Another report about the NSF initiative to braid indigenous ways of knowing with “Western” science

October 29, 2023 • 9:30 am

Nature and Science, widely considered the world’s two best scientific journals, are competing with each other to see who can evince the most “progressive” ideology.  So when the NSF appropriated $30 for projects to “braid” indigenous Native American knowledge into modern science, Nature touted the project, which I analyzed in a post here. Some of my suggestions were later outlined in a piece in  Times Higher Education.

Now, Science is also highlighting the NSF project in the article below (click on headline).  Note the trope of “Western” science, which was also used by Nature. This should be offensive to all the scientists in the world who use “modern” science but aren’t in the West. One example, which I’ve seen first hand, is science in India. I’ve talked to a lot of evolutionary biologists there about their research, and we communicate easily because we’re familiar not only with the tools of modern science, but also with its published results. To tell an Indian evolutionist that they’re actually doing “Western” science would be insulting. Science belongs to the world, and although it originated in Europe, it’s no longer any more “Western” than are automobiles. (Do the Chinese drive “Western cars”?)

But I digress. Science again touts the NSF project without a word of caution, though there are plenty of reasons to exercise care when allocating lots of taxpayer money to “braid” “indigenous knowledge” and “Western” science.

One of the biggest problems of these article,s which is never discussed, is the conflation of ultimate goals. Is it to improve science itself by bringing in indigenous “ways of knowing”? That’s the goal usually presented, as it is in this piece.  And in New Zealand, the two “ways of knowing” were considered coequal by government authorities under the Ardern administration. (Perhaps no longer now that Chris Hipkins heads the government.)

But another goal is not “knowledge equity” but “scientist equity”: that is, to ensure that indigenous people are represented in science in a proportion at least close to their presence in the population.  Although I’m not a fan of equity in the form of “proportional representation,” I do think that the denial of equal opportunity to minorities who were victims of bigotry, if that denial still exists, needs to be rectified.

Thus, if you’re going to use money to improve science, and help indigenous people at the same time, virtually all of that money should be earmarked for training indigenous youngsters to learn science, and ensure that there’s no bigotry against them. That is, indigenous people should have equal opportunity from the outset to learn STEM. Then, those with talent and desire can become scientists using modern science.  To my mind, this is better than simply scouring indigenous cultures for bits of knowledge that can be further investigated, or giving money to indigenous people without fixed projects to fund, simply as a form of reparations.  To fund education rather than cultures themselves is preferable because the results are permanent and self-sustaining (once the pipeline is open, it tends to stay open).

Sadly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken the route of trying to produce “research equity”, and so far, in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand, the results have been thin,  That’s expected because indigenous people like Māori and Native Americans didn’t have a tradition of doing science. They do have a tradition of understanding nature insofar as it was useful for their well being, but that’s only a small part of modern science. The paucity of results so far can be seen in the article below.

The goals of the project seem to involve not just ameliorating climate change, but also “preserving cultural heritage”:

Last month, NSF aimed to bridge such disconnects, with a 5-year, $30 million grant designed to weave together traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Western science. Based at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) aims to fundamentally change the way scholars from both traditions select and carry out joint research projects and manage data.

The center will explore how climate change threatens food security and the preservation of cultural heritages through eight research hubs in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Ranco co-leads the U.S. Northeast hub.) Each hub will also serve as a model for how to braid together different knowledge traditions, or what its senior investigators call “two-eyed seeing” through both Indigenous and Western lenses.

I’d feel better about the climate-change work (also funded for New Zealand and Canada’s indigenous groups) if we could figure out how indigenous knowledge would make a substantial change in ameliorating climate change. I can see that indigenous people might call attention to some species that are disappearing, but that’s a symptom, not a cause, and fixing the cause depends on concerted government action (which isn’t happening). As for “preserving cultural heritage”, that’s a goal that has to do with social engineering rather than science (and it is valuable), but I’ll just mention that and pass on.

The concept of “two-eyed seeing“, which originated in Canada, implies that “Western” science is partly blind because it doesn’t take into account indigenous “ways of knowing”, and explicitly touts a knowledge inequity rather than an ethnic inequity among scientists. Below are quotes from the article implying that “indigenous ways of knowing” can make a valuable contribution to understanding and ameliorating issues like climate change, and can do so because they are fundamentally different ways of knowing:

That NSF “has moved beyond the idea that science has to be only Western science is truly remarkable,” says archaeologist Joe Watkins, a past president of the Society for American Archaeology and a member of the Choctaw Nation. “NSF is saying it will continue to fund basic science but also look at other social constructs that might help us move forward to deal with the climate crisis. That’s a bold step.”

It’s also long overdue, says Sonya Atalay, a UMass anthropologist and director of the new center. “For a very long time, Indigenous science has been marginalized, and thought of as maybe quaint stories that were too local to be useful to the broader enterprise of science,” Atalay, who is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage, says. “That is beginning to change.”

The difference in results touted for the two “ways of knowing” doesn’t hearten me that indigenous contributions to science will be incorporated into modern science and be built upon the way modern science works. Rather, the differences appear to be culturally specific to the funded group, like the “terraced clam gardens” mentioned in the Nature piece. There’s a reason why science aims at wider conclusions, for the usual aim is to understand nature in general, not nature in, say, one small plot of land.

Although both Indigenous knowledge and Western science include observations and data collection, they differ in several key dimensions, Atalay explains. Indigenous knowledge is place-specific, whereas Western science tends to seek universal rules that apply everywhere. Indigenous knowledge is rooted in the relationship between humans and their environment rather than isolating study targets from their surroundings. And the knowledge gained through Indigenous science is managed by the community, in contrast to publishing all results and using patents to restrict access to certain information.

