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

December 19, 2021 • 10:45 am

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

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

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

Mātauranga Māori Principle

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

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

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

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

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

Another definition:

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

Another:

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

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

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

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

More spirituality being dragged in.

IS MM SCIENCE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more bit from reference 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.)  Kia Eke Panuku organization. Undated.  Mātauranga Māori. Online at https://kep.org.nz/assets/resources/site/Voices7-16.Matauranga-Maori.pdf

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

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

More news from New Zealand about the big science vs. indigenous “knowledge” ruckus

December 14, 2021 • 9:30 am

Suddenly I am inundated with emails from disaffected Kiwis who take issue with the New Zealand government’s and academia’s new push to teach mātauranga Māori , or Māori “ways of knowing” as coequal with real science in high-school and university science classes.  Many of these people are worried that the country is being swept with an ideology that “all things Māori are good” (tell that to the moas!), and that such an attitude is going to affect not just science, but many parts of life.  It’s one thing to recognize and make reparations to a people who were genuinely oppressed for so long, but that doesn’t mean that that that group should be valorized in every way, nor that their “ways of knowing”, which include creation myths and false legends, can be taken as coequal to science and taught in the science classroom.

I’ll divide this post into three bits.

 

A. Is mātauranga Māori really going to be implemented in this way, or simply taught as what it is: an agglomeration of practical advice (some of which can be considered “science construed broadly” if it’s verified), legends, myths, and statements now know to be outright false?

Documents suggest that yes, the coequality is indeed the plan.

You can find the general present-day NCEA curriculum here (NCEA is the National Certificate for Educational Achievement, which sets the standards for New Zealand secondary schools). I haven’t gone through all the standards for various areas, but I’ve looked at chemistry, biology, and “physical and earth sciences”.

This page, “What’s changing?“, details how the curriculum will be tweaked, setting out a list of changes that will be made (this plan was apparently approved in 2020, two years after a public consultation that apparently few were aware of).  I quote:

The NCEA Change Programme is a work programme led by the Ministry of Education to deliver the package of seven changes aimed at strengthening NCEA:

2.) Equal status for mātauranga Māori in NCEA – develop new ways to recognise mātauranga Māori, build teacher capability, and improve resourcing and support for Māori learners and te ao Māori pathways.

And if you click on the link “Equal status. . .”, you see this (my bolding):

It is vital that there is parity for mātauranga Māori in NCEA, and it has equal value as other bodies of knowledge.

What we’ve heard:

Māori respondents have told us that NCEA doesn’t do enough to open te ao Māori pathways through the qualification and disadvantages too many ākonga from experiencing success as Māori.

Key changes:

  • Integrate te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori into the new ‘graduate profile’ for NCEA, and into the design of achievement standards.

  • Ensure equal support for ākonga Māori in all settings, and equal status for mātauranga Māori.

  • Develop more subjects to make sure that te ao Māori pathways are acknowledged and supported equally in NCEA (e.g. Māori Performing Arts).

  • Ensuring that, where possible and appropriate, te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori are built into achievement standards for use across English and Māori-medium settings. That might mean:

    • Having Māori-centred contexts for exemplars and assessment resources (e.g. local iwi history).
    • Designing more inclusive standards and assessment resources that allow for diverse cultural perspectives on what’s important (e.g. considering community or hapū impact, not just individual user needs.
  • Build teacher capability around culturally inclusive NCEA and assessment and aromatawai practice that is inclusive of ākonga Māori.”

So yes, the parity between mātauranga Māori and real science is going to take place, and will be used in assessing student achievement.

As to what this might mean in particular, have a look at the goals in each of many academic areas as well as proposals for change and “Big Ideas”.

As one example, check out the “learning matrix” for “Physics Earth and Space Science”:

One of my correspondents singled out this goal (I quote):

” Explore how mauri is an essential part of the natural and human-constructed world and how it is essential to maintain or restore mauri.” – Mauri, insofar as I understand it at all, being a nebulous concept usually translated as “life force”.

The other alterations of physics, meant to fit into Māori “ways of knowing”, are obscure and worrying.

And on the chemistry and biology page, under “What is chemistry and biology about?” and “Big ideas and significant learning”, you will find not a single mention of evolution, the most important and most unifying area of biology. Why else would evolution be excluded unless to placate the Māori view, which is one of creationism? This omission is stupid and offensive.

 

B. What is the New Zealand Royal Society up to? As you may know if you’ve followed this, seven professors from Auckland University signed an innocuous (to rational folk) letter protesting the trend to make mātauranga Māori taught coequally with science in science classes, a move equivalent to teaching Biblical creationism in evolution class. You can see the letter, published in the weekly magazine “The Listener” here or here. Two of the signers, Garth Cooper and Robert Nola, are FRSNZs, meaning “Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand”, a high distinction (Michael Coarbilis, another FRSNZ and signer, died on November 13).

The Royal Society, miffed by the claim that science should be defended as science, and not infused with myth and “other ways of knowing”, put up an objection to the letter and began an investigation of the two surviving FRSNZs.  Their statement, which makes the Royal Society look like a joke, is still up:

Note the insistence, by a body presumably dedicated to promoting truth, that “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.

