantling of modern science, but rather an attempt by modern science to see why indigenous “ways of knowing” really work (viz. quinine and other drugs derived from indigenous medicine). This form of theory and hypothesis testing goes beyond practical knowledge, and is part of “modern science.”

What is sad is that these same few examples—all of practical knowledge, mostly about growing food—are trotted out again and again as an example of “breakthough” work used to justify the value of dismantling or decolonizing modern science and used to justify giving millions of dollars to indigenous research institutes or even dubious projects (e.g.,  giving $320,ooo to Priscilla Wehi to investigate completely unbelievable claim that Polynesians, the ancestors of Māori, discovered Antarctica in 650 A.D.  (In reality, the Russians found it in 1820).

Practical knowledge like that shown above, is good, but millions of dollars are being funneled into labs that will be run by Māori, use Māori researchers and “ways of knowing”, and abjure modern science. That will be largely a waste of money, and New Zealand can’t afford to throw millions of research dollars down the rabbit hole. But that’s the result of the “decolonizing science” initiative.

29 thoughts on “The meager results of the fight to decolonize “Western science” in New Zealand

  1. Like a lot of modern Progressivism, it doesn’t make sense unless you know the lingo. When they talk about “colonialism”, you have to remember that Lenin called colonialism the highest form of capitalism. When the talk about decolonizing science, they actually mean getting rid of bourgeois science. Objective science gets into the way of nonsense.

  2. I have little to add, except that I’m paying attention and am glad that you are covering this topic. This does seem to have all the trappings of a power play, where people are trying to co-opt the institutions and funding of science for their own parochial interests. I wonder how much of this movemeant is really about science at all.

  3. Fortunately, science in the US does not have to contend with the intrusion of kaupapa Maori. Instead, we have kaupapa DEI.

  4. I understand that the next NZ General Election is due in October this year. The main opposition to the current Government is the National Party, whose science spokesman published this statement a couple of years ago:

    It would be interesting if NZ readers could comment on (a) the NP’s chances of winning the election; (b) if they did, what their attitude to science and MM might be in practice; and (c) what the wider consequences of an NP victory might be.

    1. This is not quite what you are asking, but it might help a bit:
      National Party is also quietly saying it doesn’t want to ignite a race war.
      There are also two smaller parties — which probably read as ‘centrist’ to Americans but as leaning ‘right’ in NZ — who are more fulsome about education policy or more open to defence of enlightenment values. Many people who have traditionally voted Labour (and who voted enthusiastically for Arden) are now open about looking to ACT Party and NZ First Party. But the polls are not showing clear and strong evidence of this. Some of these new, potential ‘swing voters’ say they can never vote for ACT nor for NZFirst. ACT traditionally link to strong capitalist forces, and Kiwis have long preferred a social welfare safety net. The new, young ACT leadership is trying to forge stronger associations with ‘liberal’ enlightenment values. NZFirst is a thorn in the side of both major parties, regarded by each side as having betrayed them in the past. NZFirst seems to be struggling to get any news coverage in the mainstream media. You have to make an effort to go out and find them to get to hear what the minor parties are saying.

      1. Thank you! As so often, things are much more complicated than they might appear from the outside. The election will be interesting.

    2. Further to S’s reply:
      It is a very strange time here in NZ. The polls suggest it will be a very close election, with polls bouncing between a close victory for the right / centre right bloc of National and Act, and a close victory for the centre-left / extreme left bloc of Labour-Greens-Maori Party. If you want to see what batsh!t crazy looks like, look up some of the statements of the Maori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi, both of whom are sitting Members of Parliament. And the Green Party is completely on board with the Maori separatist agenda of the Maori Party.

      The consequences of a National Party victory? The country will continue on the same trajectory with Maori issues but it will be a bit slower. The previous National Party government implemented various “co-governance” policies that allowed Maori groups 50% decision-making on some significant natural environment assets. There’s no reason to think that they won’t continue on this path, although I imagine they will rein in some of the more ridiculous expenditure and pronouncements in the public sector. But the direction that schools, universities and other research organisations have headed will remain. This is just too heavily ingrained now, all through the public sector, the legal system, and even the private sector. The wider consequences will be a return to some of the harder neoliberal policies of previous centre-right governments: lower tax, lower public spending etc.

      I work at a public research-orientated organisation (not a university), and these matauranga Maori and Tino rangatiratanga (Maori nationalism / self-determination) concepts are embedded deeply within my organisation and all others I deal with. Almost all of the middle class people I work with are in support, irrespective of race. We are bolting towards “cogovernance” of the organisation – i.e. 50% governance by Maori. Do not be fooled – this is all about power.

      It is odd having to feel your way through conversations to see whether you can express your actual views on these issues. But I still don’t believe that this direction is supported by a majority of the populace; more and more frequently I have conversations with friends and acquaintances (not colleagues) who will bring this up as “having got a bit out of hand” or “going too far”.

      I am from the centre left and have voted that way in every election. The choices for me this election are entirely unpalatable. My wife and I are actively searching for jobs overseas.

