Another weak defense of Mātauranga Māori 

May 12, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Let’s go back for a tick to the fracas in New Zealand over the government’s plan to teach Mātauranga Māori (henceforth MM) or Māori “ways of knowing”, as co-equivalent to modern science in public school science classes. Universities are following the schools’ lead, and touting MM as an almost untouchable but diverse collection of practical knowledge, myth, theology, and morality.  It’s more a “way of living” than a way of knowing, but it can’t be denied that there are bits of empirical truth in it.

I’ve posted about MM at length, and in my view it should be taught as part of New Zealand’s cultural heritage, and perhaps some bits of practical knowledge can be inserted into science classes; but the system as a whole does not compare with modern science as a subject that should be taught to students (for one thing, it is a creationist theory).  If you try to figure out what the “scientific” parts of MM are, they all turn out to be “practical knowledge”: ways of catching and harvesting food, or navigating, all derived from trial-and-error experience.

Its advocates always go back to these things as proof that MM is “science”, but the scientific parts of MM have ground to a halt. That’s because, unlike modern science, MM is not a toolkit for producing further knowledge, but rather a set of empirical methods for living off the land that have pretty much run their course. MM cannot, and has not, produced new knowledge outside the practical realm in the way of modern science. (I haven’t even seen new knowledge in any realm deriving from it.) MM is impotent at dealing with things like particle physics, evolution, quantum theory, scientific testing of medicines and medical procedures, and the like. In other words, MM has become lore. Yes, true lore in some cases, but it’s now a fossilized bit of sociology that, while it may change in theological or moral realms, cannot change in empirical realms—except in discovering new ways of catching eels or growing crops—things that modern science is at least as good as.

I may sound harsh here, but that’s because I’ve just read an over-the-top piece by a Māori astronomer on how MM is not only science, but in some ways better than modern science. The author, Rangi Matamua, is identified in Wikipedia this way:

Rangiānehu ‘Rangi’ Mātāmua is a New Zealand indigenous studies and Māori cultural astronomy academic and was a full professor at the University of Waikato. He is Māori, of Tūhoe descent. He is the first Māori to win a Prime Minister’s Science Prize, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

As far as I can see, “Cultural Astronomy” involves identifying stars and celestial bodies that were important to earlier societies—in this case Matamua’s Māori ancestors. It doesn’t seem to involve new discoveries in astronomy, though I may be wrong. At any rate, Matamua himself, in this article from E-Tangata, a Māori website, identifies his big contribution as disseminating the names of 900 stars, 103 constellations, and a passel of Māori “star lore” taken from an older manuscript. So be it.

Click to read:

The occasion for Matamua writing this piece is the new official New Zealand holiday of Matariki, celebrating the appearance of the Pleiades constellation, or the beginning of the Māori New Year. This gives Matamua a chance to valorize MM. Among his assertions are these. (Bold headings are mine, his words indented and mine flush left):

MM is better than science because it involves connecting EVERYTHING.  As Matamua says:

From a Māori point of view, there’s no use understanding something in science unless you go on to understand how it’s connected to everything else. A piece of knowledge can be taken out and explored on its own, but, for us, it only has real purpose and meaning when it’s all stitched together in one fabric.

Western science is wonderfully objective and driven by evidence, and it will test and test to come up with rigorous findings, but quite often that happens in isolation, and then it moves on to the next thing. Whereas for me as a Māori scientist, the key thing is the practice of knowledge in everyday life.

This implicit science dissing is wrong in two ways. First of all, everything is not really connected to everything else except only very weakly through the laws of physics. And that’s largely irrelevant. Many scientific theories, standing on their own, are extremely useful without stitching them into everything else. How does the existence of black holes, which we just discussed, fit into MM, much less everything else. Even in MM, I suspect not everything is attached to everything else.

Second, as Matamua asserts, MM deals mainly with “the practice of knowledge in everyday life.” Does he use black holes or quantum mechanics in his everyday life (perhaps he uses a GPS device??s) It’s interesting that he gives not one example of this universal connection.

There are empirical accomplishments of MM. Matamua mentions two: the navigational abilities of his Polynesian ancestors (not really Māori, who arrived in NZ in the 13th century, but let’s let that go), and their use of the configuration of the stars to figure out when to plant crops. The rest is irrelevant to “science”. I’ll quote at length:

Our knowledge systems are still so often seen as “myths and legends”, as if they’re devoid of proper science. But there is empirical science that sits at the heart of mātauranga Māori. You don’t traverse the expanse of ocean that our ancestors traversed by riding on myths and legends. You need to have your science down.

The difference is that mātauranga Māori and Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to connect that knowledge to the people.

Let’s take Matariki as the example.

Matariki is part of a very detailed stellar lunar calendar system. In the modern world, we are accustomed to 365 (and a quarter) days for a year. We travel around the sun which gives us our year and our time system, regardless of any other environmental factors. But Māori followed localised calendar systems built off the lunar calendar, which is 354 days long.

Our ancestors knew about the apparent magnitude of stars and they knew that Matariki needed to be a certain height on the horizon, while the sun is below the horizon, for it to be visible. So, they triangulated the position of the sun, the visibility of the stars, and lunar phase to tell where they were in their calendar system, and the correct lunar month. Because of the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is 11 days, over three years there was a 33-day slippage.

So, every three or so years, they’d introduce an extra month into the calendar system. It’s called intercalation, or an intercalary month, and it’s the same concept as a leap day being inserted every four years to the solar calendar. That’s how my ancestors managed their system of time. Which is very scientific.

Then, to make it all have meaning and purpose, which is essential, Māori cultural practices and even spirituality were built around this movement of time.

This meant more than just “knowing” the information — it needed to become part of their practice. So, they lived it every day. They hunted, fished, gardened, undertook every activity, by the moon, the position of the sun, the pre-dawn rising of stars. Their whole lives were orientated not just around the sky, but their environment.

Mātauranga Māori had the ability to take the scientific principle and demonstrate to people that if they followed that star, they’d arrive at a certain location. Then, to make the premise have deep meaning to the people, that star became a deity.

Or we knew that when a certain star was visible, the birds would fly in a certain direction. So that star was named after those birds, which would lead to a particular land area, which was then embedded into a ceremony so that it had a tangible connection for people.

Here we have navigation and planting again—practical knowledge guided by trial and error—as the “science” in MM.  Yes, it’s practical truth, but how is this coequal with modern biology, physics, and chemistry as a way to teach science (not anthropology or sociology) in schools and universities? That would shortchange the science. The stars, birds, and ceremonies are irrelevant to science; that is anthropology.

Oh, and there’s gardening:

Mātauranga Māori is not locked in the past. It is still evolving and developing. It is a framework for our Indigenous knowledge systems, whether they are still purely traditional or whether we have incorporated other thinking and concepts and added elements of our Māoriness to them.

I think, for example, about how our ancestors were excellent gardeners. When new variations of crops like potatoes and pumpkin were introduced, they quickly adapted to those and incorporated them into their world. But they still planted them using the lunar calendar, even though they were introduced species.

But he gives no evidence that MM, or at least its practical knowledge, is “evolving and developing.” In the meantime, we have the Green Revolution, transgenic plants, and other accomplishments of modern agricultural science—which, by the way, is connected to people’s lives.

“Western” science (Matamua’s word) is impotent at importing its findings into people’s lives. I find this claim unbelievable, and do remember that Matamua is a fellow of New Zealand’s Royal Society.:

It’s a waste of time trying to argue with those people. Debating in that way just sets up the idea that mātauranga Māori and western science are adversaries. They’re not. In fact, they connect very well together. The important difference, for me, is that Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to link people with the scientific concepts in a meaningful way.

There is clear evidence, for example, that we are heating up the earth. Scientific evidence. We are emitting carbon, we are polluting. Western science is saying: “Here is the evidence.” Yet the science has failed to embed that knowledge in the everyday practices of people. If western science was all knowing and all perfect, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where we continue to destroy the only livable planet we have that exists within any manageable distance from us.

So, when it comes to these really important issues, we can’t assume that one way of knowing is superior to another.

It’s not the science that is deficient here, but humans’ lack of will. It is not the job of science, but of public policy to decide what to do with the science. To diss science for not making people accept and do something about global warming is simply a misplaced accusation. This, in fact, makes me think that Matamua doesn’t understand what modern science does. 

