A sensible way to reconcile Mātauranga Māori and science

October 24, 2022 • 9:45 am

I won’t explain in detail the “way of knowing” of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, the “traditional knowledge” of Mātauranga Māori (henceforth MM), as it’s defined in Wikipedia.  You can read all my posts about MM and its issues here (including one post yesterday).

Suffice it to say two things. MM is a mixture of real traditional knowledge (gained via trial and error) and legend, oral tradition, theology, superstition, and morality. Second, this mixture of empirical knowledge with legend, woo, and superstition is at war in New Zealand with advocates of modern science. Those who espouse MM often argue that this “way of knowing” is not only science, but should be taught as coequal to modern science in science class.

I oppose that claim, but the MM side appears to be winning. This is due largely to the willingness of the New Zealand government and universities to bow to the will of the indigenous people, who are seen as “oppressed” and therefore to be valorized, as well as to the spineless administration of The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ), which recently saw MM as coequal with science but also characterized “Western” science as “narrow and outmoded“.

Now, however, I’ve found a long and sensible article by three Māori academics that argues that the truth claims of MM must, to have any credibility in the world, be vetted by traditional methods of science. The article is at the site Te Rūnaga o Ngāi Tahu, a journal sponsored by the main Māori tribe (“iwi”) of the South Island. The authors are respected Māori scholars, and they pull no punches criticizing lax Māori scholarship as well as the RSNZ. Click to read:

First, a bit of background. In a paper published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand seven Māori scholars headed by Priscilla Wehi defended the view that the ancestors of their people, the Polynesians who colonized new Zealand, discovered the continent of Antarctica in the 8th century AD. That’s a thousand years before the first established claim of the sighting of the continent—by Russians in 1820.  Three of the authors of the article above contributed to a rebuttal of the Wehi et al paper (Atholl et al. 2021), arguing that the legend was wrong and was due to credulous belief in traditional knowledge coupled with mistranslation of legends written down in the nineteenth century.  I discussed these two papers here and here.

Despite the palpable impossibility of the Wehi et al. claim, their paper was nevertheless published by the RSNZ and got a lot of publicity around the world, publicity that I documented in one of my posts. The rebuttal by Atholl et al. hardly got any notice (see below).

This conflict between fact and legend exemplifies the problems with seeing MM as “science”.  In the article above (click to read), Stevens et al. argue that MM cannot be seen as including science unless empirical claims are vetted using modern science. Under that view, the truth claims of MM can be part of science. To me, this is a refreshing point of view. Unfortunately, it seems to be the minority point of view among many NZ academics.

I’ll give some quotes from the Stevens et al. paper, who call out the original Wehi et al. paper as well as the Royal Society itself. They start by recounting the history of the “Antarctica” papers:

Written by a senior academic at the University of Otago, Priscilla Wehi, and six co-authors, this article advanced several spurious claims. Chief amongst them was that Polynesian explorers, beginning with a navigator named Hui te Rangiora, journeyed from Rarotonga into Antarctic waters ‘and perhaps even the continent likely in the early seventh century.’ The authors’ evidence? Their own inferences drawn from 1890s English translations by Percy Smith of Rarotongan narratives recorded in the 1860s. As we noted, with characteristic restraint, the authors presented this “traditional” material without nuance, qualification or critique, and based extraordinary claims upon it without commensurable evidence. For example, how the extreme practical difficulties of sailing a Polynesian waka (canoe) to and through subpolar westerlies might have been overcome.

Our view is that these Rarotongan traditions need to be critically evaluated, which is how we approached them. Having done so, we found the authors’ assertions debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As Te Rangi Hīroa remarked nearly a century ago in 1926, ‘Sometimes we, or the Maori themselves, read into a tradition something that the original narrators of the tradition never attempted to convey.’

In summary, we think the Hui te Rangiora narrative is more mythic or legendary as an origin story, than historical as a voyaging narrative. Taking our methodological cue from Te Rangi Hīroa, we did not find any reference to Hui te Rangiora sailing to Antarctica. . .

You would think that settles the issue, but you’d be wrong.

The media ate up the Wehi et al. claim, and when Anderson et al. published a corrective (which the RSNZ was initially reluctant to publish), the corrective was ignored:

What was the nature and extent of the media coverage this article generated? It was, unfortunately, uncritical and celebratory. News outlets throughout New Zealand and around the world lauded the prowess of pre-modern Polynesian voyaging and the capacity of indigenous knowledge to survive colonial marginalisation and speak truth to patriarchal Western power on the dawn of the Anthropocene of its own making. A year later, the original article has been viewed nearly a whopping 19,000 times: a career-enhancing statistic by any measure.

How did the Royal Society respond to our request to publish a critical response to Wehi et al? To put it politely, utterly inconsistently with academic conventions, the principle of open debate, and the society’s stated aim of advancing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude was unexpected, especially by Atholl and Tipene, a Fellow and Companion respectively of the Royal Society.

It was only our dogged determination that led to the eventual publication of our reply in September 2021. This has been viewed little more than 450 times, bringing to mind the quip of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that ‘A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.’

Fortunately, a companion article we submitted to an academic journal managed by the Scott Polar Research Institute and published by Cambridge University Press fared much better.

References and links to all three papers, including the one in Polar Record, are at the bottom.

Stevens et al. argue that while the “knowledge” bits of MM were ignored earlier because of racism, now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, so that MM is seen as valid scientific truth even if its claims can’t be verified. They describe the new Royal Society’s uncritical acceptance of Māori truth claims as “patronising”:

. . . the Royal Society has begun to unpack its role in the British colonisation of New Zealand and subjugation of Māori. This is laudable and sits behind the institution’s relatively new bicultural name.

The society has also attempted to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people’ and ‘blend’ mātauranga Māori and Western science, which are suspiciously treated as bounded. No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection. Are there other options? What approach might Te Rangi Hīroa have preferred instead? Conceivably a model based on his passage Cross-Bearings on Tradition, which has much to like about it. Describing the Māori technique of using landmarks to generate cross-bearings and thereby record and re-locate fishing grounds,

In Polynesian research, we are trying to locate some of the things that happened in the past. Tradition gives us one line along which we may venture forth, but we are not sure how far we should go. We require another line from the traditions of another branch of the race or from another branch of science. By such metaphorical cross bearings, we hope to locate the fishing grounds of the past.

This shows that not only was Te Rangi Hīroa not opposed to confirmation of Polynesian tradition through reference to other kinds of knowledge, but he felt such external cross-referencing was often crucial to the authentication and validation of Polynesian tradition.

This repeated cross-checking of historical claims is science applied to history, something that’s been done by Western historians for a long time.  So, at the end, Stevens et al. urge “replication” of historical claims by independent sources before they can be seen as true. This would negate the risible claims of Wehi et al. about the Polynesians discovering Antarctica.

Sadly, Wehi, first author of the “discovery” paper (have a look at it) got a big pile of dosh for her work, and to fund further spurious “research” (see below).  But Stevens concludes that to protect the integrity of Māori traditions and culture, truth claims cannot be seen as genuinely true unless they are vetted by the methods of modern science.

Emphasis below is mine:

With that in mind, what repercussions befall Wehi et al? Well, in November 2021, the Marsden Fund – administered by the Royal Society – awarded her and the University of Otago $660,000 for a project entitled Kaitiakitanga and Antarctic narratives. This aims to bring ‘ancestral methodologies, from pūrakau (stories) through to traditional and contemporary visual and sensory transformations of Māori knowledge, to bear on the urgent need for future reimagining of human and planetary futures.’

