Nola and Cooper resign from New Zealand’s Royal Society after being exculpated for criticizing indigenous “ways of knowing” as “science”

March 18, 2022 • 11:45 am

For a while now I’ve been discussing the row in New Zealand about whether  indigenous “ways of knowing”, Mātauranga Māori (“MM” for short), should be given equal treatment in the science classroom to modern science. The short answer for those with any neurons is “no”. While MM does comprise some “practical knowledge” like how and when to pick berries or catch eels, it also comprises a mélange of legend, superstition, moral dicta, and palpably false empirical claims (one being that Polynesians discovered Antarctica, another being divine creationism as the source of life).  As a whole, MM should be taught in New Zealand as part of local history and sociology, but not as science.

That was the position of seven University of Auckland professors who wrote a letter to the magazine The Listener pointing this conflict out (for relevant links, go here). They did not impugn MM as a subject worthy of teaching, but did say that it shouldn’t be taught as co-equal to science in school—a movement pushed by NZ’s woke government and academic authorities. The seven signers—or “Satanic Seven”—were demonized, though they had lots of silent support (to criticize MM as science is decidedly unfashionable, since it’s seen as an attack on the indigenous Māori.

Two of the seven professors, philosopher Robert Nola and biochemist Garth Cooper, were further demonized by being singled out for investigation as members of the prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ). They were accused by two people of writing a letter that violated the Society’s regulations (see this link for a fuller epxlanation). The complaints didn’t go very far: the RSNZ convened a committee to study the two sets of complaints, and then concluded that the complaints, all involving bad or unethical behavior, as well as harm to people (i.e., Māori) were not worthy of further investigation. Cooper and Nola were thus vindicated, though, in a last slap at them because of the trouble they caused, the RSNZ removed this sentence from their final report (it was in an earlier version):

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

Removing that sentence was just a nasty piece of work.  And now, after. being vindicated, both Nola and Cooper have resigned from the RSNZ, as recounted in this article in Point of Order. Click on screenshot.

I had a feeling resignation was in the air, but haven’t been formally informed by either man, though I’ve asked them for statements (stay tuned).

I think they did the right thing. There was no point in staying on to change the RSNZ “from the inside,” as the institution has shown itself refractory to change, as well as ignorant and vindictive. And the pair have already gotten their honor of being elected; there is no additional honor accrued by staying on. Why would they want to remain members of a society that issued this statement about the Listener letter that Cooper and Nola signed?:

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.

These are people who don’t know what science is, but they’re woke enough to defend superstition when it’s unscientific but purveyed by a local minority. In other words, theyre cowardly and ignorant.

I won’t go on except to give a few quotes from the Point of Order piece. The second is self-aggrandizing.

Two distinguished scientists – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

. . .The resignations of the two luminaries follow the society’s decision – announced last week – not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as Fellows of the Society for being among seven University of Auckland professors who signed a letter to the New Zealand Listener headed ‘In defence of science’ in July last year.

The self-aggrandizing bit:

The society’s decision not to proceed has spared it the prospect of being criticised – if not mocked – by scientists around the world.

Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, pointed out that mātauranga Māori contained strong elements of Creationism (“refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, and biogeography”) and that “expelling members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like is shameful”.

He concluded his letter to the society by advising:

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

But they don’t mention that a much bigger fish, Richard Dawkins, wrote letters to both the RSNZ and The Listener defending science against MM, and Richard has a big microphone. Also, there are rumors that I can’t confirm that the BIG Royal Society, the one in London, wrote to the RSNZ chewing them out for investigating Nola and Cooper. That would have shaken up the people in Wellington!

And so all’s well that ends well:

In the upshot, there have been no expulsions – but the professors have decided they no longer want to remain members and fellows of this society.

But it’s not that simple. The RSNZ, made to look like fools, have been suitably chastened, and Nola and Cooper have been exculpated. But the battle for the hegemony of MM continues and shows no sign of abating. All over New Zealand, science students should prepare themselves for a dire watering down of the curriculum.