This would be funny if it weren’t a ridiculous implication that truth is what any group maintains is truth. Further, the RSNZ is insisting that mātauranga Māori is a “valid truth.” They really should take this statement down, for it’s an embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the RSNZ’s investigation of Cooper and Nola continues, itself an embarrassment. Read the letter the two signed and see if you think they should be shamed and punished for it by the very Society that lauded them as eminent scholars.

Richard Dawkins also wrote to the then head of the RSNZ objecting to their statement above; you can see Richard’s letter here and his letter to the New Zealand public here. This letter, as well as the ones I and other readers and Kiwis wrote, have had no effect. If I know the signers, Cooper and Nola will not truckle to the clowns who issued the RSNZ statement above. For its own reputation, the RSNZ should drop the investigation immediately.

 

C. What is the University of Auckland up to? There may be good news here. But let’s review history first. Earlier this summer, Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater issued a statement explicitly criticizing The Listener letter and its seven signers, making their identities easy to find. Two of her statements from Freshwater’s official announcement of July 26:

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.

Note the “hurt and dismay claim”, which at the very outset puts her statement in a context of emotionality rather than reason. And there was more:

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. 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.

Now it’s not even clear if the University of Auckland even has an official view about science vs. mātauranga Māori, yet note that Freshwater characterizes the latter as “a distinctive and valuable knowledge system”, maintaining that “mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete.”  That is an arrant falsehood. For one thing, mātauranga Māori is creationist, which puts it squarely at odds with evolution. I won’t go on; you can find for yourself many other ways the two areas are “at odds” with each other.

The Vice-Chancellor should have said nothing about this issue, but chose to denigrate the letter and its signers. She got plenty of flak from the public and press for that announcement.

Since then, I guess she’s had second thoughts, as she’s just issued a new statement. Click on the screenshot to read it:

Here’s part of her statement, which in effect pretends that she never denigrated The Listener letter and its signers. Now she calls for calm and reasoned debate:

The debate that initially started as about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science in the secondary school curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand has intensified and extended over recent weeks, with a number of overseas commentators adding their opinions.

Unfortunately, the debate has descended into personal attacks, entrenched positions and deliberate misrepresentations of other people’s views, including my own. This important and topical debate deserves better than that.

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.

In this commitment to action, I acknowledge the University of Auckland’s particular responsibilities in this debate as a custodian of academic freedom and free speech. Seven of our academics wrote the letter in good faith to The Listener in July 2021 that sparked the debate in the first place, and many of our academic experts have contributed to the discussion since then.

While the open-minded exchange of facts about “the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science” has potential to be a good debate, I am not optimistic. For one thing, the “indigenous way of knowing” can be slipperly, varying widely depending on who’s interpreting it. It would be lovely if they got Richard Dawkins to defend science along with some of the signers of the letter. And, as one of my Kiwi colleagues said, “I think this is good news, but productive discussion is unlikely unless [Freshwater] discourages the ongoing use of terms such as racism and cultural harm to describe those who challenge the notion of equivalence.”

Note that Freshwater criticizes the “personal attacks and misrepresentations” of views, including her own views.  She was probably blindsided and stung by the response to her “politically correct” statement, not realizing that, to rational and science-minded folks, comparing mythology to science is like kicking a wasp’s nest. I am guessing that she’s ascribing the attacks and misstatements to the “science” side alone; if she didn’t mean that, she should have said that there was bad behavior on both sides.  For example, here are two prominent academics who agree with Freshwater but who were not very polite.  Joanna Kidman is a well known sociologist of Māori descent who is a full professor at Victoria University at Wellington, NZ. Note that “OWG” stands for “Old White Guy”. As a commenter below notes, this is ageist, racist, sexist, and probably ableist.

Siouxie Wiles wasn’t very polite, either, characterizing her critics as “dinosaurs”.  Wells is a British microbiologist and science communicator who is now a professor at Auckland and was named the 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

Todd Somerville, the Director of Communications at the University of Auckland, sent me a letter of complaint about my original post, saying that I characterized Freshwater as “a woke and fearful woman”, which he said was an ad hominem remark. I removed that characterization to lessen the rancor as well as to placate the angry Somerville, who defended Freshwater’s statement at great length (I suppose that’s his job). But I wonder if Todd Somerville has also written to Siouxie Wiles and Joanna Kidman, criticizing them as harshly as he did me for their own ad hominem remarks, including denigrating Richard Dawkins as an “Old White Guy”. You can’t get much nastier than that! Somehow I doubt that Wiles and Kidman have been chastised.