What can we conclude from this? Above all else, that in 2022, as in 1991, the state continues to invest significant amounts of taxpayer money into Māori-themed scholarship of questionable quality. Now, as then, Ngāi Tahu cannot rely on the New Zealand Government, or its system of higher education, to help uphold our rights and interests. At great expense to us, we ourselves are still the only ones actively protecting the integrity of our traditions and culture. That is the raison d’être of Te Pae Kōrako and the Ngāi Tahu Archive which, as with Ngāi Tahu Whakapapa and Kōtahi Mano Kāika, we will always need. Without them, we cannot hope to be a self-determining people. ‘Our ultimate duty’ indeed.

Stevens, Anderson, and Tau are to be applauded, and should be encouraged by all Kiwis (including of course the Māori) who value truth. Maintaining superstitions, fictions, and legends as “truth” not only holds back science and science education in New Zealand, but also makes the Māori look credulous: and their “ways of knowing” more an unsupported religion than a melange of beliefs that contains some empirical truth.


Anderson, Atholl, Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens and Te Maire Tau. 2021 “A southern Māori perspective on stories of Polynesian polar voyaging.Polar Record 57: 1-3.

Anderson, Atholl, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Puamiria Parata-Goodall, Michael Stevens, and Te Maire Tau.  2021.  “On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand: 1-7. [This link might work better for some readers. GCM]

Wehi, Priscilla M., Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Tasman Gillies, Vincent Van Uitregt, and Krushil Watene. 2021. “A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand: 1-12.

Minnesota medical students take ideological oath including, among other things, to “honor all indigenous ways of healing”

October 14, 2022 • 9:30 am

In the last several decades, the “white coat ceremony” has become a tradition at medical schools, with the entering students receiving their doctor’s coats and then reciting the Hippocratic Oath. There are many variants of this ancient oath, and often students write their own version to supplement the traditional one.  As you can imagine, some of these go beyond the doctor’s pledge, adding pledges of social justice, ideological belief, and so on. I’ve seen several versions of these white coat oaths; the FIRE article below mentions them at HarvardColumbiaWashUPitt Med, and the Icahn School of Medicine. But perhaps the one most distressing to scientists and advocates of science-based medicine is this one, recited at the University of Minnesota’s white coat ceremony on August 19.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the speaker is Robert Englander, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education for the Medical School, who leads the students in what is both a pledge and a prayer. (Curiously, Englander’s university bio has disappeared from its website.)

Now this oath wasn’t written by the administration itself, but, according to FIRE and the agenda of the ceremony, by a committee of fifteen incoming medical students on the “Oath Writing Committee.”  These students may, of course, not represent the beliefs of their class as a whole; in fact, it’s likely that, as usual, it’s the activists who seek the loudest megaphone. Click on screenshot below to see the article, and I’ve put the video of the recitation below that.

Here’s the two-minute video of the oath:

Here’s the oath’s text reproduced from FIRE’s letter sent yesterday to the medical school deam (I’ve bolded the sentence that bothers me the most.)

With gratitude, we, the students of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Medical School Class of 2026, stand here today among our friends, families, peer, mentors, and communities who have supported us in reaching this milestone. Our institution is located on Dakota land. Today, many Indigenous people from throughout the state, including Dakota and Ojibwe (ooj-jib-way), call the Twin Cities home; we also recognize this acknowledgment is not enough.

We commit to uprooting the legacy and perpetuation of structural violence deeply embedded within the healthcare system. We recognize inequities built by past and present traumas rooted in white supremacy, colonialism, the gender binary, ableism, and all forms of oppression. As we enter this profession with opportunity for growth, we commit to promoting a culture of anti-racism, listening, and amplifying voices for positive change. We pledge to honor all Indigenous ways of healing that have been historically marginalized by Western medicine. Knowing that health is intimately connected to our environment, we commit to healing our planet and communities.

 We vow to embrace our role as community members and strive to embody cultural humility. We promise to continue restoring trust in the medical system and fulfilling our responsibilities as educators and advocates. We commit to collaborating with social, political, and additional systems to advance health equity. We will learn from the scientific innovations made before us and pledge to advance and share this knowledge with peers and neighbors. We recognize the importance of being in community with and advocating for those we serve.

There are the usual arguable claims, which should not be professed or vowed by the students or foisted on them by the dean and fifteen vocal students. The claims include these:

  1. The implication that the original owners of the school’s land was the Dakota people. (Note that the oath says that acknowledgement is “not enough,” but what else will they do for the Dakota people? Will they give the land back, or compensate the original owners? There is no vow to do either.)
  2. Inequities in medicine are not just rooted in past forms of oppression, but are ongoing, and reflect white supremacy as well as other forms of bigotry.
  3. There is “structural violence deeply embedded in the healthcare system”.  What, exactly, do they mean by “structural violence”?
  4. There is a “gender binary” that causes further traumas. I think they’re referring to the “sex binary”, which is real. Few people assert that there is a “gender” binary when “gender” is construed as a person’s sociosexual role.
  5. The students will “honor all Indigenous ways of healing that have been historically marginalized by Western medicine.”  ALL OF THEM?  There are a million of them if you count all forms of indigenous healing overtaken by Western medicine. Yes, a few of these treatments may be efficacious, but almost none have been subject to scientific testing using the gold standard of double-blind treatment.  “Honoring” a form of pre-scientific healing simply because it’s was practiced by indigenous people is ludicrous. Certainly you shouldn’t disparage the people themselves who use such healing, as the treatments were developed outside of science, but you shouldn’t honor all the ways of healing themselves. Most of them don’t accomplish anything; what kind of “honor” does that deserve?
  6. The rest of the oath is boilerplate social-justice jargon, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is an ideological/political pledge, not a medical-school pledge. As FIRE notes in its article, this is a form of compelled speech that many of the students might not agree with, but are nevertheless force to give fealty to.

Now many of you can say—and this is likely true—that the social-justice aspects of this pledge are meaningless, and the students don’t have to live up to them.  Nor do the students have to consider shamanism, chanting, herbs, and so on as worthy of “honor.”  (These, by the way, were not historically “marginalized” by Western medicine, but were replaced by scientifically-based treatments because those treatments work.)

If, as the students also pledged, they will “restore trust in the medical system,” they can begin by refusing to honor traditional treatments that don’t work. It is no dishonor to indigenous people to reject methods they developed in the absence of science. I suspect it is the “progressiveness” of this oath that has led to widespread ridicule against it and perhaps to the disappearance of Robert Englander’s bio.

Now on to FIRE, which has legal objections to this oath. Their main objection is that this is not only compelled speech—making students swear to something that they disagree with and is not a requirement of the profession—but also that, in the future, students could be punished for failing to adhere to what they’ve sworn. This is not a fanciful scenario:

From the FIRE article:

FIRE respects students’ rights to express their views. But because only a small committee of all new students penned the statement, some of the other several-hundred students may have been compelled to express that handful of classmates’ opinions as their own. (It’s unclear whether any students dissented and, if so, whether they could opt out.)

We’re also concerned that these subjectively squishy commitments could become de facto professionalism requirements, and that students could be punished for failing to uphold them. For example, what must a medical student do to adequately practice “anti-racism”? And whatever that may be, if she does not (as UMMS understands that term), could she be dismissed for violating her oath? What if she refuses to take the oath in the first place?

FIRE has certainly seen administrators of professional programs in medicinedentistrylaw — even mortuary science — who deployed ambiguous “professionalism” standards to punish students for otherwise protected speech.

. . .More than 10% of the campus-related cases in which FIRE intervenes now concern requirements that students and faculty demonstrate their DEI commitments or contributions, or personally make land acknowledgements.

Again, while universities, students, and faculty are free to encourage or promote DEI-type values, forcing others to say they believe in these concepts is not only contrary to many universities’ legal obligations — but violates their moral obligations, too.

