Scientific American on a philosophical grift: panpsychism

October 1, 2023 • 9:30 am

Well, Scientific American has published an article that, while on a subject of questionable interest, is at least neither woke nor wrong. The topic is panpsychism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines this way:

Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West, and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy.

The old and new forms of panpsychism were advanced because of our present failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from. Thus panpsychism offers an easy way out: we’re conscious because everything is conscious.  That, of course, doesn’t solve the “hard problem” of how a brain-carrying organism can be conscious. Our failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from, say the panpsychics, is because we’re working on the wrong level: we just need to show that all bits of the universe are inherently conscious. Problem solved!

No, not solved!

First, a failure to understand something doesn’t mean that we’re taking the wrong approach; it could just mean that the problem is a difficult one. We don’t know where and how the first self-replicating organism evolved, but we don’t say that every bit of the universe has a form of replication, and thus the problem is solved.

In the “revival” forms of panpsychism (about which I’ve written many posts), promulgated most vociferously by Philip Goff, the claim is that every bit of the universe has some form of consciousness, however rudimentary.  This includes particles like electrons.  (They never specify the form of consciousness enjoyed by, say, electrons.) When the particles, though evolution, are assembled into a creature like a human, this assembly somehow makes the entire creature “conscious” in the way we think of (go here for a discussion of what consciousness is; I’m just referring to the common construal: self-awareness and the ability to perceive sensations).

But there has been no progress in understanding whether panpsychism could be true since it was proposed a long time ago, and that’s for several reasons:

  1.  We know no way of demonstrating that inanimate objects, like rocks and neutrons, have some form of consciousness.
  2. We know no way of showing that the combination of rudimentary consciousnesses, as in the constituent particle of our brain, will somehow, when assembled in an organism, make it conscious. This is called the “combination problem.”
  3. As far as we know, consciousness requires a complex nervous system in a living organism, which isn’t present in inanimate constituents of the universe or in dead individuals.
  4. We are making progress in the conventional view of consciousness, e.g, it’s either a byproduct of having a sufficiently complex nervous system or an evolved condition in which the brain was selected to create the phenomenon. (In both cases it’s a material phenomenon connected with how neurons are arranged.) We can change consciousness with brain stimulation, use psychological tricks to fool people into thinking they’re doing something consciously when they’re not, or vice versa, and we can take away or restore consciousness with drugs (e.g., anesthesia).

It’s because of these issues that panpsychism has made no scientific progress while the “materialistic” view of consciousness, the one that doesn’t assume that particles themselves are conscious, has made progress. Panpsychism, in my view, is promulgated by philosophical grifters, who crave the attention they get from propounding novel and counterintuitive theories. And surely on some level they must realize that there’s no way to go any further with their scientific program. They keep singing the same old tune without adding any words, i.e., evidence.

At any rate, the Sci Am piece below, by science journalist Dan Falk, gives an account of the arguments in favor of and against panpsychism made at a recent meeting at Marist College, a college founded as a Catholic school (but now denying any religious affiliation) in Poughkeepsie, New York. The meeting was organized by panpsychist proselytizer Philip Goff, who found it all too easy to get funding from the John Templeton Foundation, which loves stuff like panpsychism because it’s anti-materialistic and conjures up the numinous (“an electron is conscious?. Weird!”)

Goff, of the University of Durham in England, organized the recent event along with Marist philosopher Andrei Buckareff, [JAC: he seems to be a philosopher of religion as well as religious] and it was funded through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In a small lecture hall with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River, roughly two dozen scholars probed the possibility that perhaps it’s consciousness all the way down.

You can read the article for free, though if you know about panpsychism, you don’t need to. But if you don’t know about it, it gives a good summary of the arguments against it (there are no arguments for it except its claim that everything is conscious).  As usual, physicist Sean Carroll injects some sense into the discussion; he also had a big debate with Goff, as he has several times before (see below):

The crazy part of this all is that a lot of philosophers accept panpsychism, despite its numerous problems and scientific intractability. From the article (my emphasis):

Yet panpsychism runs counter to the majority view in both the physical sciences and in philosophy that treats consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, something that arises in certain complex systems, such as human brains. In this view, individual neurons are not conscious, but thanks to the collective properties of some 86 billion neurons and their interactions—which, admittedly, are still only poorly understood—brains (along with bodies, perhaps) are conscious. Surveys suggest that slightly more than half of academic philosophers hold this view, known as “physicalism” or “emergentism,” whereas about one third reject physicalism and lean toward some alternative, of which panpsychism is one of several possibilities.

How can philosophers fall for a panpsychic grift? I suppose it’s because they don’t really understand science, want to do down science (yes, some philosophers have that motivation), or apprehend the value of evidence in supporting or weakening a theory.  Here’s more (my bolding):

Many philosophers at the meeting appeared to share Goff’s concern that physicalism falters when it comes to consciousness. “If you know every last detail about my brain processes, you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be me,” says Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosopher at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. “There is a clear explanatory gap between the physical and the mental.” Consider, for example, the difficulty of trying to describe color to someone who has only seen the world in black and white. Yanssel Garcia, a philosopher at the University of Nebraska Omaha, believes that physical facts alone are inadequate for such a task. “There is nothing of a physical sort that you could provide [a person who sees only in shades of gray] in order to have them understand what color experience is like; [they] would need to experience it themselves,” he says. “Physical science is, in principle, incapable of telling us the complete story.” Of the various alternatives that have been put forward, he says that “panpsychism is our best bet.”

First of all, those philosophers seem to be ignorant about how real scientists (as opposed to philosophers) are attacking the problem of consciousness and understanding its physical basis. More important, I think Goff would (and believe has) said that panpsychism is a physicalist theory. We just don’t know, physically, how the consciousness of electrons works. If it’s not physicalist, then it’s supernatural. But if you claim it’s an inherent property of matter, that’s a physicalist assertion, for one then needs to show how it’s an inherent property of matter. If you can’t, find another line of work.

Here’s some critique of the theory from the article (there’s no evidence offered in support of the theory except that it sounds good):

But panpsychism attracts many critics as well. Some point out that it doesn’t explain how small bits of consciousness come together to form more substantive conscious entities. Detractors say that this puzzle, known as the “combination problem,” amounts to panpsychism’s own version of the hard problem. The combination problem “is the serious challenge for the panpsychist position,” Goff admits. “And it’s where most of our energies are going.”

Others question panpsychism’s explanatory power. In his 2021 book Being You, neuroscientist Anil Seth wrote that the main problems with panpsychism are that “it doesn’t really explain anything and that it doesn’t lead to testable hypotheses. It’s an easy get-out to the apparent mystery posed by the hard problem.”

. . . During a well-attended public debate between Goff and Carroll, the divergence of their worldviews quickly became apparent. Goff said that physicalism has led “precisely nowhere,” and suggested that the very idea of trying to explain consciousness in physical terms was incoherent. Carroll argued that physicalism is actually doing quite well and that although consciousness is one of many phenomena that can’t be inferred from the goings-on at the microscopic level, it is nonetheless a real, emergent feature of the macroscopic world. He offered the physics of gases as a parallel example. At the micro level, one talks of atoms, molecules and forces; at the macro level, one speaks of pressure, volume and temperature. These are two kinds of explanations, depending on the “level” being studied—but present no great mystery and are not a failure on the part of physics.

Bringing up the gas laws was a smart thing to do, showing emergent physical properties that do not demonstrate a failure of physicalism. The gas laws may not be predictable from the laws of physics, but are consistent with the laws of physics. One more critique:

Seth, the neuroscientist, was not at the workshop—but I asked him where he stands in the debate over physicalism and its various alternatives. Physicalism, he says, still offers more “empirical grip” than its competitors—and he laments what he sees as excessive hand-wringing over its alleged failures, including the supposed hardness of the hard problem. “Critiquing physicalism on the basis that it has ‘failed’ is willful mischaracterization,” he says. “It’s doing just fine, as progress in consciousness science readily attests.” In a recently published article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Seth adds: “Asserting that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous does nothing to shed light on the way an experience of blueness is the way it is, and not some other way. Nor does it explain anything about the possible functions of consciousness, nor why consciousness is lost in states such as dreamless sleep, general anaesthesia, and coma.”

