Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Martin Hanson: Science, Knowledge, and Myth - The New Priesthood

"We condemn thee, Michael Servetus, to be bound, and led to the place of Champel, there to be fastened to a stake and burnt alive, together with thy book, as well the one written by thy hand as the printed one, even till thy body be reduced to ashes; and thus shalt thou finish thy days to furnish an example to others who might wish to commit the like.”

Thus, in October 1553 Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva for heresy at the behest of Protestant John Calvin (surprisingly, not the Catholic Church, but they were just as keen to see him burn).

His crime? Having the impudence to contradict the teachings of the Church. In addition to calling the Trinity “a  three-headed monster, he had the temerity to show that Galen, a Second Century physician, had been wrong. Galen had taught that blood passed directly from the right to the left side of the heart through invisible pores, but so great had Galen’s authority been that his teachings had become sclerified as religious dogma for the next three quarters of a millennium.

Heresy has never been a crime in New Zealand, but recent events seem to foreshadow a partial return to those Dark Ages. Of course, I’m not suggesting that there’s the remotest risk of physical immolation, but the early signs of threats to Orthodoxy are becoming all-too clear.

* * *

In 1970 a new University Bursary Biology Prescription was introduced, a significant part of which was devoted to Human Evolution. In 1981, with the blessing of the Science Inspectorate, a Teachers’ Guide was produced, titled “The Origin of Man and His Culture.”

Of the 55 pages, 11 were devoted to the Genesis account of six-day creation. Adam, Noah’s Flood, fossil human footprints in Cretaceous rocks – they were all there. In the bibliography ‘Scientific Creationism’ by Henry Morris was among the ‘highly recommended’ references.

Since then, creationism seems to have died a natural death in New Zealand school science education. But it appears to have been resurrected in recently published notes for primary school teachers ( )

After explaining how the “water cycle” is driven by the sun, the notes explain that in a Maori world view, life began with the separation of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatuanuku (earth mother). From them emerged the various atua (gods).

On page 24, under “Animals in a catchment - Teacher notes” one reads (emphasis added):

Tanemahuta and Tangaroa are the children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Tanemahuta is the atua of the forest. He created the plants and animals that inhabit the forest (including humans).

If this were part of a social studies course, there would be no problem, but, one is entitled to ask, what is any view of creation – fundamentalist Christian or Maori – doing in a New Zealand Science course?

Such a question might be seen to be politically ‘inopportune’ after a letter to the NZ Listener (July 23, 2021) by seven Auckland University professors sparked an angry backlash from other academics.

The sentence that generated headlines was:

“In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we define as science itself.”

The letter provoked a furious response from two University of Auckland academics, Shaun Hendy, a Physics Professor, and Dr Siouxsie Wiles, an Associate Professor. Their response was to accuse the authors of the letter of “scientific racism”.

The most significant thing about the backlash was that there was no attempt to confront the key point made by the seven professors, that traditional Māori knowledge is not scientific. They must have known they were on a hiding to nothing, as they would have had to define what scientists mean by ‘science’.

Siouxsie Wiles clearly understands the nature of science. In “Contemporary Feminism: An RNZ panel discussion about art and science” on August 19, 2019, Dr Wiles said:

“I disagree with the premise that scientists are looking for certainty. Maybe that’s true until you start doing experiments. And then you realise the minute you do an experiment, that not only did it not answer the question you asked, but it opened up ten other questions. And so actually, all you have done is realise how little you knew about the thing that you were starting to study. In getting to that understanding, you realise how little you understand.”

So in such a politically neutral environment, Dr Wiles had no difficulty in recognizing the integral role of experiment. But when seven Auckland academics insisted that knowledge gained purely by observation is not the same as knowledge gained by experiment, with wetted fingers aloft, she and Shaun Hendy evidently found it politically expedient to play the ‘race’ card.

To people educated in science, it is an organized way of finding out about how the world works. It’s a methodology in which observations lead to questions, leading to hypotheses, which are then tested by experiment. It’s known as the ‘scientific method’.

To most lay people however, ‘science’ is the knowledge that has been gained by that process; what’s taught as ‘science’ in primary schools.

It’s clear that Hendy and Wiles have chosen to use the ‘primary school’ meaning of ‘science’; this enabled them to avoid the issue of whether traditional Maori knowledge is scientific.

Since their initial response, Hendy and Wiles have been busy and are the leading co-signatories to an open response to the Listener.

In response to the Professors’ statement that “science itself does not colonise”, they say that (emphasis added) “colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge.”

While the seven professors clearly understand the difference between ‘science’ and ‘scientists’, Wiles and Hendy don’t, so as a retired high school teacher, I’ll have to give them a helping hand.

It’s simple; whereas scientists have normal human weaknesses, ‘science’ is an abstract noun and thus can have no motives or moral feelings.

This did not stop University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater from saying that the Listener letter caused "considerable hurt and dismay" among staff and students.

In a different context, Richard Dawkins had this to say to those who feel that universities should protect people from ideas they don’t like:

“A university is not a ‘safe space’. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.”

That over two thousand such ‘snowflakes’ have put their names to this nonsense should be worrying. This is especially so in the light of Freshwater’s reported statement to staff that the letter “did not represent the university's views.”