Consider: Even students or faculty who broadly agree with a university’s stance on DEI may believe, for example, that land acknowledgements are merely performative. Or a faculty member who studies race and gender may have highly nuanced views on DEI not reflected by the university’s stance. Students, likewise, may disagree with other aspects of a given DEI pledge.

Medical students possibly being made to read verbatim from ideological pledges if they wish to become physicians would be a new low.

I’d add that surely a lot of the students forced to say that they’ll honor all indigenous methods of healing “historically marginalized by Western medicine” certainly don’t believe that, but are nevertheless forces to vow it.  How many of those reciting students accept the curative powers of, say, shamanic rituals?

Here is the summary of the objections in the letter written by Zachary Greenberg, FIRE’s Senior Program Officer for Campus Rights Advocacy, went to Jakub Tolar, the Dean of the Medical School, as well as to the school’s President and General Counsel:

While UMMS may encourage students to adopt these views, the First Amendment bars the university from requiring them to do so. The First Amendment protects not only the right to speak, but the right to refrain from speaking. Requiring new students to “vow” or “commit” to contested political viewpoints violates students’ clear expressive rights, is inconsistent with the role of the university as a bastion of free inquiry, and cannot be enforced at a public institution.

UMMS can require students to adhere to established medical standards, but this authority cannot be abused to demand allegiance to prescribed ideological views—even ones that some students do indeed hold. Specifically, UMMS may not compel students to recite a land acknowledgment, commit to “uprooting the legacy and perpetuation of structural violence deeply embedded within the healthcare system,” or “promote[e] a culture of anti-racism.” Nor may it force students to express a commitment to “embody cultural humility,” or “advance health equity.” Even if written by a group of students, UMMS may not subsequently require all students adhere to these views.

Because students may reasonably perceive recitation of this oath as mandatory, FIRE calls on UMMS to make clear that students may refuse to say it without penalty, and that students will not have to affirm any political viewpoints as a condition of their continued education at the school.

We request receipt of a response to this letter no later than the close of business on October 20, 2022.

My prediction? UMMS will not reply. Will there then be a lawsuit? I don’t think so—unless they find medical students injured by professing what they don’t believe, and what medical student would be plaintiff to such a suit?  But I do think that in future years the school will refrain from such over-the-top vows.

An exposition of Māori “ways of knowing” in marine biology and conservation: a taxpayer-funded project riddled with theology, spirituality, and lore

September 23, 2022 • 12:00 pm

This set of eleven postcards (or “flashcards,” as I call them), come from the “Sustainable Seas Initiative“, a government-supported program designed to apply Mātauranga Māori (MM) or Māori ways of knowing, to marine biology, including both understanding the sea and conserving it and its inhabitants. Apparently, in contrast to the claims of the paper I discussed yesterday, you can indeed separate areas of empirical endeavor and discuss them separately, for here we are discussing marine biology. I have only looked over the 155-page report on what is to be done, but what I’ve seen isn’t heartening. But absent having read it carefully (yet), I’ll just stick to showing you the “summary” cards accompanying the report. These explain the various aspects of MM that are part of this endeavor.

You can download the 11 colorful cards here, and here’s why they’re supposed to be useful (their text indented)

These summary cards are introduction tools only, not universal definitions.

Iwi, hapū and whānau knowledge systems are place and people specific. We caution the use of quotes or analysis out of context, without respect for those ancestors who provided it, and in isolation of reference to existing tangata whenua (tangata moana) sources and authorities. These summaries are effectively ‘background reading’ in preparation for deeper discussions.

We hope these cards are useful to iwi, hapū and whānau in the pursuit of their own knowledge retention, expansion and transmission to future generations.

We also anticipate these summaries will be useful to marine related decision makers of all kinds and at all levels. We encourage people to read the Hui-te-ana-nui report as an opportunity to better understand a Mātauranga led way of working with the Tangaroa ecosystem.

. . .The report also:

  • Examines mātauranga associated with the marine environment
  • Indexes the reference sources of this varied mātauranga
  • Signposts where to go for further detail

Understanding, developing and retaining mātauranga and kaitiakitanga specific to the marine environment is a vital component of ecosystem-based management (EBM) for Aotearoa. For example, it is crucial for developing spiritual, cultural, social, environmental and economic practices, indicators and metrics that are relevant to our Aotearoa context.

Here’s a description of the cards. Noe the “metaphysical elements” that are included in a “system of knowledge”. It is this mixture of the natural with the supernatural, of practical knowledge with untestable assertions about gods and connections, that tells us that MM is not in the least equivalent to modern science.

The rest of the material below comes from the 11 cards. Click on any screenshot to enlarge it.

MM is like Buddhism in emphasizing that everything is interconnected—in MM, however, though the via common descent of everything from two creators (sky and earth). We are even related to rocks in this way!

The creation and a Whanaungatanga genealogy:

Note that Mātauranga, the knowledge itself, includes how it is known as well as what is known. This drags the metaphysical (gods), as well as lore and legend, into the realm of the empirical:

Here’s a list of what the Mātauranga includes. Note that besides language, it comprises “proverbs,” Spiritual and values”, and “stories and legends.” No, this is not “knowledge.” Note that there are other unspecified things included as well.

Included is Kaitiaki, or guardianship. There’s a substantial supernatural aspect here requiring propitiatory rituals:

And “taonga,” the values and practices to sustain the marine environment. Note the denigration of a “narrow physical view” at the end and the intrusion of the spiritual throughout:

Now I ask you, is this something that can be considered “knowledge about the ocean”: a plan of action and principles to conserve the ocean environment? Yes, there may be conservation practices here, but they’re mixed up with a ton of spiritual stuff that is totally unproven (and likely wrong)—things passed down from ancestors that would not be part of modern marine conservation at all.

Do I “respect” this practice? No more than I respect Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, and any other way of life that contains spiritual elements that have no basis in fact. It is this mixture of the physical and the metaphysical that makes the teaching of MM in classrooms as a “way of knowing” equivalent to modern science such a ludicrous proposal.

Yes, the Māori can have their superstitions, gods, and creation myths, but what is happening here is that they are forcing them onto the New Zealand populace, who not only funds this stuff through taxes but is forced to adhere to its philosophy and practices for fear of being called racist. As Hitchens said, the religious (and yes, much of this is religion) can have their toys, but they can’t force the rest of us to play with their toys.

Is Mātauranga Māori really a “way of knowing”?

September 22, 2022 • 12:45 pm

As I’ve written many times, Mātauranga Māori (MM)considered the “way of knowing” of the indigenous Māori, who arrived in what is now New Zealand from Polynesia in the 13th century—has been the subject of some kerfuffle in NZ. That’s because there’s a movement, promoted not just by the Māori but by many white “allies”, to make MM equivalent to “modern science” (sometimes called “Western science”) in the school curriculum. And by “school” I include “kindergarten through college,” because that’s what MM proponents want. Because all things Māori are valorized in NZ, and more or less off limits to criticism within the country, only the brave will investigate MM further. Is it really science? Is it part science? And if the latter, what are those other parts?

But when you do investigate whether MM is equivalent to modern science, as I have, you find out that it’s not even close. There are bits of “practical knowledge” in it—stuff like when to harvest berries and catch eels—but it lacks a coherent methodological underpinning. Instead, MM is a mishmash of practical knowledge, traditional lore, theology, morality, codes of behavior, stories, myths, and so on.

I continue to read and write about it because nobody in New Zealand, with rare exceptions, has my freedom as a foreigner to analyze MM without being, well, canceled. Yet I know that there are many Kiwis opposed to accepting the equivalence of MM and modern science, much less teaching that equivalence in science classes. I know this because every week I get emails from disaffected Kiwi scientists who applaud me for criticizing the “equivalence” trope and telling me that they dare not question it themselves. Indeed, some who have questioned it have lost their jobs.

