A Kiwi zoologist decries the erosion of science in New Zealand

August 3, 2023 • 11:30 am

It’s rare when a Kiwi scientist writes an article calls out the erosion of their country’s science by an overly worshipful attitude towards “indigenous ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori in New Zealand).  Over at  BreakingViews.co.nz, Auckland zoologist Brian Gill blasts the tendency of New Zealand’s science societies to kowtow towards “other ways of knowing.”

How did he get away with this? Because he’s retired, of course. As the Kiwi who sent me this link said, “Our critics will say that all of these articles are written by white, male boomers. However, retired members of this group are basically beyond retribution. I know retired scientists who totally agree with us yet are afraid to say anything.”

Click to read:

Here’s a few excerpts from the piece:

It’s the perfect time for science groups to promote science’s history and philosophy, and make clear the power of the modern scientific method.  The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) publicises individual science projects that it funds.  But it and other science groups seem strangely silent on the benefits of science thinking generally.

The RSNZ [Royal Society of New Zealand], formerly our science academy, in 2010 amalgamated with the Humanities Council.  It now focuses heavily on Maori and Pacific culture and identity, and promotes what it calls “multiple knowledge domains” with science rather off to one side.  The RSNZ rejected the Listener letter-writers’ “narrow and outmoded definition of science”.  That’s the former science body responding under influence of the humanities, which often portrays science as merely one of many world views, all equally valid.  It’s a serious problem that New Zealand now lacks an academy devoted solely to science.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) claims to be “an independent body that stands for and advocates for science and scientists”.  Yet, after the letter of the “Listener Seven”, the NZAS seemed to have a new ideological purpose.  Instead of supporting science and the letter-writers, it stated in its press release that science “has an ongoing history of colonising when it speaks over Indigenous voices” and that matauranga Maori (traditional knowledge) has “equal importance and role in scientific work”.

In the new school science curriculum the Ministry of Education has included “mauri” (a mystical force that some believe is present in animate and inanimate objects).  Other cultures have a similar concept (“vitalism”) but in Europe it was discredited as part of science in the early 1800s.  Shamefully, the science organisations have been tight-lipped on this important issue in science philosophy, seemingly unwilling to defend science thinking in schools.

Perhaps they consider science too powerful to need promotion.  Or they may feel that too strong an advocacy for the scientific method makes other world views look inadequate.  They might just be falling in line with the current attitude of the liberal (some say “illiberal”) left, that “Western” institutions deserve no praise.

Gill goes on to list some of “the characteristics of science” which, he said, are too often neglected by those promoting or adjudicating science in New Zealand. They include Universality, Evidence, Endless Scrutiny, Objectivity, Grand Theories, Openness and Publication, and Neutrality (science itself cannot “colonize,” “marginalize,” or “oppress”).  The paragraph below, for example, shouldn’t need saying, but it does—over and over again—in New Zealand.

1) Universality.  Modern science has roots in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe so it isn’t “Western”.  Science today is an international and universal endeavour.  There is only one kind of science and it has no national, regional or cultural varieties.  Talk of “Western science” or “Indigenous science”, meaning particular kinds of science, betrays poor understanding.  Concepts can be part of science only if they are known and understood around the world by scientists irrespective of cultural background.

This is largely ignored in New Zealand, where “indigenous science” is conceived of as something different from (though perhaps complementary to) “Western science.”

Yes, it was a huge mistake to bring humanities into the RSNZ, because it is largely the humanities folk who are destroying science in New Zealand with jargon-laden articles about how “western science” should be coequal to indigenous science in schools, and are involved in a large indigenous grab of power and money that will give Māori “ways of knowing” (which include tradition, superstition, religion, and morality) and workers unwarranted control over science curricula and projects.

Have a look, for example, at some of the Marsden Fund grants given in 2021 to Kiwi investigators. The purpose of these grants is to “support excellence in science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities in New Zealand by providing grants for investigator-initiated research.” Millions of dollars handed out!

