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Dr David Lillis

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Dr Peter Schwerdtfeger

The Mātauranga Māori – Science Debate

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The Recent Controversy

A letter to the Listener, signed by seven internationally-renowned University of Auckland professors in July 2021, sparked a heated public controversy that has become increasingly vindictive. Several media articles have discussed the letter and reactions to it at length and we do not wish to duplicate their perspectives here. However, we do wish to present what we consider to be a balanced view of the critical issues and present a position that defends the integrity of science while accepting the value of indigenous knowledge.

The letter was prompted by a Ministry of Education Technical Report (Ministry of Education, 2021a) which recommended:

  1. Parity in the Māori school curriculum for mātauranga Māori with other bodies of knowledge
  2. Discussion and analysis within the NCEA of the ways in which science has supported the dominance of Eurocentric views, including science’s use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge
  3. Discussion within the NCEA of the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.

The Technical Report explains that Mana ōrite mō te mātauranga Māori means equal status for mātauranga Māori (the traditional knowledge of Māori) within NCEA (National Certificate in Educational Achievement). It states that the goal is to ensure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pākehā epistemologies). The report specifies that this parity should span English and Māori-medium settings. Finally, it states that the Ministry is committed to ensuring that mātauranga Māori is explicitly and equitably valued in NCEA and that mātauranga Māori pathways are acknowledged and supported equally within NCEA.

Among other public documents, an NCEA document appears to give expression to the goal of the Technical Report (Ministry of Education, 2021b). This document states that it is vital that there is parity for mātauranga Māori in NCEA and that it has equal value to other bodies of knowledge.

We note that New Zealand’s National Curriculum comprises the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa – the curriculum for Māori immersion education. Te Marautanga sits beside the revised New Zealand Curriculum and is New Zealand’s indigenous curriculum. It sets the direction for teaching and learning for the students in New Zealand’s 350 (approximately) primary and secondary Māori Medium schools. It aims to increase Māori achievement in all parts of the education system, particularly in literacy and numeracy, to increase the number of bilingual and multilingual students in New Zealand, and to strengthen matauranga Māori (TeachNZ, 2021).

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Relevant Background

We note The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007. This Declaration is intended to establish a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.

We note that Section 14 of the Public Service Act 2020 recognises the role of the public service to support the Crown in its relationships with Māori under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). One of the aims of this Act is to unify the Public Service in order to fulfil its responsibility to support the Crown’s relationships with Māori. The Act specifies greater understanding of te ao Māori (the Māori world view), woven into the work and ethos of public service, including te ao Māori concepts, knowledge, values, perspectives and Te reo Māori (Māori language). We can think of te ao Māori as the Māori world view.

We note Te Pūtahitanga (2021), which calls for a policy approach that is enabled by, and responsive to, Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Mātauranga Māori. It aims to value and utilise two of New Zealand’s rich knowledge systems – “western science” and Mātauranga Māori – so that scientific advice, and the policy that it informs, is relevant and draws from multiple sources of evidence. This report defines Mātauranga Māori as a Māori knowledge ecosystem underpinned by kaupapa and tikanga Māori (customary practices and behaviours) and envisions an approach that resources and supports autonomous Māori science advice and decision-making alongside iwi-Crown partnership approaches. The report states that a treaty-led approach would invest strategically in the research, science and innovation that continues to drive Aotearoa (New Zealand) toward equitable health and well-being outcomes, while addressing the ongoing harms caused by colonialism and racism.

Finally, we note the He Puapua report, which recommends that mātauranga Māori be valued equally and resourced equally to “western science” (Charters et al, 2019, p. 74).

Our Perspectives on the Letter

Reactions to the professors’ letter to the Listener included private and informal debate on whether or not mātauranga Māori constitutes science but, unfortunately, also included unhelpful attacks on the professors who wrote the letter. We note that the Te Aka Māori Dictionary defines Māori knowledge as the body of knowledge originating from Māori ancestors, including the Māori world view and perspectives, Māori creativity and cultural practices (Te Aka, 2021). It also includes Te Reo Māori.

Here, we give our own perspectives on the issues surrounding the letter.