Wikipedia says this about MM:

Mātauranga Māori has only recently gained recognition in the scientific community for including some knowledge consistent with the scientific method; it was previously perceived by scientific institutions and researchers as entirely mythological lore, entirely superseded by modern science. In the 21st century, Mātauranga is often used by academics and government institutions when addressing particular environmental problems, with institutions or organisations partnering with iwi [roughly, Māori subunits equivalent to “tribes”], typically with government funding.

Note the weak tea here: “some knowledge consistent with the scientific method.” Yes, that’s true: there is a time to gather berries and a time to let berries ripen; a time to gather eels together and a time to refrain from gathering. But this is the “practical knowledge” of MM.  And no, it’s not entirely mythological lore, but MM surely includes a ton of mythology. As for imbuing government initiatives with MM, that is largely a form of obeisance to the Māori done largely from guilt.  (I am not denying here that many Māori were treated abysmally by immigrants from Europe, but rather questioning whether we need to absorb their traditional lore into modern science.)

After I read the paper below, published in 2015 in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand , as well as the MM “flash cards” that I’ll deal with in a forthcoming post, I realized two things:

1.)  MM is not a way of knowing but a way of life: it encompasses virtually all of Māori culture. While parts of it are “consistent with science”, most of it is not. This is explicit if you read the “flash cards” I’ll show tomorrow. A “way of knowing” implies a methodology, and MM has no methodology except, in the empirical bits, the use of trial and error. To assert that there are gods, that all things are connected through descent from earth and sky and divine creation, and so on, is not “knowledge” but belief. MM, then, is most often a form of belief, and comes close in many ways to a religion. Its assertions cannot be questioned, are regarded as sacred, there are divinities to be worshiped and propitiated, and so on. This religious aspect is part of the MM “way of life.”

2.) The promoters of MM have higher ambitions than I thought: they not only want MM seen as the indigenous science, but want reparations for the previous hegemony of Western science, part of the reparations consisting of having “respect” for the tenets of MM and of teaching MM in science class as a kind of science.

To fathom the hard-core advocates of Mātauranga Māori and their ambitions, I recommend your reading this short paper, which is online free (click on screenshot, pdf here). 

I will put the explanatory MM “flashcards” in a later post as including them might make this too long.

The paper’s abstract really shows that it is a big demand for incorporating MM into not just the science of NZ, but as an accepted part of Kiwi culture that cannot be criticized by non-Māori:

All peoples develop their own academic traditions: philosophies grounded in their experiences over successive generations, and theories for growing knowledge and wisdom. Mātauranga Māori (mātauranga) is the Indigenous knowledge system of these lands. It is dynamic, innovative and generative. The mātauranga continuum is the knowledge accumulated through this system. Government policies and systems have marginalised mātauranga and prioritised Western science, and the past 100 years have seen a slowing in the expansion of the mātauranga continuum. Unless the survival of mātauranga is prioritised, it will cease to flourish. Māori have discussed and written extensively about the ongoing impact of colonisation on mātauranga and tikanga Māori. This paper builds on those discussions, arguing for tino rangatiratanga, including Māori ownership of mātauranga, fulfilment of the government’s obligations to Māori, and the reinstitution of mātauranga as a primary knowledge system in Aotearoa. It explains why mātauranga revitalisation is important and outlines some of the steps towards this goal. We are calling for Western academics to support mātauranga revitalisation, with the vision of two functional knowledge systems operating that are unique to New Zealand.

Even seven years ago a paper in the J Roy Soc NZ was larded with untranslated Māori words (as we’ll see in a day or so, the language itself is considered part of the “way of knowing”.) Note that the second sentence is misleading, as MM is not an “indigenous knowledge system”. While it includes some knowledge, it is not a way of producing knowledge, which itself comes from trial and error rather than any widespread toolkit like that of modern science. Further, a lot of MM’s “spiritual knowledge” is dubious at best, and the divinities that oversee the whole system don’t exist.

To “reinstitute MM as a primary knowledge system in Aorearoa [the Māori word for ‘New Zealand’]” is to make a mockery of the very word “knowledge”. It’s as if one described Orthodox Judaism as a “knowledge system”. And of course to assert that the Māori “own” MM is the equivalent of saying that outsiders cannot criticize it. That’s why the seven Auckland University Professors who said that MM, while sociologically and anthropologically important, was not the same thing as science, were widely attacked, with two of them even investigated by the Royal Society of NZ.  No, science and MM are not “two functional knowledge systems.”. Science is, while MM is a way of life that includes many things that don’t count as knowledge.

I’ll give a few quotes from the paper, which I’ll indent:

Definition of MM:

In this paper, mātauranga refers to Māori knowledge and all that underpins it, as well as Māori ways of knowing. Mātauranga is in our stories, our environments, our kawa and our tikanga. Mātauranga includes ‘language, whakapapa, technology, systems of law and social control, systems of property and value exchange, forms of expression, and much more’ (Waitangi Tribunal 2011a, p. 22). It is passed between generations and developed through our arts and technologies. Rāwiri (2012, p. 20) describes it as a ‘theoretical and applied values and knowledge creative activity base’. Mātauranga has expanded in response to exploring, theorising and understanding at local whānau, hapū and iwi levels. As an experiential system, it emphasises relationship-based learning using whānau and hapū understandings in our own environments. It is a complete knowledge system that includes science.

Well, I won’t define all the terms, but you can already see that it’s more than a “system of knowledge”, but also “all that underpins it”, which means “Māori culture.”

It can’t be partitioned into science-y and non-sciency parts:

This paper refers to the currently dominant knowledge system as Western epistemology, and its science as Western science. Western science incorporates knowledge from non-Western epistemologies. However, the structures of Western science—such as the specific compartmentalisation into disciplines, the hierarchies organising knowledge within those disciplines, and the types of knowledge that are excluded or included—reflect Western philosophical traditions.

This part isn’t true. As we’ll see on the next MM post, MM can be partitioned into disciplines like marine biology. But let’s continue:

Pūtaiao, which refers both to Western science when taught in te reo Māori and to a subset of mātauranga most recognisable to Western science (Stewart 2007), is not discussed in this paper. Dividing mātauranga into science and non-science, or any of the compartments that Western knowledge systems use, is inappropriate. Mātauranga is its own system with its own organisation, and it is this system and organising that we want to prioritise.

It’s not clear whether they are “prioritising” it only in the paper’s discussion, or in NZ education, but what’s clear is that this is something that cannot be taught as coequal to “Western science”.

“Reparations” for MM:

Western knowledge has taken much from Indigenous knowledge systems (Kuokkanen 2007, p. 150). Western academics must consider how they will give back to mātauranga. The relationship between Western epistemologies and mātauranga is currently one of domination, power and control. Those who have benefited most from this unequal relationship should support mātauranga to develop equally and independently.

I would question whether Western knowledge has taken much from MM in particular, and I would argue that modern science has done a lot more for the health and progress of Kiwis, including Māori, than has MM. Scientific medicine is one example, and if it has “domination,” it’s because it works—in contrast to the chanting and herbal and spiritual treatments of Māori.  And those who have benefitted hugely from the “unequal relationship” are the Māori themselves, who certainly avail themselves constantly of the fruits of modern science (antibiotics, to mention just one item).  Western academics have virtually nothing to give back to mātauranga in terms of knowledge, but perhaps what the authors mean is “power and control.” That is, advocates of MM want it to become coequal with modern science. This is why the government (and many NZ academics) are pushing to have MM taught as science. The whole argument is about power, but in the end the fruits of science will show which “way of knowing” is more fruitful.