Maori “ways of knowing” to be taught as science in NZ universities

December 8, 2021 • 9:45 am

The kerfuffle continues about whether mātauranga Māori, or “Maori ways of knowing”, constitutes an independent form of science that should be taught in school science class as coequal to what we know as “real science”.  As I’ve pointed out before, this coequality is simply ludicrous, for mātauranga Māori is a collection of religious beliefs, superstitions, false assertions (e.g. biological creationism), as well as a few practical truths (e.g., how to trap eels). In other words, it’s by no means equivalent to modern science, and the well-meaning but misguided notion of supporting Maori students (as well as confusing all students) by teaching them “their own science” is a recipe for disaster and scientific backwardness. Even New Zealand’s Royal Society is supporting this disaster:

Richard Dawkins has pointed out the same thing:

Now I think I can speak for Richard when I say that neither of us are trying to denigrate the Maori people themselves, who have a proud history (as well as a history of oppression) that is well integrated into modern “colonial” culture. What we are trying to do is simply defend science and ensure that students who are seeking to learn science are not at the same time swallowing a hefty dose of untruths, religion, and mythology. And so we fight on, knowing that the desire to placate the indigenous people is sufficiently strong among Kiwi academics and government officials that they’re willing to degrade science to support ethnicity. But what they’re doing is disadvantaging Maori youth by buttressing their “ways of knowing” as “science”. That will not help any of them who wish to pursue scientific careers.

Previously I had been unclear about whether mātauranga Māori would be taught as equivalent to modern science in high school alone, or also at university. The following advertisement for a teaching fellow came to my attention, and it clearly implies that yes, universities are going to pollute science with mythology, falsehoods, and superstition.

Click on the screenshot to read the whole thing. Note that this is at the University of Auckland—the premier university in the country.

It’s pretty clear from the list of goals below that Maori ways of knowing are going to be taught as biological science. Bolding below the title is mine:

Te Whiwhinga mahi | The opportunity

Te Kura Mātauranga Koiora School of Biological Sciences (SBS) is seeking to appoint a permanent, full-time Professional Teaching Fellow (PTF) to support the School’s teaching practice and enhance curriculum development in terms of Māoritanga.

The Kaiwhakaako Mātauranga Koiora will work in partnership with other SBS academic staff to support teaching and learning practices that facilitate appropriate integration of indigenous knowledge, te reo, tikanga, mātauranga Māori, and kaupapa Māori into the curriculum.  To achieve this, the successful candidate will work collaboratively with academic staff to understand the opportunities and challenges for incorporating Te Ao Māori into the biological curriculum and will identify potential pathways for curriculum redevelopment and redesign that will support both Māori and non- Māori staff and students, and the wider community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This is also clear from the qualifications for the job (again my emphasis):

Our successful candidate will bring:

    • Strong experience in teaching relevant to the tertiary sector, preferably in Biological Sciences
    • A post-graduate qualification in biology or related field, although we will also consider applicants with a biology undergraduate qualification and a relevant postgraduate qualification such as in education.
    • Well-developed understanding of principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi and their application in the work environment
    • Understanding of tikanga Māori and confidence navigating Te Ao Māori
    • Proficiency in te reo Māori is preferred
    • Experience of curriculum design and/or pedagogies to integrate mātauranga, tikanga and te reo Māori into courses for diverse cohorts of students.

It’s pretty clear, as other academics in New Zealand have told me, that the incorporation of mātauranga Māori into the biology curriculum is a foregone conclusion. That’s because it’s seen as a form of “inclusion”—misguided though it may be—and a form of inclusion that trumps teaching students real biology and other science.

I would urge New Zealanders and academics to stand up against this development, for its ultimate result will be the world viewing New Zealand’s science as a joke. By all means ensure that Maori have equal rights, and even affirmative action as reparations for their mistreatment, but for Ceiling Cat’s sake do not let their religion and mythology be taught as truth. It’s as if every biology class in American high schools and colleges were forced to teach Biblical creationism alongside evolutionary biology.

More indigenous anger from New Zealand about real science

December 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Here’s another kerfuffle that two academics from New Zealand called to my attention. I am letting one of them comment on a recent exchange about a paper involving Maori burning of land, which apparently produced carbon deposits in Antarctica.

The paper below was published in Nature last month, and suggests an explanation for high rates of carbon deposition found in Antarctic ice cores starting about 700 years ago: levels three times higher than in previous centuries.  As the abstract below shows, the most likely explanation was soot being blown towards Antarctica from either Tasmania, New Zealand, or Patagonia.  But the record of fire use (“paleofire” studies), the directionality of carbon distribution, plus the timing (Maori settled New Zealand around 1300), suggests suggests that New Zealand was the source, probably from Maori burning of forests or fields that caused ancillary wildfires.  Here’s a paragraph from the paper (“BB” is “biomass burning”).

Palaeofire records from Patagonia and Tasmania, as well as modelling, indicate that BB prior to European colonization was driven primarily by large-scale climate variations, and that BB in both regions was low for much of the past 700 years when the climate in Patagonia and Tasmania was relatively we (Fig. 1). Indigenous hunter-gatherer populations had been living in Tasmania and Patagonia for millennia before European arrival and probably used small-scale fires for land management However, there is little historical or proxy evidence of large changes in anthropogenic BB before European settlement in the 19th century.

New Zealand was among the last habitable places on Earth to be colonized by humans and charcoal-based fire records indicate a very different BB history than Tasmania and Patagonia. Wildfire was absent or insignificant before about 1300 but widespread during the past 700 years (Fig. 1), with pronounced increases in fire occurrence attributed to arrival and colonization of New Zealand by the Māori and their use of fire for land clearing and management.