And to claim that modern science, in contrast to MM, does not understand how to link people with the scientific concepts in a meaningful way is to make a fatuous and risible claim.  How much of our lives are imbued with modern science, from transportation, to medicine, to food, and so on? Are these connections not “meaningful”? Was the saving of thousands of lives with RNA-based covid vaccines (a product, by the way, derived from the pure science that led to DNA sequencing) “not connecting people with scientific concepts in a meaningful way”?

Finally, Matamua gives himself the ultimate out.

You can’t criticize MM unless you can speak Māori. Yes, this is what he sys:

Even for me to be using English now to explain these things misses a whole level of understanding that comes when we talk about them in te reo Māori. Our reo and our practice of mātauranga Māori are such major ways of maintaining our traditional knowledge that I have to remind myself that the opinions of people who have absolutely no understanding of Māori language or customs is null and void when it comes to determining how our knowledge is defined.

If this were the case that scientists of different nationalities would never be able to communicate with each other. Heisenberg’s and Einstein’s work and that of Leeuwenhoek, Galileo et al. would have been lost. But there happen to be such things as translators, and to say that we are unable to judge the “knowledge” of MM because we can’t speak Māori is a pathetic way to immunize MM against discussion and criticism. In the end, what kind of “science” is immune to understanding unless you can speak the language of its practitioners? Only MM, I guess.


I’m spending this time on Matamua’s piece only because he’s big name in MM, Maori astronomy, and is also a member of New Zealand’s Royal Society. But the words that flow from his pen don’t impress me at all.

Fellows of New Zealand’s Royal Society demand apology and full review of the Society after poor treatment of two members

April 2, 2022 • 11:00 am

I don’t want to repeat the whole saga of the Royal Society of New Zealand and its defense of “other ways of knowing”, but here are a few steps leading up to this post that you can glean from my collection of posts on the issue.

1.) The New Zealand government has begun a policy that will facilitate teaching Mātauranga Māori (“MM”), or Māori “ways of knowing”, as coequal to science in secondary school science classes. Many universities have taken this up as well. The problem is that MM, while containing some practical wisdom about things like when to hunt or pick berries, is also heavily larded with superstition, religious claims, morality, and legend passed down by word of mouth over centuries. MM claims, for instance, that the Polynesians discovered Antarctica in the early seventh century; a completely unsupported and unrealistic claim. MM is also explicitly creationist. Thus teaching the contents of MM as coequal to science, and not interior to it—modern science is, after all, said to be racist and “colonialist”—is a bad strategy, one that will confuse students and drag New Zealand further down in its already-low ranking of science education among comparable countries

2.) In response to the government’s policy, seven professors at The University of Auckland wrote a letter (“In defence of science”) to the NZ magazine The Listener While arguing that MM is essential to be taught as a form of cultural inheritance and a force for devising policy, “it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.” That happens to be a fact. The purpose of the letter was not to denigrate Maori culture, but to argue that its “way of knowing” was not science, as well as to defend science itself.

3.) Enraged by this fact, academics, many Kiwi academics, and writers, as well as Māori people and sympathizers, attacked the letter and its seven writers, calling them bigoted and “racists.” This is because New Zealand is an overly woke nation, so that saying that MM falls short of science itself is, to many, equivalent to saying that “Māori are an inferior people.” (In fact, one of the signers, Garth Cooper, has Māori heritage.) In response to this misperceived racism, counter-letters were written and petitions were circulated. Given the climate of the country, few people wanted to come forward to defend the “Satanic Seven” who signed the letter.

4.) Worst of all, the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), devoted to honoring those who do good science, also attacked the Listener letter and its signers by issuing the following statement (it’s now disappeared from the RSNZ site):

The last two paragraphs are particularly odious, asserting that yes, MM is science and that arguing otherwise causes unspecified “harm.”

5.) The foreign press got wind of this after several non Kiwi-scientists, including Richard Dawkins and I, issued public statements and wrote to the RSNZ about their ridiculous accusations. In the meantime, several people complained to the RSNZ that two of its members who signed the letter, philosopher Robert Nola and biochemist Garth Cooper, were guilty of unprofessionalism and of causing harm.

6.) The RSNZ launched a preliminary investigation of Nola and Cooper and, after having attacked them and their fellow signers in the now-vanished RSNZ statement, decided that the two members had done nothing wrong. The investigation was dropped. No apology was tendered to Nola or Cooper, who then resigned from the RSNZ in disgust.

But things aren’t over yet. This whole kerfuffle left a bad taste in people’s mouths, especially because many who agreed that MM is not equivalent to science were too afraid to say anything, lest they get punished or even fired (see below). I got a lot of emails from New Zealanders who sided with the Satanic Seven but were scared as hell to say anything in their defense. Talk about chilling of speech! On this issue, at least, New Zealanders were acting like advocates of China’s Cultural Revoution.

I’ve just obtained a petition/letter signed by 73 Fellows of the RSNZ objecting to the treatment of Cooper and Nola by the Society and calling for both an apology to the pair (a third Fellow sho signed had died in the interim) and a thorough investigation of the RSNZ’s practices and underhanded way of investigating its members. The petition is below the line, and a lot of what they call “big noises” have signed. The signers call for three motions to be brought before the RSNZ; the motions were proposed by Gaven Martin and seconded by Marston Conder.

I include the list of signers.

To Paul Atkins (CEO RSNZ)

The Fellows, listed below as cosignatories, wish to express their deep concern about what has been happening within the Royal Society of New Zealand over the last year, by moving and seconding the motions below for discussion at the at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28th April.

Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists. We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the Society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the Society’s very poor processes and actions.

In particular:

1. We believe that the content of the initial statement posted by the RSTA on its website in August 2021 about the controversy generated following the Listener letter on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and Science was ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part.

2. We are appalled at the mishandling of the formation of the initial committee set up by RSTA to investigate the complaint, the length of the process, and the handling of the publication of the outcome, which suggests both that the RSTA cannot decide whether mātauranga Māori is or is not Science, and impugned the integrity of two eminent Fellows.

3. It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in Science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the Society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).

We therefore move that:

1. Both the Society and Academy write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the Estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process.

2. The Society reviews its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters.

3. The entirety of the RSNZ/RSTA entity be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests.

Moved: Gaven Martin (Massey University)

Seconded: Marston Conder (The University of Auckland)

Cosignatories: (in alphabetical order)

Marti Anderson (Massey University)

Geoff Austin (University of Auckland)

Edward Baker (University of Auckland)

Debes Bhattacharyya (University of Auckland)

Dick Bellamy (University of Auckland)

Douglas Bridges (University of Canterbury)

Gillian Brock (University of Auckland)

Linda Bryder (University of Auckland)

Alan Bollard (Victoria University of Wellington)

Brian Boyd (University of Auckland)

John Caradus (Grasslanz)

Howard Carmichael (University of Auckland)

Garth Carnaby (University of Auckland)

John Chen (University of Auckland)

Mick Clout (University of Auckland)

Jill Cornish (University of Auckland)

Grant Covic (University of Auckland)

Dave Craw (University of Otago)

Max Cresswell (Victoria University of Wellington)

Fred Davey (retired)

Stephen Davies (University of Auckland)

Alison Downard (Canterbury Univeristy)

Rod Downey (Victoria University of Wellington)

Geoffrey Duffy (University of Auckland)

Joerg Frauendiener (Otago University)

Rob Goldblatt (Victoria University of Wellington)

Stephen Goldson (Agresearch)

Rod Gover (University of Auckland)

Russell Gray (Max Planck/UoA)

Frank Griffin (University of Otago)

John Harvey (University of Auckland)

Bruce Hayward (Geomarine Research)

Janet Holmes (Victoria University of Wellington)

Peter Hunter (University of Auckland)

John Harper (Victoria University of Wellington)

Bruce Hayward (Geomarine Research)

Manying Ip (University of Auckland)

Mac Jackson (University of Auckland)

Geoff Jameson (Massey University)

Steve Kent  (Hon.; University of Chicago)

Estate Khmaladze (Victoria University of Wellington)

Bakh Khoussainov (University of Auckland)

Matt McGlone (Victoria University of Wellington)

Neil McNaughton (University of Otago)

Miriam Meyerhoff (Oxford University)

Michael Neill (University of Auckland)

Eamonn O’Brien (University of Auckland)

John Ogden (Emeritus Fellow)

Jenni Ogden (Emeritus Fellow)

David Paterson (Oxford University)

Paul Rainey (Max Planck/Massey)

Raylene Ramsay (University of Auckland)

Ian Reid, (University of Auckland)

Mick Roberts (Massey University)

Viviane Robinson (University of Auckland)

Clive Ronson (University of Otago)

Peter Schwerdtfeger (Massey University)

Barry Scott (Massey University)

Charles Semple (Canterbury University)

Vernon Squire (Otago University)

Mike Steel (Canterbury University)

ATS (name withheld until 28 April)

Kim Sterelny (Australian National University)

Rupert Sutherland (Victoria University of Wellington)

Jeff Tallon (Victoria University of Wellington)

Marcus Ulyatt (ret)

Matt Visser (Victoria University of Wellington)

Jack Vowles (Victoria University of Wellington)

Joyce Waters (Massey University)

Geoff Whittle (Victoria University of Wellington)

Chris Wild (University of Auckland)

Colin Wilson (Victoria University of Wellington)

Christine Winterbourn (Otago University)

Gaven Martin then transmitted the motions to officials of the RSNZ with his own cover letter, below, which I have permission to publish. Here it is. The recipient list includes the Chair of the Academy as well as the President of the RSNZ. I have put the third point in bold because it shows the climate of intimidation that besets not just the RSNZ, but the whole country when it comes to issues about its indigenous people.