Cooperation is not the goal.  (my emphasis)

Although there will be opportunities to work together, that is not the goal of revitalising mātauranga. The goal is not partnership; it is tino rangatiratanga and reinstituting mātauranga as a primary and independent knowledge system. Future relationships will be between equals.

I’m sorry, but they are not equal. MM is not a knowledge system, and even its empirical bits do not make it “equal” to modern science. This undergirds the attempts to force MM to be taught as an “equal” to modern science—practice that will be a disaster for all the inhabitants of New Zealand, who will not only be confused about how to find out truth, but who will also fall behind the rest of the world in science education, as has been happening for some time.

Finally, some gobbledygook:

This approach has implications for innovation and generating new knowledge. Exposing all New Zealand academics to mātauranga will reveal the presuppositions underlying Western knowledge systems, and expand their thinking beyond those limits. This could inspire new conceptions of knowledge and approaches to creating knowledge. It will also assist in developing skills that promote conversation and learning from different knowledge systems. . . Teaching multiple knowledge systems gives us the ability to experience the world in different ways, to recognise how those systems affect our perception and understanding, and to extend our understandings (Kuokkanen 2007; Stewart 2007).

This sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s nonsense. As is usual in these discussions, not one example is showing how the infusion of MM into science will improve our understanding of the universe. Indeed, the infusion will degrade science, since we would be forced to take seriously creationism, gods, lizard spirits that control rivers, and so on.  Teaching “multiple knowledge systems” may be of anthropological and sociologcal value, but teaching MM is of no scientific value at all.

Another bizarre attempt to show that traditional “ways of knowing” in New Zealand are even better than modern science

September 5, 2022 • 9:30 am

I won’t dwell at length on this, but offer it up as an example of the craziness infecting New Zealand. Here is a Linked In comment by Karl Wixon, a self-employed education reformer but also holds a job that seems to be funded by the government:

Kaitohu Matua Māori / Chief Advisor – Māori (p/t contract)

Education New Zealand · ContractApr 2021 – Present · 1 yr 6 mos

The Chief Advisor Māori is the key cultural attaché for the Chief Executive and is responsible for providing specialist advice and counsel on all matters relating to ENZ’s responsiveness to Māori.

His job, then, is to do exactly what he’s doing below: showing that Mātauranga Māori (MM) or Māori “ways of knowing”,  should be embedded in New Zealand education. That’s fine if the “ways of knowing”— which include some practical knowledge but also theology, morality, word of mouth, and legend—are taught as sociology and anthropology. But that’s not how it works in New Zealand, as MM is supposed to be taught as “coequal” to modern science. That will hold back science education for everyone, as well as giving young people a false view of science.

Here Wixon asserts that the early Māori already knew about discoveries in astronomy and cosmology that we think are modern, and that these indigenous discoveries were sorely neglected. But his claim is based entirely on a few spirals carved by Māori!  As the person who sent me this noted:

“This sort of thing is bad for both mātauranga Māori and science, but in the current moral panic we’re unlikely to see any pushback.”
Well, I’ll give some pushback, but I don’t have to push hard because Wixon’s claim discredits itself.
Click on the screenshot to read, though I’ve embedded the whole screed below.

This is the writing of a delusional obsessive, but one who’s just doing his job. The craziness of his claim is evident in the way he forces ancient carvings of spirals (which of course are not unique to

That’s all the debunking this piece needs. But what’s nearly as bad are all the people who weigh in, agreeing with Wixon! Much of New Zealand (not the rational folks, of course) buy into this kid of stuff. There is only one comment that is even semi-critical, and that one simply says that modern science and indigenous knowledge need not be at odds. Here are a few more:

I don’t know how much of this comes from valorization of the indigenous people and how much from an anti-science attitude, but it hardly matters. What matters is that Kiwis should be aware of this stuff, and fight like hell to keep mythology from being represented not just as coequal to science, but superior to science.

The New Zealand government subsidizes spiritually based “traditional” healing, with no evidence that it works

September 2, 2022 • 9:30 am

I have nothing in general against “traditional medicine” so long as it’s efficacious.  But that’s the rub, for, as the old Q&A goes: “What do you call traditional medicine that works? Medicine.” Thus, if something is being touted, especially by the government, as a useful form of medicine, it should have been scientifically tested to ensure that it does what it does.

Many of our modern drugs do indeed come from plants, but not all of those were used in traditional or “indigenous” medicine: some were found simply by surveying plants by medical scientists looking for useful effects. And of course without testing—with the gold standard being double-blind testing—you can’t tell whether a plant-based drug is better than a placebo.

This lack of testing appears to be characteristic of Rongoā Māori (“RM”), the traditional healing used by Māori in New Zealand, as reported by the article from the University of Auckland shown first below. And that lack of hard evidence for efficacy, while it shouldn’t lead to the banning of Rongoā Māori, shouldn’t lead to its declaration as being equal to modern medicine, nor should it lead to the government’s funding of untested remedies. But it’s already too late.

Since this is New Zealand, testing of Māori claims isn’t needed: tradition and anecdotal health claims are enough. Indeed, criticism of such claims is seen as racist.

And so, as the article below reports, the Kiwi government is funding a $100,000 program to “support injury recovery through Rongoā Māori. The program is funded through the “ACC” (Accident Compensation Corporation), a government body established in the 1970s to oversee the provision of support, treatment and rehabilitation for people involved in accidents. What we have, then, is government support for traditional medicine used to heal accidents.

But this is only the camel’s nose, for as the article below implies, this is just the first step in insinuating traditional healing into regular medical practice guaranteed to all Kiwis by their government.

In fact, in several ways Rongoā Māori is similar to Mātauranga Māori, traditiional “ways of knowing” that I’ve written about at length.  Both systems contain a mixture of theology, spirituality, and practical knowledge, both are imbued with fact claims that can’t be tested, and both are touted by their practitioners as deserving equal treatment with modern science.

It is the “equal treatment” that worries me, as neither MM or RM are coequal with science. Parts of MM can be considered empirical truths—”practical knowledge” like how to grow plants or catch eels—but I have no idea whether RM is efficacious in healing, at least beyond having a placebo effect. Finally, both MM and RM involve the ubiquitous valorization of the ways of indigenous people. Traditional customs should of course be taught as aspects of anthropology and sociology, important parts of New Zealand’s history, but shouldn’t be valorized to the point where they’re considered coequal to science or medicine.

What is involved in Rongoā Māori? The two articles below (click on screenshots), as well as the short video, give you an idea.


A shorter explanation of RM is here.

Here are the major components of RM, considered “holistic healing” with a big dollop of spirituality. This list comes from the two articles above and a few others.

a.) Traditional plant remedies.  The second article above gives a list of which plants are used and for what ailments. They must be used in a proper way—not just in their preparation, but ensuring that they’re gathered in traditional ways. Here’s what the second article says

The use of plant remedies does not require regulatory approval as long as they do not contain a scheduled medicine. However, as some pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, it is possible that Rongoā may contain active ingredients. As long as these pharmaceuticals are not purposely added to a remedy no restrictions apply to the use of such plants. Note that some plants, for example St Johns wort, can interact with conventional medicines.

  •  Appropriate tikanga (customs and rites) must be observed during the collection, preparation and storage of Rongoā.
  • Plant material must be correctly identified, gathered from non-polluted areas and prepared safely and hygienically.
  • Plants are usually crushed or dried and mixed with water or ethyl alcohol.
  • Plant remedies should only be prescribed and dispensed by Tohunga [traditional healers] to individual patients. Tohunga will advise on appropriate use.
  • Plant remedies should not be labelled with therapeutic claims. Labels should contain the ingredient(s), instructions for use, date of preparation, expiry date and who the remedy is prescribed for.