. . . Once research is underway, another key difference is how data are managed. Scientists often put data into a common repository open to everybody, and then write papers that are part of the public literature. But many Indigenous people believe knowledge should not be separated from its cultural roots and that the community should have the authority to decide what data can be shared and what may need to be kept confidential.

Thus indigenous science aims to control not only the research, but the data resulting from the research. The restricting of access to original data is highly unusual and is frowned upon by scientists. If indigenous science is to be “braided” with modern science, it should be subject to the ethical norms of modern science, which means that results don’t count as “knowledge” until they’re published, disseminated, and tested by others. And if you publish your results, it’s incumbent on you to give the data that went into your results to other scientists who request it, for that’s the only way people can check the veracity of your results. Otherwise, your data is confidential and cannot be checked. When I worked on flies, I was asked several times to provide original data, as well as stocks of flies that I manufactures genetically and used in public research. It was almost a scientific crime to withhold data and fly stocks!

But what is indigenous science itself supposed to do? Let’s take climate change as an example. Exactly what is the indigenous science of “climate change”?  Can we have an example of how ignoring other “social constructs” has held back knowledge of climate change?  It is the lack of examples and tangible projects for this and other aims that makes me dubious about the project of funding “research equity”. Indeed, the NSF funding appears to have been given without many specific projects in mind:

The center’s research agenda is a work in progress because deciding what to study is a key step in the process. Only a handful of an estimated three dozen projects has been chosen. With two-thirds of the center’s 54 lead investigators identifying as Indigenous, the NSF grant’s senior investigators see the center as belated recognition that Indigenous scholars must help set the research agenda.

It thus appears that there is no research agenda, yet these are not students being funded for their Ph.D.s, but adults.

. . . The climate crisis is propelling interest in coping strategies that incorporate TEK, which is the product of millennia of interactions between humans and the environment. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting 30 years for some scientific theory to trickle down to have an impact at the community level,” says Jon Woodruff, a UMass sedimentologist and co–principal investigator for the center. “We need to start right now, with the type of place-based, community-based research that the center will be supporting.”

Yes, yes, but what will the $30 million be used to find out now? We are not told.

As always, the writers single out one group-specific project to use as an example. But projects like the one below (or the “clam gardens”) don’t give me much confidence that the “braiding” will push science forward in a significant way. As usual, the examples involve the best way to harvest food—fish in this case.

For example, to harvest fish sustainably, the Passamaquoddy have begun to redeploy traditional fish weirs. These wooden structures have latticework that guides fish into an enclosed area during high tide, and then blocks their escape as the water ebbs. The weirs allow some fish to continue their journey upstream to spawn while yielding a harvest calibrated to the needs of the local community.

“It took a lot of traditional ecological knowledge just to place these fish weirs,” says anthropologist Natalie Michelle, a research fellow at UMass and a University of Maine postdoc who is a member of the Penobscot. “They would have to know the different currents in the ocean, the different depths at which the fish swim, the weather patterns, seasonal migration, and so on.”

Yes, this is knowledge, but it’s place- and group-specific. It is experiential knowledge, which is of course of empirical value, but this study would be hard to extrapolate elsewhere, though it might be useful for helping states get fish upstream. But I doubt that wooden fish weirs will replace the complex and expensive ways scientists have devised to allow fish to bypass dams.

One other project described involves not the acquisition of knowledge, but its dissemination to indigenous people:

Water is sacred to Simonds’s Apsáalooke or Crow community. But the rivers in southeastern Montana that have nourished their culture for millennia are now polluted, and their home wells are riddled with toxic metals. “We wanted to find a way to raise community awareness of the water problem,” says Simonds, who learned about her Crow heritage during childhood trips to the reservation to visit her grandmother. “We figured that a good way to reach parents was through the young people.”

Local community college students will sample and analyze water from sacred Apsáalooke cultural places and share their results with middle school students from the reservation, who in turn will test rivers and springs for Escherichia coli. The students will also hear from elders about the importance of water.

And again, this produces useful but local knowledge that stops after the students hear about it. But if local rivers are polluted in this way—with both toxic metals and E. coli—the results need to be reported to those authorities entrusted with protecting citizens.  But this is not really indigenous knowledge: it’s modern scientific knowledge, for how else do you test for E. coli or toxic metals? You use modern scientific methods, not traditional “ways of knowing.”   The only “indigenous” part is that it involves Native Americans.

So my two points are these. First, we should not throw money at indigenous projects until we see examples of how “two-eyed seeing” actually produces valuable knowledge and advances science. So far, the results are thin.

Second, if organizations like the NSF really want to do “braiding” they should braid indigenous people into modern science by funding education and opportunity starting at a young age. Otherwise, this initiative, like many already in place in New Zealand, feel more like performative actions: “We have to show that we’re responding to progressives by creating some kind of scientific equity.”

h/t: JG

Times Higher Ed on indigenous knowledge as science

October 25, 2023 • 1:00 pm

On October 1, I wrote about a big project in which the National Science Foundation was going to invest substantial dosh in integrating indigenous (Native American) knowledge into science.  But the “braiding” of modern science with indigenous “ways of knowing” worried me, especially when I’ve seen what it’s done to New Zealand. Here’s an excerpt of what I said in my post:

Here are two claims in the article that worry me. The first is a statement by Sonya Atalay, “an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the [Braiding] centre.”

“As Indigenous people, we have science, but we carry that science in stories,” Atalay says. “We need to think about how to do science in a different way and work differently with Indigenous communities.”

I’m not sure what it means to say “we carry that science in stories,” but stories can, like that Antarctica trope, be corrupted over years and centuries. Empirical claims in “stories” can’t be taken at face value, but have to be tested using the toolkit of modern science.  And what does it mean to say “we do science in a different say”.  Really? Even if you’re working with indigenous communities, don’t you want to ascertain truth the same way we do in modern science?