  1. The professors gave their considered professional opinions relating to science, indigenous knowledge (especially mātauranga Māori) and the education of young New Zealanders in good faith and on the understanding that nobody is obliged to agree with their views.
  2. Mātauranga Māori and other indigenous knowledge are culturally very significant and deserve to be treasured by current and future generations. However, indigenous knowledge and science are very different and it is unproductive to compare them directly.

Here we cite Sir Mason Durie’s analysis of mātauranga Māori:

You can’t understand science through the tools of Mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand Mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other, you mess it up. They might be aiming at the same thing, but going there in different directions.

We agree with this statement and suggest that in our education system a clear separation is maintained between all indigenous knowledge (including mātauranga Māori) and modern science. We agree with initiatives that support and empower Māori, give Māori a clear voice in decision-making and that aim to close gaps in educational and socioeconomic achievement. However, we categorically disagree with the use of the term “western science” within the He Puapua report, Te Pūtahitanga and others.

The general model of provision of expert advice for policy and decision-making relies on an appeal to scientific facts and data for informing policy decisions, based on the notion that better scientific characterization of a problem will lead to better policy (Gluckman et al, 2021). Māori and matauranga Māori have much value to add here. Perhaps Māori academics tend to adopt less reductionist and more holistic perspectives on people, nature and critical issues, and their holistic views can be reflected in their approaches to research; for example, in protecting our environment, ensuring sustainable resource management and in manaakitanga (caring for others).

The present controversy may originate in a confusion between science as the most widely-accepted description and explanation of the universe devised by humans and the traditional knowledge of groups of people across different parts of the world. This traditional knowledge is relevant to their descendants and of great interest to modern humanity, but should not be confused with science, particularly in education.

Debating the Role of mātauranga Māori in Education

In our democratic nation we should be allowed to enter into a rational debate on the role of mātauranga Māori in our society when it impacts on other cultures, and indeed on any other knowledge or way of knowing (indigenous or not) and its relationship with modern science. The Tertiary Education Act 1989 (section 161) provides for:

. . . the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.

However, in the ensuing public debate the professors have been accused variously of racism, protection of privilege and of advancing a narrow and outmoded view of science. Subsequently, Professor Douglas Elliffe resigned as an Acting Dean at the University of Auckland in order to calm inflamed feelings within the University and the Science Faculty.

In a joint statement from the President and Chair of its Academy Executive Committee, published on 27 July 2021, the Royal Society Te Apārangi articulated its position on the letter, as follows:

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.

In their letter to the Listener, the professors never suggested that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth. However, the mythology and religion of indigenous people are clearly different to modern science. That dichotomy has been debated comprehensively over the issue of “creation science” and the role of Hebrew scriptures as a valid alternative to evolution.  

The professors gave the opinion that indigenous knowledge may indeed advance scientific knowledge in some ways but that it is not science. They advanced the view that indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. They did state that in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

Advancing their views has led to adverse reaction and, in some cases, a highly emotive reaction, attacking the integrity of the authors rather than engaging in sound and robust debate. Of immediate concern is that accusations of scientific racism stifle a much-needed and timely discussion on the future of education in this country, especially at a time when the literacy and numeracy skills of our students are of major concern. For example, Tina Ngata states that the letter is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia, as part of a global system that harbours and fosters racism (Ngata, 2021).

What is even more questionable is that entries were made in the Wikipedia pages of the Listener letter authors, some of which come close to defamation. Surely, one expects that professional researchers will wish to distance themselves from such unacceptable mobbing behaviour.

Possibly, what some people object to is the authority that science has acquired in our society and how that authority can be appropriated for political and social purposes. The authority of science in the world of today was, of course, hard won through the philosophical explorations and the subsequent scientific advances made by refining principles of empiricism and falsifiability. However, Mario Bunge sounds a stark warning:

Over the past three decades or so very many universities have been infiltrated, though not yet seized, by the enemies of learning, rigor, and empirical evidence: those who proclaim that there is no objective truth, whence “anything goes,” those who pass off political opinion as science and engage in bogus scholarship. These are not unorthodox original thinkers; they ignore or even scorn rigorous thinking and experimenting altogether (Bunge, 2006).