Robert Nola


Garth Cooper

h/t: Don

NZ Science Dean wants schools to teach Māori “spirituality” and “non-secularism” in science

February 15, 2022 • 10:45 am

Shoot me now!  New Zealand’s system of science education continues to go down the toilet (along with Donald Trump’s papers, I guess) as everyone from government officials to secondary school teachers to university professors pushes to make Mātauranga Māori (“MM”) or Māori “ways of knowing” coequal with science, to be taught as science in science classes. All of them intend for this mixture of legend, superstition, theology, morality, philosophy and, yes, some “practical knowledge” to be given equal billing with science, and presumably not to be denigrated as “inferior” to real science. (That, after all, would be racism.) It’s one thing to teach the indigenous ways of knowing as sociology or anthropology (and but of course “ways of knowing” differ all over the world); it’s another entirely to say that they’re coincident with modern science.

The equation of “ways of knowing” like MM with modern science is, of course, part of the Woke Program to “decolonize science”. The problem, of course, is we have a big conflict—one between a “way of knowing that really works“, which is science, and on the other side a reverence for the oppressed and their culture, embodied in MM.  The result is, of course, that the oppressed win, and all over the Anglophonic world science is being watered down, downgraded, pushed aside, or tarred with adjectives like “white supremacist” and “colonialist.”

And so here we have a professor and a college administrator, Dr. Julie Rowland of Auckland University, pushing to get spiritualism and MM taught either alongside science or as science. She’s not really clear about that, but I sense a camel’s nose approaching the science tent.

Rowland is not only a structural geologist, but the deputy dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland, considered (for the time being) New Zealand’s best university.

And so, in an article in Newsroom, we see the Deputy Dean of Science telling us that science is not enough; we need more spirutuality—presumably Māori spirituality—taught in schools and Universities. Click to see another batch of bricks crumble in the foundation of New Zealand’s science

Note that Rowland not only refers to New Zealand by its Māori name, “Aotearoa”, but hastens to mention the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (called “Te Teriti” in Māori), as the basis for the injection of spirituality into school. That ancient treaty, which says nothing about science, and wasn’t even signed by many Māori chiefs, is held up not only as the founding document of New Zealand, but is used as an excuse for Woke behavior like the stuff under consideration.

Rowland begins by giving to science with one hand and taking with the other:

Science is a rational pursuit of knowledge, but it does not exist in splendid isolation. If this is painted as the ‘ideal’ science, then it is incomplete. People do science, and people and their culture/s are inseparable.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand our nation’s origins lie with the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty is a formal agreement with the third article guaranteeing Māori equal rights and privileges. That means access to education within a system that seeks to fulfil the potential of every individual.

I suspect the heart of the issue is the notion that education should be secular and devoid of any form of spirituality. Proponents of this view would say a karakia (sometimes interpreted as a prayer) to open or close an event, or before guests eat afternoon tea, has no place in education. But in the context of Māori practices and values, and bringing Treaty articles to life, this makes perfect sense. And is absolutely integral.

No it’s not; not in modern education. Keep prayers and MM out of science!

Further, those equal rights and privileges do not include the right to have your legends and mythology taught as science. It’s as if the Constitution gave every Native American the right to have their “way of knowing” taught in schools, and as science. The thing is, we can amend the Constitution, but the Treaty is both nebulous and subject to conflicting interpretations. There is no final authority to rule on what it says, though certainly the Māori should and do have legal and moral equality with everyone else. But that doesn’t include equal rights to have your myths taught in science class—any more than the equality of Americans guarantees that every religious version of “creation” be taught alongside evolution. As Daniel Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Rowland continues by adding that NZ’s Education Act of 1877 established compulsory secular education for “colonial” kids, and extended it in 1894 to all residents of New Zealand. Back then the country had a separation of church and state, though there were religious schools.