[From]: Gaven Martin

To: Paul, Brent Charlotte, Marston

Dear Paul (and  Charlotte and Brent and blind cc)

Please find attached three motions with a supporting letter, which we expect to be tabled at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship meeting (hereafter AGM) on the 28th of  and circulated to Fellows before then.

The motions are moved by myself, seconded by Marston Conder, and have nearly 70 Fellows as co-signatories obtained over three days.

I would make the following additional comments.

    1. The inclusion of each co-signatory has been validated by an email confirmation held by two of us.
    2. A number of other Fellows have said (in writing) that they will support these motions in a vote, but do not like the idea of sending letters with lots of signatories.
    3. Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour,  but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their University), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public.  Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter.  Two Fellows (major RSNZ Medalists) said this: “Better not (sign) at this stage – … I agree with all the statements – but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.”, and “In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at UoA if I do so”.  This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in NZ at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.
    4. A few of the co-signatories are Emeritus Fellows,  and believe they might have no voting rights, but they sincerely wish to express their opinion on these matters.
    5. If you are not able or willing to circulate this to all Fellows ahead of the AGM,  then please let us know at your earliest convenience (and at least before 14th April), so that we can ensure it happens, and we can also let Fellows know of your inability or unwillingness to do so.
    6. We  have no wish to see the Society harmed further than it has recently harmed itself, but manifest changes are necessary to remedy the very low levels of accountability of the Council and Academy. In particular, Fellows should be accorded more agency, so that the current disconnection between RSNZ and its Fellows is reduced.
    7. As no doubt you are aware, currently there is considerable media interest in the attached document.  We have endeavoured to keep this confidential, but we cannot ensure these issues will remain in confidence leading up to 28th April


Gaven Martin

This cover letter will be distributed to all signatories on Monday 28th March.

Note that this is both a free-speech issue, bearing on the right of fellows to say what they think in public without suffering official consequences, but also an issue of the credibility of the RSNZ itself, which has publicly aligned itself with MM and thus debased real science. This is a problem with the whole educational establishment in NZ, and it starts at the top with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Maybe this has escaped her notice, but she may want to pay attention since her nation is becoming fractured by ethnic divides. Teach MM in schools: of course; teach MM as equivalent to science: no. Not unless, that is, Ardern wants her nation to become simultaneously woker and more ignorant.

The RSNZ has now distributed the signed letter/petition to its members and scheduled a meeting to discuss the motions on, as its notice says, “Wednesday, 13 Paenga-whāwhā April 2022”.  The agenda, which I’ll discuss in another post soon, is, as one person wrote me:

“. . . . larded with Māori activities that have become “traditional” in all sorts of settings (educational, governmental, even business) over the last few years of wokeness: a mihi (Māori welcome), waiata (songs: the words are given in Māori, without translation), and karakia (prayer): to conform to recent conformist practice, to establish where the RS sits in terms of respecting Māori culture, and, if you like, to exert systemic control, to establish the climate of thought which you’d be wiser not to resist.
There is no singing of either of New Zealand’s two national anthems (yes, it has two): God Defend New Zealand and God Save The Queen. That would be “colonialism.”


How can there be a fair discussion of MM in such a meeting? Well, perhaps there can be, and we can always hope that the three motions above are passed. Stay tuned.

Sabine Hossenfelder on the most epic fights between scientists

February 14, 2022 • 11:00 am

Here’s a 16-minute video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder that was forwarded to me by reader Steve, who added this

Sabine leads with the contretemps between E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. I found the whole video edifying, with my admiration for Thomas Edison taken down several notches.

Indeed! You will never look at Edison the same way again, especially if you go on the Internet and look for the video of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant, promoted by Edison.

The six fights:

1.) Richard Dawkins’s scathing review of E. O. Wilson’s 2012 book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which pushed a group-selectionist origin of human behavior. (I too reviewed that book for TLS and will send a copy on request).

2.) Wilson’s riposte that Dawkins was a “journalist.” Ouch!

3.) Leibniz vs. Newton’s debate about who first developed differential calculus. Newton got discovery precedence, but was slow to publish, so both men’s work appeared about the same time. A fight ensued, with Newton beefing to the Royal Society about credit. Newton won that fight, but there were a lot of bad feelings and mutual criticism. Leibniz also cheated by changing the dates of some of his manuscripts to try establishing precedence

4.) Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla over whether electric current should be delivered as direct (DC_ or alternating (AC). Edison, an advocate of DC, electrocuted animals (including Topsy the elephant, one of the most heinous acts imaginable) to show that AC was dangerous.

5.) The paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope versus Othniel Marsh, a conflict described in Wikipedia as “The Bone Wars”:

The Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a period of intense and ruthlessly competitive fossil hunting and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). Each of the two paleontologists used underhanded methods to try to outdo the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and the destruction of bones. Each scientist also sought to ruin his rival’s reputation and cut off his funding, using attacks in scientific publications.

6.)  Fred Hoyle versus the world! Willy Fowler, Hoyle’s collaborator, got a Nobel Prize (with Chandrasekhar) in 1983. Both Hoyle and Fowler collaborated on how nuclear reactions work in stars. Why was Hoyle overlooked? Hossenfelder gives several possible explanations.

Hossenfelder’s lesson is that “competition is a good thing, but is best enjoyed in small doses”.  I’m not sure I agree, as the more competition there is in science, the faster we get to the truth. Yes, it’s unpleasant to see big guns acting petty, but in the end science is the beneficiary.

Hossenfelder also mentions that the conflicts show that scientists are human, but we already know that. There aren’t really lessons here beyond those in the history of science, but there’s a lot of intriguing history in this short video

More from New Zealand, a nation whose science is circling the drain

January 23, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I’ve written a lot about New Zealand lately, in particular the schools’ and government’s attempt to force the teaching of “indigenous ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori) into the science classroom as a system coequal in value with modern science. That means not only equal classroom time, but equal respect, treating indigenous ways of knowing as complementary if not identical to “scientific truth”. Note that I’m not dismissing the value of mātauranga Māori (henceforth “MM”) in some spheres, even science. For MM contains “practical knowledge”, like how to catch eels, that could conceivably be inserted into science courses.

And of course MM s the worldview of the indigenous people, and thus an important part of the history and tradition of New Zealand. It thus deserves to be taught in anthropology or sociology classes. But the science within MM is precious little compared with the larger titer of myth, legend, superstition, theology, and morality that are essential to MM. This other stuff is not a “way of knowing” and thus cannot be taught in science classes. Note as well that MM is also explicitly creationist. Do Kiwis really want to confuse students by telling them that Māori creation myths are just as “scientific” as is biological evolution?  Teaching MM as science is just as fraught as teaching any indigenous “way of knowing” as science: it’s a pathway that leads inevitably to the degeneration of science education in a country.

If you want to see what’s in store for New Zealand’s secondary schools and universities, have a read of the brochure below (click on screenshot to get a free copy), which is the University of Auckland’s “five year and ten year plans” for where it wants to go vis-à-vis education and reputation. I’ve read it twice, and have concluded four things:

a. There’s no “there” there: it’s all a bunch of chirpy aspirations about making the University a world thought leader, but without any tangible steps for doing so. I’ve rarely read a “plan” so devoid of content.

b. It’s abysmally written and loaded with Māori words that you can’t understand unless you’re fluent in the language (have a look, for instance, at the title).

c. It’s basically a plan for handing over half the curriculum and its planning to Māori, including teaching MM, though they constitute only 16.5% of the New Zealand population (Asians are 15.3%).

d. There is nothing at all about science in the plan except this lame quote from the “research and innovation page” of aspirations:

Be a research partner of choice for industry, policymakers and community organisations.