It’s clear that I think panpsychism is a big philosophical grift, and although I could be more charitable, I get angry when a philosophical equivalent of creationism, which is what panpsychism is, gets popular. Perhaps Goff and his colleagues really believe it, but unless they’re thick-headed they surely realize that there is no evidence in its favor and they haven’t offered a solution to the most crucial part of their theory: the combination problem. I predict with some confidence that panpsychism will go nowhere. As the Encyclopedia notes, the theory has a “long and venerable history”.  I’d disagree with the “venerable” part, but the fact that its history is long, but yet no progress has been made in documenting or understanding it, shows that it’s an intellectual dead end.

Here’s a three-year old video, which I believe I put up before, giving an audio debate between Carroll and Goff.  There’s no doubt that the physicist is the winner; Goff comes out licking his wounds.

For another video dismantling of panpsychism by Carroll, go here, and you can also see a paper by Carroll on the phenomenon here.

When I first read the Sci Am piece, I had the following email conversation with Matthew, also a critic of panpsychism:

Me: Why not a symposium on flat-earthism?
Matthew: I bet Templeton funded it.  Good guess. I mean, it’s right up their street. Imagine the real good they could do with all their dosh if they funded sensible things!

I hadn’t read the article when I had this exchange, but, sure enough, Matthew was right: the sticky fingers of Templeton are all over this symposium. To wit:

But I’ve had some second thoughts about Sci Am publishing this article, and don’t oppose it now. Panpsychism is not precisely equivalent to “flat earthism”, but only because a lot of people still believe in panpsychism, and if you pay attention to intellectual currents you’ll have heard about it. In my view, though panpsychism is nearly as scientifically worthless as flat earth theory or the “Loch Ness Monster” hypothesis, the public needs a place to understand what panpsychism is. Author Falk fills that bill, also showing (necessarily) panpsychism’s profound weaknesses. In that sense, Falk has done a good job, and I can’t fault Scientific American for publishing his piece.

Dawkins begins writing on Substack

June 7, 2023 • 10:45 am

There are only a few biologists on Substack that I know of (Colin Wright is another), so I welcome the addition of Richard Dawkins’s new site, “The Poetry of Reality,” which you can find at the link below:

You can subscribe for $70 per year, but can also subscribe for free to get the occasional public post.

So far there are two posts up. First, an introduction in which Richard poses a series of discussion questions (I’ll give just a couple of the many):

Rather than write a manifesto in the form of an essay, I have chosen to cast it as a series of propositions or questions, invariably followed by the word “Discuss”. It is not my intention to pose these discussion points to my guests. Rather I intend, by this repetition of “Discuss”,  to convey the atmosphere that I hope will pervade both forums, podcast and Substack. It should be an atmosphere of continual questioning, recurrent uncertainty, and I hope stimulating dialogue. “Discuss” really means discuss.

“There is a real world out there, and the only way to learn about it is objective evidence gathered by the scientific method.” Discuss.

“There is no such thing as your truth as distinct from my truth. “There is just the truth, and that means evidence-based scientific truth.” Discuss.

“Truth is not obtained by tradition, authority, holy books, faith or revelation. Truth is obtained by evidence and only evidence.” Discuss.

. . .What the hell is postmodernism? Have you ever met a self-styled postmodernist who could give you a coherent answer? Discuss.

What is a woman? Discuss.

You can already see that his site is going to attract attention!

Second, there’s a free post called “Evidence-based life,” a nice essay in which Richard argues that we should base our lives, as far as possible, on empirical evidence, avoiding “faith” or superstition. Here’s one paragraph from that, which I like because it’s related to something I wrote ten years ago (and in fact quoted Dawkins at the end):

Even expert scientists haven’t the time or the expertise to evaluate sciences other than their own. Most biologists are ill-equipped to understand modern physics. And vice versa although, I have to admit, to a lesser extent. In any case, nobody has the time to do full justice to all the detailed research papers in a journal such as Nature or Science, even if we could understand them. If we read a report that gravitational waves have been reliably detected as emanating from a collision between two distant galaxies, most of us take it on trust. It almost sounds like taking it on faith.  But it’s a faith that’s more securely grounded than, say, religious faith. That’s an understatement. When biologists like me express “faith” in the findings of physics, we know that physicists’ predictions have been verified by experimental measurements to find accuracy. Very different from “faith” in, for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation which makes no predictions at all, let alone testable and tested ones.

h/t: Daniel

ICZN: we won’t change animals’ Latin (“scientific”) names, even if they’re considered offensive

January 25, 2023 • 9:50 am

As you know, all officially recognized species have both a common name and a Latin binomial. I, for example, am a human (common name), but also a member of the species Homo sapiens (official binomial), and I used to work on the fruit fly or vinegar fly (common name), known officially as Drosophila melanogaster (meaning “black-bellied dew lover” in Latin). The Latin binomials are governed by a large set of rules in a big green book issued by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ISZN). This body is in charge of recognizing genus and species names in animals (the first and second parts of the Latin binomial, respectively), but also of one other taxonomic level, the names of families (Drosophilidae for the fly, Hominidae for living humans).

You can change the common names of species, and of course they do vary from country to country, but the Latin or scientific names, once assigned and approved, cannot be changed except under certain circumstances. Suppose, for example, that the frog named after me, Atelopus coynei, was found to have been described previously under a different name. The earliest name gets precedence, and poor A. coynei becomes what’s known as a nomen nudum, or “nude name”, a name that should no longer be used for this species. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, so my one scientific legacy seems secure.

There are other circumstances that mandate changing the Latin binomial of an animal species under Da Roolz, some of which you can see here. But under no circumstances can finding anything new about the biology of an animal, or about the history of its Latin name, mandate a name change. That’s because the Latin binomial is the permanent name of a species that can be recognized and used by all scientists worldwide, and willy-nilly name changes would mess up all kinds of science, including taxonomy itself as well as conservation.

Now the common names of species are being changed right and left—mostly these days on moral or political grounds. For example, the “gypsy moth”, Lymantria dispar, was considered offensive since “gypsy” is a slur (they’re now called “Roma”). Ergo the Entomological Society of America, which creates and maintains the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, declared that the moth will now be called, in common parlance, the “spongy moth.” (Most people still call it the “gypsy moth,” and that’s how you’d best look it up on Google.

And a lot of proposed common name-changing is going on, mostly for creatures named after people seen as immoral, bad, or harmful. I’ve written about some examples (here, here, and here), and not always approvingly because, as with many name changes like this, some people’s overall contributions are contentious (“Audubon’s Oriole,” for example, is up for a common-name change because John James Audubon decapitated corpses for scientific study). (It’s still known as Audubon’s Oriole for the time being.) What will NEVER change, however, is its Latin name, Icterus graduacauda.

Other bird species are also up for renaming, but in some cases the offensive person used in the common name is also used in the Latin name. Examples: Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni), Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) , and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). You can change the common name, but people are calling for changes in the Latin name as well. After all, if one name is seen as harmful, why wouldn’t the Latin name be too?

But the ICZN, recognizing the taxonomic confusion that changing a Latin binomial name would cause, has issued a no-nonsense statement saying, in effect, “No changes in Latin names for political or ideological reasons.” And I think that policy is correct given the mess such changes would cause.