But Rowland thinks that 1894 was a big mistake:

Over the past three decades, Māori values, which are inextricably linked to spirituality, have been taken more seriously by the education sector resulting in a shift in the meaning of a secular education. For example, by 1999, all primary and some specialist (physical education) secondary teachers were required to factor spiritual well-being into their teaching programmes. If you’d been trained to think that spirituality has no part in education, as I did then, this was challenging.

But consider the alternative. If Māori values are parked outside state education, who is education for, and on what terms? Clearly, this scenario disregards every aspect of  Te Tiriti o Waitangi and wider indigenous rights.

This is arrant nonsense. Why should there be a guarantee that everyone’s “values” be taught to them in school?  If this were America, and a Christian said that her antiabortion and creationist values should be taught in public schools, she’d immediately be slapped down by the First Amendment. For every group—nay, every person—has different values. Even the constitution and meaning of MM differs among Māori scholars!  If a Māori child needs her values buttressed, there is an entire and tightly knit community, the iwii, to accomplish that.

The purpose of education, at least as I see it, is to impart generally accepted knowledge to students, and to teach them how to think and how to defend and analyze their views. This is precisely the opposite of MM, which is a kind of theology that cannot be questioned or falsified. Under my construal, education is indeed for everyone, but for those groups who have spiritual/religious/moral values that differ from those of other groups, they have to get those things reinforced on their own time.

Finally, we see below that a dean at Auckland University’s faculty of science starts plowing the ground to make way for the teaching of MM as science. This is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that’s flattening both science and the educational system of Aotearoa:

In my view, efforts to acknowledge and understand mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) enrich the capacity of students and staff to connect across different world views, which is critical if we are to address the inequities in Aotearoa, let alone global crises like climate change. Acknowledgement and understanding of beliefs leads to richer engagement and the building of a relationship of equals.

Universities are the last in the education line to grapple with the duality that comes with meeting Treaty obligations. There is widespread support for this among academics who see the relevance in multiple ways. Our universities are not at a crossroads choosing the path of the universality of science or a race-based ideology. We are on a dual carriageway and the momentum is building.

You see what she’s doing here? The last two sentences give away the goal. I’ll repeat them:

Our universities are not at a crossroads choosing the path of the universality of science or a race-based ideology. We are on a dual carriageway and the momentum is building.

She argues that there’s no need to give precedence to science over whatever she construes as a “race-based ideology”, which to me suggests she’s referring sarcastically to how some characterize MM. The last sentence, at least, implies that both MM and science are speeding along that “dual carriageway” into the science class. And yes, the momentum is building as the Valorization of the Oppressed has dictates that MM is coequal to science. According to the good Dean, you can have your science and your mythology too. Did you know that, according to MM, the Polynesians discovered Antarctica in 700 AD (the real finders were the Russians in 1820), centuries before the MM came to New Zealand? This is all oral legend, and it is wrong. And it’s just as wrong as the “theology” of MM, with its panoply of gods and legends that can’t be supported by evidence.

It’s unbelievable that a science dean at New Zealand’s best university can put out this kind of palaver.  The nation’s scientists, who by and large seem adamantly opposed to this stuff, have no say in the matter, and if they object, they could be fired. It’s politics, Jake!

People of Aotearoa: rise up against this nonsense! Do you want your science education to become the laughingstock of the world? For that is what will happen if the benighted keep barrelling along that dual carriageway of science and nescience.

“The Shape of Dialogue”: a discussion about ‘ways of knowing’

February 5, 2022 • 11:45 am

Here’s a long interview I had about a week ago with Michael Goldwater, a Kiwi who lives in Auckland.  His podcast, “The Shape of Dialogue” is just starting and has nine episodes so far, the most recent one with Steve Pinker.

The topic of our discussion was “Science versus ‘other ways of knowing’,” which of course is relevant to what’s going on in New Zealand at present. We covered Mātauranga Māori (Māori ‘way of knowing’), of course, but also many other issues.  I can’t even remember much of the discussion, but can’t go back to watch it because I’m constitutionally unable to watch myself on camera. (I doubt that Pinker has that problem!)

