University of Auckland continues to promote indigenous ways of knowing while not allowing a promised debate between that and modern science

September 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

In July, 2021, a group of seven University of Auckland academics (two now deceased) published a letter in the Magazine “the Listener”  saying that the local (Māori) “ways of knowing”, or Mātauranga Māori (MM), while of significant cultural, sociological, and anthropological value, was not equivalent to modern science.  It was written because the New Zealand government and academic establishment was proposing to teach MM as coequal to modern science in the science classroom.  (This plan is still going on.) Since MM is a gemisch of some genuine empirical trial-and-error knowledge with superstition, ideology, ethics, and undocumented tradition, the seven authors were absolutely right in asserting that that mixture of “ways of knowing, feeling, and living” was not equivalent to pure modern science.

This now-infamous “Listener Letter” (it has its own Wikipedia page) caused a huge fracas, with academics writing petitions against it, the Royal Society of New Zealand denouncing it and then investigating two of the letter’s authors who belonged to the Society (that went nowhere), and then the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland Uni (i.e., the head of the University), Dawn Freshwater, issuing a statement damning the letter:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

The University has deep respect for mātauranga Māori as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system.  [Note that MM is far more than a “knowledge system.”] We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

This view is at the heart of our new strategy and vision, Taumata Teitei, and the Waipapa Toitū framework, and is part of our wider commitment to Te Tiriti and te ao principles.

It’s not clear that Auckland Uni even had any views on the issue, and the letter, which you can read here, caused “hurt and dismay” only among the perpetually offended. The Listener Letter was simply a defense of modern science against “ways of knowing” that include superstition, religion, legend, and ethics.

Freshwater later walked back her rancor a bit, promising that within a year, Auckland Uni would have a debate about modern science versus MM’s indigenous “ways of knowing.” Here’s her promise (link same as above, emphasis is mine.)

I am calling for a return to a more respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, and I am committing the University to action on this.

In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.

I recognise it is a challenging and confronting debate, but one I believe a robust democratic society like ours is well placed to have.

That promise was a lie. Freshwater never organized such a debate, and it’s 2½ years on. It’s clear that she will not allow critics of teaching MM as coequal to science to have any forum at Auckland Uni.  Freshwater was just stalling for time, and her behavior was and is unforgivable.

Instead, Auckland Uni is going full steam ahead pushing the scientific value of MM while criticizing modern science. Have a look at this article in the Auckland Uni newsletter, sent me by a university member too fearful to reveal their name (given the censorious climate in NZ, that’s par for the course):

Click on the screenshot below to read. Nope, it’s not a debate, but a kumbaya-fest on the value of MM. I reproduce the entire short piece. “Pūtaiao” can be loosely translated as “science”. As usual, the article is full of Māori words that aren’t understood by most readers; some have been translated by the UNI, and I’ve translated the most important ones remaining.

Notice that “STEM” has now become “STEAMx3,”, standing for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths, Medicine, and Mātauranga Māori.”  MM has become coequal with science in the very term!

Māori researchers from within the University and across the country were gathering this week for the inaugural biennial Pūtaiao Symposium at Tai Tonga campus.

The two-day event aimed to connect and inspire researchers, educators, students, influencers, and movers and shakers in Pūtaiao and STEAMx3 (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths, Medicine, and Mātauranga Māori)

‘Ma Mua Kaa Hua,’ exploring the past to inform the future, was the theme, with an overarching aim of supporting future generations of Māori students and researchers.

Organised by Te Whare Pūtaiao, Faculty of Science, the first day of the event, on 7 September, was to focus on researchers, the second day on educators, influencers, iwi, hapū and community leaders.

A broad range of topics was to include the decolonisation of science, grounding research in kaupapa Māori, and data sovereignty, with an emphasis on participants engaging kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) and a whakawhanaungatanga (relationship building) approach.

This is an attack on modern “colonialist” science and an approbation for the “way of knowing” of MM (“kaupapa Māori” is “things done according to Māori principles”).  It is a symposium designed to show the superiority of MM over colonial “Western” ways of knowing.

And of course it’s a far cry from the promised “debate”: it is one-sided boosterism, sponsored by Auckland Uni, for indigenous ways of knowing.

So I ask Vice-Chancellor Freshwater: ˆwhere is the discussion you promised over two years ago about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science? You committed yourself and your University to that debate. Were you lying? Was your intent always to denigrate modern science at the expense of Māori ways of knowing, an intent furthered by Chris Hipkins, your new Prime Minister and former Minister of Education, who’s always pushed the equivalence of indigenous ways of knowing with modern science?