 

For several reasons, this paper angered those who accept Maori “other ways of knowing”, both for its assumed conclusions (“Maori caused pollution”) but also because no Maori were involved in the investigation; the implication being that their different points of view might have changed the paper’s conclusions.  I’m no expert on this, but the degree of anger this paper inspired was conveyed to me by a retired academic from New Zealand, who sent me these links. His/her commentary is indented:

I thought you might be interested in the piece at the link you’ll find below. It appeared a couple of months ago on the website, Scoop, whose purpose is largely the dissemination of press releases. However, they also publish commentaries by prominent journalists and, from time to time, ask experts to comment on significant events and on scientific findings which might be of wider interest than just the particular field in which the research was conducted. The piece below falls into the latter category.

Click on screenshot to read.
More from my correspondent:
 
It was occasioned by the publication in Nature of an article that suggested elevated levels of black carbon in Antarctic ice cores might be attributable to wildfires set during the early period of Maori settlement in New Zealand/Aotearoa. [See the paper and its link above.] In this case, three local “experts” were asked to respond to the findings and it’s those responses that I thought you might find of interest.
The first response teeters on the brink of invoking Maori ways of knowing but doesn’t quite tumble into the abyss. But it does suggest that the researchers should have asked Maori before publishing their article or, better still, involved Maori in the research itself.
Here’s part of the first response, whose excerpts are in italics:

Dr Priscilla Wehi, Director, Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence in Complex Systems, comments:

“It is scientifically spectacular to see an analysis of Antarctic ice cores show fire patterns in Aotearoa over the last millennia so clearly. The topic is fascinating, but does it miss what we already know in our research community? The work led me to reflect on diversity and inclusion in science. A swathe of research tells us that diverse teams create excellent science, and there is gender variation in the author list. Other research has visualised citation and collaboration patterns in science and concluded that research from Australasia and the’ global south’ is often missing from the work of our European and North American colleagues. Although some well-known New Zealand research is cited here, it remains that other excellent research does not seem to have global purchase.

“The authors, based across northern America, Europe and Australia, also apparently lack New Zealand collaboration despite the central topic of Māori burning and fire use. ‘Helicopter science’, where research is led and conducted by those who live and work far from the subject of their work, is currently under scrutiny in the research community. An important critique is that this approach is likely to miss important insights. The ethics of such ‘helicopter science’ have been debated widely over the last year or so, as concerns over the exclusion of different groups from research, including Indigenous peoples, have escalated. Indeed, this issue has been noted by the very journal in which this study is published.

“Issues that have already been researched locally – from dust transport to Antarctica through to population estimates of Māori settlement – are often identified by local collaborators who, one hopes, have additionally been building the next generation of researchers in the nation where the focus of the research is situated. All of this leads me to return to this paper, which I found fascinating, and ask – how much better could this have been, were it more inclusive in its approach?”

My answer is, “We don’t know, but I doubt it would have been better unless they found a Maori scientist who had knowledge equal or superior to that of the scientists who actually participated.

My correspondent in NZ continues:

The second seems a much more reasoned assessment of the sort one might expect from a practising scientist.

Here’s an excerpt from review #2,  which is indeed from a practicing scientist  She points out the possibility that in the 16th and 17th century there could have been soot contributions from Australia and Patagonia, but leaves untouched the Nature-paper evidence that the carbon emissions 700 years ago came from Maori land-burning:

Dr Holly Winton, Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

. . . “Surprisingly, a new study by McConnell et al. (2021) in Nature suggests that New Zealand has been the dominant source of black carbon to a large sector of Antarctica since the 13th century. An array of black carbon records from ice cores clustered in western East Antarctica and the Antarctica Peninsula were examined over the last 2000 years. Black carbon concentrations in the Antarctic Peninsula record dramatically increased in the 13th century well above previous levels with the highest concentrations in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The authors associate this with the arrival, and land management practices, of Māori in New Zealand. The Antarctic-New Zealand connection was made by comparing the ice core record to a charcoal record from a lake sediment core in New Zealand which is indicative of local biomass burning. While the magnitude of black carbon change is evident in both records from the 13th century until today, the trend is not. Ice core black carbon peaks in the 16th and 17th century. At the same time, the New Zealand charcoal record declines. This disparity leaves me wondering about additional black carbon sources from Australia and Patagonia during this time, changes in the hydrological cycle or changes in the transport processes that drive the variability in the ice core black carbon record. Australian and Patagonian black carbon was ruled out as charcoal records from these source regions increased well before the 13th century.

My correspondent continues:

However, it is the third response that I thought would most interest you, though “horrify” might be a more apt way of expressing it. For far from teetering on the brink of the abyss this so-called expert (and it’s worth noting that her background is in adult education and not in any recognised scientific discipline) plunges right in, exposing the reader to Matauranga Maori “Science” in all its “glorious” mythology. I think you’ll agree that it strongly reinforces the points you and others have been making over the past few days.