If I were a member of staff, I should be concerned to be told that the University has a ‘view’ on any matter. Political parties have views, and if members disagree, they are free to leave, and indeed may be encouraged to do so.

But Auckland University is not (yet) a political party. Universities are supposed to be centres of learning, an integral part of which is robust debate. Either the signatories really are incapable of clear thinking, or they have signed it for reasons of career expediency. It brings to mind the American novelist Upton Sinclair’s remark:

“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Whatever the explanation, it is a sad day for New Zealand when free speech is considered to be politically risky. An institution that cannot deal with diversity of opinion is a priesthood; it has no right to call itself a university. Rutherford must be spinning in his grave.

Martin Hanson is a retired King's College science teacher and author of school textbooks, who now lives in Nelson.


DeeM said...

I absolutely agree Martin.
Today we have scientists who follow the scientific method and produce research founded on actual observation and experiment, but who are never consulted by governments and who are never interviewed by the media.
Then you have celebrity scientists who are sometimes ex-scientists who have embraced woke ideology for the sake of their careers, reputations or the fame it has endowed on them. You also have pseudo-scientists, aka political activists, who are not scientists at all, made clear by the content and analysis contained in their so-called research papers. This is the group sought out by our current government and promoted as the font of all knowledge.

Our universities have abandoned freedom of thought and opinion for groupthink. If you don't conform you're ostracised.
It is becoming depressing to hear the same trite line about causing "hurt and dismay" trotted out every time someone questions the validity of claims of Maori rights, knowledge and achievement. Accusing all white people of being colonialists and racists is just fine and no thought needs to be given to their feelings.
Classic Marxism with the poor oppressed who can do no wrong being victimised by the evil oppressor, who can do no right.
As we all know, nothing is black and white (not being racist I trust) but that is the world we are living in at present.

Doug Longmire said...

Well said Martin and Dee.

As anyone who has had a scientific tertiary education knows - science has no race, religion, loyalty or creed.
Science, in a simplistic nutshell, is seeking facts and finding out how things work. Facts that can be challenged and tested by experiment.
The stupid accusation that "science has been used by colonisers" or words to that effect, is ridiculous.
One could equally say that metal tools are "racist" or that written language is racist.

Doug Longmire said...

Repeating what I have said previously:-
I support the Magnificent Seven completely.

I worked for 20 years for Medsafe as an advisory Pharmacist. This role involved me in having to apply the scientific principle to assessing various medical and quasi-medical products and claims.
This experience has led me to the total conclusion that the scientific method in assessing quasi-scientific claims or beliefs is paramount.

From what I have read - the above Seven applied those proven principles in their assessment of "Maori Science". For this, they have been punished by the wokarati.

Ray S said...

Well written and logical.
We did have a heresy case back in the 60's. His name was Lloyd Geering. I dont recall the outcome suffice to say it got a lot of attention at the time.

Cathy Daltry said...

“An institution that cannot deal with diversity of opinion is a priesthood”.
Thank you for your clear view, Martin, and your bravery. Science and academia are under attack but people will not remain ignorant as long as knowledgeable people speak up and there are platforms for them to be heard.

captainofthegate said...

The removal of Christian faith from our lives created a vacuum, into which has rushed Scientism, amongst other stupidities. Logic and argument is a quaint notion, easily ignored. Fear is the marinate sauce we have been boiling in. Fear spewed out by propagandistic media, politicians, tiny tyrants in every small community. A return to pre-Calvinistic order might not be the bogey man you fear.

Lesley Stephenson said...

It's pretty obvious why the media and govt.give Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles so much air time. The Govt. uses them as scientific advisors because they agree to uphold Govt.ideals and don't say anything against Govt policy. Both looking for knighthoods maybe! Think Siouxsie has already got some NZer of the year or similar. Is that what you call 'selling your soul'?

Anonymous said...

The history needs to be clarified. The Servitus incident served as a blight on Calvin’s career, sullying his reputation and costing him support. Servitus was hated by both Catholics and Protestants for his views, especially for his divergence from orthodox trinitarian doctrine and for anabaptism, both of which would have cost him his life under the Justinian Code (something he himself would have been aware of, having studied law). In fact, the Catholic Inquisition already had him sentenced to a slow burning but had to settle on burning his effigy after he escaped from them. When he then unwisely turned up in 1553 at Geneva he was spotted, arrested, and tried. At times Calvin was considered by even some of his followers as excessive in his demands and his drive for capital punishment for Servitus was probably the worst example. But the Swiss churches did not advise capital punishment and in this case, it was the Swiss civil authorities, still by no means wholly subservient to Calvinism, who overrode both Calvin and the 1543 edicts which prescribed banishment rather than capital punishment. The Council was presided over by the powerful Ami Perrin, the main civil opponent of Calvin, who saw to it that the more severe penalties under the Justinian Code which had earlier been put aside in Geneva were revived for the case of Servetus and Calvin’s pleas for a milder form of quick death ignored.


John Raat said...

Both Wiles and Handy know to well what side their bread is buttered.
Nuff said

Don said...

Brilliant letter that deserves a national audience ,Martin.
To Doug's reminder that science has no race, religion ,loyalty or creed add "emotion."
That university staff express "hurt and dismay" over scientific method makes one wonder about their fitness for the job.