And there’s this:

Atalay is thinking about ways to measure success and communicate findings that go beyond publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. In particular, she says, scientists will focus on finding ways to communicate their results with communities, including through the use of comic books, posters and theatre.

“You share what you’ve learned, and you do that through stories, through art, through any accessible means,” she says. “That is not a side note. It’s an integral part of the circle of doing science.”

Well, yes, if you need to tell the locals what you’ve found using comic books and plays, that’s fine. But if knowledge, whether coming from or derived from indigenous communities is to become part of modern science itself, it needs to be published, not in comic books but in peer-reviewed journals.

It’s statements like these that make me worry that the NSF is throwing piles of money (our money) at these endeavors primarily as a performative gesture showing that it cares about indigenous people.

A reporter for Times Higher Education somehow found this post and interviewed me about my views, writing about the project and giving some of my quotes from the interview in the article below (click to read, and make a judicious inquiry if you can’t access it). Forgive the self-aggrandizement, but I’m pleased that the problems with such a program are being given wider exposure.

Here’s an excerpt. Note the NSF’s response in bold. But they do say that some money will be allocated to training students, which is good.  The rest you can read at the site.

Already, there have been some early warnings that the outcome in the US could be similar. Indigenous knowledge certainly has useful applications in many fields of human activity, said Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, but it does not contribute in significant ways to the modern scientific processes that have produced decades of major breakthroughs in critical fields such as medicine, physics and chemistry.

“The idea that indigenous knowledge is really going to push science forward seems dubious to me,” Professor Coyne said.

In their announcement of the new NSF centre, its organisers cited the example of clam gardens – rock walls built along shorelines to provide a welcoming habitat for molluscs – which indigenous people have been creating for thousands of years along the Pacific north-west coast of the US and Canada. The approach can double or quadruple clam production, according to Marco Hatch, an associate professor of marine ecology at Western Washington University who studies their use and who will receive some of the first allotment of funding from the new NSF centre.

That kind of work does seem beneficial, Professor Coyne acknowledged. But as similar cases in New Zealand have shown, the actual scientific content is thin, he said. “My response is: show me the results, show me what useful science has come out of this – and there’s very little,” he said. “It’s always in the nature of, well, we’ve learned to pick berries when this phase of the moon occurs at this time of year. Yeah, that’s useful practical knowledge, but it’s not really science in the sense that the NSF considers science.”

An NSF official insisted on the scientific value of bringing new “backgrounds and attitudes” to research work. “Scientists don’t always create good or optimal research questions and designs because they are sometimes missing critical information about culture or other aspects of human behaviour or the environment,” the official said.

A potentially more valuable outcome of such federal investment, Professor Coyne said, would be for the government to help more indigenous students become professional scientists, who could then use their ancestral backgrounds in ways that fit more directly into existing research channels. “If you want to help underserved people, bring them into modern science,” he said.

The NSF’s announcement of the new centre does indicate plans in that direction, saying that some funding would be spent on training students at school level all the way up to postdoctoral researchers and graduate research assistants, many at minority-serving institutions.

I wish, though, that the unnamed “NSF official” had given at least one example of a project that had gone forward or been improved by adding that “critical information about culture”. As I noted in the piece, those who push for the unification (and sometimes coequality) of science and “indigenous ways of knowing” often fall short when asked to give examples of how this will improve our understanding of nature.

New Zealand votes out woke Labour government by a big margin

October 14, 2023 • 9:15 am

Although if I were a Kiwi I’d probably be a member of the Labour Party, I have criticized them strongly for their education policy: a policy that has constantly tried to insinuate Māori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori ) into school science curricula (it’s fine if taught as history or sociology).  Labour has also been engaged in a frenetic bout of “decolonization,” trying to get the country to adhere to the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), which has been dubiously interpreted as “Māori get half of everything: jobs, science grants, language in publications, etc.”

This “decolonization”, particularly in schools and colleges, has gone so far that no Kiwi citizen dares oppose it for fear of demonization. Academics, for example, won’t speak up because they’ll be fired. That’s why I get a ton of emails from disaffected New Zealand academics who are afraid to speak up against the insinuation of MM into science curricula, and it’s why I write so much about it. Who else can criticize “decolonization” in NZ without risking their job? (Only retired professor!)

As I’ve also documented, New Zealand’s schools aren’t doing their jobs: they’re slipping in student performance, in student attendance, and in quality when compared to schools in similar countries like Canada, Australia, Singapore, and the U.S.  Kiwis are perfectly aware of this and worried about it, but again—they can’t object. (This decline in educational standards and accomplishment can’t be attributed solely to MM, as it’s been going on for several decades.)

But Labour, first under Jacinda Ardern (for whom I had great hopes) and then Chris Hipkins (former Minister of Education), must take the blame for what’s happened in the last six years, which includes a huge push for “decolonization.”

Apparently the public is fed up with Labour, as this report at the AP shows that Labour just lost the election, while the “conservatives” cleaned up big time (see also the report from the BBC and the live coverage at Stuff).  The new PM, Christopher Luxon, isn’t really “conservative” in the way that American Republicans are; the NZ party is are closer to American “centrism”—or so I’m told:

From the AP:

Conservative former businessman Christopher Luxon will be New Zealand’s next prime minister after winning a decisive election victory Saturday.

People voted for change after six years of a liberal government led for most of that time by Jacinda Ardern.

The exact makeup of Luxon’s government is still to be determined as ballots continued to be counted.