This policy is outlined in the three-page statement below (pdf here, reference at bottom) and published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The many authors are all members of the ICZN; indeed, this may be the entirety of the organization’s leadership. Click to read:

The ICZN notes that they do include in the Code of Nomenclature a recommendation against giving new animal species names that “would be likely to give offense on any grounds,” but that is not a binding rule, and, as you see, some of the Latin names given above, names now seen as offensive, were not seen as offensive when they were given. So there’s nothing that can be done about them. I’ll give a few quotes from the article, for it’s written clearly and forcefully:

Here’s the pressure they’ve been under:

The ethical appropriateness of some scientific names has recently been questioned. This is the result, in part, of ongoing societal re-evaluations of past attitudes, particularly in the context of sexism, racism and colonialism. Part of the botanical community has put forward proposals to replace ‘culturally offensive and inappropriate names’ (Hammer & Thiele, 2021); to ‘permanently and retroactively eliminate epithets’ containing perceived racial slurs (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021a) or honouring colonial actors (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021b); or to replace established and accepted scientific names with new scientific names based on indigenous ones (Gillman & Wright, 2020). These proposals have received both support (Knapp et al., 2020Thiele et al., 2022) and criticism (Palma & Heath, 2021Mosyakin, 20212022ab). Besides reactions published in the scientific literature, debates have also erupted on social media platforms, such as ResearchGate.

Similar proposals are now being put forward in zoology. Recently, a suggestion was made to replace the scientific names of several North American freshwater fishes ‘named after people who advocated racist and sexist views, used derogatory names in their writings, or did reprehensible things during their careers’ (Tracy, 2022). Likewise, in the field of hominid taxonomy, a proposal to replace a long-established scientific name that carries ‘social-political baggage’ with a new and putatively neutral one has been debated (Roksandic et al., 20212022Delson & Stringer, 2022Sarmiento & Pickford, 2022).

As members of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), we feel compelled to present our official position regarding this topic and to clarify the role, mission and powers entrusted to the Commission.

And their decision (there’s more at the site):

Replacing accepted scientific names because of perceived offensiveness is not, and should not be, regulated by the Code. Although the Commission recognizes that some scientific names might cause discomfort or offence to parts of the community (such as eponyms of dictators or historical figures considered by some as racists, or because a word currently has negative connotations), the commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority. It is well outside the scope of the Commission to assess the morality of persons honoured in eponyms or the potential offensiveness or inappropriateness of certain names. Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future (but see Smith et al., 2022). There is also a possibility that neutral and non-offensive names proposed as replacements could themselves be considered offensive as attitudes change in the future, prompting further new replacement names. Moreover, any names replaced for ethical reasons would not simply disappear but would remain in the literature in perpetuity as part of taxonomic and nomenclatural synonymies.

Legislative changes accommodating the replacement of scientific names based on ethical considerations would affect the work of thousands of researchers, conservationists and other users of zoological names worldwide. Such disruptions would be particularly serious today, when the biodiversity of the world is increasingly under threat (Ceballos et al., 2017) and when conservation efforts will be particularly dependent on a universal naming and classification system that minimizes changes in names (Schuh, 2003). The establishment of a ‘Committee on Culturally Offensive or Inappropriate Names’, as suggested by Hammer & Thiele (2021) and Thiele et al. (2022), is outside the Commission’s purview and would be against the core principles of the Code, difficult to implement and unlikely to be recognized by the whole biological community.

. . . In conclusion, the stability of scientific names is essential for all activities under the umbrella of the biological sciences, including biodiversity conservation. The Commission acknowledges and understands ongoing debates about the appropriateness of certain names based on a variety of ethical arguments and is aware of the various proposed approaches on how to tackle these situations. However, the aim of the Commission is to promote nomenclatural stability without constraining taxonomic judgement. The ICZN’s current Constitution ( and its duties and powers as defined in the Code (ICZN, 1999), both of which have been ratified by the International Union for Biological Sciences (IUBS), preclude the Commission from adjudicating on the ethical merits of names or from establishing a skilled body dedicated to such a task. The Commission stands behind this and recommends the continued usage of scientific names as prescribed and regulated by the Code, thus promoting clear and unambiguous communication and essential linkages across the scientific literature as a top priority.

As you see, this is a purely practical decision, one that prioritizes the stability of biology and the ability of biologists to communicate internationally and accurately, above potential offense. But what people do with common names is out of their hands, and is often arguable.  Changing names like Homo sapiens, Drosophila melanogaster, and Atelopus coynei is not arguable!

Plant Latin names are recognized by a different organization, and I don’t think they’ve yet issued a statement about changing them.


Ceríaco,L. M. et al. 2023. Renaming taxa on ethical grounds threatens nomenclatural stability and scientific communication: Communication from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 
International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.  Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.


The Guardian has photo issues as well as evolution issues

June 30, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I just had to put up as a standalone this posted comment from reader Mike on yesterday’s Guardian article on why evolutionary theory is supposedly obsolete. There was a rather substantial boo-boo in one image, which was wonky in three ways: the species identification was wrong, and two parts were photoshopped in. This manipulation was not indicated.  It’s just one more sign that the Guardian needs some kind of science editor.

From Mike:

In case anyone is still checking in on this post and that crazy Grauniad article, turns out one of the feature images of the “spadefoot toad” was a photoshop nightmare: not a spadefoot toad; has a chameleon’s tongue; catching a dragonfly that’s photoshopped into the image; and perched on a toadstool.

Now that’s phenotypic plasticity!

The kicker is that the Guardian has stealth edited the image out of the version that’s up today on the website. The wayback machine shows the original article with that frankenimage.

The “frankenimage” from the wayback machine.

It’s gone now; no toad photo to be seen and no indication it was ever there.  And whoever Buddy Mays is, he should be roundly trounced (I think that this is him.)

Below: the tweet that corrects the species ID and the photoshopped tongue and dragonfly.

I have a big stupid grin on my face!

New Zealand’s Royal Society exculpates two members accused of criticizing indigenous “ways of knowing” as coequal with science

March 13, 2022 • 12:45 pm

I’ve written many times about this big kerfuffle in New Zealand. It involves the government adhering to a misguided interpretation of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, in which the British colonists negotiated a truce with chiefs of some (but not all) Māori groups.  That treaty guarantees the Māori full rights as British citizens and has other stipulations about land.

The recent trouble started when both the New Zealand government and educational authorities at all levels of schooling decided not only to teach Mātauranga Māori, (henceforth “MM”) or “Māori ways of knowing”, not just in school, which is fine, but in science classes , and as coequal with modern science. This is an untenable position both educationally and politically, for it would not only water down science education, but also degrade the already-declining educational standing of New Zealand among comparable countries.

Most important, it would confuse students as to what science really is, for MM encompasses not just “traditional knowledge”, like how to trap eels, but also a farrago of myth, unverifiable legend, superstition, morality, and theology, which include many bizarre supernatural statements. Imagine that being given equal treatment in science classes! The Māori, for example, have their own creation myths analogous to but different from those of the Bible. Are these to be given equal time in biology class?

Further, the “way of knowing” of MM is practical knowledge (yes, that’s still knowledge), but wouldn’t expose the students to the way modern scientists practice their trade.

Nobody questions whether Māori history and MM should be taught in schools. They are, after all, part of the nation’s history and sociology. But not in science class as a form of science!

A group of professors, perhaps unaware of the conflagration they’d start, made a public statement against teaching MM as science:

As I wrote earlier:

Seven professors at the University of Auckland signed a letter in the weekly magazine The Listener that criticized the governments’ and universities’ plans to teach the indigenous Māori “way of knowing,” mātauranga Māori, as equivalent to modern science, though the Māori “way of knowing” includes elements of the supernatural, myths, some practical knowledge, and so on. You can see the Listener letter here or here, and I’ll quote briefly from it:

A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to esure parity for with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pakeha epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

. . . Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

As I wrote, the letter brought down heaps of opprobrium upon the seven signers (one has since died), both from the University of Auckland and from the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), the country’s most prestigious body of science. From my post cited above:

The Royal Society itself issued a statement criticizing the professors, [JAC: that letter has vanished and been replaced by a more conciliatory one; the original version criticized the professors for mischaracterizing science and harming indigenous people] and has launched an investigation of the two remaining signatories in the Academy, Robert Nola and Garth Cooper (Cooper is at least a quarter Māori). Nola and Cooper could be booted out of the RSNZ for simply exercising free speech, which apparently is not “free” in New Zealand if it casts doubt on the truth of Māori mythology. Here’s part of the RSNZ’s statement [JAC: this was the origjnal statement, now retracted and replaced. Bolding below is mine]:

Royal Society Te Apārangi supports, fosters and recognises research within many knowledge systems.