• Review promotion and reward systems to appropriately recognise the value of a range of research endeavours.

• Upskill and build capability of staff and students in research impact, engagement and science communication.

(“Upskill”? Is that a word.?) At any rate, you get the sense from the above of what’s in this screed: a lot of fine-sounding words without any substance. In fact, the one mention of science I’ve just quoted is the ONLY time that word is used in the entire 28-page vision statement, while the words “mātauranga Māori” are used six times. That’s way more than “coequal”!

The sole mention of science:

One of six mentions of MM:

And what kind of vision plan says nothing about science education?

The deep-sixing of modern science in NZ is pretty much a done deal, as the Ardern government has decided that the initial agreement between the “Crown” (settlers) and the Māori—embodied in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, known in Māori as “Te Tiriti”) should be interpreted as meaning that  Māori should ultimately get not just equity (since they’re a minority of Kiwis), but extra equity: half of the money and half of the power.

Now pushback by minority groups everywhere is largely about power, which is fine because oppression is a withdrawal of power. But my reading of the government’s push is that power is to be apportioned to indigenous people so that they get at least half the say in everything.

It’s as if the government of the U.S. decided that Native Americans got not only half the research funding for science, but half the say in teaching their “way of knowing” in science classes. This just won’t do, as times have moved on. MM rarely changes, and most of it cannot be falsified, while science steams its way forward. This is not to say that Māori shouldn’t have more power than they do already (I can’t speak to that), but that the government of New Zealand apparently is so ridden with guilt that it’s ready to hand over its science and its universities—not to mention its dosh—to Māori or to anybody who claims Māori ancestry.

The money issue had escaped my mind until I read the article below, which appears at a reputable website (Point of Order) and was written by a reputable journalist, Graham Adams. His point is that the drive to establish hegemony of MM has as a main goal the acquisition of money for Māori-centric research (I know of examples of this, but they’re quite trivial)—in fact, half of all money allocated for research. If you want to hurt scientific progress in New Zealand, that’s a good way to do it. One can of course—and should—try to interest Māori in modern scientific endeavors, but that’s not what Adams is talking about.

An excerpt (my emphasis):

The incendiary stoush was sparked last July by seven eminent professors stating in a letter to the Listener that indigenous knowledge is not science and therefore does not warrant inclusion in the NCEA syllabus as being equal to science.

Yet in the five months since the letter was published, virtually no one among those opposing the professors has argued convincingly that mātauranga Māori is scientific (even if some small elements of it could be called proto-science or pre-science).

On the face of it, the debate by now should have been declared a clear win for the professors and their supporters.   In rebuttal, their principal critics — including the Royal Society NZ, Auckland University Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater, the Tertiary Education Union and prominent Covid commentators Drs Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — have not gone beyond asserting that  mātauranga Māori is a valuable and unique system of knowledge that is complementary to science.

This view is not contentious in the slightest — and was explicitly endorsed by the professors themselves in their letter.

So, if most everyone agrees that mātauranga Māori is mostly not science but is nevertheless a worthwhile and complementary form of knowledge, the obvious solution to the standoff over including it in the NCEA curriculum would be to teach it as a component of, say, social studies. But not as part of the science syllabus.

That way, you’d think, everyone wins — Māori knowledge would be taught in secondary schools, and the argument over whether it is sufficiently scientific would vanish.

However, a simple accommodation of this kind was never going to be possible because the NCEA syllabus is merely the tip of a large iceberg of policies to recast our entire science education system — from schools to universities to research institutes — as an equal endeavour between Māori and non-Māori in which mātauranga Māori is everywhere accorded the same status as science.

And thats the rub, because “status” includes money.


The NCEA syllabus represents just one small step in fulfilling a much wider co-governance programme based on a radical view of the Treaty as a 50:50 partnership between Maori and the Crown. For that reason, advocates of incorporating Maori knowledge into the science curriculum cannot afford to concede even an inch of ground to the professors and their supporters lest their stealthy revolution be undermined.

In short, the push to promote indigenous knowledge cannot be allowed to fail at any level for fear it will fail at every level.

The project to gain parity for mātauranga Māori throughout science education and funding is detailed in Te Pūtahitangi, A Tiriti-led Science-Policy Approach for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Published last April, it can be seen as a companion to the revolutionary ethno-nationalist report He Puapua and shows how a radical overhaul of the education system could, or should, be implemented.

This overhaul in fact gives more than equity to Māori when it comes to funding, for their research quality gets weighted 2.5 times as heavily as does research from non-Māori. This is likely to translate into big differences in research funding.  Not even in the U.S. will the NSF and NIH prioritize grants and research evaluations based on ethnicity. The NIH tried to do that, but stopped the practice when it became public and was seen as unfair. One possibility is to fund only projects that involve Māori scientists. But since there’s a paucity of Māori scientists, the NZ initiative is, I think, likely to shake out as “no funding except for projects that combine modern science with MM.”

While the University of Auckland touts how wonderful it is and how much of a world-class research institute it will be, it and the NZ government is simultaneously ensuring that the research quality and reputation of the entire country will go into the dumper. And it’s largely done out of guilt, for equity alone simply cannot justify these actions. Robin DiAngelo would make a pile in New Zealand!

In the next installment (not for a while), I’ll give some examples of MM “ways of knowing” that have been touted as scientific.

Is learning through trial and error “science”?

January 9, 2022 • 1:16 pm

This question came up when I was thinking about Māori and other indigenous “ways of knowing”, and I realized that this kind of knowledge is acquired mostly through trial and error.  Now that doesn’t mean it isn’t science, for it is “science construed broadly” as I discuss in Faith versus Fact. And before we had the scientific toolkit now used by professional scientists, this is pretty much all we had.  In his new book, Rationality, Steve Pinker begins with a long and absorbing disquisition on how the San people of Africa have developed a sophisticated way of tracking animals, and accomplishing other feats, through trial and error over the centuries. And sometimes it’s based on hypotheses, like “Wildebeests are bigger than other grazing animals, and would leave deeper tracks.”

So yes, “trial and error” is science, but it seems to me that modern science involves far more than trial and error, but rests more frequently on testing a priori hypotheses.  We didn’t use trial and error to get the Webb Space Telescope to its position, for if we made one error, the mirror wouldn’t open. We also used the known laws of physics, which aren’t used in “indigenous knowledge.”  Darwin didn’t develop the theory of evolution by natural selection using trial and error, but had an epiphany from reading Malthus and then worked out the consequences, including checking the results of breeders. Avery et al. didn’t discover that DNA was the hereditary material by trial and error, but by knowing that the constituents of bacteria were mostly proteins and nucleic acids, and seeing which of them, via lab experiments, could “transform” other bacteria. This kind of science, more than does indigenous knowledge, builds on itself, so that as hypotheses are confirmed, one after the other, they ultimately lead to an immensely sophisticated body of knowledge.

I came to these thoughts when I was thinking about the ability to navigate between islands used by ancient Polynesians. This is often touted as a form of indigenous “science”. Now this couldn’t have developed, I think, as an a priori set of hypotheses used to get from place A to place B. Rather, we must remember all the voyagers who didn’t make it compared to those who did. Those who did may have used methods that enabled them to succeed: keeping stars in one position, looking for seabirds, and so on. Over time, the successful voyagers incorporated one method after another so voyages became ever more successful. The methods” of those who died attempting the voyages were lost. This was trial and error, and it was a form of scientific knowledge, but it involved enormous wastage. It was the result of one successful trial piled atop another, with the methods that produced successful voyages incorporated into lore.

A similar method could be used to suss out a way through a bifurcating maze. Imagine that there is a Y maze, with each branch bifurcating. After three bifurcations you have 8 separate destinations. Further assume that all the destinations save one—for example, taking the left branch, then the right, and then the left—conclude in a pitfall trap with spikes at the bottome, while that one successful trio of choices leads to a cache of food. Your job is to get the food.  You send 1000 people into the maze, and only about 125 (one out of eight) will emerge at the other end. You then ask them how they got there. They’ll all say, “Go left, right, and then right.” Everyone else would be dead. And so you have “knowledge” of how to solve this problem.