But if they cannot make therapeutic claims, why is the government paying for them? The important question is whether all or any of the drugs are useful in healing the ailments they’re prescribed for. Before you say “they must be, as they’re based on tradition,” be aware that a lot of spiritually-based traditional medicines tested in the U.S. have been shown to be bunk.

I have found no mention of testing for any of these plants. While some of the traditional herbal medicines may be efficacious, I see no sign that they’ve been tested or compared to modern pharmaceuticals that must be and have been tested.

b.) Massage. Massage can be useful in temporary relief, and even chiropractic can be useful for back problems, but the idea of adjusting the body because it’s diseased or out of whack, as evidenced in the articles and the video above, is dubious (I’d say “bunk,” but I’m being kind here.) Look at the video and watch them adjusting the feet of a man with a lower back problem. This is called romiromi, or “body alignment”.

c.) Lunar calendar relationality (maramatka). I don’t know how this is implemented, but it’s a big red flag.

d.) Meditation.  Your mileage may very, but I haven’t been prescribed meditation for any accidents I’ve had.

e.) Spirituality. This site at Health Navigator New Zealand explains that the spiritual side of RM is its most important aspect. A quote:

The most fundamental part of rongoā Māori is the traditional spiritual teachings, which can be seen as the basis of all traditional medicine. For Māori, rongoā is a part of the Māori culture from Tāne (God of the forest) who retrieved the three baskets of knowledge from Io (God) with the knowledge and teachings to guide us in this world.

As Māori, we believe we are part of the children of Tāne, along with the creatures of the forest such as the birds, trees and plants and, therefore, we have a strong connection to rongoā rākau. To learn rongoā, people have to become apart of the world of Tāne. They become connected and immersed in the forest, learning about a relationship far beyond the physical elements of the trees and plants. To utilise Te Oo Mai Reia, the healer must become immersed in ancient spiritual teachings while becoming a vessel to achieve the healing through Io alongside the use of physical touch to create balance and shift energies.

This is a form of shamanism.

Now this is all well and good, and if people want to use RM for diseases or healing from accidents, that’s their prerogative. I wouldn’t, but that’s my choice. But what I dislike is the insistence of these articles and practitioners that RM is just as good as modern medicine and should be offered coequally by the government. Here are two quotes from the University of Auckland article:

Located in Dance Studies in the Faculty of Creative Arts and industries, Ngākau Oho will provide a personalised recovery programme for 20 ACC clients and their whānau. In the process, the programme aims to reclaim and normalise rongoā Māori as a viable and everyday healthcare practice.

Recent efforts to address Māori health inequities across the health sector have focused on increasing the number of Māori health professionals and Māori access to culturally relevant rehabilitation services, says Dr Reihana.

Why is this in a dance studio? But wait—there’s more, and this is the worrisome part (my emphasis):

The programme will provide ACC with evidence-based insight on how rongoā Māori would be embedded within established healthcare services.

“We believe the approach we develop will be an innovation that can be used within the health system, and importantly, by Māori health practitioners, providers and whānau, helping ensure that rongoā Māori practices can be a real and easily accessed option for Māori in wellbeing and recovery,” says Dr Reihana.

This implies that RM will indeed become part of the government-funded healthcare system of New Zealand.  But what is the “evidence-based insight” that is forthcoming, since there is no mention of controls?

Finally, Donna Kerridge, the RM practitioner shown in the video above, says this:

“I think the Western health and healing system is awesome; it’s not better, it’s not worse.”

This is the insistence on absolute equality that is ubiquitous in both MM and RM, and it’s just wrong. If you have diabetes, do you want traditional herbal medicine or insulin? If you have an infection, do you want plants or antibiotics? Now many Māori do avail themselves of modern medicine instead of or alongside RM, and those people are the savvy ones. But it seems risible to say that RM is exactly as good as modern medicine. It can’t be, because its “testing” is based on anecdotes instead of scientific studies with controls.

I want to add one bit about “alternative medicine” in the U.S. In 1991, the government established the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health as part of the National Institutes of Health. Its goal was to scientifically study “alternative medicine”, using the kind of controls that all science-based medicine uses.  As Wikipedia notes:

NCCAM’s mission statement declared that it is “dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science; training complementary and alternative medicine researchers; and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals.” As NCCIH, the mission statement is “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.”

Since the NCCAM’s founding, over two billion dollars have been spent testing stuff like coffee enemas, intercessory prayer, magnet therapy, and so on. Not one “alternative treatment has worked. You’ll be amused at the examples given in the article about the treatments tested and their outcomes. A screenshot is below (click to enlarge). NOT ONE WORKED! And for the others, no results were ever reported, which means that they didn’t work, either.

Two quotes from the article:

In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a criticism that NCCAM had funded study after study, but had “failed to prove that complementary or alternative therapies are anything more than placebos.” The JAMA criticism pointed to large wasting of research money on testing scientifically implausible treatments, citing “NCCAM officials spending $374,000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing; $750,000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery; $390,000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes; $700,000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches; and $406,000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.”  It was pointed out that the public generally ignored negative results from testing, that people continue to “believe what they want to believe, arguing that it does not matter what the data show: They know what works for them.” Continued increasing use of CAM products was also blamed on the lack of FDA ability to regulate alternative products, where negative studies do not result in FDA warnings or FDA-mandated changes on labeling, whereby few consumers are aware that many claims of many supplements were found not to be supported.

I’ll take my coffee in the other end, thank you.

And here’s a skeptical take (there are other criticisms given of NCCAM by doctors and scientists):

A 2012 study published in the Skeptical Inquirer examined the grants and awards funded by NCCIH from 2000 to 2011, which totaled $1.3 billion. The study found no discoveries in complementary and alternative medicine that would justify the existence of this center. The authors argued that after 20 years and an expenditure of $2 billion, the failure of NCCIH was evidenced by the lack of publications and the failure to report clinical trials in peer-reviewed medical journals. They recommended that NCCIH be defunded or abolished and the concept of funding alternative medicine be discontinued.

That money hasn’t been completely wasted, for it’s debunked therapies that people insisted would work. And those therapies won’t be approved by the FDA or used by rational doctors. Still, therapies are usually tested clinically when there’s some preliminary evidence that it might work. The tests above were simply based on “folk claims.”


All I’m asking is that Rongoā Māori be tested the same way as the NCCAM tested its putative remedies. If RM treatments aren’t (and they surely aren’t), Kiwi taxpayers should be protesting loudly about wasting their money on subsidizing spiritually-based medicine 

A Māori scholar/musician explains mātauranga Māori

August 14, 2022 • 11:15 am

A Kiwi sent me this just-posted “Shape of Dialogue” video, which, although quite long for me (2 hours!), has an explanation of mātauranga Māori (MM) by a part-Māori scholar and musician, Charles Royal.  Royal’s webpage shows that he’s not only an expert in “indigenous knowledge”, but also “Advise[s] and Lead[s] Projects and People, particularly to do with the ‘creative potential’ of the indigenous Māori dimension of Aotearoa-New Zealand.”

My correspondent recommended this interview with Royal as “a very good resource for those seeking to understand mātauranga Māori. Charles is very smart, reasonable and balanced, and I’d encourage you to have a listen.” The correspondent adds, “You will see that they go back and forth on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, but there’s no doubt that Charles is pro-science.”

The podcast is also here if you want to download it.

I listened to the whole thing, and you’re welcome to do it, but unless you’re interested in a lot of NZ history, I’d concentrate on three segments. And if you’re interested in the relationship between MM—”indigenous science”—and modern science, just listen from 1:24:40 to the end (see below).