Finally, as worrying as the third response might be for what it shows “other ways of knowing” actually involve, it also highlights a growing problem for scientific research in New Zealand, one which might not be immediately apparent to anyone unfamiliar with our state bureaucracy. In the third paragraph, you’ll see the following:

Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Matauranga Maori within the MBIE Vision Matauranga policy demands Maori involvement, Maori participation and Maori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Maori will tell their own stories and control their own knowledge.

Now, MBIE is New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment so, in her naivety (or more probably ignorance) the third respondent clearly thinks that science is whatever a New Zealand government department defines it to be. Moreover, it would appear that she also thinks that scientists, wherever they might be in the world, are remiss for not recognizing this and amending their practice accordingly.

Of course one could simply smile at the naivety/ignorance of that particular individual (though my inclination would be for a rather less benign response) but to do only that would be to ignore a rather disturbing fact, for one of MBIE’s prime functions is to promote and fund scientific research in New Zealand. So, if the official MBIE view is that Matauranga Maori is of equal status to what you and I and most rational people would consider Science to be, what does that portend for the future of scientific research in New Zealand?

And here is the whole third response:

Associate Professor Sandy Morrison, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato; co-lead for Vision Mātauranga, Antarctic Science Platform; lead for Vision Mātauranga, Deep South National Science Challenge, comments:

“The association of Māori with fire is longstanding. Mahuika goddess of fire gifted her fingernails of flames to enable us to have fire for warmth; fire for sustenance; fire to provide nutrients for the earth. We attribute and honour Mahuika. She is part of our whakapapa. Her mokopuna Māui attempted to reduce her power by tricking her into giving up all of her fingernails but she was able to outwit him, planting her flame into the trees so that fire would be freely available. Fire also defined our boundaries of authority as expressed in this whakataukī ‘ka wera hoki i te ahi, e mana ana anō’ meaning ‘while the fire burns, the mana is effective.’ We claimed occupation of our territories by the principle of ahi kaa, that is, we kept our home fires burning.

“Through our Ātua, gods and goddesses, we developed deeply embedded practises and rituals and our relationship with fire was interdependent, reciprocal, beneficial and also very practical. Upon arrival to these lands, we relied on the aruhe or fernroot as part of our staple diet. We relied on the moa and other birdlife for food. Burning became part of our practises; regular burning allowed plants to regenerate and some of the minerals in the ash provided rich nutrients for the land. Regular burning facilitated hunting and access to hunting grounds. Such practises would be typical for any newcomers creating homes on unfamiliar lands to allow time to become acquainted with seasonal cycles, climatic conditions, finding the best places to lay out their plantations and hence their new settlements or kainga. No doubt some burning would not have been controlled as well as they may have planned, but this can be understood. It is not unlike any other peoples adjusting to new lands and new conditions.

“The internationally authored paper by scientists who examined Antarctic ice core records to find that carbon emissions increased significantly from wildfires after Māori first arrived in Aotearoa is devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings and is yet another example of what we have grown to expect from western science. It relies on measurements, modelling and silo thinking and the paper whether intentional or not, posits Māori as the ‘naughty’ offenders. Moreover, it reeks of scientific arrogance with its implicit assumption that somehow Māori have a lot to account for in terms of contributing to carbon emissions and destroying the pristine environment of the Southern Oceans and Antarctica. Goodness knows why Māori are primarily emphasised, and for what purpose this article was written. Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Mātauranga Māori within the MBIE Vision Mātauranga policy demands Māori involvement, Māori participation and Māori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Māori will tell our own stories and control our own knowledge. Mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system rooted in our environmental encounters which was outward looking and relationship based. We are connected in kinship even to fire through Mahuika as the spiritual goddess of fire. Similarly we have relationships with the Southern Oceans and the Antarctica through our stories of voyaging and navigation and food gathering. Our relationships with marine life, bird life and the oceans are well recorded through our intergenerational continuum and held in our tribal lore. These are places to which we also have longstanding relationships where we will not intentionally embark on destructive practises. The principle of kaitikaitanga or guardianship is a mantel of responsibility for us and one we willingly share to improve the wellbeing of our oceans and planet. Please do not distort your scientific evidence nor hide behind the intricacies of scientific modelling to position Māori as the problem. I am sure that you can do better than that.”

Dr. Morrison’s points appear to be these.

a.) She evinces a tacit acceptance of New Zealand “ways of knowing”, though it’s not clear what she believes.

b.) Yes, Maori burned land, but they had to because it was their deeply embedded in their mythology-derived practices. And yes, some fires got out of control.  But that was not the point of the Nature paper, which is not pointing a finger of blame at the Maori. It’s just an investigation of where carbon spikes in Antarctic ice cores came from.

c.) The third paragraph  appears devoid of understanding of the Nature paper itself.  Note that the arrogance said to exist in the paper (i.e., “the Maori polluted Antarctica!”) is nowhere to be found in that paper. The purpose of the paper is obvious, though Morrison doesn’t see it: to account for an anomalous carbon spike. Does she not know that scientists get curious? The whole point of the last paragraph is to impugn modern science compared to Maori “ways of knowing.” Note too the denigration of the paper’s modelling, which was intended to see if New Zealand, given distance and wind, could account for the carbon spikes. The answer was “yes.”

My correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (several signers of “The Listener” letter have been threatened), notes that there’s a very real possibility that Mātauranga Māori will at least nudge “real” science aside, and thus impede the growth of knowledge.

I shouldn’t have to point out that scientists who defend their discipline and the knowledge it produces should under no circumstances be put in danger of their jobs, careers, or reputations simply for defending the toolkit of science as the best way to understand nature.

New Zealand is a wonderful place, and I love it, but many of its residents have got to stop pretending that there are multiple ways of knowing that can be taken as science! There is no special “Maori science”; there’s just “science.”

The “teach Maori other ways of knowing in science class” fracas continues; Richard Dawkins weighs in

December 4, 2021 • 12:00 pm

As I wrote yesterday, a big woke fracas is brewing in New Zealand, with the universities and government on the side of the woke, and the science professors (by and large) on the side of the angels. Since my piece appeared, I’ve gotten half a dozen emails from academics in New Zealand, objecting to the University of Auckland’s new policy to teach Maori “ways of knowing”, which include creationism, alongside modern “real” science—and in science class!  This all started last summer, and is still going on.

This notion of “different but equal ways of knowing” is palpably ridiculous, and while I don’t want to denigrate the Maori people or the efforts that both Maori and New Zealanders are making to achieve harmony, I cannot abide the insistence that Maori “wisdom,” which is a combination of mythology, religion, and questionable assertions about the Universe, to be taught as scientific truth. As the saying goes, “You are entitled to your opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Clearly, this drive to incorporate indigenous beliefs into the science curriculum is part of an effort of the government and universities to placate and make reparations to the Maori, who were badly treated by European colonists. I applaud the drive for comity, but I deplore those who want to replace modern science with a melange of myths and faith. Yes, “indigenous knowledge” can be valuable, but its claims must always be tested using modern science.

The misguided effort to teach Maori indigenous knowledge as coequal with science will not only confuse the Maori (and everyone else!), but disadvantage those who embrace indigenous ways of knowing. Suppose, for example, that a Maori teenager wants to be a physicist. Well, there are no positions for “physicists doing Maori string theory”; there are only positions for physicists. There is no Maori physics or American physics or Indian physics, there is just “modern physics”.

I also wrote yesterday that seven academics from the University of Auckland wrote a short piece in The Listener (read it here), objecting to the insertion of Maori Matauranga (ways of knowing) into science curricula. Instead of their fellow academics defending them, the “Satanic Seven,” as I call them, have been demonized. Their jobs have been threatened, the Vice Chancellor of Auckland University has said the seven don’t adhere to the University’s “values,” and two of them are being threatened with expulsion from New Zealand’s Royal Society.

Here’s the message that Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater sent to the University of Auckland community, noting the equivalence of Maori and scientific “ways of knowing” and—playing the ultimate trump card—claiming that denying that Maori “ways of knowing” constitute science has “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.” I hate to be brutal here, but that hurt and dismay counts for nothing in this debate. The issue is about what is true, what is not true, and how to find the truth. (Click to enlarge).

This antiscience drive, in the service of good intentions but deeply misguided, must be stopped. If you want to see what Kiwi scientists are up against, read this piece (click on the screenshot):

Here’s just a bit:

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

. . . . We argue that the introduction of carefully selected Māori concepts in NCEA Science is a positive move. It challenges deeply-held teacher assumptions about science and Māori knowledge, and encourages science teachers to consider the philosophy of science in more depth. On its own, such a change cannot overcome the entire history of lack of Māori participation and achievement in science education, but it is an innovative and interesting way to bring Māori concepts into school science. Arguably it does so in a more meaningful way than ‘translating’ science into Māori, which means the invention of a pressure-cooked lexicon (Stewart, 2011).

There’s a lot more, and I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that a lot of involves forcing Maori concepts into the Procrustean bed of modern science through selective interpretation. (One also sees this in the ways some Muslims claim that the Qur’an anticipates all of modern science.) It is a mess.  Maori anthropology and sociology should of course be taught to all Kiwis, for the colonial and Maori cultures are trying to effect rapprochement, and Maori culture is very deeply embedded in “colonial” culture. But there should be no compromise when it comes to teaching science.

One way to stop this insidious debasement of science is for the international community to call out New Zealand for what it’s doing. That is the route Richard Dawkins has taken, and more power to him. First he issued this tweet after he read my piece from yesterday:

And yes, write to Roger Ridley at the NZ Royal Society (he’s the chief executive) objecting to its contemplation of ejecting two scientists who signed this reasonable letter. Richard gives the email above, and I put up the letter I wrote to Ridley yesterday (bottom of post). I urge you to drop just a short email in defense of science, for I think it will have an effect.

Richard has also written to Ridley directly, and has given me permission to reproduce his email. Here it is:

Dear Dr Ridley:

I have read Professor Jerry Coyne’s long, detailed and fair-minded critique of the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.

https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/12/03/ways-of-knowing-new-zealand-pushes-to-have-indigenous-knowledge-mythology-taught-on-parity-with-modern-science-in-science-class/

The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Maori myths. Why choose Maori myths? For no better reason than that Maoris arrived in New Zealand a few centuries before Europeans. That would be a good reason to teach Maori mythology in anthropology classes. Arguably there’s even better reason for Australian schools to teach the myths of their indigenous peoples, who arrived tens of thousands of years before Europeans. Or for British schools to teach Celtic myths. Or Anglo-Saxon myths. But no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.