The Society is deeply proud of the rich variety of outstanding work being undertaken across Aotearoa at present. In the past year alone, this includes Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd’s literary scholarship (winner of the 2020 Rutherford Medal), the work of Te Pūnaha Matatini on COVID-19 modelling by 2020 Te Puiaki Pūtaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Prime Minister’s Science Prize Winner (led by Professor Shaun Hendy), and the knowledge sharing of Matariki by Professor Rangi Matamua.

The Society supports all New Zealanders to explore, discover and share knowledge.

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

Harm indeed. Far more harmful to the country and its youth to teach mythology and legend as science! The RSNZ apparently has no idea what science really is.

But the teaching of MM as science is almost a foregone conclusion for, as the Wokest of Western countries, New Zealanders worship the Treaty as almost the Bible for guiding national behavior, and nearly everything Māori has become sacred and immune to criticism. The many supporters of the “Satanic Seven,” as I called them, were forced to keep quiet, for public support of their stand could do severe professional damage to academics, as it has already. Self-censoring about MM is pervasive in New Zealand, as I’ve learned from many private emails.

This post brings an end to the Royal Society issue, though not to the MM skirmish itself. In short, 5 complaints were made to the RS about Nola and Cooper as signers of the Listener letter (Corballis was also a member, but complaints against him were dropped when he died.) The Royal Society of New Zealand, to its shame, decided to investigate two of the complaints and produced a confidential report.

In the meantime, the kerfuffle came to world attention. It was reported in the Daily Fail, and Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to the Listener supporting the views of the Satanic seven. I even heard that the Royal Society of London wrote a reproving letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand, though I can’t verify this. All this put the Royal Society of New Zealand in a bad light.

The two complaints against Cooper and Nola investigated by the RSNZ accused them of violating these principles of the RSNZ by writing their letter to the Listener:

. . . Members are obliged:

  1. To behave with honesty, integrity, and professionalism when undertaking their activities;
  2. To only claim competence commensurate with their expertise, knowledge and skills, and ensure their practices are consistent with relevant national, Māori [1] and international standards and codes of practice in their discipline or field;
  3. To undertake their activities diligently and carefully;
  4. To support the public interest by making the results and findings of their activities available as soon as it is appropriate to do so, by presenting those results and findings in an honest, straightforward and unbiased manner, and by being prepared to contribute their knowledge or skills to avert or lessen public crises [2] when it is appropriate to do so;
  5. In undertaking their activities, to endeavour, where practicable, to partner with those communities and mana whenua for whom there are reasonably foreseeable direct impacts, and to meet any obligations arising from the Treaty of Waitangi;
  6. To safeguard the health, safety, wellbeing, rights and interests of people involved in or affected during the conduct of their activities. . . .

9.) To demonstrate and encourage ethical behaviour and high professional standards amongst their colleagues;

It’s absolutely ridiculous to launch a three-month investigation of two honored members of the RSNZ on these bases. They were simply stating their opinion publicly.

I believe there were lots of complaints from other people arguing that, because the Satanic Seven weren’t experts in MM, they had no right to express an opinion about its compatibility with science. That’s palpable nonsense. You don’t have to do much investigation of the nature of MM to see that while, like all indigenous forms of “knowing”, it gives fascinating insights into belief systems not based on empirical science, it’s simply not commensurate with science as it’s practiced today.

Finally, last week the RSNZ came up with its decision: the two members of the Society who signed the letter were fully exculpated. The “confidential” summary of the investigation is below, but I got permission to publish it. That’s no longer necessary since much of it is now public.

But that didn’t stop the RSNZ from pulling a slimy move to get in one last lick against its two miscreant members. The RSNZ issued two statements, the second leaving out out a single sentence from the first. Here’s the original version, but in the final version, now published online, the sentence I put in bold has been omitted:

Royal Society Te Apārangi

Statement in relation to complaints about a letter to the New Zealand Listener

The Society received complaints against Fellows of the Society who were among seven authors of a letter to the New Zealand Listener ‘In defence of science’ _in July 2021. The complaints particularly referred to the vulnerability of Māori and early career researchers.

The Society convened an Initial Investigation Panel (Panel) to consider the complaints as set out under the Society’s complaint procedures. The Society is obliged to follow the Complaints Procedures it has adopted when it receives a complaint about a member of the Society.

The overall role of the Panel was to decide whether the complaints should proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee. The role of the Panel was not to consider the merits of the views expressed in the New Zealand Listener letter.

The Panel considered there was no evidence that the Fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.

The Panel concluded that the complaints should not proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee. The Panel referred to clause 6.4(i) of the Complaint Procedures: the complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion or of contested scientific evidence amongst researchers and scholars.”

In coming to its conclusion, the Panel noted that during the process of their investigation both the complainants and the respondents referred to a considerable number of matters that were outside the Panel’s scope, including the merits of or otherwise of the broader issues raised in the letter or elsewhere. In the Panel’s view, the matters raised are of substance and merit further constructive discussion and respectful dialogue.

The Complaints Procedures provide that such a decision by the Panel is final and cannot be appealed.

The Society notes that it has been inappropriate to publicly comment about the complaints while the matter was before the Initial Investigation Panel.

This summary is being published on the basis that it may be beneficial to other scientists, technologists, or humanities scholars, as set out in the Complaints Procedures.

Now why would they omit that sentence, which simply implies that the two accused Fellows behaved with honesty and integrity? In truth, it’s even slimier than that: it said “there was no evidence that the Fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.”  It’s not a verdict of “not guilty”, but the Scottish verdict of “not proven.” But now even that sentence, which is mildly praiseworthy, is gone.

As I said, the controversy over the hegemony of MM in science continues, and if I know anything about New Zealand educational politics, MM will worm its way into science class. All the new RSNZ statement does is exculpate two scientists unfairly accused of misbehavior and harm for saying that MM, while worthy of being taught, is not coequal with modern science.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has acted despicably during this whole episode, abrogating the free speech of its members. If anything undergirds science, it’s the concept of saying what you think; and criticizing an indigenous “way of knowing” as “not compatible with modern science” is certainly within the purview of acceptable speech.

Except in New Zealand.


The only public reporting I’ve seen on this so far has been in the Kiwi magazine Stuff, in the article below (click on screenshot):

What’s new is this:

The Royal Society’s chief executive Paul Atkins earlier said the organisation was taking the controversy seriously.

“We are acutely aware of the potential for significant damage to be inflicted in multiple directions, not least to relationships and our ability to have a balanced and informed dialogue about important questions for the future of our country,” he said in a statement.

Have a look at that statement and its mandatory genuflecting towards MM.  Finally, the University of Auckland promised last year to hold an impending symposium about the compatibility of MM with science, with both sides being defended. It didn’t happen:

The University of Auckland had intended to hold a Māturanga Māori and science symposium in the first three months of the year, but this has been delayed, a spokeswoman confirmed.

And I predict it won’t happen. Unless the University of Auckland stacks the deck with MM sympathizers—and it’s entirely capable of doing this—such a debate, though potentially enlightening, would be perceived as racist, and would be too inflammatory.

What are Maori “ways of knowing”, and should they be taught in science class as coequal to modern science?

December 19, 2021 • 10:45 am

I’ve been describing the big kerfuffle in New Zealand (well, it’s not a huge kerfuffle as the Kiwi public seems to know little about it) involving whether mātauranga Māori, (henceforth MM), which loosely translates to “Māori ways of knowing,”. should be taught as science alongside modern science in both secondary-school; and college science classes. In the past two weeks, I’ve been reading up on these ways of “knowing”, trying to understand them and to figure out how they can (or should) be fit into a science curriculum.  The more I read, the more puzzled I get about what exactly is going to be taught, but that’s no surprise since advocates of incorporating MM into science class are not specific about how and what will be taught. That’s important! There are FIVE questions I’ve had, and I’ll give some quotes below about the issues. At the end I’ll advance some tentative conclusions.

I’ve put references to the quotes as numbers, which you can consult at the bottom of this post.

WHAT IS MM? The definition of MM varies widely depending on what sources you read, but it can be regarded as a combination of theology, philosophy, mythology, morality, and a set of practical tools for how to get things done, both in the practical realm and in the human-relations realm. In quotes below, highlights (except the title are mine:

Mātauranga Māori Principle

This principle refers to the central value and recognition the University accords to Māori knowledges and ways of knowing. It refers also to the responsibility and honour we have as a knowledge institution to develop, nourish, protect, and help revitalise mātauranga, and to learn respectfully from Māori knowledge experts from the University as well as from communities outside the University.

For the purpose of this project, mātauranga Māori is defined as “the unique Māori way of viewing themselves and the world, which encompasses (among other things) Māori traditional knowledge and culture” (WAI262 p6).

Mātauranga Māori encompasses ancient knowledge of the human, natural and spirit worlds as well as modern and creative knowledge of these realms. It is knowledge developed collectively by Māori in the past, present and future. It refers not simply to knowledge but to ways of knowing.

Mātauranga Māori is a taonga, and as such requires protection. While iwi Māori are the primary kaitiaki of their knowledge, the University has an obligation to protect mātauranga Māori, and to provide a safe environment in which mātauranga can flourish. WAI 262 Waitangi Tribunal Report provides detail on the Crown’s kaitiakitanga obligations with regard to mātauranga.  (Source 1.)

Note that MM incorporates “ancient knowledge of the spirit world?” Is that really knowledge? If so, why is it better and truer than the other “ways of knowing” of indigenous people throughout the world?

Another definition:

Mātauranga Māori is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of Te Taiao (the natural world), following a systematic methodology based on evidence, incorporating culture, values and world view. Pūrākau (traditional Māori narratives) and maramataka (the Māori calendar) comprise codified knowledge and include a suite of techniques empirical in nature for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and updating and integrating previous knowledge. They can be both accurate and precise, as they incorporate critically verified knowledge, continually tested and updated through time. After their arrival in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu many centuries ago, Māori developed various forms of codifying knowledge – many based upon oral delivery – each with its own categories, style, complex patterns and characteristics. Whakapapa is the central principle that orders the universe, demonstrates an interconnectivity between everything, and is a cognitive genealogical framework connecting creation of the universe to everything that exists within it via descent from ancestors. (Source 2)


Mātauranga Māori is about a Māori way of being and engaging in the world – in its simplest form, it uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to critique, examine, analyse and understand the world.

It is based on ancient values of the spiritual realm of Te Ao Mārama (the cosmic family of the natural world) and it is constantly evolving as Māori continue to make sense of their human existence within the world.

Eminent Māori scholar Dr Charles Royal describes Mātauranga Māori in this way: ‘he whakaatu, he whakamārama hoki i ngā ahuatanga o te Ao. Mā reira e mōhio ai te tangata ki te Ao, e mātau ai hoki ia ki ētahi whainga, ki ētahi tikanga. He mea ako, he mea whangai’ (2008, p.37).

In short, Royal thinks about Mātauranga Māori as something that helps explain and enlighten us about different aspects of the world around us, and in that process, a person gets to know about and understand some of the different purposes and meanings, some of the different ways of learning about his/her world that can be transferred from one person to another.  (Source 3)

More spirituality being dragged in.


I’ve read much more than the five references below, and it seems that MM is a gemisch of legend, mythology, oral tradition, morality, philosophy, theology, and practical knowledge. The latter, like learning how to navigate using the stars or how to catch eels, or how to judge which parts of the landscape will flood, are what I call “science construed broadly”. This knowledge (“practical knowledge”) is based on trial and error and a form of hypothesis testing—and can lead to empirical predictions. But the rest of MM, including its creationism, its reliance on gods, its spiritual and moral aspects, and its philosophy, are not science, but fall into other realms. If MM is to be folded together and taught as coequal to Western science, only the bits that are “science construed broadly” should be taught.

Hikuroa (reference 2) points out the differences between MM and science, and he appears to be an advocate for teaching MM:

Clearly there are significant similarities between mātauranga Māori and science. Specifically, pūrākau and maramataka comprise knowledge generated consistent with the scientific method. The critical difference is that mātauranga Māori includes values and is explained according to a Māori world view. Some other relevant differences are outlined in Table 1.

Mātauranga Māori is, first and foremost,mātauranga Māori, valid in its own right. Both mātauranga Māori and science are bodies of knowledge methodically created, contextualised within a world view. As demonstrated herein, some mātauranga Māori has been generated according to the scientific method, and can therefore be considered as science. While there are many similarities between mātauranga Māori and science, it is important that the tools of one are not used to analyse and understand the foundations of another (Hikuroa et al. 2011). Thus, mātauranga Māori is mātauranga Māori, scientific in part, and in the context of this special issue, extends the history of scientific endeavour back to when Māori arrived in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu, many centuries ago.

Note the inclusion of values in MM, as well as the “everything that is interconnected” trope, a fuzzy concept at best. We also see spiritual in MM versus “physical stuff” in “science”. Tellingly, “intuition” as a method of knowing applies in MM, but not really in science: intuition isn’t a method, but sometimes a way of thinking of testable hypotheses.  The explicit inclusion of creationism in MM but not in science (a creationism whose story varies from Maori tribe to tribe) makes an important part of MM totally inviable as something to be taught in science class.

Here’s an explanation by the Māori for the creation of humans, all of us descending from a primal couple:

 In the New Zealand story, Tane took his daughter Hinetitama to wife in order that the human species might be continued. They had a daughter who was named Hinerauwharangi. She married Te Kawekairangi, but there is no explanation of how he had appeared on the scene so opportunely. Perhaps there was some adjacent Land of Nod after all. Be that as it may, the Matorohanga version gives human descent as continuing through this last pairing. A genealogical tree gives 28 generations from Hinerauwharangi to Ngatoroirangi, the priest of the Arawa canoe. Percy Smith has made the count from Tane and Hineahuone to approximately the year 1900 as 52 generations. Applying the time measure of 25 years to a generation and adding 50 years to bring it up to the present date, the genealogy reveals that the first human being was created about 1350 years ago, or in the year 600 A.D. The fact that the time is rather short does not render the genealogy less valuable to the person who can memorize and recite it.

This is far younger than Biblical young-earth creationism—it’s the creation of humans 1.3 millennia ago!

Some advocates of MM say that the mythological/spiritual part of MM can also be interpreted literally to comport with science, for example, the single set of primal parents in the creation myth has led some to say that this buttresses evolution and genetics, because it shows that all of us are related.

The way people refute the idea that MM is “just myths” (it isn’t all myths, but includes myths), is also demonstrated by Hikuroa:

Pūrākau are a traditional form of Māori narrative, containing philosophical thought, epistemological constructs, cultural codes and world views (Lee 2009). Pūrākau are an integral part of mātauranga Māori and were deliberate constructs employed to encapsulate and condense into easily understood forms, Māori views of the world, of ultimate reality and the relationship between the atua (deities), the universe and humans (Marsden 2003). In traditional Māori society, pūrākau were fundamental to understanding the world. This is contrary to the widespread belief in the science and wider community that the numerous collections of pūrākau (e.g. Reed 2011) are just myths, ancient legends, incredible stories and folklore. Pūrākau explained as myths invalidate Māori ontological and epistemological constructs of the world, and pūrākau understood as just storiesis an inadequate explanation of the importance of pūrākau in teaching, learning and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge (Lee 2008).