Here are three relevant bits.

25:25-about 35 minutes.  Royal’s definition of MM. The term “mātauranga Māori” doesn’t seem to have been used in New Zealand before 1980, but it did exist as a “fragmented, incomplete, and disorganized” body of traditional knowledge held by the indigenous people, though parts of this “way of knowing” are more organized than others. Royal discusses where the repositories of this knowledge are to be found. As we’ve learned in earlier posts, Royal affirms that it’s largely “practical knowledge”: things like how to fish or harvest plants.

1:06:58-to about 1:15:00 Royal’s definition of “indigeneity”.

1:24:40 to the end of the podcast. The discussion turns to the relationship between MM and science—the fracas started with a letter to “The Listener” by seven professors at the University of Auckland.  Royal does see MM as a “kind of science,” , and “intergenerational body of knowledge” (“efficacious knowledge”), but not equivalent to modern science.  He adds that MM is not a mature science but a “way to live in the world”. but it might have become a mature science had it not been suppressed by colonization. I don’t agree with him, especially because he claims it’s not really the same as modern science, nor does it aspire to be.

Note: at 1:44:30: Royal discusses whether MM should be taught in science classes as coequal to modern science—per recent national curriculum guidelines. Royal can’t answer that question, and says that “there isn’t the research” to address it.  But I think that we already know enough, based on the non-empirical nature of much of MM, its concentration on practicality rather than theory, and its addition of theology, morality, and legend, to say that while teaching MM is necessary and valuable in New Zealand to educate the citizens in the sociology, history, and anthropology of the country, it should not be taught in science class as the Maori alternative to modern science.

I’d recommend, then, that if you’re interested in the compatibility of MM and modern science as forms of science teachable in school, listen from 1:24:40 to the end of the podcast—about 42 minutes.

Once again: did the Maori discover Antarctica?

August 11, 2022 • 9:30 am

Nothing better shows the kind of “knowledge” that promoters of New Zealand’s indigenous “ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori ) want taught in science class than the claim that the Māori—or rather, their ancestral Polynesians—discovered Antarctica in the 7th century A.D. (The Māori could not have done it at that time since their East Polynesian ancestors didn’t colonize New Zealand until the fourteenth century.) Nevertheless, as I described in two posts in January—here and here—the controversy was hashed out in three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (JRSNZ) and Nature Ecology & Evolution. These aren’t free online, but judicious inquiry can yield copies.

(By the way, the generally accepted date for the discovery of Antarctica, and by that I mean seeing the continent, is January 27, 1820, when a Russian expedition saw an ice shelf connected to Antarctica.)

The first paper, by advocates Wehi et al., described “evidence” that Polynesians were the first to see Antarctica in the seventh century, AD—over a thousand years before the discovery by the Russians.  They supported their claims by relying on oral legends, the “gray literature” (semi-scholarly but tendentious analyses of oral legends), and dubious interpretations of those legends. For example, the East Polynesians weren’t sailing then; the supposed boat that saw Antarctica was said to be built of human bones (and even a wooden one could not survive Antarctic waters), and the scenario relies heavily on a word almost surely translated as “the frozen sea” by the authors of the first paper below:

The first claim:

This claim was uncritically accepted by many in the press, including the credulous Guardian (click screenshot below to read):

A rebuttal (a “short communication”), written by a group including Māori scholars, was then published in the same journal. It pointed out all the problems noted above: the use of orally transmitted legends (not written down until the mid-19th century), the improbability of Polynesian sailing vessels (especially ones made of human bones) making it to Antarctic waters; the fact that East Polynesians weren’t sailing in the seventh century; that there is no archaeological evidence of their voyages, much less incursion into Antarctic waters; and the likelihood that the crucial phrase translated as “the frozen sea” probably meant “sea foam” instead. Here’s the rebuttal paper by Anderson et al.

This “rebuttal” was handled very oddly by the Royal Society of New Zealand (more on that below). The original authors then responded, but in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which also included the dubious claim of Polynesian discovery of Antarctica in its timeline below (click to read):

From Figure One of the Nature E&E paper (my emphasis, click to enlarge). Doesn’t anybody review papers any more, or are standards simply more lax when indigenous “ways of knowing” are involved? The box encloses a statement that is surely false. Come on, Nature!

Now The Listener (site of the original fight about whether mātauranga Māori should be taught in NZ science classes alongside real science) has just reprised the whole controversy and added some new comments by the authors as well as some material about how the “rebuttal” got published. That article is below, and there’s no free link.

The authors of the original paper appear to have backed off their claim about Polynesians discovering Antarctica in the seventh century, but the critics are saying that the fight is useless anyway because much of mātauranga Māori isn’t really evidence-based science, though part of it could be. (Yes, it’s confusing.)

Click to read, or make a judicious inquiry for a copy, as I can’t copy excerpts from this Listener article:

A few quotes:. In the first, one of the original authors backs off:

Dr. Priscilla Wehi said it wasn’t about which humans were in Antarctica first, but about “linkages that have gone on for many hundreds of years and will go on into the future.”

She’s not telling the truth. If you read the original paper, there’s a large section supporting the claim that Polynesians saw Antarctica first, tendered as a tribute to their endeavors and to the equality of Western and Polynesian “science”. And certainly the world press interpreted the article as meaning that!

The Listener notes that “the two papers” (original and rebuttal) “used totally different research methodologies.”  That of Wehi et al “looked at oral histories as well as ‘grey literature,’ described as ‘research, reports, technical documents, and other material published by organisations outside common academic and commercial publishing channels.” In other words, Wehi et al. used transcribed oral legends spread as a kind of conspiracy theory.

There’s also this:

When you fail to produce convincing evidence, you just assert that you weren’t really making a truth claim, but simply showing how legends work their way into modern practice. One thing the advocates of mātauranga Māori love to argue is that its superiority to Western science lies in mātauranga Māori’s ability to show that everything in the Universe is connected. Well, physics shows that, too, but as Dick Lewontin once said, the troubling of a star doesn’t mean he has to take that into account when digging in his garden.

In the section below, the first author of the rebuttal makes a crucial admission (matauranga Maori isn’t the same thing as science), but also claims that sometimes we should accept historical claims from legend—presumably only when these are supported by empirical investigation—i.e., science writ large!

I’m not sure what Anderson means by saying that mātauranga Māori is a “different form of knowledge and understanding than science.” The understanding of legends may differ from how we understand science, but Anderson needs to realize that “knowledge” means the general acceptance of truth ascertained by empirical methods”—i.e., by science.

And yes, some legends may be true—but not this one. In the first paragraph above the authors show why mātauranga Māori should not be taught alongside science in New Zealand schools as an equally valid form of knowledge. Nevertheless, this is going to happen some day, all because the Woke, fearful of looking like racists, are afraid of rejecting indigenous ways of knowing as science.

The new Listener article gives more reasons why Anderson et al. find the legend of Antarctic-discovering Polynesians in conflict with empirical evidence.

Finally, there’s a bit about how the Royal Society of New Zealand treated the Wehi et al. claim and the Anderson et al. rebuttal differently. If you’ve followed my reporting on this, you’ll know that the Royal Society of New Zealand is a pack of slippery eels, trying to pretend they’re a scientific organization while at the same time trying not to offend the Māori and their claims of having “other ways of knowing.” I’m sorry, but those other ways of knowing are sometimes wrong, and the Antarctic claim is one example.

Here’s how the Listener describes the preferential treatment given to papers on mātauranga Māori as opposed to refutations of those papers:

I’m not aware of any scientific organizations that sends critiques of a paper out to the authors of that paper for review. Yes, if the critique is accepted, then the original authors may be given it and afforded a chance to respond. But that’s not how the RSNZ rolls. What they did is certainly not “a best practice” for reviewing papers. As usual, the spokesperson for the RSNZ lies, saying that they just followed what is normal. They didn’t.