Although Michael isn’t a scientist, he has a keen interest in science and that’s the theme of his podcast so far. I wish him luck!

If you want to watch it (it was supposed to be an hour long, but time flew. . . ), here it is. I’ll take a pass. You can find the audio version on Apple here.

Rare 40,000 year old log given to Māori rather than science

February 2, 2022 • 11:00 am

Increasingly, archaeologist and scientists are coming into conflict with indigenous people, and that’s to be expected as the latter exert rights that have long been trampled on. A lot of these conflicts involve biological remains like skeletons or fossils or, in this case, a log, that are found on “indigenous territory”. What do we do with such specimens?

First of all, you have to examine the claim that the indigenous have a genuine connection with the material. One would be hard pressed, for example, to say that a 15,000 year old fossil hominin in Alaska belongs to the local Inuits. It may come from a person not even closely related to modern Inuits. What is the moral claim to the skeleton? Likewise for remains found on modern or even ancestral tribal lands. Establishing such a connection is of course hard. Ideally, science would study the hell out of the object and then turn it over to those locals who have a substantive and empirical claim to it.

As for artifacts or living material, that’s clearer. Fossils and living species at least belong to the country where they’re found, though not necessarily to people who live nearest to the spot of discovery, and should not be removed to other places without permission. Artifacts like pots that can be clearly connected to modern groups must surely belong to them, though of course it would be nice if they were scientifically examined before repatriation.

But below we have a case where the course of action should be clear, but was violated because of what I call “the valorization of the oppressed.” We’re talking about New Zealand again, but in this case the indigenous people—the Māori—descend from Polynesians who arrived in what is now New Zealand about 700 years ago. Any non-“colonial” cultural artifacts dating after that period clearly should be given into the care of the Māori. Anything dated before about 1300, cannot be connected to Māori, and its disposition depends on property laws and government regulations.

And so, the discovery of a 40,000 year old log of a kauri tree (Agathis australis) that was preserved in an anoxic swamp, should raise no problems. But it did. Click on the screenshot to read:

Kauri trees are increasingly rare as they’ve been cut down for their durable and decorative wood, and a magnificent kauri is a sight to see:

The trees, found only at the northern part of the North Island of New Zealand, are endangered. Kauri play a role in Māori mythology, and that, along with massive deforestation, has been one reason why cutting them is almost completely banned.  But aa 60-tonne kauri log was recently found in a swamp during excavations, and determined to be over 40,000 years old.

From the article:

A 45,000-year-old log discovered during excavations for a new power station could explain a mysterious global event that may have dramatically changed the Earth’s climate.

Scientists in New Zealand believe the 60-tonne log could hold the answers to the ancient Laschamp Event – where the earth’s north and south poles switched with each other 40,000 years ago.

The 60-tonne Kauri log was found nine metres beneath the surface in Ngāwhā in New Zealand’s north island in February and was handed over to local Maoris on Wednesday after a major excavation operation.

Top Energy, the company building the power station, began earthworks in 2017 and had excavated 900,000 cubic metres of the soil before stumbling across the 16-metre log.

Scientist Alan Hogg, from Waikato University, determined the tree dates back to 40,500 years ago, NZ Herald reported.

The mammoth log’s age sparked interest in scientists studying the Laschamp Event – a ‘magnetic reversal’ where the Earth’s north and south magnetic poles switched places.


It was not known exactly when the reversal occurred but it was thought to have been about 41,000 years ago.

Scientists hope that studying the level of radioactive carbon in the tree’s rings would allow them to determine when the reversal occurred and for how long.

Kiwi scientists believe the magnetic reversals — and the accompanying drop in the Earth’s magnetic field strength, which allowed more solar radiation to reach the Earth’s surface — could have a major effect on climate.

‘This tree is critical, we’ve never found one of this age before,’ Mr Hogg says finding the tree was a stroke of luck which will play a huge role in future research.