It must have been something like this that was the nucleus of Polynesian navigation—and much other indigenous knowledge. It seems to me—and I may be wrong—that modern science is far more than trial and error, and far more than the kinds of “knowledge” that advocates of, say mātauranga Māori tout as coequal to modern science.  But teaching how modern science approaches problems is far more sophisticated than trial and error, even though indigenous knowledge is indeed sometimes “knowledge” or “truth.” Teaching mātauranga Māori in science classes is not possible so long as that method incorporates philosophy, mythology, legend, and morality, but its empirical methods—trial and error—could be taught. That would take one hour at best. But could you use trial and error as a way of understanding the cosmos that is coequal to the entire toolkit of modern science, which includes trial and error, but so much more?

I am not yet convinced that there’s a good reason to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as coequal to science, though there is a rationale for teaching the methods that our predecessors used to gain knowledge. It’s just that this is not coequal to modern science.

When knowledge was based on trial and error, progress was slow and tedious, and sometimes didn’t happen. It took centuries of failed trial and error to figure out how bubonic plague or malaria was caused, and how to deal with it. The solutions came from hypotheses that were tested, not willy-nilly guesses that weren’t tested, but merely enacted—and failed, one after another. (A lot of my ancestors were burned as supposed remedies for the plague.)

These are just some random thoughts to inspire others to think about the issue of indigenous knowledge versus modern science

What’s going on in New Zealand? Three easy pieces

January 9, 2022 • 10:45 am

I haven’t reported lately on what’s happening with science in New Zealand, so here’s a brief update. I have are three items.

As you may recall, there’s been a big fracas about the way to teach science in New Zealand, with the indigenous Māori  and their supporters arguing that mātauranga Māori, or Maori “ways of knowing” (a stew of knowledge gleaned from trial and error, mythology, philosophy, and legend, as well as creationism) should not only be taught in science classes, but taught as coequal with modern science. (See all my posts here.) This, argue the former, is required by treaty obligations (it isn’t). Seven University of Auckland professors signed a letter in the magazine The Listener arguing that mātauranga Māori isn’t the same as modern science, and while deserving to be taught in anthropology or sociology classes, it would be a disaster as taught as a “way of knowing” identical in content and validity to modern science.

Of the seven professors who signed The Letter, one has since died, but two (Robert Nola and Garth Cooper) were elected to New Zealand’s Royal Society, a huge honor.  And those two were—and still are—subject to an investigation by the RSNZ—for exercising their freedom of speech! Both the RSNZ and University of Auckland also issued statements criticizing the group I call “The Satanic Seven.” It was at this point that I realized that although New Zealand is a great country with lovely and progressive people, it is also a very Woke country, with the Māori regarded as almost an inerrant group of people whose “ways of knowing” produce truth simply because they come from the Māori.  And there doesn’t seem to be a surfeit of freedom of speech.

Outside of NZ, people are uniformly appalled by the disapprobation raining down on these two, as well as the other five. But within the country, people are pretty split between the science-friendly and the Woke.

A lot of the disapprobation from Kiwis was inspired by a petition started by two U. Auckland professors, Siouxie Wiles and Sean Hendy, both experts in Covid with high national profiles. You can see part of the petition they started, that garnered 2,000 signatures, here.) A bit of the petition (I’ve put a few logical errors or insteances of distorted reasoning in bold):

A letter signed by seven University of Auckland Professors/Professors Emeritus, published in the New Zealand Listener (July 23), claims to be “in defence of science” against what is described as an effort to “encourage mistrust of science”.

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.

The seven Professors describe efforts to reevaluate and revise the significance of Mātauranga in NCEA, including the acknowledgement of the role “western” science has played in rationalising colonisation as contributing to “disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding.”

The Professors claim that “science itself does not colonise”, ignoring the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge.

And while the Professors describe science as “universal”, they fail to acknowledge that science has long excluded indigenous peoples from participation, preferring them as subjects for study and exploitation. Diminishing the role of indigenous knowledge systems is simply another tool for exclusion and exploitation.

The Professors present a series of global crises that we must “battle” with science, again failing to acknowledge the ways in which science has contributed to the creation of these challenges. Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.

Finally, they believe that “mistrust of science” is increased by this kind of critique. In contrast, we believe that mistrust in science stems from science’s ongoing role in perpetuating ‘scientific’ racism, justifying colonisation, and continuing support of systems that create injustice. There can be no trust in science without robust self-reflection by the science community and an active commitment to change.

Because of this petition, the Satanic Seven were further demonized, including having their jobs threatened, receiving harassing emails, and so on. In no case that I know of did the University of Auckland support them. Indeed, it helped criticize them.

Item #1:  It’s therefore Ironic that the main authors of that petition, Siouxsie Wiles and Sean Hendy, are now beefing that they, too, have been the subject of harassment for different reasons, and aren’t getting support from the University of Auckland. It’s laid out in this Guardian piece (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

Two of New Zealand’s most prominent Covid experts are taking legal action against their employer, the University of Auckland, over what they say is its failure to respond adequately to “harassment from a small but venomous sector of the public” that is becoming “more extreme”.

Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of medical science, and Shaun Hendy, a professor of physics, have filed separate complaints to the Employment Relations Authority, which last week ruled that they should proceed directly to the Employment Court due to the “high public interest” in their Covid commentary.

According to the ruling, the scientists say that as a result of their work they have “suffered vitriolic, unpleasant, and deeply personalised threats and harassment” via email, social media and video sharing platforms which has had a “detrimental impact” on their physical safety as well as their mental health.

The determination also noted that Wiles had also been the victim of doxxing – in which personal information is published about a person online – while Hendy has been physically confronted at his university office by a person who threatened to “see him soon”.

Now I don’t countenance either threats or doxxing, which are reprehensible behaviors. But I find it ironic that both Wiles and Hendy are beefing about the very behaviors that their own petition instigated against the Satanic Seven—a foreseeable consequence of their actions (they are of course exercising free speech).  And as for threats, well, having one’s employment threatened would scare me more than simple threats by someone to “see me soon.” I have to add that none of the Satanic Seven have complained of victimhood (I’ve heard about the threats from them privately), nor sued the University of Auckland.  The whole mess is just ironic. The fact is, though, that none of these nine people did anything to deserve public disapprobation, but only two of them instigated a climate of hatred that affected the others.


Item #2. If you want to see how far down the rabbit hole the promoters of mātauranga Māori have gone, here’s an article from a popular magazine, Spinoff, an article that happened to be financed (how does a magazine article get “financed”?) by the University of Otago, one of the big promoters of mātauranga Māori and Māori studies in New Zealand. Click on the screenshot to read (along with the disclaimers):

(The funding, in very small print):

This is propaganda, not journalism:

This piece shares with other defenses of mātauranga Māori two features: a.) a lack of examples of scientific knowledge acquired using Māori “ways of knowing,” and b.) a plethora of mātauranga Māori words so frequent that they make the article almost unreadable to those who don’t speak the language. To me it seems a way of showing off, as if one were describing a kerfuffle about science in France by heavily larding it with French words. I’ll give examples.

First, below is the one bit of knowledge that mātauranga Māori is said to have conferred. This is in an English-language magazine, so good luck following it:

The arrival of a Pākehā scientist at Te Rau Aroha marae in Motupōhue asking questions about mātauranga Māori and kaitiakitanga wasn’t received with aroha by all. Moller said he was viewed as the face of a Pākehā institution which many whānau were sceptical about dealing with.

When the scientists wanted to place radio trackers on the manu, mana whenua firmly opposed it as their tikanga of kaitiakitanga is to not disturb the adult tītī. The scientists later tested the trackers on mainland manu and found they disrupted their attendance behaviour at the colony. Moller says it was a good example of how mātauranga Māori can improve science.

The upshot: indigenous people said putting a GPS tracker on a manu (a “muttonbird”, a type of petrel), would disturb the colony or the birds. They were right. This doesn’t, however, say that there isn’t another way of tracking these birds.

And that’s about it. Yes, you could teach this in a class as coequal with animal behavior, but it would take just two minutes. And this is the kind of example touted as the “science” of mātauranga Māori . But remember, that “way of knowing” also includes creation myths as scientific “truth”.

The paucity of what mātauranga Māori (“MM”) has to add to classes in modern science is repeatedly seen in articles that defend MM. Yes, some examples are useful in spicing up the curriculum and making it seem more local, but it’s not a replacement for modern science.

And a few bits of incomprehensible dual linguistics:

The University of Otago associate professor specialising in genetics is the most senior Māori academic of the handful working in his field.