Now don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of other grants that involve real science. (I didn’t even go through the whole list of 2021, and I see a similar pattern in 2022‘s awards.) But you can see how indigeneity and wokeness have invaded an institution formerly devoted to promulgating science, with the real damage being the millions of dollars diverted from real science into projects that seem unproductive. I doubt that a huge infusion of money was given to the RSNZ to support projects like those above, so it’s likely that this is a real diversion from real science.

Make of it what you will, but the Royal Society of New Zealand has become a joke.  How to fix it? Gill suggests a start:

All these characteristics describe a brilliant system with a unique and pre-eminent role in modern society, but our science bodies seem too coy to tell us.  Perhaps the RSNZ should de-merge to release science from the stifling embrace of the humanities.  Or the RSNZ could at least allow its “multiple knowledge domains” to speak separately even if at times they contradict each other.  We may need a new organisation: “Advocates for Science”.  It would be for those prepared to put science thinking ahead of social justice activism.

What would that represent? Well, as in the joke, “What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?” the answer is “A good start.” Unfortunately, the RSNZ is beyond redemption, and they will never, ever “de-merge”, nor even allow its multiple knowledge domains to speak separately.”  That last idea is not a good one, anyway, for it assumes that “other-ways-of-knowing” projects will still be funded.

The grants above, and similar ones, total millions of New Zealand dollars (each worth 61¢ US).

39 thoughts on “A Kiwi zoologist decries the erosion of science in New Zealand

  1. What would that represent? Well, as in the joke, “What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?” the answer is “A good start.”

    Now, that is funny

  2. What happens in a democracy when anti-science populism captures the government? This seemed to be at least a possibility in the US during the Trump years, and now maybe a probability in New Zealand.

    One thing that could happen is that leaders could lead. Parliamentarians, Cabinet members and Prime Ministers could say “no, science is NOT spiritualism, not a “social construct,” and supporting science and scientists will make us a better society.” I guess we’re waiting for leaders to stick their heads above the parapet.

    Clearly, merging the science and humanities associations was a fatal mistake, and if an amicable divorce cannot be obtained, scientists will have to form a break away group.

    1. Looking for leadership from politcians? I don’t know about NZ, but here in the states they are capable of many things, but leading on anything not politically expedient is asking too much. Politicians don’t act until the people demand they do. All social change, from women’s and gay rights to the environmental movement were driven by people, not politicians. Our elected jump on board when it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing. It is good, of course, for them to join up, as we need their cooperation, but the effort doesn’t come from them.

      No, it will be up to the Kiwis themselves to fix this. I hope they can.

    2. Like it or not, but the left is at war with science (and not just in NZ). Science says that humans (and other species) have two (quite binary) sexes. The left passionately rejects science and claims (without evidence) that ‘sex is a spectrum’. Science says that ‘race’ more or less matches well known clusters in the human genome. The left passionately rejects science and claims (without evidence) that ‘race has no biological basis’.

  3. It is unfortunate that Europe’s indigenous Ways of Knowing during the middle ages are not receiving the same veneration as those ascribed to non-European indigenous folk. It might be hoped that Progressive thinkers will bring Medieval Matauranga back into our scholarly programs and education. We could then look forward to grants investigating medical treatment through blood-letting, prayer, and the use of holy relics; and school curricula supplementing physics, chemistry and biology with divination, white magic, astrology, and the definitive Malleus Maleficarum (1487) on the detection of witches.

    1. European thought involves criticism of what it regards as superstition, going back to classical antiquity. So there has been criticism of European “indigenous ways of knowing” within European thinking for centuries. For the complexity of the issues here, an excellent source is Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe, Superstition, Reason and Religion, 1250 – 1750.