Going by its size the tree was likely to have been 1500-2000 years old when it died, Mr Hogg said.

The 16-metre log was transported to nearby Ngāwhā Marae (sacred place) on Wednesday, where a ceremony was be held to welcome the ancient tree to the hapū’s care (a division of Maoris).

As far as I can see, the tree was simply handed over to the local Māori without any scientific examination:

Ngāwhā Trustees committee chairman Richard Woodman said it was a ‘fantastic acknowledgement’ from Shaw that the tree was being returned to its rightful owners rather than gifted.

Transporting the tree was a major operation, with sections of about 1.5m long needing to be cut off either end so it could be moved, with the stump alone weighing 28 tonnes.

“Rightful owners”? Where did that come from? That tree both lived and centuries before the Māori even arrived in New Zealand. If there are rightful owners, it’s the government of New Zealand, who should hand the tree over to scientists who have, as noted above, a good reason for studying it. (Ring distribution can also give a clue to ancient climates in NZ, for one rarely gets a tree that is both that old and that well preserved.

The only reason Māori get the tree is because they consider it sacred. This is one example of how excessive respect for the culture of locals impedes the progress of science. No progress will be made by allowing it to stay on the Marae except to buttress a creation myth that is false. Study the hell out of it and then, if you wish, give it to the Māori, but don’t let myth overcome science. This is one reason why Māori “ways of knowing”—mātauranga Māori—are incompatible with science, for in this case the mythological sacredness of the tree, based on its presumed role in creation, prevent scientific work.

Let’s just hope the Māori allow scientists to look at the tree.

h/t: Malcolm

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.”

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.

New Zealand authorities stand firm in desire to teach Maori “ways of knowing” alongside science in high schools and colleges

December 13, 2021 • 10:45 am

From what I hear from my Kiwi friends in academia, some of whom keep publicly quiet about these developments given the political climate, the government and universities in New Zealand are standing firm in their resolve to teach mātauranga Māori, or “Maori ways of knowing” alongside and coequal to modern (i.e., real) science in both high schools and universities. I’ve described the controversy in several recent posts.

This is one example of a clash between two values of “progressive liberals”: in this case, traditional or indigenous “knowledge” is valued because it is held by oppressed groups, but its assertions, including creationism, clash with the respect that the Left is supposed to have for the findings of science. (Another example is Western feminists deliberately ignoring the oppression of women in some Muslim countries).

I am no expert in mātauranga Māori, but you don’t have to spend many hours reading about it to see that it is a collection of myths, cultural practices, traditions, legends, and also practical wisdom regarding stewardship of the environment, how to capture animals, and so on. It does indeed contain some “knowledge” in this sense, but to verify whether that knowledge really comprises public truths, we have to test it using modern scientific tools. (Note: not all Māori see mātauranga Māori as “Maori science.”)

It’s not acceptable to simply buy indigenous assertions and teach them as science—not unless they’ve been verified as science. Two parts of mātauranga Māori that do not comport with modern science, for example, are its creation legends and its “environmental stewardship”, which in some cases is sound but in others not. Even the Wikipedia article on mātauranga Māoriwhose editors are clearly biased towards indigenous “science” (read this bit, for instance), say this:

Archeology and Quaternary Geology show that New Zealand’s natural environment changed significantly during the period of precolonial Māori occupation. This has led some academics to question the effectiveness of Māori traditional knowledge in managing the environment. The environmental changes are similar to those following human occupation in other parts of the world, including deforestation (approximately 50%), the loss of the megafauna, more general species extinctions and soil degradation due to agriculture. The models favoured by academics today describe precolonial Māori as accessing resources based on ease of access and energy return. This would have involved moving from one location or food source to another when the original one had become less rewarding. Historically academic models on precolonial environmental stewardship have been closely tied to the idea of the ‘Noble Savage’. and the now debunked hypothesis of multiple ethnicities being responsible for different aspects of New Zealand’s archeological record.