For the last 20 years, Wilcox has been designing and creating tikanga-based research frameworks. He was part of the team that created Te Mata Ira: Guidelines for Genomic Research with Māori, which lays out how whakapapa, kawatikangamanatika and manaakitanga guide how DNA research is conducted with iwi and hapū.

Oops, here’s some more dissing—this time a backhanded slap at modern genetics:

Among the papers he teaches at the university is one about Māori concepts of hereditary inheritance – whakapapa and pepeha.

Whereas in Western science genetics is specialised, “pushed off the side” to breeding programmes or for “recreational” purposes like, Wilcox says whakapapa is a central tenet of te ao Māori culture.

Pushed off to the side for breeding programs and “recreational” pursuits like 23AndMe??? Does Professor Wilcox not know the span of modern genetics, now deeply invested in reconstructing human migration and ancestry from DNA sequences and “ancient DNA”, working on cures for dieases using CRISPR, or unravelling how genes create phenotypes (“evo devo”)? I’m sure whakapapa is investigating these matters as well as epigenetics and the role of micro-RNAs in gene expression. But wait, there’s more! (My bold.)

However, there are similarities between the two cultural approaches. Pepeha is split between hereditary locators (waka, iwi, hapū) and environment locators (marae, maunga, awa). Wilcox says this is exactly the same as the first equation in quantitative genetics: my phenotype is the sum of my genetics as well as the environment that I live in.

“So pepeha in some respects is the conceptual equivalent of quantitative genetics, it’s just a different way of looking at it,” says Wilcox.

Yeah, right? Does pepeha encompass Fisher’s fundamental theorem of genetics, or the breeder’s equation? I’m guessing “no.” And phenotype is not the “sum of genetics and environment,” because, as all real quantiative or evolutionary geneticists know, there is interaction between genes and environment. It’s not just phenotype = effects of genes + effects of environments. I’d love to give Professor Wilcox a quick quiz on modern molecular and quantitative genetics. May his whakapapa help him!

A bit more of linguistic preening and virtue signaling, and we’ll pass on.

To protect the whakapapa of his iwi and hapū research participants, which have included his own whānau of Rongomaiwāhine and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa – “you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them” – he writes up cultural agreements which ensure the data collected belongs to the iwi and hapū, not to the researcher or their employers such as crown research institutes and universities.


Item #3.  Here’s a sensible defense of how to lessen educational inequities in New Zealand, and one that doesn’t involve introducing MM into science class. As I’ve discussed before, New Zealand’s status in educational achievement of students in STEM, compared to students in similar countries, is abysmal. This article agrees, but so do all sentient Kiwis. How to fix it?

Click on the screenshot, from the NZ magazine Stuff. There’s also a video. The author, Gaven Martin, is a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Massey University (not one of the Satanic Seven), and he’s going to get into trouble for writing this.


There has been considerable debate around the intersection of NCEA, mātauranga Māori, and science. But it is the wrong debate.

I would like to offer a different perspective, informed by the review of mathematics education I chaired for the Royal Society of New Zealand and Ministry of Education recently.

Like many of the significant shifts we have seen in education and NCEA over the last few decades, the current debate is underpinned by slogans and little if any evidence.

First, there should be no doubt that our national teaching of science, technology and mathematics (henceforth just “science”) delivers cruel results.

In 2018-19 our 13-year-olds scored their worst-ever results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (60 countries); and 15-year-olds had their worst-ever Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in reading, mathematics and science (about 90 countries).

. . .We have been in both relative and absolute decline for more than 20 years. The economic costs to the nation and the impact on individuals of this are truly appalling. Read An empirical portrait of New Zealand adults living with low literacy and numeracy skills, by an AUT study group, and then weep – I did.

. . . But surely the worst thing about our current education system is the way it exacerbates – indeed grows – inequity. The relative performance of Māori and Pasifika peoples in science education is a dark stain on our nation, and we simply must address it.

The current slogan for the NCEA changes appears to be, “Many Māori are disengaged from science because they don’t see their culture reflected in it”.

There is no evidence that such a claim has any bearing on education success rates. The issue is not about groups or individuals seeing themselves in the curriculum. It’s about the way our children are taught​, and the knowledge and skills teachers bring into the classroom.

Martin goes on to indict several aspects of NZ education that disadvantage Māori students in particular, but you can read the article. The important part for our purposes is that he doesn’t see teaching MM as “science” as one of the remedies:

It is ridiculous to assume that students who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or who are Māori and Pasifika, are not as smart, or able; it is about opportunity to learn. Our system and its prejudices denies the opportunities to those who might most benefit.

Another slogan: “Elevating the status of mātauranga Māori is not about undermining science. It is about incorporating genuinely useful indigenous knowledge, such as approaches to environmental guardianship, that complements science.”

My view is that that is a very generous interpretation of what the NCEA changes actually offer. But more importantly, such tinkering with some NCEA standards is not going to deal with the real problems. [JAC: NCEA are National Certificates of Educational Achievement, the equivalent of secondary-school diplomas that come with three ratings.]

Because ultimately, this debate reflects a cynical ploy by the Ministry of Education, pretending to address the seriously inequitable outcomes of our system. The real issues are very hard and there is no quick fix.

. . . For the last two decades there has been no political will to fix this mess. Maybe our political classes agree with the Productivity Commission, that we should import those with the skills our economy needs (predominantly in science), and our children can look after the tourists.

I don’t think he means mātauranga Māori as “the science skills our economy needs.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand takes down its statement damning the Satanic Seven

December 28, 2021 • 10:00 am

Just a short note about what’s going on with the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Inquisition. As you may recall seven professors at the University of Auckland wrote a letter to a magazine called The Listener objecting to the government’s and universities’ plans to teach  mātauranga Māori , or “Maori ways of knowing” as coequal to science in science classes. Although there’s some knowledge in mātauranga Māori, there’s also a lot of myth, untruth, and other stuff that is not science by anyone’s lights—including morality and philosophy. You can see the Listener letter signed by the group I call “The Satanic Seven” here, and it’s pretty innocuous—simply a defense of science against myth.

But you can’t in any way go up against the Māori in New Zealand because, as an oppressed and indigenous people, they are considered by the Woke to be sacrosanct in every way.  Denying that their “body of knowledge” is coequal to and in no way inferior to modern science just cannot be done unless you want to be called a racist.

Further, the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) launched an investigation of two of its members who signed the letter (Robert Nola and Garth Cooper; another, Michael Corballis, recently died). An investigation!  I guess members of the RSNZ don’t have freedom of speech. In fact, the RSNZ, which is supposed to defend science, issued a statement criticizing modern science as “outmoded”. The statement, below, is one I discussed here.

Note that it disses the “group of Auckland academics” for daring to assert that mātauranga Māori is not a “valid” truth, and the RSNZ upholds the whole Māori “way of knowing” as worthy of support as science, supplementing “the narrow and outmoded definition of science” by the Satanic Seven—which is simply modern science.

While many Kiwis (and academics, even scientists) agreed with the RSNZ statement, it was derided and mocked by those overseas, including Richard Dawkins (mātauranga Māori is explicitly creationist):

Dawkins also published a letter in The Listener originally called “Dear New Zealand friends of science and reason,”  later changed to “Science is science.”

My guess is that all this negative attention from overseas, including the RSNZ launching its own Inquisition, embarrassed the organization, for when you click on the screenshot of its statement above, it’s gone. It’s vanished, extinct, singing with the Choir Invisible. It is an Ex-Statement. Clicking on it now (try it) redirects you to a more recent statement by Paul Atkins, Chief Executive of the RSNZ—a statement that I wrote about before. It’s not as inflammatory as the first statement, but it’s still weaselly.

So the RSNZ has made its words vanish, and there’s no record of them online except in screenshots saved by people like me. I suppose this is good news, for it shows that they know they screwed up by taking the stand that mātauranga Māori is “valid truth” (yes, bits of it do constitute knowledge).  But, as far as I know, the RSNZ Inquisition continues. Another letter I wrote them urging them to put away the instruments of torture has gone unanswered.

As I’ve said before, I love New Zealand and its people, but I have to take a second look at whether I love its academics. I’ve met many real scientists in New Zealand, all of whom I respected, but there are too many other people in academia whose wokeness and sympathy for the oppressed, while well-meant, has clouded their judgement to the point of blindness. I have, however, received many emails from Kiwis, including scientists, who agree with me, but are afraid to publicly express their opinion.  That’s what the RSNZ intended with its original statement—to chill the speech of dissenters.