Indigenous Knowledge and Science

Indigenous knowledge is widely acknowledged by research communities across the world and has been discussed extensively in the international research literature, most notably in history, anthropology and the social sciences. We know that, over several centuries following arrival in the islands of New Zealand, Māori developed and refined their understanding of several domains of knowledge critical to their survival, including agriculture, food technology, manufacture of tools, textiles and clothing, navigation, astronomy and medicine. Such knowledge was acquired through observation, experience and testing. Clearly, indigenous knowledge shares with science both observation and application and both trial and error but, strictly speaking, not falsification. Here, if a theory is to be considered science, it must be capable of being tested, predict an outcome and perhaps be shown to be false; a perspective advanced by Karl Popper (Popper, 1959). Thus, through development and refinement of their knowledge, engaging in trial and error and systematic observation, Māori and other indigenous people gained profound understanding of their environment but did not engage in science in a strictly falsificationist sense.

The critical nature of indigenous knowledge to survival is widely acknowledged. Indigenous people display deep and complex analytic thought through engagement in subsistence activities and, indeed, cultural activities. They know much about the flora and fauna of their environments and some have their own classification systems and understanding of domains that today we know as meteorology, physics, chemistry, geography, astronomy and human psychology.  

Consider a group of early people encountering an unknown tree that bears fruit. They might test the edibility of the fruit by getting a few members of the group to eat it. Thus, they learn about the fruit through trial and error, and may pass the results of the trial to future generations by word of mouth. However, trial and error is not falsification, which requires a theory and prediction. A scientific approach using falsification requires a level of abstraction and a logical structure that goes beyond trial and error. Thus, indigenous knowledge, especially the mythological aspects of indigenous knowledge, are different and serve different purposes, from science. Since they are so different and serve such very different purposes, it makes little sense to compare indigenous knowledge and science directly.

Modern science evolved rapidly during and after the Enlightenment, a movement that became prominent in Europe during the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment advocated the notion that reason should be the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and promoted liberty, constitutional government and separation of church and state. Great importance was placed on empirical knowledge and scientific method; specifically, knowledge that can be verified through experiment, experience or first-hand observation.

We remember the motto of The Royal Society – Nullius in verba – which translates as “Take nobody’s word for it“. As such, the motto excludes traditional knowledge as science until it has been tested by the methods of science.

Mythology and Scientific Truth

Mythology is a very different belief system from science. We may think of mythology as a body of myths and sacred stories that often pertain to that which affirms life and develops moral consciousness, while science pertains to general theories and observations about natural phenomena. If mythological aspects of indigenous knowledge are taken as valid truth despite scientific evidence against them, they may become, according to Popper, ‘pseudo-science’. However, the demarcation between science and pseudo-science is not always clear or debated constructively.

In most cases indigenous knowledge is tied explicitly to a particular place and people, while science seeks general and unifying theories. Creation stories, for example, vary between different indigenous peoples and often involve a claim of special spiritual connection to a given location, thereby possibly constituting a kind of ownership. Clearly, though there are similarities in, for example, the creation myths of different indigenous peoples, the truths held by indigenous people are unique and therefore are not universal. Each cultural group has a body of knowledge, particular to the group, which their children absorb as they grow up. This body of knowledge is a complex mix of observations about the universe, the history and myths of the group and how one should behave as a member of the group. This knowledge is passed down through the generations.

Specifically, mātauranga Māori is the body of cultural knowledge of Māori living in the islands of New Zealand. It includes observations about the world, and these observations are often interpreted in terms of myth. Other populations in New Zealand also have their traditional knowledge, derived from the knowledge systems of their societies of origin. Similarly, their traditional knowledge embodies non-scientific dimensions, and often include false ideas, but no one expects these ideas to be taught as science.

Popper’s Principle of Falsification

Today we agree that any assertion, knowledge or theory should be testable, and possibly superseded by new knowledge or theory, if it is to be accepted as science. It stands to be rejected completely if proved false. Naturally, tests of scientific truth are diverse, including verification, falsification, observation, experiment and comparison of models (which can range from informal notions of consistency-with-evidence, up to comparison of statistical models). Theory becomes particularly powerful when it demonstrates explanatory and predictive power.

Knowledge acquired by indigenous peoples over tens of thousands of years was based on observation, testing and evaluation, and was critical to their survival in the harsh environments in which they lived. It must be affirmed that the indigenous knowledge of Māori and other indigenous people was and remains highly valuable, but it is not only indigenous people who have had to resolve how best to live and thrive, but European peoples and, indeed, all people on this planet.  

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Decolonising Education?

We acknowledge the growing literature on mātauranga Māori and indigenous knowledge around the world, especially within the social sciences. Today, several Māori scholars write extensively on the role of mātauranga Māori in informing social, environmental, public health and economic policy and, indeed, politics and race relations. Possibly, many Māori, and particularly Māori academics, are uncomfortable with non-Māori who take a reductionist approach.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed the role of methodology in producing indigenous insights (Smith, 2016). She is a critic of the Enlightenment philosophy, calls for decolonisation of our education system and has published a highly controversial book on this matter (Smith, 1999). Smith reminds us that indigenous knowledge extends beyond the environment and embodies values and principles about human behaviour and ethics, relationships, wellness and living a good life (p. 182). We agree that in this sense indigenous knowledge can go well beyond common knowledge.

Smith also reminds us that, in the past, universities have played a role in colonisation. Smith believes that Māori are best positioned to understand their own society and that research into Māori culture and history, undertaken by non-Māori, can be a tool of colonialization and oppression. However, in a review of Smith’s book, Peter Munz suggests that what Smith refers to as colonising research is simply engagement in critical scrutiny of a culture’s parochial self-image (Munz, 1999). Munz’ view is that referring to such research as colonising constitutes emotional politics. We acknowledge the wrongs done to Māori in the past and we agree that Māori suffered through colonialism, but we fear that labels such as ‘colonising’ are counterproductive and could create division between Māori and others.

As another example, Georgina Tuari Stewart has promoted a typology of Pakeha “Whiteness” in education (Stewart, 2020). Her typology may well reflect the experiences of many Māori at the hands of others. However, there is an obvious danger that such articles advance political agendas rather than constitute robust research, and bring a concomitant danger of conflating science with the promulgation of political perspectives. Even well-intentioned articles on social or political issues, such as racism or poverty, do not constitute research unless certain criteria are met, including elements of investigation, testing, evaluation, critical analysis and debate.

The authors of the Listener letter accepted that mātauranga Māori has significant contributions to make and they made this point very clear. In fact, the New Zealand research community has embraced mātauranga Māori for many years and has recognised its potential to complement particular areas of science. Māori Studies departments (or similar) and professorships have been established at several universities and today mātauranga Māori research is vibrant. In recent years much scholarly material on mātauranga Māori has become available to the public and two recent editions of the New Zealand Science Review (the Official Journal of the New Zealand Association of Scientists) were devoted exclusively to mātauranga Māori (New Zealand Science Review, 2019 and 2020).

Indigenous Knowledge in the School Curriculum

Different people hold to different definitions of science (which itself may be part of the underlying problem). For example, the International Science Council defines science as the systematic organization of knowledge that can be rationally explained and reliably applied (International Science Council, 2021). However, mātauranga Māori is taonga, and belongs to one specific cultural group, while science is universal and created by, and open to, all cultures. Of course, the professional practice of science involves advanced training, established methods, cooperation and peer-review.

Though the mythological aspects of mātauranga Māori and other indigenous knowledge (including spiritual ideas) fulfil important functions, frequently they clash with modern science if they are taken literally. Perhaps we can define knowledge as the state of knowing about or being familiar with something – a state that can emerge through scrutiny of evidence. Though knowledge may require belief, it is nevertheless very distinct from belief.

Discussing indigenous knowledge in school curricula is highly valuable and rightly celebrates the world views and histories of indigenous people, but teaching mythologies as accepted truth in mainstream science curricula at schools or universities is highly questionable. The story of Ranginui, the Sky Father (or the Heavens), is a beautiful myth that should be celebrated and passed to future generations. Other indigenous people and various religions have their own creation myths (Christianity and Islam, for example). Such myths are fascinating and enriching stories for our children, but to teach them in science class may lead to confusion. Indeed, it seems that some creation myths bear similarities with the currently-accepted scientific explanation for the origin of the universe – the so-called ‘Big Bang’. For many children, the Ranginui myth could promote discussion on how science and legends often complement each other  – but also are frequently at odds. However, to make it quite clear – the elements of the Periodic Table originate from the big bang, stars, supernovae explosions and neutron star mergers, and were not created by Ranginui or any other mythical being.

We do not wish to revisit the Scopes Monkey Trial of the United States, where in 1925 a Tennessee high school teacher, John Scopes, was tried for contravening Tennessee’s Butler Act which had made it illegal to teach human evolution in state schools. Other countries have struggled with similar issues to the Scopes Trial.