    3. The election seems pretty much of a toss up at this point. The most likely options are a coalition of either National/ACT on one side or Labour/Greens/Maori Party on the other. Neither side strikes me as particularly well-informed about, or even particularly interested in, science apart from making the usual noises about how we need lots of it to compete in the modern world. The major issues that I see mentioned are inflation, the the health service, and to some extent the somewhat nebulous notion of “co-governance” and the pushing of all things Maori in general, including bilingual road signs. In polls education comes low on the list of priorities – however, anecdotally, everyone I meet with school age children, especially people from overseas, are appalled at the state of things and wondering if they can afford private education leading to an internationally recognised qualification. David Lillis has written lots of good stuff about the woes of education here.

      It remains to be seen how much National/ACT would change things if they get elected. The National education shadow minister, Erica Stanford, does seem serious about improving things. I voted for Jacinda twice, but wasn’t expecting such a rapid pace of change, without warning, in her second term, and will probably hold my nose and vote National this time round.

  5. Science seems to be playing second fiddle to the music of self-esteem. In the long run, rigor, progress, and explanatory power just aren’t as important as making sure people who were once bullied finally feel really, really good about themselves. It’s better to be nice than right.

    Everything we need to know we learned in Mātauranga Māori.

  6. Seems to be a sort of weird Maori nationalist project as much as anything, like India’s efforts…

    1. A lot of this is driven by UNDRIP, another UN scheme for demonizing white people: countries who have residual indigenous populations that their founders didn’t exterminate, drive off, or assimilate are, in essence, supposed to return the country to them and then beg to be allowed to stay on as tenants. That’s a bit of an exaggeration of UNDRIP itself but it is not an exaggeration of the indigenous sovereignty movement which has been galvanized by the Resolution in countries that have ratified it. UNDRIP clearly poses the danger of ethnocracy. This would never fly in the United States because of the Second Amendment but leftist governments in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand seem hell-bent on implementing it out of either guilt or fear. The U.S. has ratified it—you were the last country to do so—but you, sensibly, regard it as aspirational and have no intention of being bound by it.

  7. Yah, about 70-90% of MM is mystical, spiritual, philosophical and religious BS. The other part varies quite a bit but can have an underlying element of observation. Anyway, what we lose in skilled people, the rest of the world gains, I foresee a massive brain drain in the coming years and you all deserve it!

    I apologize for using the term BS.

  8. Most NZ universities are currently making significant numbers of academics redundant. In at least some universities things Māori are seen as “strategic” and exempt

  9. The full paper this article seems to be based on is even worse:

    As Gordon points out, redundancies are currently under way, the most recent to affect Wellington and Otago universities. Wellington is set to cut 229 jobs, and to close whole departments including German, Italian and geophysics.

    It astonishes me that the authors of garbage like this paper can hold university positions which allow them to do so, while far more worthy subjects (IMO) are scheduled for severe cuts. It seems from some of the information that has emerged around the redundancies that there is still a lot of good science being done here, but it gets no publicity, and is cut to the bone, whereas the garbage is publicised extensively. Another example of content-free rubbish just the other day:

    On the bright side, I see that Auckland university is advertising for a lecturer in condensed matter physics.

    1. Rather amazing that a place prone to so many dangerous earthquakes would be abolishing a geophysics program.

      1. Who needs geophysics, when we have Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, to explain all things geological. But then, of course, I’m racist.

  10. Really, this is more about pūtea (money or funding) than pūtaiao.

    You say puteo, I say putaiao – let’s call the whole thing off.

  11. I’ll try to get a quote over here later, but I needed to mention :

    Friere writes in The Politics of Education that decolonization (yes, that is the exact word used) is really about decolonizing the mind – as the mind has been born into and filled with colonized knowledge it did not ask for, and thus education (in the conventional sense) will only regenerate the same dehumanizing structures — unless we follow Friere’s easy step-by-step plan.

    1. Here is the excerpt – I’m not making any point here besides precisely what the target of decolonization is – according to Friere, whose pedagogy I surmise is behind the policies we hear about in New Zealand :

      “That’s why I admire Cape Verde’s president, Artistides Pereira. He gave a speech in Praia in which he made an extraordinary statement that has a lot to do with our conversation now: “We made our liberation and we drove out the colonizers. Now we need to decolonize our minds.” That’s it exactly. We need to decolonize the mind because if we do not, our thinking will be in conflict with the new context evolving from the struggle for freedom.”

      -Paulo Friere
      The Politics of Education, 1985

      1. Does decolonization of the indigenous mind require first the ethnic cleansing of the colonizers’ bodies as Friere seems to be saying? The colonizers of Cape Verde were maybe glad to be shut of the infernal place when they sailed home. The driving out of the colonizers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States will not be a pretty sight. Yet how else is a minority polity (infinitesimally small in the case of the United States) to pass laws that will enable decolonization of its minds?

        1. Right, so I think that is what I meant by my disclaimer – Friere is quoting Artistides Pereira and emphasizing mind. That’s pretty close to “science”, so I found it notable, because I am ignorant of Cape Verde.

          My current readings suggest Friere has no plan whatsoever – nor do his followers – beyond, to be blunt, dysfunctionally complaining and protesting.

          … But of course they leave that dirty work to the children they make “literate”, meaning only “politically literate”, to “do the work”/praxis.

          I will note that Friere praises Che Guevara – among other such exciting figures – a number of times, in the books I cite lately. That might give a sense of where Friere is coming from.

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