This reminds me of “scientific creationism” in the U.S., in which legend is said to presage later scientific findings. A frequent example used to defend MM is the legend of a giant water-dwelling lizard in New Zealand valley who flicked its tail back and forth, said to explain the floods in that valley that kept the Māori from building their sacred areas there. Like Augustine and Aquinas, who had both a literal and metaphorical interpretation of Scripture, this appears to apply to MM as well: if MM advocates can squeeze legends into the Procrustean bed of science, it supposedly demonstrates that MM is science.

One more bit from reference 3:

Mātauranga Māori provides insight into different perspectives about knowledge and knowing. The Māori epistemological penchant for trying to understand the connections and relationships between all things human and non-human first, ‘what is its whakapapa?’ provides a contrast to the western paradigm that tries to seek knowledge and understanding by a close and deep examination of something or someone in isolation first, ‘what does it/he/she do? What is it for?’

An initial question is, ‘who or what is this thing I am seeing in this world and how do I relate to it?’ Western knowledge’s initial question is, ‘what is the role that this person or thing has?’ In summary, the emphasis on the human element and the impact on the human element differentiates a Mātauranga Māori approach from a Western Pākehā approach. (Source 3)

One could be excused from conflating this kind of MM with modern New Age philosophies in the West.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH TEACHING MODERN SCIENCE? Advocates of MM characterize Western science as white supremacist and colonial, and find it deficient in the spiritual and moral aspects of MM. There are other issues as well—things about modern science said to be a problem. This is from reference 4:

Simplified versions of science taught in schools are collectively known as ‘school science’ in which the big three (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) still reign as specialised subjects in the last two years of the school curriculum. These simplified versions plus the quasi-religious devotion to an outdated ‘lockstep’ version of scientific method add up to a simplistic model of science taught in school that bears very little likeness to the diverse milieus of contemporary working science and scientists (Aikenhead, 2000). The conservatism and resistance to change of school science curricula has been documented for many years (Blades, 1997). It is reasonable to argue that school science must of necessity be simplified by comparison with the real world of working science. But textbook presentations of science also tend to the triumphalist, promoting the successes of science but omitting to mention its failures and disgraces (Ninnes & Burnett, 2001). Distorted textbook versions of science must be considered ideological, although the relevant intentions and effects form complex chains of power, difficult to discern.

Secondary science teachers may believe that teaching science through the scientific method aligns with tertiary science education, making a strong rationale for them to reject the proposed changes. But this belief is flawed on two grounds: first, since contemporary philosophy of science accepts that there is no one ‘scientific method’ (Okasha, 2016); and second, because tertiary science educators are also under pressure to introduce Māori knowledge into their curricula, and may well expect their secondary school colleagues to share this responsibility. The next section considers how science teachers could respond to the challenge represented by these changes in relation to each of the three Māori concepts in the titles shown above.

If school kids are taught that there is a single “scientific method”, as implied above, then that’s wrong. As I note in Faith Versus Fact, the practice of science itself is a toolkit with many tools, includng observation, consensus, predictions, hypothesis-testing, experiments, falsification, and so on. Not all of these tools need be used in any scientific endeavor. As Feyerabend said, “Anything goes”—so long as “anything” involves some of the tools of science. But teaching science is far more than just teaching the methods scientists use: it also involves imparting a body of knowledge to students, and, at higher levels, answering the question, “How did we come to know that?” What is evolution? How do we know it’s true? What happens when chemical bonds are formed? Why do we find marine fossils at high altitudes? And so on and so on. . . . Does MM provide ways to answer those questions that differ from the ways of modern science?

As for the conclusion that science is white supremacist and colonial, I reject it. Yes, science was used in some cases to colonize (invention of weapons and so on), just as architecture and chemistry helped the Nazis build gas chamber to gas Jews. But all that means is that some scientists used their knowledge in damaging ways. It does not mean that science itself is colonialist. The “whiteness” of science reflects that modern science was developed largely by white people–and mostly male. But whether something is true doesn’t depend on the race or gender of who finds it and, thankfully, scientists are becoming much more diverse. Are Asian scientists practicing white supremacy?

SHOULD MM BE TAUGHT IN SCIENCE CLASSES? My answer is, “by and large, no“, because much of MM is not based on science and the methods of MM are not the methods of science. It would simply confuse students to learn two incompatible ways of knowing, for that results in incompatible “facts” (e.g., creationism and evolution) presented as coequal.

This does not mean that the “science construed broadly” of MM—the practical knowledge that helped the Māori thrive and survive, shouldn’t be incorporated into science class. It’s good to do this not just to help Māori connect with modern science, but to show Kiwis that part of the indigenous people with whom they rub elbows were skillful in empirical endeavors using a form of science. But MM should surely NOT be taught as coequal to modern science in schools, and MM should occupy only a small part of science classes. MM, by and large should be reserved for courses on culture, anthropology, and sociology.

Elizabeth Rata (reference 5) has shown some of the deleterious effects that occur when MM replaces science (Rata, a Professor of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland, was one of the signers of the original letter in The Listener):

Curriculum design in New Zealand’s bicultural context tends to favour sociocultural knowledge at the expense of academic knowledge. Here are two illustrative examples. The first is from a study of Māori teachers’ classroom practices (Lynch, 2017). The teachers had benefitted from an academic education themselves and intended this for their own children. However, in line with bicultural policy, they teach a sociocultural curriculum to their Māori students. The social studies teacher has replaced history and geography with kapa haka (traditional Māori dancing and chanting) to ‘provide students with an opportunity to learn… through a Māori lens’ (p. 56). Another teacher rejected the idea of educational success, calling it ‘white success’ and in opposition to succeeding ‘as Māori’ (p. 60). The second example is from the media (Collins, 2020). According to a school principal, the ‘dangers of prescribing a powerful knowledge curriculum’ are because it ‘is about whose knowledge’. A ‘Eurocentric’ approach is ‘a colonial tool of putting old western knowledge ahead of indigenous communities’.

Sound familiar?

WHY THE BIG PUSH, THEN, TO TEACH MM AS COEQUAL WITH MODERN SCIENCE? Everybody knows the answer to this, but dare not say so because it’s the Elephant in the Room. The Māori are being catered to because they were (truly) an oppressed group, and, as reparations, their culture is being valorized—including arguing that MM is science. Further, it’s said that teaching MM will enable young Māori to connect better with science and thus become scientists who will join other working scientists in New Zealand. And yes, Māori are owed a form of reparations and certainly equal treatment morally and legally. But this should not include teaching non-science as science and pretending that the non-science is science. It failed with Biblical “scientific creationism”, and it will fail with MM, except for the parts of MM that are scientific.

Nevertheless, MM will be taught in schools and colleges as a form of science. You don’t have to read much about government and academic initiatives to know that this movement is unstoppable. New Zealand, in this respect, is the wokest of all Western nations, for it’s the only such country willing to corrupt science in the service of equity. I pity the country, I pity its science teachers, and, above all, I pity the children who are bound for a confusing education in science, depriving them of all the wonder and glory of real science. I love New Zealand and its people, but they are being divided along racial lines the same way that we are in America.

Further parallels with the U.S. are palpable. The push for teaching MM is part of the extreme Leftist attack on modern science, propelled by a combination of postmodernism and a desire to dismantle the meritocracy. For science is perhaps the most meritocratic of academic disciplines, since everybody can check on whether you’ve had a good idea that produces truth.


REFERENCES (links are given to all publicly available documents).

1.) “Pūtoi Ako”, internal document of the Curriculum Transformation Programme of Auckland University

2.) Hikuroa, D. 2017. Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand. Jour. Roy. Soc. New Zealand. 47:5-10.

3.)  Kia Eke Panuku organization. Undated.  Mātauranga Māori. Online at

4.)  Tuari Stewart, G. and A,. Tedoldi. 2021. Bringing Māori concepts into school science: NCEA.  Access: Contemporary Issues in Education. 41:77-81.

5.)  Rata, E. M. 2021.  Curriculum design in a bicultural context.  Research Intelligence. 148:22-23.

“Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class

December 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

One of the most invidious and injurious side effects of wokeism is to validate “other ways of knowing” as being on par with modern scientific knowledge. Granted, one can respect the mythology and scientific “claims” of indigenous cultures, some of which turned out to be scientifically valid (quinine is one), but their efficacy can be established only by conventional scientific testing.

New Zealand, however, is in the midst of a campaign to teach Maori “ways of knowing” alongside science in science classes as science, on par with modern science, which of course had roots in many places. The reason for this is to give Maori credibility not just as indigenous people with moral and legal rights, but to validate their pseudoscientific views.  Scholars who object to this ridiculous parity are in the process of being cancelled.

Here’s an email I got the other day from a biology colleague in New Zealand:

Now in NZ the Government is trying to insert something called ‘Matauranga’ into science courses. Matauranga means the knowledge system of the Maori. It includes reference to various gods e.g., Tane the god of the forest is said to be the creator of humans, and of all plants and creatures of the forest. Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears. Maori try to claim that they have always been scientists. Their political demand is that Matauranga must be acknowledged as the equal of western (pakeha) science; that without this, Maori children will continue to fail in science at school.

One rationalisation for this is that they are the indigenous people of New Zealand and that their knowledge deserves respect (mana). it is a very messy situation and a group of science academics of various stripes are engaged in fighting a rearguard action against this. They wrote a letter to the Listener, a weekly publication of reasonable respectability, in which they made the claim that matauranga was not science and had no place in science courses. The kickback against this was astonishing, with some 2000 academics around NZ signing a petition condemning them.

Further,the Royal Society of New Zealand is taking two of the academics involved to task,  with the likely outcome their dismissal from the Society. They have been accused of racism!

Wokism is well under way here.

In response to my question, the colleague told me that the two forms of “knowledge” will be taught to 16-18 years old, and not just to Maori. There will also be exam questions, but it’s not clear if those will require students to parrot the tenets of Mātauranga.

Here is a screenshot of the letter that got its signatories in big trouble (click on it to see the original letter). Note that it’s civil and conciliatory, but defends modern science. The signers are all from the University of Auckland.

This is a sensible letter which is not inflammatory—except to those postmodernists and Wokeists who see “other ways of knowing” just as valid as modern science. They are wrong. But in response, 2,000 academics and public figures signed a heated objection, which included the following:

We, the signatories to this response, categorically disagree with their views. Indigenous knowledges – in this case, Mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method.

However, Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to “Western” science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.

I’m sorry, but in general the factual assertions of this Maori “way of knowing” are palpably inferior to “other knowledge systems.” They stand as myths, and ones with no factual basis; and to teach them on par with science, as if rain might really come from the tears of a god, is ludicrous. Yes, there are some practical “truths” to Maori ways of knowing, like how to build an eeltrap, and how to avoid building houses on flood plains, but if you accept this practical knowledge of science, then Maori Mātauranga is no different from any practical methods in any culture. And this doesn’t make it coequal with “modern science”, for modern science is capable of not only building eeltraps, but sending men to the Moon and bringing them back.

Those who signed the letter objecting to the Listener letter above are either completely ignorant of science (which I don’t believe), or are flaunting their virtue. It’s true that Maori have often been mistreated by colonials, and NZ has tried to rectify this inequality over the years, as it should. But one way not to rectify it is to pretend that Maori “knowledge” is really “true” in the scientific sense. To teach that in the schools, as is being proposed, is a recipe for continuing scientific ignorance. It is the same as a letter saying that fundamentalists Christian “ways of knowing”, like creationism, should be taught alongside evolutionary biology in science class. (Such “parity” is not upheld by freedom of speech, for American courts, at least, have long declared that teachers do not have license to teach anything they want in a class—particularly religion.) Indeed, as we see above, Maori “science” is explicitly creationist!

Toby Young discusses the issue in this article in The Spectator (click on screenshot, my bolding):

An excerpt:

. . . the moment this letter was published all hell broke loose. The views of the authors, who were all professors at Auckland, were denounced by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union, as well as by their own vice-chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. In a hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university, she said the letter had ‘caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni’ and said it pointed to ‘major problems with some of our colleagues’.

Two of Professor Cooper’s academic colleagues, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy, issued an ‘open letter’ condemning the heretics for causing ‘untold harm and hurt’. They invited anyone who agreed with them to add their names to the ‘open letter’, and more than 2,000 academics duly obliged. Before long, five members of the Royal Society had complained and a panel was set up to investigate.

The witch-finders disregarded several principles of natural justice in their prosecutorial zeal. For instance, two members of the three-person panel turned out to be signatories of the ‘open letter’ denouncing Professor Cooper so had to be replaced. In addition, all five complainants were anonymous and when the Society asked them to identify themselves, three fell by the wayside. But two remain and the investigation is proceeding apace, with a newly constituted panel.

It’s not too late to save the professor. Letters from members of our own Royal Society, or any distinguished academics in the sciences and humanities, pointing out the absurdity of punishing a scientist for engaging in debate about the validity of science will help. You can email Paul Atkins, the chief executive, at Remember, the only thing necessary for the triumph of intellectual intolerance is for believers in free speech to do nothing. [JAC: Note that Atkins is the new chief executive].

I would urge readers who feel strongly about this to write to the email above, which I’ll repeat:

Here’s the official letter from the University of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater about The Listener letter (click on screenshot):

Some excerpts from her statement, which is in the “we favor free speech, but it causes pain ” genre:

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 has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni. as a distinctive and valuable 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.

I believe Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique opportunity to lead the world in this area. The University of Auckland, as this country’s largest research institution, should be and will be at the forefront of this exciting exploration.

This is the letter of a person trying to treat a narrow line between free speech and condemnation of what is said. Further, she notes that the seven academics “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.” Well, is Vice-Chancellor Freshwater entitled to declare those views, or is that the purview of her boss, the Chancellor? Or has the University itself issued a formal statement of exactly what the views of the University of Auckland on mātauranga Māori are? We don’t know. If there’s some official statement that the University views modern science is on par with Maori ways of knowing, I’d like to If the University has no official view, and takes no stand at all why does Freshwater say that the seven academics “don’t represent it”?

As for Freshwater’s statement that The Listener letter “has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni”, we have no idea how much hurt and dismay it’s caused. I know from private correspondence that there are plenty of people at the University supported that letter and do not see Mātauranga Māori as a valid competitor to modern emprical science.

Further, emphasizing the “hurt and dismay” among University members is not helpful to the discussion at all, as from the outset it puts the discussion on an emotional footing, when the issues are not hurt and pain but the validity of Mātauranga Māori as an alternative to modern science to be taught in the science class.  That is something that one can argue about validly, and I think that Mātauranga Māori is mostly mythology and not science. For one thing, it’s creationist, so its credibility is shot from the beginning.

Finally, Freshwater’s claim that “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” is confusing. They are of course directly at odds if you look at the empirical data, which include creationism and other palpably untrue claims. They are competing as the proposal is to teach both in science class, on the high school and perhaps on the University level.

She has a longer letter as well (click on screenshot), and I’ll give a few excerpts:

It’s long, so just one excerpt from a discursive piece in which Freshwater takes issue with the seven academics who signed the letter:

The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity. However, it needs to be clarified that allowing the expression of an idea does not imply endorsement by the University. This has been our position in the debate about mātauranga Māori and science.

Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.

Well, if that’s “healthy”, then the University of Auckland is very ill.  If there are “myriad views” about this issue in the University, why does Freshwater say that the signers “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland”? Does this mean that seven people don’t stand for the views of everyone? They never pretended they did, but it sure looks as if Freshwater knows that there are more “official” views that diverge from these. If the University of Auckland has no position at all on the issue, then they should say so and stop denigrating the seven signers. But remember, this does appear to be an official position:

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.

That sure looks like an official position!

And the “not censoring” bit is unconvincing: the signers were identified—not by name but as signers of an easily accessible letter—and criticized in the assertion that they don’t adhere to University principles that were never specified.  Further, as we see below, the Royal Society of New Zealand is considering booting out two of its signers who are members. (I doubt that the University instigated that, but its opposition to the letter may have contributed to the Royal Society’s decision to have an investigation).