In a recent letter to the Royal Society Te Apārangi, Richard Dawkins puts it this way:

The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Māori myths. Why choose Māori 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 Māori 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.

It lies within our democratic rights to contest ideological ideas and debate them publicly, and debate should include the place of mātauranga Māori and other indigenous knowledge within science curricula.

Systemic Racism in Science?

Where is the evidence of systemic racism in science? We acknowledge assertions that systemic racism exists on the basis of disparities in rates of Māori representation in science by comparison with representation of other demographic groups; for example, McAllister (2021). We also acknowledge anecdotal reporting of Māori experiences of racism in academia; for example, Ngata (2021). The truth or otherwise of systemic racism (or sexism) in science is difficult to determine objectively. We acknowledge such assertions but, though bias in the past has given rise to problems of today, not every disparity reflects racial bias in the present. Racial bias today as the major or exclusive cause of disparity may be real but is a perspective that lacks evidence other than anecdotal. We agree that Māori and other indigenous peoples have experienced oppression and, unfortunately, the inter-generational effects are felt to this day. These lasting effects have yet to be completely overcome but, just as science is universal, so too is oppression.

Indeed, the professors agreed that science has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. But, though we should be acutely aware of our history, the present generation is not to blame for the wrongs of the past. Science is not at fault here. Rather, the fault may lie in the way that the authority of science, established through empiricism and falsifiability, has been manipulated for political, economic or social ends. 

We also recognise that, over the last century in particular, science and technology have been used to support dominance and oppression. However, in the letter to the Listener we see no suggestion of intellectual arrogance, intolerance, racist or adverse political views, nor of any attempt to advance a particular social agenda. Whether or not one agrees with it, we see the letter as a genuine attempt to defend modern science and protect the integrity of our education system. Surely, the letter should have provoked valid debate and constructive criticism over one critical point – that science is not exclusively a Western European invention. Instead, it has evolved through the contributions of numerous researchers of diverse backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities. For example, the word algebra is derived from the Arabic term, al-jabr, and algebra itself was greatly advanced by the Persian mathematician and astronomer, al-Khwarizmi, and other Islamic scholars, in addition to European and other scholars world-wide.

Further, science does not provide substantive evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous people. The fact that over twenty per cent of Nobel Prize winners in science are historically-persecuted indigenous Ashkenazi Jews (much less than one per cent of the world’s population) should help to counter that misconception.

Treatment of the Letter Authors

Many in New Zealand’s research community feel that reactions to the stated views of the seven professors have been harsh and unfair. In particular, the following reactions to the letter are of concern:

  1. The University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor describing how the letter caused considerable hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni (Auckland University, 2021).
  2. A statement that the letter is a sign that there are bigger issues; that people are allowed to have these views and they’re fomenting away in the university; and that this perspective is dangerous, not only for current academics, but future academics (Melanie Mark-Shadbolt in The Hui, 2021).
  3. The open response by Professor Shaun Hendy and Dr Siouxsie Wiles, stating that mistrust in science stems from science’s ongoing role in perpetuating ‘scientific’ racism, justifying colonisation and continuing support of systems that create injustice (quoted in Wiggins, 2021). The open letter resulted in more than two thousand signatures.

The dearth of signatories working in the sciences, such as chemistry, physics and mathematics, to the open response speaks for itself and should have been a clear warning sign. The more than two thousand signatories against the letter to the Listener is reminiscent of the “One Hundred Authors against Einstein” article, published in 1931. The lack of eminent physicists on that list was also very apparent but Einstein’s witty response was that in order to defeat relativity one did not need the word of one hundred scientists – just one fact.

We acknowledge the frustration of Māori in relation to the difficulties they most probably have faced in the past in pursuing academic careers. We acknowledge the pain of Māori resulting from colonialism and suppression of their language, and this pain is very palpable in the Hui interview with Tina Ngata, Dr Rangi Mātāmua and Melanie Mark-Shadbolt (The Hui, 2021) and in other fora. We agree that mātauranga Māori offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems. We agree that open discussion and analysis should take place of the ways in which science has supported the dominance of Eurocentric views and supported colonisation; though, as we have said earlier, it is the misappropriation of science that is at fault, rather than science itself. However, we disagree with the proposed changes to the school curriculum which would put mātauranga Māori on a par with science. Equally, we do not agree that the diminishing role of indigenous knowledge in science is another tool for exclusion and exploitation (quoted in Wiggins, 2021).