I can only watch on the sidelines, sadly shaking my head as people like Freshwater and Hipkins transform New Zealand science into a program for social justice, prioritizing indigenous knowledge over genuine science. Auckland University is the best school in the country, but is becoming a joke.

I will be writing Freshwater, asking where that promised symposium is, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that it will ever take place.  The lobby for all things indigenous has created a climate in which not only such a symposium could never be held, but also in which those who want such a discussion are even afraid to bring it up lest they lose their jobs.

Poor New Zealand! If you want to do science, I’d suggest either leaving (if you’re a resident), or choosing some other country in which you can study science without being hectored by those pushing indigenous “ways of knowing.”

27 thoughts on “University of Auckland continues to promote indigenous ways of knowing while not allowing a promised debate between that and modern science

  1. It sounds simplistic to say, but this is just Marxism – including the extensive verbiage, to serve as a blanket of distraction for what is essentially dialectical synthesis (Hegel’s Aufheben) of Western science and MM to a sublated (Marcuse) synthesis – in actuality, it is alchemy – of the two. It is also Marxist in that we never hear citations to Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Marcuse, and so on, who argue as wizards of liberation on the way they “discovered” to liberate society. It might be called vulgar Marxism, because it’s not the one true Marxism, but it has nothing to do with it, the wizards in power will assure society. And if it doesn’t work, society must be forced to make it work.

    It’s funny I’m going over Repressive Tolerance (1965) by Herbert Marcuse right now, in which he advocates that the existing oppressive society will by definition oppress with it’s own free speech codes, etc. – so some speech is ok to repress if it is preventing liberation. The essay is more about protest, but he discusses many dimensions to liberal society as well, it’s worth reading – in the way theology is worth reading.

  2. There will be no symposium because none was ever intended.

    Science in New Zealand is circling the drain. Only an existential threat—an event or circumstance requiring real science unsullied by myth—will release the scientific enterprise from the social justice zealocracy. In a real emergency, the public will plead for science do something. Let’s hope when that happens that there remain scientists in New Zealand who are up to the task.

    1. What if the real emergency is a race war? (The main opposition party was quoted in these pages as recognizing that possibility and wanting to conduct the upcoming election so as not to precipitate one.) How will science help then? Better no science at all than drawing a line in the sand that the enemy knows you can’t defend?

      When appeasement to keep the peace is a deliberate policy it’s unrealistic to expect the government or the institutions to regard the foreseen consequences — corruption of science to elevate MM — as a reason to rescind the policy.

      New Zealand is too remote to be of strategic importance to anyone, not even Australia.
      They are on their own, whatever happens.

      1. Long ago there was a veiw… eh, when NZ was regarded as a land based aircraft carrier protecting the Australian east coast…
        During WW2 pacific theatre, it was a holding pen and R&R point for the US military. It currently serves (out of Christchurch) the US as a transport supply hub for their base and personal in the Antarctic.
        Unfortunately I agree, if this is what you mean, that there is some racial elements about what is happenning with MM. It is probably unavoidable because making it an issue for some political populist argument, Treaty obligations, misrepresenting the melding of two cultures ideology is a power struggle that has been waxing and waning since NZ became a colony outpost and since, gained political independance.
        When it’s so simple. Science is diametrically opposed to myths and legends. Auckland University’s failure to see this is frustrating.
        The study, recording of and preserving Maori culture is a legitimate persuit. Myths, legends as fact based reality is equal is a perversion of truth.

  3. You committed yourself and your University to that debate. Were you lying?

    She could have been listening to different voices and at least one representative of MM interpreted “high quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints” as “a large audience filled with potential converts” and agreed. A subsequent high quantity intellectual discourse with other viewpoints withinthe MM group quickly recognized the problem.

    So I suspect she was sincere. My own experience with people who believe in the “many ways of knowing” school of epistemology is that they think of intellectual discourse in a diverse group ought to be like Show and Tell.

    1. If she was sincere in saying this:

      In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.

      Then why was there never ANY such symposium? She has never allowed a single “science based” talk criticizing MM or even a discussion with proponents of science to take place. I’m not sure what you’re saying here, but whatever it is, it appears that Freshwater never intended to carry out what she said. What you interpret as the voice she listened to and decided to follow seems to be the exact opposite of what she said. “Representatives of science” is just that: people who were like those who signed the Listener letter.

  4. This feature of the ‘Ma Mua Kaa Hua,’ festival struck me: “the first day of the event, on 7 September, was to focus on researchers, the second day on educators, influencers, iwi, hapū and community leaders.” The struggle to decolonialize science is the work of educators, influencers, iwi, hapū and community leaders, so one wonders why anyone bothered with the first day—except to inform researchers of what is now required of them. But there was no third day for dentists. Could it be that educators, influencers, and community leaders still need “western” dentistry for their occasional toothaches?