Luxon arrived to rapturous applause at an event in Auckland. He was joined on stage by his wife, Amanda, and their children, William and Olivia. He said he was humbled by the victory and couldn’t wait to get stuck in to his new job. He thanked people from across the country.

“You have reached for hope and you have voted for change,” he said.

Supporters chanted his campaign slogan which promised to get the country “back on track.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who spent just nine months in the top job after taking over from Ardern in January, told supporters late Saturday he had called Luxon to concede.

Hipkins said it wasn’t the result he wanted.

“But I want you to be proud of what we achieved over the last six years,” he told supporters at an event in Wellington.

Ardern unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in January, saying she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do the job justice. She won the last election in a landslide, but her popularity waned as people got tired of COVID-19 restrictions and inflation threatened the economy.

Her departure left Hipkins, 45, to take over as leader. He had previously served as education minister and led the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With most of the vote counted, Luxon’s National Party had about 40% of the vote. Under New Zealand’s proportional voting system, Luxon, 53, is expected to form an alliance with the libertarian ACT Party.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party that Hipkins leads was getting only a little over 25% of the vote — about half the proportion it got in the last election under Ardern.

And in a result that would be particularly stinging for Labour should it lose the seat,

A 40% vote for National versus a 25% vote for Labour is a huge difference, especially when compared to Ardern’s landslide. The NZ public clearly heaved out the old party with alacrity. I don’t know about National’s other policies, but it has promised to reform education, cracking down on schools to improve literacy and reforming curricula. Here are National’s six highlights for educational reform:

National will:

  1. Progressively improve the adult-to-child ratio for under two year olds in early childhood education.
  2. Invest an additional $4.8 billion in school infrastructure, including $2 billion over five years for the Fix New Zealand’s Schools Alliance, and another $2.8 billion over a decade for new classrooms and schools to accommodate growth and reduce the need to impose restrictive zoning requirements.
  3. Establish a $160 million per year fund to support children with additional learning, behavioural and physical needs – allocated based on school roll and need – so schools can invest in the initiatives they believe are appropriate for their student community.
  4. Invest $150 million over four years to fund an additional six million hours of teacher aide support in classrooms, equivalent to around 1500 new teacher aides (at 25 hours per week), or an average of 600 hours per school each year.
  5. Invest $340 million over four years to deliver smaller class sizes by progressively reducing student-to-teacher ratios in primary schools. This will reduce teacher workloads and make sure children get more focused teacher attention in their foundation years.
  6. Establish at least 25 new partnership schools by 2023, including some focussed on high-priority learners such as Māori and Pasifika; children with additional learning needs; and in specialist education areas such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

A quality education can make all the difference in the future of a child. National knows how important it is for children to leave school with firm foundations in core areas, but also for parents to feel empowered to make the choices that will best suit their child’s needs.

Now #6 does address indigenous people, but it is true that Māori and Pasifika children do poorly compared to others, like whites or Asians.  So I have no objection to giving them special attention, so long as it’s not in the form of a Kiwi-an “affirmative action.” And the reform will concentrate on STEM, the area being most corrupted by decolonization.

But somehow I get the feeling that National is not going to truckle to indigenous demands that their “ways of knowing” be taught as equivalent of modern scientific ways of knowing.  We may have a substantial time to find out, too, as there is no fixed term for NZ’s prime minister: they typically leave office when they lose an election or a confidence vote (in Ardern’s case, she simply resigned claiming she was worn out).  In the 20th century, Kiwi PMs have stayed for up to 13 years.

The voters have spoken—and loudly. Stay tuned.

NSF invests millions in indigenous knowledge

October 1, 2023 • 11:30 am

It is of course precarious to criticize the present-day worship of “indigenous knowledge”, as it’s all too easy to dismiss that criticism as racism or bigotry.  The problem is not that the empirical knowledge of indigenous people is worthless, because it isn’t. Although it’s often derived from trial and error, that is still a way to gain “knowledge” about the universe, and some of that knowledge has proven accurate and valuable. The use of willow bark by ancient people, for example, led to the discovery of aspirin. (On the the other hand, the widespread story that quinine as a malarial treatment was discovered by indigenous South Americans via use of cinchona bark appears to be erroneous; they used it to treat shivering and diarrhea, and a European discovered its efficacious effects on malaria, which also causes shivering.)

It’s hard to think of general scientific knowledge contributed by indigenous “ways of knowing”, as the latter often comprise observational data specific to the local environment: when to harvest berries, where to fish, and so on. Whether that local data could be generalized, becoming part of larger science, is unclear, and I can’t think of many examples.

Nevertheless, the George Floyd Effect appears to have spilled over to indigenous “ways of knowing”, so that countries like New Zealand, for example, consider local “ways of knowing”, like Mātauranga Māori, as a form of science, even though much of MM has nothing to do with science, but is concerned instead with religion, tradition, superstition, and ethics. Nevertheless, the view that MM is a “way of knowing” has completely taken over New Zealand, threatening to wreck science education in that country. It’s also created a national climate in which the views of those espousing MM have become beyond criticism, so that critics get fired or demonized.

It now appears that something similar is happening in the US, at least as evidenced by a recent $30 million National Science Foundation program described in the Nature article below.  I am not saying we’re even close to the degree of corruption of science that’s occurred in New Zealand, but the “other ways of knowing” trope is the first sign of rot, and it looks like we have it here. Check out the claims in this article that indigenous people do science with “stories” and the implication there are many ways of knowing, some coming through traditional stories. Click to read:

The program:

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded its first research hub focused on Indigenous knowledge. The move comes amid discussions of colonialism in science, and a reckoning that researchers must do more to engage with native peoples when seeking their expertise in everything from flora and fauna to medicines, weather and climate.

