Thursday, August 5, 2021

Bruce Moon: Let's Be Clear About Science

It is reported in “ideasroom” for 1st August 2021 that Professor Stephen May has explained “how mātauranga Māori is a complementary counterweight to the arrogance and insularity of so much European thought.” Now that is a bold and sweeping statement indeed and might even be asserted to display some of the very “arrogance and insularity” he condemns in others.

There may be concepts and knowledge of some value in matauranga Maori and it would be arrogant and insular indeed for anybody to say otherwise without some study – but there are other considerations.

Professor May appropriately refers to the insight of philosopher Karl Popper – who at one stage taught at the University of Canterbury – that an intrinsic property of science is that it is falsifiable, that is to say that it can be replaced by better science as more information becomes available which he proceeds to claim is “simply nonsense”. He goes on to take the example of “scientific racism” which has indeed been falsified which does rather prove Popper’s thesis. So the acid test of matauranga Maori remains: if it is to be accepted as science, is it in principle falsifiable, i.e. shown to be wrong? If not then it cannot be more than a set of ad hoc beliefs, opinions and dogma.

May continues: “falsifiability doesn’t necessarily change values, beliefs, or preconceptions” which is indeed so – and of course applies equally to proponents of matauranga Maori as anybody else. Scientific investigation is a very human activity; scientists are after all first and foremost human beings. I recall reading that the brilliant physical chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald took a long time to accept the atomic nature of matter, if he ever truly did. Again, in 1796 in Philadelphia, Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, defended the preceding theory of “phlogiston” which his research had so thoroughly displaced!

And again, May refers to Thomas Kuhn whose insight it was that science proceeds in a sequence of jumps or steps – paradigm shifts – and of course some will accept a new paradigm more quickly than others; those whose intellectual effort has rested most heavily on the older paradigm being naturally inclined to be reluctant to abandon it. For May to equate Kuhn’s work with “colonialism” (which I remark was the saviour of Maoris from themselves) is bizarre, to say the least.

Then, May’s introduction of the deplorable treatment of indigenous children in Canada, tragic in every way, is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. No Maori was ever forcibly confined to a reservation in New Zealand like the truly indigenous people of Canada and Australia. Indeed, “native schools” were set up by a benevolent government in the colonial period, specifically to teach Maori children the “Three Rs” - reading, writing and ’rithmetic. There are many people today who would make political capital out of the fact that children in them were punished for speaking in Maori. They conceal facts like the 1876 petition of Wi Te Hakiro and 336 others that “there should not be a word of Maori allowed to be spoken in the [native] school.”

May is quite wrong in asserting his colleagues’ “dismissal of MM, and indigenous knowledge more broadly”. In the first place, as I read it, they did not “dismiss” MM - matauranga Maori – they simply said that as it stood, it is not science while leaving open the issue of whether any part of it might in due course be added to the corpus of that international activity which is science. In the second place, despite the many loud voices proclaiming that Maoris are “indigenous” that is simply untrue and indeed May’s introducing it in the same breath as MM must raise questions about his objectivity and capacity to utilise scientific methods. Put briefly, we know within close limits, where the Maoris came from, whence they came and how they got here – we even know the names of the vessels in which they arrived! So they fail the test of indigeneity and moreover they proceeded ruthlessly to exterminate the earlier truly indigenous inhabitants.

Now, again, there is no rule to state that scientists can never be wrong and “The Unfortunate Experiment” and Herbert Green’s “idea” about cervical cancer to which May refers are cases in point but better and more appropriate scientific investigations have falsified them so May has no argument there. And indeed there is sometimes fake science. Scientists, being human, have their share of rogues just like bankers, university professors, politicians and those who would grossly distort the history of New Zealand for political ends, for example with respect to a fake “partnership” embedded in or derived from the Treaty of Waitangi but that is another story!

So, Professor May, your Vice-Chancellor, “scholar” Tina Ngata, and other supporters whom you mention, if I may quote you, “how tired and tiresome [your] kind of thinking is, and yet how pervasive and pernicious its effects still remain.”

Bruce Moon, VRD, MSc(Hons NZ), MSc*(Lond), FInstP(UK), HFITP, is a retired computer pioneer who wrote "Real Treaty; False Treaty - The True Waitangi Story".


DeeM said...

From his online University of Auckland biography - "Stephen May is a Professor in Te Puna Wānanga (School of Māori and Indigenous Education) in the Faculty of Education and Social Work"..."He is an international authority on language rights, language policy, bilingualism and bilingual education and critical multicultural approaches to education"

Very impressive woke credentials indeed. His academic position and standing is only enhanced by the promotion of all things Maori so you can hardly expect a reasoned response. His condemnation of his colleagues just because they don't hold his views is typical of the woke brigade.
Instead of discussing and debating their differences, it's much more effective to condemn and call for their resignation. That way you don't have to question your own beliefs and you can stay in your ivory tower untroubled by alternative viewpoints.

Professor May sums up perfectly everything that is wrong with our universities today.

Ken Millward said...

Sadly our hallowed halls of academia have become more akin to lunatic asylum's
than venues of knowledge and light. To make it even worse and destroy all hope of the reasoned and objective pursuit of knowledge, that once august body, The Royal Society, have also become enthusiastic members of the lunatic
(fringe)now mainstream. Our accelerating great leap back into the dark ages would have huge approval from the likes of Pol Pot, Chairman Mao etc...

Unknown said...

Professor May epitomises everything which is wrong with our universities today! BM

Empathic said...

Thanks for more straight-talking elegance Bruce. It's difficult to imagine what our civilization will become as we increasingly lose the right to free speech and allow the woke, cancel culture lemmings to keep spreading their dishonest propaganda and fascist control.

Jigsaw said...

How ironic that this controversy is happening here in New Zealand when as Bruce Moon points out Karl Popper lived and worked here and did much of his greatest work here in considering the philosophy of science and of the scientific method.
That someone like May can make such an elementary error in mixing what is effectively religion and belief with science shows how weak and pathetic our universities have become.
Popper himself as a Austrian Jew was fleeing just the sort of prejudice that is all to evident these days in this very country.

Bruce said...

Much clarity of thought on these issues can be gained from the writings of Thomas Sowell the American economist -- ref his book " Intellectuals and Society". He says that The (leftist ) intellectuals are the problem.(There is a good series of interviews with Peter Robinson).
When you look at 'printed' Maori words, it is obvious that many are contrived 'pigeon english' versions of words originating in other languages, mainly English.EG;- 'tirity for treaty & konui for kayak/canoe.I am no language expert, but I would expect there would be many hundreds of such examples.
If the language is being contrived in this way,it is obvious that the culture and history are also being contrived to some degree. With oral traditions, embellishment is to be expected - it is human nature.