  5. Real scientists in NZ strive to publish papers in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals-none of which are edited in NZ. The chance that an important paper will appear in a real scientific journal like Nature Physics, J. Amer. Chem Soc., Cell, etc. and will contain insights from MM is essentially zero. Everyone in NZ knows this, including Chancellor Freshwater.
    Consequently, what Aukland Uni is really saying is this: “We are engaged in a social performance. The audience for the performance is limited to New Zealand. Real scientists should not worry- nothing about the science you actually do will change. We merely ask that you go along with the performance and clap when prompted. Thank you.”

    1. I would entreat you to keep up with wha’s going on in NZ science funding before you claim his is all performative. It’s not. It’s surrendering to indigenous knowledge on the grounds of wanting to be perceived as antiracist. If it was all performative, I wouldn’t get tons of emails from NZ scientists complaining bitterly but asking for anonymity so they won’t lose their jobs.

  6. The problem appears to be that she isn’t a physical scientist herself, and so can’t appreciate the intellectual rigor that’s necessary for the subject. Her Wiki entry states that she trained as a nurse and did research on forensic psychology, before studying the impact of marginalized groups with severe mental health issues. She’s basically a psychologist, which explains why she’s more concerned with Maori identity and culture. Unfortunately, she’s also head of the University!

      1. Presumably of a cognitive nature if they think science (or mathematics) can be ‘decolonized.’ The entire point of the scientific method is that it is free from personal bias of any kind. What kind of fool cannot understand that?

  7. This is similar to teaching intelligent design along with evolution in schools.
    Or “quackademic medicine” – described at the Science-Based Medicine blog as “the infiltration of quackery and pseudoscience into academic medical centers in research, education, and clinical practice.”
    Those things are also claimed to be the result of “other ways of knowing”.

  8. “While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.”
    The statement by Freshwater that Auckland University has a “view” on Mātauranga Māori (or any other socio-scientific matter) illustrates the totalitarianism to which Auckland University has descended. Anyone expressing a view that diverges from the orthodoxy is accused of heresy by the Thought Police with the result that his or her career goes up in flames.

  9. Yes, indeed! The Listener Letter keeps coming back to haunt us! See the following article in the American Psychological Association (APA) Blog, published on 21 August 2023:

    It makes several unfounded claims that are in need of refutation. Disappointingly, a response from myself and Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger was not published in APA. And so – we published locally:

    David Lillis

  10. Can the larger international scientific community blacklist New Zealand institutions that do this?

    Honestly, I think it’ll be for the best. It’s too late down here,

  11. “…the decolonisation of science…” – This Wokespeak phrase is to be read as “the liberation and recognition of oppressed knowledges (knowledge systems) such as Mātauranga Māori for the sake of epistemic justice through the denigration and repudiation of the hegemonic scientific culture of the White West as imported to New Zealand by colonial imperialism”.

    1. Iron Law of Woke Projection :

      Decolonize science so we can colonize science instead.

      We meaning Outer School Marxists.

  12. We have also to do a time travel and go back to our ancient knowledge ( Galenic medicine, blood letting, Ptolemeen system, phlogiston theory etc . ) because this ancien knowledge should be taught and be equivalent to modern knowledge of the world. Otherwise, one will be label « Past -phobic ». Next time when you undergo surgery for gallbladder stone, let them use the 18 century perineal approach without anesthesia ! 90% chance to die on the table. Good luck to NZ science and medicine !

    1. Doing a gallbladder through the perineum. Ouch!

      I associated “cutting for stone” with bladder stones, which we don’t see much anymore, don’t know why. But yes it was fraught with danger. In one of the Aubrey & Maturin seafaring novels, Stephen Maturin, (a proper doctor with a university degree, unusual for a naval surgeon) decides to attempt (unwisely he realizes in retrospect) that operation in a suffering seaman, his mess mates holding him down in a specially constructed lithotomy chair. The man dies, slowly and agonizingly of progressive unstoppable infection, probably Fournier’s gangrene.

  13. Decolonizing science” can be sensible if it means, for example, changing career structures, making interactions more conducive to different cultures, using local material in teaching etc. In the same way we know women were held back by prejudice, career structures, etc. In things like medicine it could mean modifying
    ethics about experiments. Even choices about what to research. The problem comes when it is interpreted as meaning the content of scientific knowledge, and this is where we have the problem.

    I’m using temp email. Sorry, but that’s the state of things

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