Launched yesterday with US$30 million in funding over five years, the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) joins more than a dozen active NSF Science and Technology Centers across the United States that focus on core research areas. It will be based at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.

The goal is to cultivate Indigenous knowledge of the environment, and weave it together with Western scientific methods in a way that respects local communities and cultures, says Sonya Atalay, an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the centre.

The “braiding” trope, indicating interweaving of indigenous knowledge and modern science, grates on me, implying that the former is roughly equivalent to the latter, but that’s just me. What’s more serious, though, is that although we should surely respect local communities and cultures, local knowledge doesn’t necessarily deserve respect, particularly when it’s the kind of “knowledge” claiming that the Māori discovered Antarctica in the 7th century AD. Like scientific knowledge, indigenous knowledge should be questioned, particularly when it’s based on stories, lore, and tradition.

Here are two claims in the article that worry me. The first is a statement by Sonya Atalay, “an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the [Braiding] centre.”

“As Indigenous people, we have science, but we carry that science in stories,” Atalay says. “We need to think about how to do science in a different way and work differently with Indigenous communities.”

I’m not sure what it means to say “we carry that science in stories,” but stories can, like that Antarctica trope, be corrupted over years and centuries. Empirical claims in “stories” can’t be taken at face value, but have to be tested using the toolkit of modern science.  And what does it mean to say “we do science in a different say”.  Really? Even if you’re working with indigenous communities, don’t you want to ascertain truth the same way we do in modern science?

And there’s this:

Atalay is thinking about ways to measure success and communicate findings that go beyond publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. In particular, she says, scientists will focus on finding ways to communicate their results with communities, including through the use of comic books, posters and theatre.

“You share what you’ve learned, and you do that through stories, through art, through any accessible means,” she says. “That is not a side note. It’s an integral part of the circle of doing science.”

Well, yes, if you need to tell the locals what you’ve found using comic books and plays, that’s fine. But if knowledge, whether coming from or derived from indigenous communities is to become part of modern science itself, it needs to be published, not in comic books but in peer-reviewed journals.

It’s statements like these that make me worry that the NSF is throwing piles of money (our money) at these endeavors primarily as a performative gesture showing that it cares about indigenous people.

To be fair, though, there is one substantive project that the NSF bucks will be used for—farming clams. (“Hatch” below is “Marco Hatch, a member of the Samish Indian Nation and a marine ecologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham” who has long worked with indigenous people.)

One project set to launch in the first year at the Pacific Northwest hub focuses on a type of clam farming that has been practiced for thousands of years by native peoples along the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States.

Marco Hatch, a member of the Samish Indian Nation and a marine ecologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, has spent nearly two decades working with Indigenous communities to investigate and revive this ancient technique. It involves using terraced gardens to extend and flatten a beach’s intertidal zone — where clams grow — and it can be two to four times more productive than conventional methods, Hatch says.

With funding from the centre, Hatch adds that he and his collaborators will be able to expand their partnerships to Indigenous communities in Washington and Alaska. “There’s untold thousands of clam gardens up and down the coast that haven’t been identified,” he says. With guidance from a panel of Indigenous advisers, scientists will be able to conduct surveys at low tide, using boats and aerial drones.

Yes, that could be of substantial practical value, but I hope it’s not the only kind of thing that comes from “braiding” indigenous knowledge with modern science.  What we nearly always get in this “braiding” is an improvement in practical techniques, but not the kind of knowledge that comes from theorizing, hypothesizing, and testing used by modern science. (By the way, it’s patronizing to refer to modern science, a worldwide enterprise involving people from many lands, as “Western” science.)  In the end, it’s hard for me to imagine substantial advances in modern physics, chemistry, mathematics, or biology that can come from investing millions of taxpayer dollars in indigenous “ways of knowing.”  To quote Jerry Maguire, I’ll sign on when these projects “show me the money” (i.e., the results).

A good summary of the mess that is science education in New Zealand

September 20, 2023 • 11:30 am

If you want to see what the government of New Zealand is up to with respect to science education, you can’t do better than listening to this video/slideshow by two exponents of the “we-need-two-knowledge-systems” view. I’ve gotten a lot of scary stuff from Kiwi educators in the last couple of weeks, but this one site sums up how science education in New Zealand is circling the drain.

And it’s happening because of uber-wokeness: the propensity of Kiwis to regard the indigenous Māori and those with a fraction of Māori ancestry as somehow sacred, with a culture and “knowledge system” that are beyond criticism. Combine that with a nationwide authoritarian mindset that will get you fired if you criticize anything Māori, and you have a recipe for madness.

(By the way, the country is now often called “Aotearoa New Zealand” as a concession to the Māori, in whose language the first word means “land of the long white cloud”. I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually dropped the “New Zealand” part.)

Click on the screenshots below to hear a 57-minute podcast showing what I see as a deeply misguided and unscientific attempt to give New Zealand schoolchildren two—count them, two—”knowledge systems”. One of them is simply modern science, and the other is Mātauranga Māori (MM), a pastiche of knowledge accumulated by trial and error, but also of religioun, superstition, ethics, word of mouth tradition, etiquette, and many things having nothing to do with science. These latter things should be regarded not as “ways of knowing” but as “ways of feeling” or “ways of behaving”.

The site below is sponsored by the New Zealand government, so you know it’s serious.

The summary:

In this recorded webinar Pauline Waiti and Rosemary Hipkins explore the idea of knowledge systems with examples from science and mātauranga Māori.

The report Enduring Competencies for Designing Science Learning Pathways introduced the idea of exploring both science and mātauranga Māori as knowledge systems. Thinking about knowledge as a system is likely to be an unfamiliar idea for many teachers. In this webinar we unpack the metaphor, using familiar science concepts to show which of them might be appropriately explored through both knowledge lenses (i.e. science and mātauranga Māori) and when this might not be helpful.