From Wikipedia, which has an article on the controversy that started last summer:

The TEU, the union which represents academics such as the professors, released a statement saying they “neglected to engage with or mention the many highly accomplished scholars and scientists in Aotearoa who have sought to reconcile notions of science, mātauranga Māori, and Māori in science.” The Royal Society Te Apārangi released a statement saying “The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in [the letter].” The New Zealand Association of Scientists released a statement saying “we were dismayed to see a number of prominent academics publicly questioning the value of mātauranga to science.” The letter writers were supported by opposition MP Paul Goldsmith.

Daniel Hikuroa, also an academic at Auckland, pointed out that Mātauranga Māori like Māramataka (the Māori lunar calendar) “was clearly science.” Tara McAllister said “we did not navigate to Aotearoa on myths and legends. We did not live successfully in balance with the environment without science. Māori were the first scientists in Aotearoa.” Tina Ngata wrote that “this letter, in all of its unsolicited glory, is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia.” An open counter-letter received more than 2000 signatures.

Here’s part of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s “Joint statement from President and Chair of Academy and Executive Committee“:

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

This makes the RSNZ look like a joke, for they are rejecting the idea that the entire collection of mythology, quasi-religion, a few practical methods, as well as outright lies (like creationism) is not a “valid truth.” And the RSNZ rejects the “narrow and outmoded definition of science, which happens to be, well, just science.  And the invocation of “harm” that comes from rejecting lies, myths, and false beliefs is ludicrous.

Finally, as I have to stop somewhere, the New Zealand Psychological Society, equally outraged, also condemned the view of the “Satanic Seven”. Click on the screenshot to read the whole pdf:

A few quotes from the letter, which purports to be from the entire New Zealand Psychological Society (did all members assent?), but was written by the President, Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki, who must be Maori.:

I believe it is important that we express our disappointment in the recent letter to the Listener by professors of psychology, biological sciences and critical studies. We also wish to express our support and aroha for those who were, and continue to be, negatively affected by the letter’s content. We note that the letter was not subject to established protocols of rigour and peer review and as such, the contents reflect opinion, not science. In reviewing the letter, it is readily apparent that racist tropes were used, alongside comments typical of moral panic, to justify the exclusion of Māori knowledge as a legitimate science.

Diversionary claims! Of course letters to a non-science journal aren’t peer reviewed and “aren’t science.” Who said otherwise? And the letter was not racist. But wait! There’s more!

. . . The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise – while acknowledging that ‘it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art’. This is similar to saying ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others) established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun. The writers fail to note the overwhelming evidence that the users of the science they favour, are also the ones who set the rules about what counts as science, where it can be taught, learned, published or funded. This issue is extremely relevant to the need to decolonise the power base held in our learning institutions.

. . . The White Saviour trope: This is where Māori are told which elements of our Indigenous knowledge is important and to whom. The writers, speaking for Māori, offer the opinion: ‘Indigenous knowledge is critical to the perpetuation and preservation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy. The writers (as is their inherent privilege) relegate Māori knowledge to archival value, ceremony, management and policy (although it is not clear what is meant here). Speaking for Māori ignores obligations to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, and ignores the overwhelming evidence that racism is a primary reason that Mātauranga Māori science is undervalued.

No, that last sentence is false. Mātauranga Māori “science” is undervalued, at least by scientists, because it’s mostly wrong. For one thing, it posits an instantaneous creation.  Do its advocates say, “Well, Mātauranga is often right but is also often wrong.”

There’s more:

Māori knowledge is indeed critical to the preservation of our culture and practices because we are resisting epistemic and cultural genocide, while also striving to flourish and develop. Speaking for Māori again, they add that ‘in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself’. Māori aren’t asking them to define science. We have done that ourselves despite having obstacles thrown up at all stages.

. . . Psychology has a long history of marginalising Māori knowledge, and it is concerning that two of the writers are professors of psychology. We note that the letter reinforces known racist assumptions about the validity of Mātauranga Māori science that occurs across psychology and academia. We are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of Māori staff and students in psychology who must now navigate the fall-out of this letter.

It is unbelievable that stuff like this can come out of the mouths of reputable academics. “Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun.” Seriously? Yes, of course science has been used for bad purposes by bad people, as has architecture (gas chambers), and religion. But this says nothing about whether the epistemic value of modern science is on par with the epistemic value of Mātauranga Māori. If the University of Auckland plans to teach the latter on par with real science in science classes, it will be shameful; and I feel sorry for its dissenting scientists, who may be many. But now have to keep their mouths shut lest them be called out like the Satanic Seven.

The Kiwis have been very careful in the past few decades to ensure good relations with the Maori, who themselves colonized an empty New Zealand about 700 years ago. But keeping good relations does not demand that you accept a “way of knowing” that is mythological, spiritual, and wrong.

As my friend said, “Wokism is well under way here.”


Okay, it’s time for me to write to Roger Ridley (above) so that two of the seven don’t get booted out of New Zealand’s Royal Society. If they are, that society will have branded itself as a huge joke.  Here’s the letter I just sent. Note, though, that you should write instead to Paul Atkins, who was recently named the the new chief executive of the NZRS. His email is

Dear Dr. Ridley,

I understand from the news that New Zealand’s Royal Society is considering expelling two scientists for signing a letter objecting to teaching “indigenous” science alongside and coequal with modern science.  As a biologist who has done research for a lifetime and also spent time with biologists in New Zealand, I find this possibility deeply distressing.

The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.

I presume you know that the Maori way of knowing includes creationism: the kind of creationism that fundamentalist Christians espouse in the U.S. based on a literalistic reading of the Bible. Both American and Maori creationism are dead wrong—refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, and so on. I have spent a lifetime opposing creationism as a valid view of life. That your society would expel members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like, is shameful.

I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

This Sunday: Cosmic volcanoes, future humans and Neanderthals!

November 5, 2019 • 5:03 am

by Matthew Cobb

This post is an unashamed plug/PSA.  RATIO is a regular popular science festival held in Sofia, Bulgaria. I have spoken there a couple of times, as has Jerry. The event attracts hundreds of attendees, and is a major event. Now they are opening their doors to everyone, all over the planet – you can live-stream the upcoming talks, on Sunday 10 November, for JUST FIVE EUROS. (That’s basically five dollars.) Full sign-up details here. As well as the talks there will be a panel discussion. Here’s an example from 2018, including the fabulous Erica McAlister, keeper of flies at the London Natural History Museum.

There are three talks this Sunday:

Robin Andrews: From Alien Volcanoes To Terminator Asteroids: The Solar System Is A Freak Show

Our solar system is stranger than you think. There are earthquakes that can last for nine days without anyone noticing them on Earth. On Saturn, it rains diamonds. On a moon of Jupiter, thanks to its awkward orbital ballet, the rock moves in the way that tides move on Earth, which fuels volcanic eruptions that outshine entire worlds. On Titan, the atmosphere is so soupy that if you flapped your arms, you could fly around…

Martin Moder: Human Оptimization

The world’s first designer babies premiered about a year ago. Time to consider, whether we’re even capable of defining what “optimization” should mean.

Which of our traits are affected by genetics? How far are we from influencing their biological foundation? Could we enhancing general intelligence without tedious studying to finally become less stupid?

Jonathan Pettitt: May Contain Neanderthal

Your DNA is not your destiny, but it is your ancestry; or at least it’s a record of it. Genetics has given us extraordinary insights into our collective human past, showing the patterns of migrations and unions that have shaped our individual genetic inheritances.Investigations into human evolutionary genetics have revealed some deeply non-intuitive findings, which have implications for both the present and future оf human biology and medicine.

I know that PCC(E) would want to join me in encouraging you to sign up. RATIO is a brilliant initiative, and the people behind it – mainly volunteers – have slowly created a really important piece of science communication in eastern Europe. They deserve all our support!