    2. Blood-letting, now usually called therapeutic phlebotomy, is not in the same category as the use of relics and charms. It is still used in a number of medical conditions including hemochromatosis, and a grant investigating therapeutic phlebotomy in connection with some disease would not be comparable with the indigenous knowledge cases. The fact that blood-letting is an almost entirely superseded form of therapy doesn’t mean it has no more scientific credibility than the use of holy relics.

    3. And don’t forget Malleus Maleficarum. Thou shall not suffer a witch to live. Good old home-spun wisdom there.

    4. Comparisons with Medieval Europe is not relevant. As unsatisfactory as much of their supposed ways of knowing were, Medieval Europe was vastly more sophisticated. Mātauranga Māori is supposedly (if it has been remembered correctly) a world view and way of knowing which comes from a relatively small group of tribes whose technology never developed beyond the stone age. They had no mathematics beyond the most elementary numeration, no materials beyond stone, wood and flax for constructing instruments, no written language or methods of recording what they thought they knew apart from oral transmission.

    5. We don’t need a text (Malleus Maleficarum) on the detection of witches. They are quite vocal about their presence.

  4. I found this bit in the article disturbing:

    There were media reports in May 2022 that AgResearch, a government science agency, had launched a Maori Research and Partnership Group to help Maori-led agribusinesses “conduct their research in a safe space, where their matauranga was protected”.

    It seems hard to underestimate how important the idea of fragility is to movements which go against science. Many years ago, I tried talking to some friends who were strong believers in Alternative Medicine (“science supports it, lots of studies!”) about a ubiquitous feature of Holistic Wellness Fairs: despite the fact that many of the claims people in the booths were making about the cause and treatment of disease flatly contradicted each other, you never saw any of them arguing. There was no sense of disagreement at all. Total harmony was achieved by virtue of a unanimous disgust with Allopathic Mainstream Medicine. Details weren’t particularly important as fairgoers smiled and nodded at everything.

    This, I told them, was unhealthy. Science IS disagreement, the open forum and skeptical winnowing out of poor ideas for improved ones. They didn’t see my point. It was instead wonderful that nobody was telling anyone else they were wrong. It was healthy; it was safe.

    Though they did finally agree that maybe Alt Med wasn’t “science” as Westerners understood it. Just as well. Challenging others’ truths was mentally and spiritually harmful. Other cultures — older and wiser ones — knew better. Accept all with grace, hurt no one. We’re so fragile.

    This attitude, once endemic to sensitive New Age beliefs, seems to be encroaching into mainstream science using the vehicle of racial guilt. Research in a “safe space” — good grief.

    1. People who know, or at least sense, that their beliefs cannot be defended, are understandably discomfited when asked to do so, no matter how unthreateningly. The reciprocal inference can therefore be made: people who are discomfited when asked to rationalize their assertions are aware, perhaps only subconsciously, that their assertions do not pass muster. Bodies of thought that need safe spaces are bodies of thought that don’t cut it, and those demanding the safe spaces know they don’t cut it.

    2. Well said. The idea of “harms” and “micro aggressions” at every turn has driven many people mad, while scientists and truth-tellers self-censor, waiting for the madness to blow over.
      If science is “just a social construct”, then science that makes people uncomfortable is anti-social and must be suppressed.

  5. It’s a bit of a long shot, but might there be any mileage in suggesting that some distinguished current members of the English Royal Society could get up a petition to deprive the RSNZ of its ‘Royal’ prefix, on the grounds that it’s failing to discharge its duty to promote science in New Zealand?

    It wouldn’t work, of course: the RS itself probably has too many woke members for such an initiative to get traction; and the RS wouldn’t have the authority to impose it even if it wanted to. But the publicity might be worth having.

    1. some distinguished current members of the English Royal Society could get up a petition to deprive the RSNZ of its ‘Royal’ prefix,

      They’d have to persuade King BigEars to rescind some sort of warrant granted by (I’m guessing) great-great granny Vicky, that allows them to call themselves “Royal”. It’s nothing to do with the Royal Society, whose warrant was granted in 1665 (or -6?). That’s King BigEars of the” talking to pot plants” infamy, and multiple strands of New Age Hardness of Thinking. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for him to help. Even if it had no political dimension at all.

      on the grounds that it’s failing to discharge its duty to promote science in New Zealand?