Some correspondence and a statement from from the Royal Society of New Zealand about “ways of knowing” and cancellation

December 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

Here’s a bit more (and I’m not done yet) about the fight to teach valid science in New Zealand rather than teach valid science in science class as coequal with indigenous “ways of knowing.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand has the formal name “Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi”, with the last two words being Māori for “group of experts”. But I’ll just call it the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), for its legal name remains “Royal Society of New Zealand”). It is the Kiwi version of London’s Royal Society (abbreviated RS), and is a group of elite scholars chosen for their accomplishments.  It gives out grants, publishes its own journal, holds meetings, promotes science and technology and, like the RS or the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, provides advice to their government. All of its activities are, by statute, limited to science and technology.

A short reprise. A while back a group of 7 scholars from the University of Auckland wrote a letter, “In defense of science”, published in a weekly NZ magazine called The Listener. You can see the letter here (read it again if you will, as it’s short). It’s largely a critique of the Kiwi initiative (fostered by the Government, by universities, and by many NZ academics) to have complete parity of teaching in science courses modern science with Māori “ways of knowing”, or mātauranga Māori (MM for short), literally “Maori knowledge”. While asserting that it was valuable to teach MM in school for cultural and historical reasons, these seven scholars (one a Māori) objected to teaching what is a gemisch of practical knowledge (sometimes gained empirically), mythology, morality, philosophy, and legend alongside modern science in science class.

Regardless of its intention to “empower” the Māori, the effect of teaching MM alongside real science would be to confuse everybody and wind up lowering the level of science in New Zealand, which has been dropping in international rankings for math, science, and reading scores for over two decades, and every academic in New Zealand knows this. (I’ll give more data on this in a future post.) Yet the RSNZ criticized the seven signers of the letter and, supposedly after a complaint, began investigating the two living members, Robert Nola and Garth Cooper, a Māori (another signer has died).  This investigation that could result in these two distinguished members being booted out of the RSNZ—just for exercising free speech!

Here’s the statement issued in July by the RSNZ (click on screenshot to see it in situ:

I found the statement ridiculous, coming from an institution with the mission of promoting science. It explicitly argues that MM is a “valid truth” (wrong: for one thing, it’s creationist in its view of life and the universe), but also criticizes the seven people, including three RSNZ members, who signed the Listener letter. This is a chilling of free speech; there should be no such public pronouncement by the RSNZ touting MM as “valid truth”, much less demonizing three of its members publicly.

I objected in an email to the Director of Advice and Practice of  RSNZ, which is below:

From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Saturday, 4 December 2021 7:36 am
To: Roger Ridley
Subject: Booting signatories out of the Royal Society

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. 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

Richard Dawkins also wrote to Roger Ridley, and you can see Richard’s letter here. I suspect he will get a very long response, for Dawkins’s email and his letter to “New Zealand friends of science and reason“, also published in The Listener, carry a lot of weight!  In response to the barrage of letters, articles, and newspaper articles about the RSNZ’s “investigation,” its chief executive, Paul Atkins, issued a weaselly statement saying the RSNZ was supporting both science and MM and was launching a new program “to deepen understanding of mātauranga”

[The RSNZ will launch] ‘Mātauranga Māori and its Interface with Science’, to be run through our expert advice function, co-led by Professor Rangi Matamua FRSNZ, School of Māori Knowledge Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, Massey University. The aim will be to further explore and deepen the Society’s, its members’ and hapori communities’ understanding of mātauranga and its relevance to science and vice versa. The work will seek input from a wide range of experts, networks and perspectives.

I suspect this is a put-up job which will tout all ways of knowing as coequal. I deeply doubt whether the RSNZ will say flatly that “MM is not, as a whole, science” and shouldn’t be taught as coequal to science, even though several Māori academics have said just that! But we shall see. Will they ask Drs. Nola and Cooper to speak, and even Richard Dawkins?

This morning I finally got a response from Ridley, below (I’ve redacted email addresses):

From: Roger Ridley
Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 2021 9:03 PM
To: Jerry Coyne
Subject: RE: Booting signatories out of the Royal Society

Dear Professor Coyne

Thank you for taking the time to write with your email and views, and apologies for the delay in replying – we have received a lot of traffic on this issue as I’m sure you will know. Please be assured that the Society supports the principles of freedom of speech.  For clarity, the Society itself has not brought any complaints against the authors of the Listener letter.  However, as a professional body, we have a complaints procedure that we are obliged to follow when we receive complaints about a member from another member or a member of the public. That process needs to run its course. Media speculation about the outcome, which could include setting the complaints aside, are completely premature.

On the question of the content of the letter that sparked reaction from various quarters, the Society’s view is that that the current situation is unhelpful to constructive dialogue, and we are therefore putting in place a work program intended to bring the discussion back onto a more helpful footing.

Best wishes for the festive season

Dr Roger Ridley
Mātanga Rangahau | Director Expert Advice and Practice
Royal Society Te Apārangi
11 Turnbull Street, Thorndon, Wellington 6011
PO Box 598, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

I’ve heard from one other reader who got a similar but shorter response; Ridley is not just sending out boilerplate responses, which is good.

However, his letter is still weaselly, and the reason why is detailed in the email I just sent him, which I’ve put below.

Dear Dr. Ridley,

Thanks very much for answering my email and clarifying that the RSNZ hasn’t itself brought any complaints against Dr. Nola and Cooper. But I don’t understand why your “complaints procedure” involves more than a very quick appraisal of the Listener letter and whatever “complaint” it produced.  Your members were exercising free speech in a magazine, and for that reason alone the complaint should be quickly dismissed. There is nothing difficult about this decision.

What bothers me more is that the RSNZ did indeed issue a public complaint about the letter, and implicitly about its signatories.  As you may recall, this is what that statement, signed by the then-President of the RSNZ as well as by the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee, said:

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.

If you consider that the “current situation is unhelpful to constructive dialogue”, then your own Society, and the statement above, is largely to blame. This investigation should “run its course” in about one day, and then you should apologize to Drs. Nola and and Cooper (as well as the other four living signers), and issue a public statement that they were exercising their free speech by voicing their opinion in a magazine.

The RSNZ, by trying to somehow harmonize modern science with mātauranga Māori, is not only engaged in a futile task, but also practicing a kind of social engineering with the aim of empowering an indigenous people. This kind of well-meant attempt to reconcile two incompatible “ways of knowing”— and to teach them in science class as both “valid truths”—will result only in a further decline in the quality of science and math education in New Zealand, which as you know has been dropping for over two decades in comparison with other countries.

I urge your Society to act sensibly and stop asserting that mātauranga Māori is a “valid truth”. Some of that endeavor does convey practical truths, but a lot of it doesn’t, comprising as it does mythology and legend.  Defending mātauranga Māori is not the same thing as defending science.

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

If you want to write Ridley, email me and I’ll give you his email address.

Head of Swedish Academy announces that Nobel Prizes will be awarded solely for merit, without gender or ethnicity quotas

December 20, 2021 • 10:00 am
I can’t say I disagree with this announcement, by Goran Hansson, that the Nobel Prizes will continue to be awarded for merit alone and not for fulfilling quotas involving gender and ethnicity. Click on the article from BBC News to see the story, below which we’ll look at another piece on “quotas.”

For some time there have been complaints that there has not been “equity” in Nobel Prizes: that too few women and people of color have won them. These inequities could result from several causes, or a combination of causes, but the one that’s always touted by those who complain is existing structural bias and discrimination. (See this article in Nature for such indictments by two powerful women in science, though it doesn’t mention the Nobels.) The equation of inequities in representation with ongoing bias is a pillar of Ibram Kendi’s ideas on anti-racism.

But there are two other reasons besides structural bias in science.  One is that the dearth of women and people of color reflects past discrimination, so that only now, with biases diminishing towards zero, women and people are color are entering the pipeline to achievement—but haven’t yet reached the stage of professional accomplishment that would garner a Nobel.

The last explanation is a difference in preference coupled with comparative advantage.  It’s well known that, at least in some Western countries, women score as well as men on science achievement tests, and score better than men in reading. That is, women are better overall than men. This means that any lack of achievement of women scientists cannot be due to a comparative lack of scientific ability. Rather, researchers have suggested that women prefer going into the humanities because they are better at it, and want to do what they’re better at (“comparative advantage”). Alternatively it may be that STEM fields simply aren’t as attractive to women as to men. All of these are suggested in the BBC article. (I don’t know any such data on people of color, but of course in the U.S. black and Hispanics score lower than whites and Asians on tests of reading, math, and science.)