The slippery behavior of the Royal Society is one reason why two of its Fellows resigned after they were “investigated” for arguing that mātauranga Māori was not the same thing as science.

The primacy of indigenous ways of knowing

July 21, 2022 • 2:30 pm

Greg Mayer pointed out that my colleague Brian Leiter posted on this exchange, and I’m shamelessly stealing his material (his actual words are few). I’d seen this Twitter exchange before but had forgotten about it.  Here’s what Brian said on his post “When you can’t tell what’s a parody and what isn’t” on his Leiter Reports site.

This exchange has been circulating on social media.  My first reaction was that this had to be a parody of mindless identity politics, but in fact the participants actually believe their nonsense.   God help the universities if too many people like this gain a foothold.

I have news for you, Brian: they already have—in New Zealand.

It was Bill Maher who said:  “When what you’re doing sounds like an Onion headline, stop.” That’s an excellent quote. The stuff above does, as does my last post on insane school policies on nonattendance.

Quillette: Indigenous “ways of knowing” in Australia

June 28, 2022 • 1:15 pm

I was going to write in more detail about this new Quillette piece, but the duck rescue has derailed me for a bit, and this post is already long. Here’s the piece, which shows that what happened in New Zealand—the impending infusion of of academics and science by indigenous myth—seems about to happen in Australia as well. Click to read:

Both authors have extensive experience in teaching indigenous studies; as the article notes, so they don’t seem tendentious:

Terry Moore worked in remote Indigenous education, and taught Aboriginal Studies at three Australian universities. Carol Pybus coordinated UTAS’ first-year Aboriginal Studies program for twenty years.

And both are in favor of “indigenising” Australian universities in the sense of imbuing them with a sense of aboriginal culture and a recounting the horrid history  the treatment of indigenous people by “settlers”—a treatment worse, I think, than the way Europeans treated the Māori in New Zealand. In fact, Moore and Pybus bend over backwards to favor such inclusion, and I’m not one to question them.

The problem, they note, is not the infusion of local history and culture (taught honestly) into universities. As in New Zealand, the problem is turning universities into propaganda mills that valorize indigenous people, including buying their mythology as truth and, using a Manichean approach of demonizing “whiteness”, making things more divisive. The authors favor what they call a “liberal” approach:

A liberal approach to Indigenisation recognises the injustice and violence of colonisation, and the on-going structural determination of unequal life opportunities that has resulted. It acknowledges that “whiteness” (to such extent that term is useful) and its associated values are not universal, that they can affect individuals’ capacity to negotiate the world, and that an unbridled individualist ethos can serve to marginalise collective cultural identities. The approach also confronts the fact that earlier research often ignored Indigenous experiences and considered the research subjects as secondary to the development of (white) science and researcher careers. It also accepts that a rebalancing of power in the research relationship (as embedded in the Whole of Community Engagement initiative, led by Charles Darwin University) can help Indigenous people build a healthy sense of identity, and that the judicious embedding of Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum can be genuinely helpful toward advancing reconciliation.

Given the history of Australia, this sounds absolutely reasonable. But, as in the U.S. and New Zealand, this process seems to be going too far—to the point of telling untruths that comport with indigenous mythology or “remembered” history, as well as denigrating whiteness and judging people on their ancestry. And the proponents of the divisive approach are the same class of people who do this in the U.S. and New Zealand: the elites

Doesn’t this sound familiar?

Unfortunately, this critical liberal approach to Indigenisation is being overtaken by an identity-based form that stigmatizes normal academic debate and critique as a form of harm visited upon Aboriginal minds. Activists who hew to the American-influenced social justice movement routinely emphasize postmodern doctrines that cast knowledge as entirely subjective in nature, and science as inherently racist and exploitative. They have translated these understandings into a totalising focus on the injustices done by the dominant capitalist structures of Australian society to working class, female, gay, non-white, disabled, and transgendered individuals. The university is presented as an inherently colonial and oppressive institution that must be overhauled to prioritise belief, feelings and subjectivity over evidence.

In our experience, this identity-based and illiberal approach to Indigenisation is primarily championed by an academic elite whose members are predominantly drawn from regional and urban backgrounds in Australia’s south and on its east coast. It’s a professional clique whose members often have little authentic connection to heritage culture—so much so that several have been accused of having no Aboriginal ancestry whatsoever.

Within this academic/activist subculture, there is an oversized level of attention paid to public symbols and details of language—especially those that are deemed microaggressions. In keeping with their counterparts in other parts of the English-speaking world, they co-opt American social-justice parlance by agitating for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” denigrate whiteness, and promote a mythologized version of Indigenous culture and beliefs that casts Aboriginal people as perpetual victims and strips them of agency. At UTAS, Indigenisation has led to the denigration and replacement of an entire discipline-based critical Aboriginal Studies program with a single first-year unit that consists of a “country tour guided by Palawa Elders and Knowledge Holders,” whose content predictably blurs the line between academic instruction and political sloganeering.

Science will be affected, of course:

 (From above): Activists who hew to the American-influenced social justice movement routinely emphasize postmodern doctrines that cast knowledge as entirely subjective in nature, and science as inherently racist and exploitative.

. . . Many units also integrate far more dubious (and faddish) studies of “whiteness,” so as to denaturalise the purportedly false universalism of scientific knowledge—even if this kind of effort often is couched in deliberately hazy language that obscures the obvious tension between science and spiritualism.

. . . The dynamic [of divisive indigenisation] is reflected too, in the story of Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 non-fiction book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, in which the well-known Australian writer makes a number of claims about Aboriginal people and society that are refuted by history and science, but which are now popularly accepted (such as the claim that Aboriginals have lived in Australia for 120,000 years, roughly double the actual figure).

That reminds me of the claim by some in New Zealand that it is absolutely true that the Polynesians (ancestors of the Māori) discovered Antarctica in the seventh century. Not so: Antarctica was discovered in 1820 by the Russians.

. . . One reason these ahistorical and reductionist stereotypes of early Aboriginal societies are accepted by so many academics is that they read back to us our own mythologized visions of communal, pre-industrial life. In this imagined world of peace and harmony, the elders are universally respected repositories of timeless, spiritually understood truths that exist beyond the scrutiny of science (or even the comprehension of outsiders). This is the kind of “pseudo-profound bullshit” (as one academic paper has described it) that was evident in a recent ABC Science dispatch produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which an Indigenous academic explained Indigenous spirituality as a sort of proto-environmentalism in which “everything is connected and needs respect—not just humans, animals, trees and rocks—but land and sky, and past and present.”

The view that “everything is connected” in a spiritual sense is also part of the “ways of knowing” Mātauranga Māori from New Zealand. It sounds good and spiritual-ish, but doesn’t mean much. As my advisor Dick Lewontin once said, the fact that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe doesn’t mean that the motions of Saturn have any effect on my gardening.”

The whole “divisive” indigenising movement sounds too close to the New Zealand situation for comfort. Aussie scientists and academics should ensure that myths are not treated as truths, or that indigenous “ways of knowing” are equated to modern science. In the end, the authors make a reasonable call to infuse local culture and history into academics—but not at the expense of objective truth:

Our goal should be to bring the same thoughtful, critical perspective to bear on Indigenous issues that we bring to every other subject. We are in complete agreement with those who say that issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples once were either ignored, or taught in a racist way. But thankfully, those days are long past. And it won’t do anyone any good—especially Aboriginal people themselves—if we insist that making amends for past wrongs requires us to renounce considered debate and the disinterested search for truth.