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. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.

If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country who will? What else is the Society for? What else is the rationale for its existence?

Yours very sincerely
Richard Dawkins FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford

 

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

December 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wokism is well under way here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

I would urge readers who feel strongly about this to write to the email above, which I’ll repeat: paul.atkins@royalsociety.org.nz

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

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

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

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

The University has deep respect for has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni. as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system. We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Freshwater’s claim that “We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other” is confusing. They are of course directly at odds if you look at the empirical data, which include creationism and other palpably untrue claims. They are competing as the proposal is to teach both in science class, on the high school and perhaps on the University level.

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

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

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

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

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

We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

That sure looks like an official position!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s more:

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

Dear Dr. Ridley,

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins on “ways of knowing”

July 5, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: If you want to see what I mean when I say that science is the only way of knowing about our universe, either read the relevant section of Faith Versus Fact or my exchange of letters with Adam Gopnik at the “Letters” section of The Conversation.

_________________________

 

In this eight-minute video, Counterweight founder Helen Pluckrose asks Richard Dawkins if there are ways of knowing other than science. Do different groups have different methods for apprehending truth? The answer, of course, is a dismissive “no” (he’s right), and Richard then answers Helen’s question about how we deal with such an antiscientific mindset.

 

h/t: Paul

Sunday: Hili dialogue

June 6, 2021 • 6:30 am

It’s Sunday, June 6, 2021: National GingerBread Day (I love the cake, but why does it have two capital letters?). It’s also National Applesauce Cake Day, National Frozen Yogurt Day, National Hunger Awareness Day, National Cancer Survivors Day, National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Day, Drive-In Movie Day (do any of these places still exist? They would have been popular during the pandemic), and Atheist Pride Day

And, of course, it’s  D-Day Invasion Anniversary (see below).  In honor of the soldier who died during what I think is a just war, here’s the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”, showing the slaughter visited on American soldiers storming Omaha Beach. (From what I hear, this is pretty realistic.).  WARNING: Gore and death. 

News of the day:

The bad news first: a federal judge in California has overturned the states’s 30-year-old ban on assault weapons. From the WaPo’s article:

In a 94-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of the Southern District of California said that sections of the state ban in place since 1989 regarding military-style rifles violate the Second Amendment. Benitez characterized the assault weapons Californians are barred from using as not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns” but rather “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.”

The judge then compared an AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife.

“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez said in the ruling.

In California, “assault rifles” are defined by their “code”. The AR-15, mentioned by the judge, is a semi-automatic weapon that has often been used in mass shootings. It baffles me that this gun would be seen as good for inself-defense (unless you’re attacked by an army), much less as something that the founders would regard as useful for “a well regulated militia”.

Swiss Army knife? What does that mean? The loons are out in force, including those who think that the Supreme Court or some other venue could actually enable Trump to re-assume the Presidency this August! Those who believe this nonsense apparently include Trump himself. Listen to Jim Acosta’s measured but scathing assessment at CNN (click on screenshot to go to the 6-minute video). One quote from Acosta: “You are not well, sir. You need to get over this.” I like his paraphrase of “Wasted away again in Margaritaville.”

My high school in Arlington, Virginia, Washington-Lee High (spawner of alumni like Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty) recently decided to change its name because Robert E. Lee was head of the Confederate Army. I didn’t weigh in, for I thought the name change was inevitable, but the loss of my alma mater “W and L,” as we called it, is a bit discomfiting. Now, however, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia has decided not to change its name despite a lot of urging to do so. That surprises me, but the school is making changes to “separate itself from the Confederacy.”

The world’s oldest and longest-working disk jockey (DJ), Ray Cordeiro, has just retired at 96 after a 70-year career spinning records in Hong Kong (he’s of Portuguese descent). Among his honors are an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. Remember, 70 years ago was 1951, a few years before rock and roll got started, but during the years of Peggy Lee, Perry Como, and Dean Martin.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 596,967, an increase of 418 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 3,736,900, an increase of about 8,500 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened June 6 includes:

After a gun accident, St. Martin healed, but there was a connection between a hole in the skin and the stomach, leading Beaumont to study the digestion. Here’s a diagram of St. Martin’s fistula. The round thing is his nipple:

  • 1844 – The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) is founded in London.
  • 1889 – The Great Seattle Fire destroys all of downtown Seattle.

Here’s a Wikipedia photo of the fire labeled, “Looking south on 1st Ave. from Spring St. about one-half hour after the fire started.” It burned 25 city blocks, destroying all of downtown Seattle as well as the railroad station and much of the wharf district. 