But let me quote from the BBC piece:

The head of the academy that awards the Nobel Prizes in science has said it will not introduce gender quotas.

Goran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said they want people to win “because they made the most important discovery”.

Since its inception in 1901, 59 Nobel Prizes have gone to women. [JAC: There have been 975 prizes total. The 59 Prizes to women involve 58 women as Marie Curie won twice.]

Maria Ressa was the only woman honoured this year. Marie Curie was the first woman to get the prize – and remains the only woman to get it twice.

“It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing. And there’s so much more to do,” Mr Hansson told the AFP news agency.

“We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity,” he said, adding that the decision was “in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will”.

“In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions,” he said.

I think that’s a fair decision. If they had decided to fulfill quotas, that would mean giving prizes not to those who make the most important contributions, but to help even out a disparity in sexes and races. So, for example, the 2020 Medicine and Physiology prize shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna was an excellent choice (and one that cut out male competitors), for their work was highly important by anyone’s standards. Nobody can say that these women were chosen to achieve gender parity!

We’ll focus on gender, as we have more data on that, and this is the focus of the BBC article and most complaints about disparity in Nobels.  It’s true that women haven’t received half of the Nobel Prizes over time, and this can be explained by all three factors above, but largely because, due to bias or oppression in the past, there simply weren’t that many women in science (or in literature). I think most of us recognize that this gender bias is disappearing rapidly; indeed, universities throughout the West are trying very hard to recruit women professor and students. But there’s still a disparity in STEM participation. This may or may not  change much in the future (though it’s certainly changed during my lifetime!), but whether we’ll ever achieve gender parity in academic representation—or Nobel Prizes—is something I don’t know. All we can do, and must do, is offer everyone equal opportunity to enter the scientific pipeline, and avoid gender or racial discrimination within the pipe.

More from the BBC and Hansson:

And while more women are being recognised now compared to previous decades, Mr Hansson said, that number was increasing “from a very low level”.

“Keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to East Asia,” he said.

However, the scientist said they would “make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate, and we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees – but we need help, and society needs to help here”.

“We need different attitudes to women going into sciences… so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded,” he added.

Again, the last statement implies structural bias against women, but where are the data that there are “different attitudes to women”? There is no consistent data showing discrimination against women in STEM hiring or grant-getting; in fact, one can cite research showing both sides.  In the absence of consistent evidence, all we can do is avoid personal bias and offer equal opportunities. Note that Hansson also mentions the severe dearth of women in the natural sciences in Asia, Europe, and North America.

When Charpentier got her Prize, she hoped the award would encourage women to go into STEM, but she also noted a comparative lack of interest of women in going into STEM.

From the BBC again:

Last year, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna became the first two women to share the honour when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the tools to edit DNA.

It was the first time any of the science prizes had been awarded to two women without a male collaborator also listed on the award.

At the time, Prof Charpentier said: “I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science… and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing.”

She added that there was “a clear lack of interest in following a scientific path, which is very worrying”.

I’ve given my position many times on this site. I favor some forms of affirmative action in academia for minorities, including women (they’re actually more numerous than men), though settling on how to structure that affirmative action is tricky. The affirmative action I have in mind involves accepting students in colleges and universities, and in hiring faculty.  But these preferences should, I think, stop once someone is hired, and they should certainly not apply to awards and prizes. Thus I think the Nobel Committee’s statement is appropriate, though I’m not sure why they made it. Could it be that public pressure was bearing down on the Academy?

Again, all one can do in the face of the latter is to be sure that everyone is made aware of the excitement of science and then to avoid bias. As the following article states, we need to ensure equal opportunity, not equal outcome, for equal outcomes assumes that all groups have identical preferences or interests.

I love this photo of Doudna and Charpentier. I think this is in Stockholm when they got their prizes, but I can’t be sure. It does show some joint award, though, and the affection between the two women, who weren’t really collaborators but independent researchers.

There are those who think that there should be no affirmative action in any aspect of science—that hiring, promotion, funding, and awards in STEM be solely on the basis of merit. One of these is Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the following piece in a recent Quillette (click on screenshot to read):


Now Lawrence is talking about disparities between men and women in funding by NSERC in Canada and other countries, not in hiring or awards, but the principle he sets forth is one I agree with:

The standard of “fair access” that NSERC planners set out here implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between mandating equality of opportunity—which is desirable—and mandating equality of outcome. The latter would lead to overt identity-based discrimination against members of groups whose applications, in some cases, would otherwise be successful under a purely merit-based approach. That a major research-funding agency is promoting such a misunderstanding in regard to policy formulation is an issue of some concern.

Where I differ from Krauss is that I favor equality of opportunity above the college-admissions or academic-hiring level, but also some tweaking of outcomes (a bit of equity) to bump up minorities at both levels. Once people are hired, again, the affirmative action should stop. (It goes without saying that I don’t think grossly unqualified people should be admitted to college or hired for professor jobs, as that does nobody any favors.)

Krauss notes that the funding disparity between men and women in Canada (and Australia) is immediately imputed to systemic sexist bias at the present time, but gives data showing that the difference is explained completely by different career stages of grant applicants. At early stages, funding is roughly equal between men and women, but at senior stages men get more funding. But that’s solely because there are simply more men at senior stages of their careers. Here are the data of grants given in Australia and what Krauss says about them:

A bar chart included in a previous Nature article on this subject shows the total value of grants awarded to men and women in 2019, categorized by seniority quintile. In the first (most junior) quintile, women actually were awarded more grant money than men got. In the second quintile, men had a slight edge. This edge grew substantially in the third and fourth quintiles, leading up to a massive difference in the fifth (i.e., most senior) quintile, which shows the most senior male scientists being awarded $81 million, compared to just $21 million for the most senior female scientists. This means that, of the money going to senior scientists, women got just over 20 percent.

The caption: “Male (red) vs. Female (green) Investigator Grant recipients in 2019, by applicant seniority.”

Krauss’s analysis:

The latest Nature article concludes with a quote from Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician and advocate for women in science at Northwestern University. She describes the data as a wake-up call to funders, who now should “address the issues.” But the Nature analysis glides over one of the more obvious issues lying in plain sight: As the 2019 article showed, there tends to be fewer senior women (just 17 in 2019) applying for grants, as compared to senior men (75). In 2021, the numbers were similar: According to Nature, “at the most senior level … there were about four times more male than female applicants”—an 80/20 male-female applicant split that corresponds almost exactly to the $81 million/$21 million split in awarded 2021 grants.

This pattern has an obvious explanation: There are simply more men than women in the senior ranks of Australia’s health and medical researchers—a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since most scientific fields were, until just a few decades ago, almost entirely dominated by men. Thankfully, this era is over, and Australia’s medical schools achieved gender parity in admissions a long time ago. Thus, one might expect that the funding of male and female medical researchers at the junior level would be roughly even, while being progressively more skewed toward men among older generations—which is exactly what the data reported by Nature shows to be the case.

While this is the kind of data regularly adduced to show structural sexism in STEM, the explanation is not nearly as insidious.

Finally, Krauss makes a more general statement that goes beyond funding:

We have gone down this road before, when strict quotas were placed on Jewish scientists within my own academic sphere, physics, as a means of excluding Jews (including very nearly, future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman) from US graduate schools. Today, we properly regard such policies as shameful, both for discriminating against individual human beings and for misdirecting society’s scientific resources. Medical science is a life-and-death endeavor, and decisions about how that science should be funded must be based on the quality of research proposals, not the skin color or sex of those submitting them.

The comparison with Jews isn’t really apposite, however, as Jews were discriminated against: the quotas were the maximum number of Jews allowed to be admitted.  The minority group, in other words, was discriminated against. What Krauss is attacking here are quotas against the majority group that favor minority groups. (I suppose you could see this as a “male quota”).

And I still favor preferential admission and hiring of minorities (but not grossly preferential, is as happening in California) as a form of reparations for past discrimination and, as Charpentier noted, to provide some role models. Again, we should accept only qualified applicants, and any deficit in training can be addressed with mentoring or tutoring.

All applicants for jobs or admissions, however, should exceed some bar decided as “qualified for the slot”. What that means is above my pay grade, but surely far more qualified people apply to America’s best colleges than get into them.

I know the arguments against affirmative action, but I won’t try to counter them now.

h/t: Anna

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.