      That might be a ground for disbanding the RSNZ, or (possibly worse) removing it’s charitable status, which would probably do horrible things to it’s last few years of tax calculations. As a legal remedy, that’s probably open to try, but it won’t be either quick or cheap. The detailed terms of the charter would probably matter.

  6. Cheers to Prof Gill! (And PCC/E for keeping us up to date AND putting pressure on NZ)
    Keep in mind those numbers they’re wasting on this nonsense. While NZ is a wealthy country, its population is 5m. and they have some pressing needs. Qatar, Exxon, Goldman Sachs or the State of California can throw money of that size around without any worries: like a bit shot asshole who tips the stripper $100 to show off.
    NZ has more pressing concerns.
    Plus – even on its own terms – the benefits to the Maori people (who seem to matter more than ANY OTHER POPULATION there), are not there. So who is benefiting from this grift? The usual class of “Indigenous Industry” people.
    It is a grift/con more than just a waste.
    I hope some NZ journalist can provide a dynamic analysis of these funding and ID the grifters and hold them to account.
    Last year (was it?) the gvt gave $100m ($20 for each NZ citizen) for “M/M Maori psychology”
    NYC (formerly of Auckland)

    1. Thats all very well but the belief is, all will benefit from “other ways to knowledge” not just Maori. Maori think they are addressing a problem, being, threats to their way of life, customs, their ability to cope with the modern world as far as I can tell. They fail to see that modern science is the best way forward as universal truths are not the domain of culture.
      Iindigenous ways of knowing is LIMITED, an ancient process to understanding.
      No one benefits if money is wasted that is not conducted to science methodology, subject to error correction and not universal.
      Science communicators have failed in making this clear over long periods of colonization, assumed that all understand modern science and processes.

  7. Kudos to Gill for standing up against this nonsense. Even though he’s retired, sticking his head above the parapet in such a polarised debate can’t have been easy.

  8. The solution seems to be there: ‘We may need a new organisation: “Advocates for Science”.’ But don’t call it that. Call it New Zealand Science Academy or some such thing, and call on scientists to join it to talk about and promote science (just science!). The RSNZ is dead. Start a new organisation.

    1. What about the money held by RSNZ out of which it finances grants? The Society is created by an Act of Parliament and could not be dissolved without legislation, which the Humanities faction would oppose. You seceders would not be able to take any Marsden money with you unless the Humanities faction was uncommonly magnanimous with relief at having the society all to themselves and seeing the back of you.

      Is there any scientific or academic obligation to be a member of the Society in the first place? No doubt it’s an honour to be invited and you can be investigated and disciplined if you are no longer worthy. But do disciplinary proceedings including expulsion (or voluntary resignation of membership during an investigation) affect your employability or ability to apply for grants, Marsden or external?

      Or does the Society need the scientists more than the scientists need the Society? I’m interested in the power dynamics.

      1. I think the Royal Society only administer the Marsden fund, partly to give a degree of independence in the allocations – governments pay it and if inclined could allocate it elsewhere.

  9. I disagree with much of what is happening in New Zealand in relation to education and science, but I think that it is driven by parties other than the Royal Society Te Aparangi (formerly known as the Royal Society of New Zealand). Perhaps it is fatuous to say that we are in need more positive and constructive dialogue than has emerged over the last two years.