After the Māori colonized New Zealand around 1300, for example, every species of moa was driven extinct by people bopping them on the heads with jade clubs (with only one natural predator, the magnificent  Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle that ever lived, the moas were pretty tame). The Haast’s eagle also went extinct for lack of prey. This is not effective stewardship.

My view is similar to that of Richard Dawkins, who believes that mātauranga Māori is of sociological, anthropological, and aesthetic interest, and should certainly be taught to both Māori and non-Māori students, but should not be taught as an alternative “indigenous” form of science. As Richard wrote in his letter to The Listener:

The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence­-based, not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to sup­plement and validate fallible senses, etc.

If a “different” way of knowing worked, if it satisfied the above tests of being evidence-based, it wouldn’t be different, it would be science. Science works. It lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, dates the origin of the universe, and reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed moa.

The article below from the NZ website Point of Order paints a dismal picture of the future of Kiwi science. Scientists throughout the word are objecting to teaching mātauranga Māori as the local equivalent of modern science, but New Zealand’s government and universities plow ahead with considering the coequality of legend with fact. Click to read:

This article reports that Megan Woods, New Zealand’s Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, has set aside $1.6 million to hook kids on “science”, but using “traditional knowledge”.

Expressing herself in the mix of English and te reo that is favoured for communicative purposes by the government and the establishment press, Woods’ press statement said (bolding by article’s author):

“Getting rangatahi hooked on science is a key focus of this year’s Unlocking Curious Minds funding round, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods has announced, unveiling the 13 successful recipients of $1.6 million in Government funding.

“Through the Unlocking Curious Minds 2021 contestable fund the Government is supporting a wide range of really fun, hands-on projects, investigating subjects like nature, climate change, and Mātauranga Māori to empower rangatahi to connect with science and technology in a way that is meaningful to them.

“We know students are far more engaged when they learn about subjects they can relate to. Through activities like participation in Waka Ama, thinking about where food comes from, and personalised stories, we are inspiring future generations to add value to their own lives and as well as that of their local communities.”

This year’s funding round would bring science and technology to a wide range of audiences, including young people from hard to reach backgrounds, Woods said

“By focusing on student-led research and by looking at a range of knowledge systems this funding is designed to reach and inspire a broader base of New Zealanders.”

I’m not convinced that the combination of “personalized stories”, Waka Ama (outrigger canoeing), and “thinking about where food comes from”, or even “thinking about climate change,” much less mātauranga Māori, is going to get kids hooked on science. At any rate, stay tuned for more about how the government and universities will not be deterred in their subservience to “indigenous science”.  (See also this article about my friend the NZ philosopher Robert Nola, who signed the original letter in The Listener and has thus been demonized as well as threatened with explusion from New Zealand’s Royal Society. His views about folding traditional knowledge into science if it proves to be science seem quite sensible.)

The article also lists pushback against the drive to insert indigenous “ways of knowing” into science class, including three articles I didn’t know of:

I can’t read the whole Times article as it’s paywalled, but the article above gives some quotes from Liddle:

The argument — facile beyond comprehension — is that science has been used by white, western, developed nations to underpin colonialism and is therefore tainted by its association with white supremacy. As Dawkins pointed out, science is not “white”. (The assumption that it is is surely racist.) Nor is it imperialist. It is simply a rather beautiful tool for discerning the truth.

It is not just New Zealand. Science is under attack in America and indeed here. Rochelle Gutierrez, an Illinois professor, has argued that algebra and trigonometry perpetuate white power and that maths is, effectively, racist.

Oxford University has announced that it intends to “decolonise” maths: “This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics.”

A lunacy has gripped our academics. They would be happy to throw out centuries of learning and brilliance for the sake of being temporarily right-on, and thus signalling their admirable piety to a young, approving audience.

It is an indulgence that, with every fatuous genuflection towards political correctness, is dragging us all backwards.