Rosemary Hipkins is in fact the mother of NZ’s present Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who himself served as Minister of Education for the Labour Party. She began as a biology teacher but now is a Big Noise in “improving” the curricula in New Zealand’s schools. For her services to education she was recognized in the 2023 New Year Honours List, becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit “for services to science education”.

is the director of

Click on the screenshot above or below to go to the 57-minute lecture/discussion/slideshow below.

The video begins with a lot of untranslated

First of all “MM” isn’t a “knowledge” system in the way you probably think, since “knowledge”, conceived of as “generally accepted empirical truth” is only a small part of MM. The discussants get around this by including “values”, “experiences,” and “standards” as aspects of “knowledge”. Then, as the defendants of MM do so often, they present a complex diagram of what science is (13:30). It adds nothing to the “unpacking” of science.

At 14:54 Waiti introduces the MM idea of “mauri,” which is simply a “teleological force” that adds nothing to our understanding of nature; it is simply a quasi-religious concept. Waiti admits that this is a different way of looking at empirical problems, but is “equally as valid” as is modern science. My response is “no, it isn’t.” But at last we see some proponents of MM who say that they’re not plumping for equal time for science and MM in the classroom, nor a direct equivalence. Instead, but just as bad, they argue (see slide below) that although these nonequivalent ways of knowing, they can still be brought together usefully to present a complete picture of nature.

How? That’s the big problem, and one that, as far as I can see, has no solution. That’s because there really is only one way of knowing about the world, and that’s using the tools of science. Dragging in ideas like “mauri” not only pollutes science, but confuses students. “Mauri,” again, is a quasireligious concept, defined by the



The next slide brings in the MM concept of “mana”, defined by the dictionary as

prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object. Mana goes hand in hand with tapu, one affecting the other. The more prestigious the event, person or object, the more it is surrounded by tapu and mana.

. . . and tapu means this:

be sacred, prohibited, restricted, set apart, forbidden, under atua protection – see definition 4 for further explanations.

definition 4:

restriction, prohibition – a supernatural condition. A person, place or thing is dedicated to an atua and is thus removed from the sphere of the profane and put into the sphere of the sacred. It is untouchable, no longer to be put to common use.

Hipkins then points out that in MM, unlike science, both living and nonliving objects have agency. (This is of course connected with mauri.)

Note that in the next slide, MM as a “knowledge system” also “conveys wisdom about how to live and be.”  How on earth can views about the best way to live one’s life be usefully folded into modern science?  Don’t ask me.

Finally, Hipkins defines what she means by “equal status” for both MM and science. At least she admits it doesn’t mean equal time in class!  But in the entire podcast they give not one example of how “western” science can be brought together fruitfully with MM.

And the advantages of combining two knowledge systems? The answer is in the slide below. It isn’t convincing.because the main object of MM appears to be to “live as ethically and responsible as possible” That’s a goal completely different from that of science, even though they imply that that’s also a goal of science.

In the end, these aren’t two “knowledge systems”. They aren’t at all comparable, much less compatible, and to call MM a “knowledge system” is mostly false. Imagine watching the podcast as a teacher and then trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do in class!

What appears to be happening is a pullback from teaching MM as coequal to science qua science in science classes and its replacement with MM’s characterization as coequal to science as a “knowledge system” (whatever that means).  That is, students will now be taught a form of cultural relativism in science classes and there will be emphasis on the limitations of science—limitations overcome by learning about MM, which has knowledge not present in science. This is no improvement over the previous plan, but a recipe for added confusion.

In my view, as the authors of the Listener letter argued, MM shouldn’t be dragged at all into the science class, but reserved for sociology or anthropology class. There’s already a word for the small part of MM that can be incorporated into science. It’s called “science.”

I have comments from three Kiwi scientists (all anonymous, of course) about this presentation.  Here’s the first one:

This is not an improvement in epistemic terms. Arguably it’s even worse than integrating MM into science, as social constructivism/epistemic relativism are antithetical to science.
I think it does make it easier for us to criticise what’s going on, however, as the postmodernist ideology is more evident. It’s pretty hard to argue that criticism of postmodernist ideology is racist!
You ask: how are they going to teach MM now? The answer is they’re not – to do so would be “recolonisation”. This was never really about teaching MM. It was always a political project designed to promote an ideological agenda. Here’s a relevant quote from Doug Stokes’ book “Against decolonisation”:
“[A]ctivists impose decolonisation as part of a counter-power move to push back against what they claim is knowledge power plays of historically tainted thinkers and institutions. In short, if all knowledge is relative, it becomes politically acceptable to impose your agenda in the name of social justice and a form of restorative activism. Decolonisation is thus an explicitly political power play.
This, in turn, transforms the academic social contract. It moves from a process whereby the sum of human knowledge improves in terms of its capacity to explain the world to a form of radical political deconstruction underpinned by an ethical claim that this is justified to compensate for the legacy effects of the alleged perfidiousness of Western civilisation. The assertion that all human knowledge is equally valid and the university is a site of power contestation makes it easier to understand the abandonment of fundamental academic principles, not least that of academic freedom; Itself often portrayed as a conspiracy on the part of bigots to justify discrimination and ideas that may run contrary to those of the progressive ‘woke’ Left. Aside from the obvious fact that if all knowledge is relative, why should we subscribe to the assertions of the decolonisation critique itself, [when] this form of unbounded judgmental relativism abandons any notion of reality or truth for a seeming endless play on meaning, identity and power that is transforming the university system.” (p. 83-84)
In short, the inherent attack on science is a feature, not a bug, and we’re replaying the science wars of the 1990s. People here in NZ should be asking themselves the following questions: if any of the MM proponents actually had a commitment to science, why are they all engaging with MM instead, and why to they consistently seek to caricature modern science?
From anonymous scientist #2

I’ve come across this video resource for teachers at a site that to the best of my knowledge is funded by the NZ govt. If you ever want to go through a painful experience, do watch this and then tell me if it makes any sense to you. The Q&A at the end is also telling.

I just cannot understand how anyone can watch this type of talk and think it can be useful for school teachers. But if you say anything about it in NZ you will be most certainly labelled as racist, intolerant, and/or full of prejudice…

And from the third anonymous Kiwi scientist with whom I’ve discussed the podcast:

Thanks for taking this issue on, and I look forward greatly to you taking up the issue. In my opinion it’s full of pretentious, impenetrable, but vacuous nonsense. Education here is ruled by a clique, membership of which (and thus career prospects) is confined to those who are happy to relinquish any belief in science and indeed, critical thinking. It brings to mind Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

I don’t think that the educational and political powers in New Zealand realize how much their “sacralization of the oppressed” has angered and frustrated Kiwi scientists. And they’ll never know this so long as they deplatform, demonize, or fire those who speak against the Official Position.

Just give me a little less than an hour of your time to watch this presentation, and you’ll see what a mess science education (and education in general) has become in New Zealand. For here we have two recognized science experts trying to mix two immiscible liquids.

I’ll finish with a bit I’ve published before, quoting an ex-pastor. You can substitute Mātauranga Māori  for “religion” here, as there’s quite a bit of faith in MM’s “knowledge system”:

[This is the quote] I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. . .

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

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

September 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a rocket with indigenous knowledge

August 22, 2023 • 12:15 pm

It might seem churlish of me to discuss a federally-funded program for young people to integrate “indigenous values” into space exploration, but I discussed a similar aim before with respect to New Zealand, and the article below, from Nature, applies the same aims to an American program. And both programs wound up convincing me of the same three points:

a. “Indigenous values” and “indigenous knowledge” don’t really add much of scientific value to a modern program such as space exploration,

b. The truly “indigenous” aspects of this supposedly salubrious combination of indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge are often superstitious-add ons

c.  Dividing up knowledge and researchers in this way serves only to validate race and indigeneity as the defining traits of one’s persona, and makes science, supposedly a worldwide unifying endeavor, divisive.

Click the screenshot to read the Nature piece:

The gist of the article is that a Native American (Oglala Lakota) student at MIT, Nicole McGaa, entered a NASA-sponsored contest that was limited to Native Americans, who were tasked with designing a rocket that not only “incorporated indigenous values” into the design, but also flew went to the highest altitude. Already you can sense that the “indigenous values” won’t be of much value in overcoming gravity, but here’s the task:

McGaa, who is Oglala Lakota, is entering her fourth year of undergraduate studies in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. In April, she led MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team to the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition, an annual contest organized by NASA. The competition, held in Kenosha, Wisconsin, provides a platform for Native American students from universities across the United States and Canada to demonstrate their engineering skills through rockets that use high-powered motors. McGaa tells Nature about how she and her team incorporated Indigenous values into their work, why they smudged their rocket before launching it into the skies and her dreams to help astronauts to stay healthy in space.

Somehow something rubs me the wrong way about limiting this competition to Native Americans (why not make it a competition for everyone?) and about “incorporating indigenous values into the work”. That’s already divisive, assuming that Native America values can change the way you design rockets, and perhaps the performance of the rockets themselves. This is in contrast with the assumptions of modern physics and engineering, though I’m willing to admit that perhaps there are some indigenous values that might help. I just don’t know what they are, and rarely are any of them specified.

McGaa describes three, but I find none convincing. Two are not truly “indigenous values”, and the other one is pure superstition.

The first involves cooperation:

Our team operates in a unique way. We have a distributed leadership structure that prioritizes relationship building and taking care of each other. Even during intense periods and crunch weeks, we created a culture of community in which people felt supported and free to declare their other commitments, so that their teammates could accomodate them. We bring snacks to writing sessions, and sometimes go out together to get brunch during the day.

It’s not clear whether this really is unique (except for the snacks and brunch-going), as my reading of how teams building the Mars Rover or the Mars helicopter operate seems to have also been very close and cooperative. Further, it’s not clear that this “culture of community” really does improve the design of rockets, as there’s no control group.

And of course empathy towards your co-workers is not a trait limited to Native Americans. Women, for example, seem to be more empathic and cooperative than men, and I can imagine an all-women team saying the same stuff about their “culture.” But again, no control. In general I don’t think that these competitions should be divided by race or gender. After all, in contrast to sports, there’s no inherent advantage of any group who gets into MIT at building rockets.  If some group of friends who share an ethnicity want to form a team, that’s fine, but I’d say “engineering and science belong to everyone, so let everyone compete against each other.”  Why have a separate contest for any ethnic group of gender if it involves simple engineering?

The second “indigenous value” involves conservation of materials for weight.

Efficiency was inherent in our design: we minimized the material used, and our rocket was low weight. Such efficiency is a feature of care and avoiding excess — key Indigenous principles.

Well, they are also principles for building rockets in general.  And of course there are examples of indigenous excess as well, like driving a gazillion bison over a cliff when you can eat only a few.

The last “indigenous value” resembles some problems with Māori “indigenous knowledge” because it involves superstition:

Our rocket was named MIT Doya. Doya means ‘beaver’ in the Cherokee language; the name was suggested by team member Hailey Polson, who is from that nation. After the rocket was completed, we performed a smudging ceremony, a blessing and purification ritual that typically involves burning sage and which is an important cultural practice for us, by Lake Michigan before the competition. At the contest in April, we successfully blasted our rocket into the sky, and it reached a height of 1,290 metres. We won second place in the competition.