    I must say that my own interactions with the Royal Society Te Aparangi have been most positive. I have been on Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch for 27 years (!!!) and, in recent times, the Royal Society Te Aparangi (of which the Branch is a Constituent Society) has been very supportive of my own attempts to promote science in the Wellington Region. See:


    The staff are first-rate and the Chief Executive, Paul Atkins, has been very helpful in setting up a new era of joint work in promoting science and scientists. I organize and host public science-based lectures with the support of the Royal Society Te Aparangi that includes use of its beautiful Aronui Lecture Theatre. See:


    I am among those who have gone public in my attempts to preserve the integrity of science and education, but I wish to give credit where it is due.
    David Lillis

    1. David, RSTA does not speak with one voice, despite the obvious presence within it of large numbers of sane people such as yourself, and as you will know the actions of the executive have been subject to severe criticism by some of the scientific members, notably in the Open Letter organised by Gaven Marten. Professors Nola and Cooper did not resign for no reason, after all.

  10. Strictly speaking the Chinese are Pakeha as well. It can be translated in some vulgar ways sometimes.

    1. Really? Pakeha:
      Historians and language experts agree that the original meaning of the word Pākehā is most likely to be ‘pale, imaginary beings resembling men’, referring to a sea-dwelling, godlike people in Māori mythology. It has been used to describe Europeans, and then New Zealanders of European descent since before 1815.
      Not a scientist but the Chinese are closer to Maori than you would think (a little removed but nonetheless) as current understanding of migration into the Pacific.
      Ancient voyaging: from 50,000 to 25,000 BCE people from Asia sailed simple rafts from island to island, reaching Near Oceania (Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

      1. I’ve heard worse than that, but that is the common one.
        Yeah, Asian and Polynesian people are close, genetically and linguistically.

  11. While I pretty much agree with Brian Gill’s arguments it perhaps might be made clearer that the Marsden fund is not confined to science but includes “social sciences and the humanities” (he did note this) so one would expect a number of grants that don’t involve “real science”. A lot of the grants listed would seem to fall into the non-science group.
    I had a scroll through the 2022 list of grants and I would have thought that standard science did pretty well – although I did wonder a bit about the second line of research in “Why is pounamu tough? Using materials science and mātauranga Māori to explain the special physical properties and uses of nephrite jade” unless it relates only to the usage.
    One might also suggest that it a range of humanities and social science researchers whose research does not involve Matauranga Māori may also be feeling left out.

  12. Number of times words appear, by crude “find in page” search :

    “knowing” : 10
    “thinking” : 3
    “thought” : 0

    The “3” includes the original article and its excerpts.

    I find this interesting – over three times as many appearances of “knowledge” than of “thinking”, in the discourse in general. I hope it is clear that is not a nitpicking criticism of anyone’s writing, but pointing out a narrative, perhaps, as engineered by word selection. I might put a Google Ngram below. But I draw no conclusion at this point.

    “Other Ways of Knowing” is posited as equivalent solutions to identical problems, and is easy for a general audience to understand. However, problem solving itself is primarily about recognizing and defining the problem in the first place.

    This disparity between thinking and knowledge is a pet theory of mine – especially in postmodernist and philosophical literature – though “thought” appears there frequently too…. and I’m wondering how this relates to empiricism…

    So bravo to Brian Gill for putting “thinking” in the title, and discussing “thinking”. Perhaps it will “stick out” to a general audience.

    1. … Also I can detect “holistic” mysticism at work – the notion that nothing can be understood in isolation, that it is the whole which must be worked upon simultaneously (or whatever “holistic” means! Probably Dialectical Materialism.) – ergo, “Other Ways Of Knowing” must be combined with empirical natural sciences – an intrinsically parsimonious enterprise – to be “holistic”.

      Very clear piece by Gill.

  13. Roger Douglas, minister of finance, revolutionized the New Zealand economy in the 1980s. He is hated by the Left. I applied to the Marsden fund, which is administered by the Royal Society, for help to write a balanced biography of Douglas. My two previous books were nominated for awards. The Royal Society ranked my application rock bottom — 64th out of 64 — with the shallow assessment: “The topic of ‘Rogernomics’ is not all that exciting and not really in the realm of Marsden funded research.” At the same time, the Royal Society gave a big award to a Leftist to condemn Rogernomics. This is political bigotry.