Here’s the first drive-in in the year it opened. Pity they didn’t last, as they would have been useful during the pandemic:

  • 1942 – The United States Navy’s victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway is a major turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War II. All four Japanese fleet carriers taking part—AkagiKagaSōryū and Hiryū—are sunk, as is the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The American carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann are also sunk.
  • 1944 – Commencement of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, with the execution of Operation Neptune—commonly referred to as D-Day—the largest seaborne invasion in history. Nearly 160,000 Allied troops cross the English Channel with about 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participating. By the end of the day, the Allies have landed on four invasion beaches and are pushing inland.

A Wikipedia photo of the aftermath of the landing, with Allied troops having a foothold on the continent:

From Wikipedia; English: Landing ships putting cargo ashore on Omaha Beach, at low tide during the first days of the operation, mid-1944-06
  • 1985 – The grave of “Wolfgang Gerhard” is opened in Embu, Brazil; the exhumed remains are later proven to be those of Josef MengeleAuschwitz‘s “Angel of Death”; Mengele is thought to have drowned while swimming in February 1979.

The fact that Mengele escaped and died in Brazil (drowned while swimming) is proof that either there is no god, or the existing god is unjust.

Notables born on this day include:

Here is a Velásquez with a cat!: “The Spinners”, c. 1657.

  • 1875 – Thomas Mann, German author and critic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1955)
  • 1902 – Jimmie Lunceford, American saxophonist and bandleader (d. 1947)
  • 1918 – Edwin G. Krebs, American biochemist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2009)
  • 1936 – Levi Stubbs, American soul singer; lead vocalist of the Four Tops (d. 2008)

Stubbs was of course the lead singer of The Four Tops, and here he is in Paris in 1967 singing my favorite of the group’s songs, “Ask the Lonely.” This is surely one of the best live soul performances of all time.

  • 1956 – Björn Borg, Swedish tennis player; winner of eleven Grand Slam singles titles including five consecutive Wimbledons

Those who “passed” (I hate that euphemism) on June 6 include:

  • 1799 – Patrick Henry, American lawyer and politician, 1st Governor of Virginia (b. 1736)
  • 1941 – Louis Chevrolet, Swiss-American race car driver and businessman, founded Chevrolet and Frontenac Motor Corporation (b. 1878)
  • 1961 – Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist (b. 1875)

Here he is, presented against my will:

  • 1968 – Robert F. Kennedy, American soldier, lawyer, and politician, 64th United States Attorney General (b. 1925)
  • 1991 – Stan Getz, American saxophonist and jazz innovator (b. 1927)

Here’s a great 33 minutes of Getz, one of my favorite saxophonists:

  • 2005 – Anne Bancroft, American film actress; winner of the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actress for The Miracle Worker (b. 1931)
  • 2006 – Billy Preston, American singer-songwriter, pianist, and actor (b. 1946)
  • 2013 – Esther Williams, American swimmer and actress (b. 1921)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is taking it slowly:

A: What are you doing?
Hili: I’m deliberating over my next step.
In Polish:
Ja: Co robisz?
Hili: Rozważam następny krok.

A photo of little Kulka by Paulina:

A “meme” (not so mimetic) from Bruce:

From Jesus of the Day, an accidentally salacious Pooh:

From Nicole. I don’t even need to be sleepy to act like this; extreme logorrhea in someone talking to me will do it:

Two tweets from Ginger K., the first on hijabis:

And the second on kitty behavior. I’d like to see David Attenborough narrating this one:

Tweets from Matthew. Look at this cool stegosaur graph (Matthew’s favorite extinct animal):

Oh dear; Richard has put his foot in it again:

Cathode the Adventure Cat! Be sure to watch this entire heartwarming video.

This is one of the most reprehensible people I’ve ever heard of.  The thread contains more horrors.

Q: What are you studying? A: How much and how often do sheep pee?

The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think   epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.

(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pR74rorRxsThis  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/helen-frankenthaler-and-the-messy-art-of-life deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

The conversation with Adam Gopnik continues

April 23, 2021 • 9:15 am

Over at The Conversation site, I’ve posted a response (“Letter 7”) to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in our continuing debate about the question posted by the title below (click on screenshot). This is my last response, as I started the sequence and each of us gets four “letters”.

In his last letter (“Letter 6”), Adam emphasized that I hadn’t answered several of his challenges, including his demand that I weigh in about two sub-fields of evolutionary biology: epigenetics as a means of adaptation, and evolutionary psychology. As Adam said, “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think  epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”

I didn’t have the space to respond to both of these, as they’re tangential to our exchange, but I did defend the field (though of course not all the work) of evolutionary psychology. As for epigenetics, I don’t think it’s been shown to be an important cause of adaptive evolution in organisms, although there are cases where environmentally-induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can persist for several generations.

Adam’s last letter also began his defense of the claim that abstract art and music can convey “knowledge”. I took issue with that, as I think it’s palpably false. But you can see my arguments in Letter #7.  I also issued my own challenge to Adam:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Needless to say, I am not denigrating the value of literature, music, and art, as those who follow this site know that I’m a big booster of the arts. I am simply arguing that neither the purpose nor the effect of art like this is to convey “knowledge”.

I look forward to Adam’s final letter. After that, our discussion will have reached its end.