What does the smudging ceremony and building the rocket mean to the team?

The smudging ceremony signifies sending the rocket to the sky with good intentions and the smell of sage. The rocket, propelled by flames, is visiting Father Sky. Everyone on the team comes from different Indigenous tribes and nations. But this ceremony is deeply rooted in our Indigenous identity. For us, having an Indigenous team is not just about building rockets for the sake of it. It will have a lasting impact on Indigenous students at MIT.

I don’t care if they do this, but of course it’s pure superstition, like a Christian team saying a prayer before the launch. It may perpetuate indigenous acts and culture, but there can be no pretense that it makes the rocket fly higher.

At the end, they ask McGaa “what hurdles do you face as an Indigenous student”? and McGaa, who is surely privileged as an MIT student, lets loose with a veritable laundry list of oppression:

There are few Indigenous students at MIT. This means that it’s hard to find mentors and people that can understand and relate to your background and cultural values. People feel uncomfortable when you speak about the specific needs of Indigenous students; it’s as if they don’t want to hear it. And, until 2021, MIT had no Indigenous faculty members. So, there’s almost no one to speak for us. This places a crushing responsibility on us as students to advocate for ourselves and by ourselves. It feels exhausting and lonely, but I am proud to be here. I want to continue to inspire and forge pathways for Indigenous students at MIT.

I wish people would be able to accept and benefit from mentors who didn’t “look like them”. With the new ban on affirmative action, it will be a long time, if ever, until there is equity in university faculties, and there are plenty of professors willing to help Indigenous and other minority students. I’m not sure what “special needs” Indigenous students have: do they involve making up academic deficiencies, or something that’s missing in the psychology and behavior of mentors?. It seems to be the latter based on the assertion above of “crushing responsibility”. But if the needs are purely academic, they can be taken care of by academics. If they’re psychological, they can be taken care of by therapy.  What distresses me is the assumption that, to prosper, a student needs a mentor who “looks like them” because only those of the same ethnic group can truly meet their needs.  I appreciate that faculty should not all be white or male, and I don’t dismiss the value of role models, but I also wish that we could create diverse faculties by hiring on the basis of merit alone.

Another merging of scientific with indigenous medicine, once again lacking specificity

August 15, 2023 • 11:30 am

Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I see this as a “virtue-signaling” collaboration on the part of Roche, which aims to meld not just Māori medicinal practices with modern medicine, but also Māori “values”. I’m not sure what kind of “values” differ between Māori and so-called “Western” medicine because both presumably value “getting well” and “not getting sick” as the goals of healcare.

Click below to read the article from the New Zealand Herald:

Excerpts (I’m on a ship, and since the newspaper was too lazy to translate the Māori words into English, I don’t feel obliged to, either):

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua and global pharmaceutical company Roche Pharmaceuticals have recently set up Tū Kotahi, a new partnership that will see modern medicine meeting traditional Māori values and practices.

The pact calls for investigating novel approaches to disease prevention, treatment, and wellness for descendants of the iwi, hopefully bringing it to other iwi in the future.

The iwi’s co-chair, Dame Naida Glavish, says the “open, honest and frank” pact opens a new chapter in medical innovation and cultural preservation.

“I feel really good about it because Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua will stand in its own mana motuhake and so will Roche. There is a need, of course, to have an understanding between the two in terms of mana motuhake, total sovereignty, coming together with each other.”

There’s been mutual respect from the iwi for Roche understanding the body and physical health, while Roche admires mātauranga Māori in relation to the wellness of hinengaro and wairua, she says.

. . .“[Ngāti Whātua] holds a responsibility, every tribe in this country agrees, to manaaki all manuhiri who are in our tribal rohe. It benefits all in Ngāti Whātua and, in the rohe of Ngāti Whātua, others will benefit.

“We have no problems whatsoever that if Roche can work with Ngāti Whātua, Roche can work with Te Kahu o Taonui [Tai Tokerau tribe collective]. If they can with us, they can with anyone.”

Putting patients first, according to Roche Pharmaceuticals’ new NZ general manager Alex Muelhaupt, involves acknowledging the health disparities experienced by indigenous peoples.

I see no evidence of what kind of merging of the two “health systems” will take place. Instead, it looks as if the responsibility is on Roche to eliminate “health disparities experienced by indigenous peoples.  If there are such disparities, and they’re due to bigotry and not cultural differences, then yes, they must be addressed. But that involves social interventions, not medical ones.

And of course the Māori may have medicinal plants that modern medicine has neglected, and if so, they should be investigated: using the double-blind trials that are the gold standard of testing remedies. 

But Māori “healing” also includes chanting and singing: will Roche also test those practices? And how? Will they do nonsensical chants and songs as a control?

The absence of examples, and the finishing of the piece by an implicit claim that health disparities are caused by bigotry, is what makes me suspicious about this endeavor. If they’d give just ONE example of a possible testing of Māori practices with the aim of incorporating them into modern medicine, I’d feel better. But of course we never see that in these endeavors, and I’m pretty sure why.

Since only 4% of all Kiwis can hold a conversation in Māori, while only 55% of Māori adults can speak some of the language, while only 17% of Kiwis are Māori, I would think that New Zealand’s most widely-read newspaper could to its readers the benefit of translating indigenous words in articles such as the above.  I can’t think of a good reason why not. If they want to effect cultural fusion by teaching Māori words to the non-Māori-speaking populace, which I see as a good form of cultural appropriation, they need to do some translating. That they don’t I see as a form of arrogance, or truckling to the indigenous population