    1. I’ve been told many times that Marsden does not often like biography projects. No further explanation. But on investigation, it is clear that very few get funded. Repackage the project in the application (ie, wider themes) to avoid it being pigeonholed as biography. Also, realise that Marsden and RSNZ are both nuts right now. If the project does not include a section on ‘Rogernomics and Te Tiriti’ to be led by a Maori colleague, then it might be best to wait a few years in hope that something at RSNZ might change.

  14. To follow up on Anon’s comments: no, this is not the same thing as Matauranga Maori. Look at the paragraph specifically describing the ways in which traditional indigenous knowledge is included.

    Indigenous Knowledge Statement and Establishment of Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
    The Biden-Harris Administration issued a memorandum recognizing Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge as one of the important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of our nation.
    With Tribal consultation and input from knowledge holders and practitioners, the Administration will develop a guidance document for federal agencies on how the collection and application of such knowledge can be mutually beneficial to Tribes, Native communities, and federal agencies and can strengthen evidence-based analysis and informed decision-making across the federal government.
    An Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge will gather input from Tribes and Native communities and prepare the guidance document for planned release in 2022.


    Details of the process and the “guidance document” here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/06/27/readout-ostp-and-ceq-initial-engagement-on-white-house-indigenous-knowledge-effort/ (Still looking for the interagency report)

    The response is a lot more tempered than what we have seen in New Zealand. And it is much more in keeping with the ways in which indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) are incorporated throughout the world (my particular experience is with Canadian, USAnian, and South African policies on IKS in education and policy). In these examples, IKS provide information about data and patterns, and sometimes predictive models for ecologic events based on generations of observation and experience.

    This proposal does NOT suggest subsuming all scientific policy and education under the dictates of the IKS, but instead to find ways that these observations can be added to the evidence we use to make policies scientifically. BIG difference.

    Besides, UNLIKE the situation in EnZed, we do not have ONE major indigenous culture or ONE indigenous point of view here driving the proposal. There are some similarities and overlap among indigenous cultures in North America, but they are not all one uniform entity.

    So much more diversity among those cultures.

  15. And this week, from Nature Briefing, a look at a World Health Organization (WHO) conference on traditional health practices.


    Opening paragraph:

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened its first summit dedicated to traditional medicine. The two-day meeting, co-hosted by the Indian government, began on 17 August in Gandhinagar, India. It comes after the WHO last year set up a Global Centre for Traditional Medicine in Jamnagar with US$250 million in funding from India, and in 2019 included some traditional medicines in its International Classification of Diseases-11, an influential compendium used by doctors to diagnose medical conditions.

    With billions of people already using traditional medicines, the organization needs to explore how to integrate them into conventional healthcare and collaborate scientifically to understand their use more thoroughly, says Shyama Kuruvilla, WHO lead for the Global Centre for Traditional Medicine and the summit, who is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Many researchers who study traditional medicines agree — but some are not sure whether the summit will deliver.

    At present, the WHO considers traditional and complementary medicines to include disciplines as wide-ranging as Ayurveda, yoga, homeopathy and complementary therapies.

    The summit will bring together participants from all WHO regions, Indigenous communities, traditional-medicine practitioners and policy, data and science specialists.

    The WHO only includes in its guidelines and policies those interventions or systems that are rigorously scientific and that have been validated with randomized control trials or systematic reviews — and it will continue this practice for traditional medicines, says Kuruvilla. Also there needs to be global standards for the multi-billion-dollar industries in natural cosmetics and herbal medicines, she says. For holistic interventions such as yoga, researchers will need to develop scientific methods to take into account culture and context, she says. “This requires us to use a multidisciplinary research approach,” she says.

    Same song, different key? The problems with wholesale adoption are the same as they ever were. Will they help people cope with infirmity while they get better naturally or will they result in avoiding other treatments so that sick people get worse?

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