Well, we don’t see much of this stuff in the U.S. (I didn’t teach Native American creation stories in my evolution class), but, in their haste to make nice with the original colonists of New Zealand, its government and academics are risking not only looking foolish, but, more important, setting back science education and scientific research in their own country.

A “Letters” discussion between Adam Gopnik and me on ways of knowing

February 16, 2021 • 10:30 am

For a few years I’ve had email conversations about “ways of knowing” with Adam Gopnik, who writes for the New Yorker and has also published several books. Our conversation has centered on whether science is the only way of knowing, or whether there are other ways of knowing as well. Adam defended the arts in this respect, and we’ve had some vigorous back and forths about whether music, painting, and literature in particular can be ways of knowing. I wanted to formalize our thoughts in a systematic way, and so I asked Adam to join me in a series of exchanges on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I just put up the first letter, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

Our discussion critically depends, of course, on what we mean by “science” and “ways of knowing”. I’ve tried to define those carefully in my first letter, construing science rather broadly so that the topic becomes “the methods used by science” as ways of knowing. My position, which you’ll recognize if you’ve read this site for a while, is that yes, the methods of science are the only way of knowing. Religion is not, art is not, and ethics is not. I see philosophy and math as more circumscribed ways of knowing, since they convey knowledge about what holds within a system of axioms, but not about the universe. (I’m not a “mathematical realist”.) Of course philosophy and ethics are often informed by facts about the universe, and mathematics is an indispensable tool for understanding the universe.

Anyway, you can read my first thoughts (and definitions) in the first letter, posted on the site today (click on screenshot below). Adam will respond within a week, and we’ll each produce three or four letters in total, depending on how the conversation goes. I’m looking forward to this because scientists don’t usually get to engage in such a discussion with people who know a lot about the arts. I’m honored that Adam chose to join me in the exchange.


Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

July 27, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed either scientism or “ways of knowing” on this site (the two ideas are connected). I’ll reiterate my views very briefly. “Scientism” has two meanings, as Maarten Boudry notes in his piece below, but the most common non-pejorative meaning is that of science making claims outside of its ambit, something that almost never happens these days.

I’m more interested in the idea whether there are “ways of knowing” beyond those involving science or “science broadly construed” (“SBC”, i.e., any profession, including plumbing and car mechanics, that uses the empirical method and relies on hypotheses, tests, and confirmation as ways of understanding the cosmos). As far as I can see—and I’ve asked readers about this—I’ve found no way beyond SBC to ascertain what’s true about our universe.

The most common area to claim that there are ways of knowing beyond the empirical is of course religion, but theology has never found a single ascertainable truth about the Universe that hasn’t been confirmed (or disconfirmed, as in the Exodus) by empirical research. You can’t find out what’s true about the Universe by reading scripture or waiting for a revelation. Even “scientific revelations” like Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its own tail, which supposedly gave rise to the ring structure of benzene with alternative single and double bonds, had to be confirmed empirically.

Maarten Boudy has a new blog piece that discusses these ideas, but also highlights a new paper that, he says, puts paid to the notion that there are ways of knowing beyond science. Click on the screenshot to read it. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.) As you can see from the title, Maarten tells it as it is:

Boudry, by the way, is co-author of this collection of essays, which, though mixed in quality, is generally good and gives a good overview of the “scientism” controversy. (Click screenshot for Amazon link.) The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,” and has said so many times. Massimo is deeply preoccupied with demarcating “science” from “nonscience,” and sees me as having messed up that distinction.

Here’s Maarten’s link to the new paper and a useful classification of four flavors of scientism:

Now yesterday I read a clever new paper in Metaphilosophy – yes, there really is a journal by that name – in defense of scientism, which follows the second strategy. The Finnish authors, known as the Helsinki Circle, present a neutral definition of “scientism”, distinguishing between four different flavors represented by the quadrant below. The four positions follow from two simple choices: either you adopt a narrow or a broad definition of science, and either you believe that science is the only valid source of knowledge or that it is simply the best one available.