Public Rejection of the Letter

There is widespread concern at the public rejection of the letter by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, suggesting that it, too, believes that the diminishing role of indigenous knowledge in science is another tool for exclusion and exploitation. This notion is wrong and dangerous, and is likely to discourage both Māori and non-Māori from entering the sciences. Science undergoes constant change through the work of many scientists of all cultural groups, including Māori. And – to make it quite clear – science is neither sexist, nor racist, nor colonial. Surely, it is the social and political appropriation of scientific theories or findings, but not science itself, that creates problems.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi Code of Professional Standards and Ethics states the following:

  1. Justice requires that people are treated fairly and equitably
  2. Respect for persons means respecting an individual’s right to make choices and hold views, and to take actions based on their own values and beliefs
  3. Duty of care describes the obligations that a reasonable person owes to others who may be affected by their acts or omissions.

Arguably, in the debate immediately following publication of the letter, the Royal Society Te Apārangi missed a good opportunity to engage in the relevant scientific discussions, and we ask whether the treatment of the letter authors was fair and equitable. Were they accorded full rights to hold views in accordance with the Tertiary Education Act 1989; in their case, considered professional opinions?

Matters have since become even more serious and in November 2021 the Royal Society Te Apārangi announced an investigation that may lead to expulsion of two of the professors from its ranks (i.e. have their fellowships revoked); these are-biological scientist, Garth Cooper, and Professor of Philosophy, Robert Nola (unfortunately, the third member of this group, Mike Corballis, admired by many, including world-renowned psychologist Steven Pinker, passed away recently). Others have threatened to resign their fellowships, possibly because of both the investigation and encroachment on academic freedoms. Have the possible reputational and professional impacts of the investigation on the two professors been considered or, for that matter, the possible damage that this action could bring to our national and international reputation? See, for example, the recent article by Jerry Coyne (Coyne, 2021).

Position Statement

New Zealand is a democratic society which purportedly values and protects free speech. We agree with Dr Wiles that academic freedom is a privilege that comes with responsibilities (Wong, 2021). Free speech is not unlimited but its limits have to be defined carefully in an open and democratic society; otherwise, we become dictatorial. Telling the truth can hurt, and here the truth is necessary for a proper discussion of our education system. Why punish a scientist for defending science? (Young, 2021).

Genuine racism hurts those who are targeted by it. But, equally, it hurts when those who comment in good faith on critical issues such as the place of indigenous knowledge in science are accused publicly of racism when there is no such intent. 

Here we quote from Karl Popper:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them (Popper, 1945).

We like to think of New Zealand as a progressive, twenty-first century multi-cultural (and not only bi-cultural) nation with a bright future, and sometimes we make very bold claims for ourselves. In research, for example, we claim to have a ‘number eight fencing wire’ approach to our work. So, if we do not have sufficient funding to purchase equipment, we make it ourselves and we punch above our weight relative to other nations. We like to think that we can look the international community in the face and speak of our track record on human rights, equality of opportunity for women, men and minorities in the workplace, and in our embracing of diversity.

However, the current action against the authors of the letter to the Listener goes against the fundamental principles of a progressive and democratic nation, is morally indefensible and must stop immediately. Also concerning are allegations of racism and protection of privilege prior to significant public discussions about the place of mātauranga Māori in science teaching.

Many researchers and, indeed, some Royal Society Te Apārangi Fellows, dare not speak out (as we are told in private) because they stand to be attacked in an aggressive manner by ideologists and because of fear of losing their positions. An open rather than a closed society is necessary if scholarship is to prosper.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi should review its actions in order to avoid considerable damage to its reputation as a proponent of research, science and technology in New Zealand. New Zealand should be proud to have internationally highly-acclaimed academics who are the conscience and critic of our society rather than attempt to silence them.


The authors are very grateful to Māori and Pasifika colleagues, policy-makers and scientists for helpful discussion during the preparation of this article.


The views expressed in this article represent the opinions of the authors only and are not intended to represent their employers or any other bodies to which the authors are affiliated.


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