The differences between “natural sciences” and “sciences” here, as Maarten wrote me, is this:

“Natural sciences” is just physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

“Sciences” includes the human and social sciences, (like “Wissenschaft” in German).

But I’d prefer the distinction to be between “science” (what is practiced by scientists proper) and “SCB”, or the use of the empirical method to ascertain truth (SCB includes the human and social sciences). Given that slight change, I’d fall into the lower-left square. The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.

But never mind. Boudy and I are more concerned with the criticisms of science that fall under the rubric of “non-pejorative scientism”, and he mentions two:

The authors want to draw attention to the other three versions of “scientism”, which are more defensible but nonetheless interesting and non-trivial. In the rest of the paper, they discuss how the different interpretations of scientism fare under two lines of criticism: (a) that scientism is self-defeating because the thesis itself cannot be demonstrated by scientific means; (b) that science inevitably relies on non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as metaphysical assumptions or data from our senses.

I’ve addressed both of these, but Maarten concentrates on the second. (My criticism of [a] is that you don’t need to demonstrate a philosophical or scientific underpinning of the methods of science to accept it, because science works—it enables us to understand the Universe in ways that both enable us to do things like cure smallpox and send rovers to Mars, and to make verified predictions, like when an eclipse will occur or the light from stars might bend around the Sun). Justification of science by some extra-scientific method is not only futile, but unnecessary.

Maarten refutes (b) handily:

Here I want to focus on the second objection. Does science “presuppose” the existence of an external world, or lawful regularities, or the truth of naturalism, or other metaphysical notions? No it doesn’t. These are merely working hypotheses that are being tested as we go along. I’ve argued for this position at length myself, in a paper with the neurologist Yon Fishman and earlier with my Ghent colleagues. As the authors write:

“One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. If it is impossible to achieve this kind of knowledge, then the efforts would just be in vain. But hoping that something is the case is not the same as believing that it is the case.”

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No, because that’s a trivial point. It’s obviously true that science could not even get off the ground without sensory data, but this input too is being refined and corrected as we go along.

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air. This reminds one of the old Hindu cosmology according to which we live on a flat earth supported by four big elephants. Pretty solid, but what are the elephants standing on? On the back of a giant turtle. And that turtle? On the back of an even larger turtle. And so it’s turtles all the way down, ad infinitum.

Boudry’s Argument from Turtles also goes, I think, for (a): if you must justify using scientific methods through philosophy, how do you justify the value of philosophy in settling such a question? But never mind. If people dismiss science as an activity because philosophy (or science itself) provides no foundation for the empirical method, I’ll just ask them, “Have you ever been vaccinated or taken antibiotics?” If they say “yes,” then they already trust in science regardless of where the method came from. (It comes, by the way, not from a priori justification, but through a five-century refinement of methods to hone them down to a toolkit that works. Remember, science used to include aspects of the Divine, as in creationism as an explanation for life on Earth or Newton’s view that God tweaked the orbits of the planets to keep them stable.)

I’ll be reading the Metaphilosophy paper (click on screenshot below to access and download it), but let me finish by self-aggrandizingly saying that Boudry does agree that SCB is part of the nexus of empirical methodology that includes “real science”

For me, an essential part of scientism is the belief in one unified, overarching web of knowledge, which was defended most famously by the philosopher Willard V.O. Quine. Take an everyday form of knowledge acquisition such as a plumber trying to locate a leak (I believe this analogy is due to the biologist Jerry Coyne). Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”, but that doesn’t mean that my plumber is engaged in some “different way of knowing”. He’s also making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. The main difference is that he is working on a relatively mundane and isolated problem (my sink), which is both simple enough to solve on his own, and parochial enough not be of any interest to academic journals. Plumbing is not a science, but it is continuous with science, because it makes use of similar methods (observation and logical inference) and is connected with scientific knowledge, for example about fluid dynamics. The plumber or detective or car mechanic is not doing anything radically different from what the scientist is doing.

Take that, Massimo!

And here’s a reading assignment:


Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon