Monday, December 6, 2021

Point of Order: Why our Royal Society is investigating defenders of science?

Soon after the latest National Party line-up was announced this afternoon, Newshub was reporting who had finished up with higher rankings than before and who had slipped.

Chris Luxon’s election as leader last week obviously led to his being catapulted from number 29 to number one. Nicola Willis, his deputy, jumped from 16 to two, while Simon Bridges was up from seven to three, two places below where he was this time two years ago.

And former leader Judith Collins?

With Luxon ascending to the leadership, Collins has taken a big tumble. She has fallen from one to 19, so just inside Luxon’s shadow Cabinet.

But Point of Order was less interested in who has been placed where in the party pecking order than in who will be handling which shadow portfolios.

In the case of Judith Collins, she has been given a portfolio – research, science , innovation and technology – that should present a worthy challenge to someone who relishes being known as “Crusher”.

It also happens to be a more politically fraught domain than perhaps she imagines because it will require her to decide if she should publicly declare she is a champion of science and of scientists.

She will quickly learn that champions of science and of scientists in this country can end up being subjected to a modern-day inquisition and heresy trial administered by big-wigs and poobahs of the very organisation which (you would think) should staunchly uphold the right of scientists to publicly say what they think about science.

We refer to the publicly funded Royal Society of New Zealand,  which is this country’s equivalent to the Royal Society, formally The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded on 28 November 1660 and the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences.

 The society fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

Does our Royal Society do the same thing?

We ask because Kiwiblog at the weekend posted an item headed The Spectator asks why the Royal Society of NZ punishes scientists for defending science?

As Kiwiblog’s David Farrar observed, this meant the international media had picked up the story of how the Royal Society of NZ might expel members it regarded as heretics.

Written by associate editor Toby Young,  the article in The Spectator was headed Why punish a scientist for defending science?

Actually, as Point of Order recorded last week,  disciplinary action is being taken against two esteemed academics.

  • Professor Garth Cooper, described on the University of Auckland website as one of New Zealand’s foremost biological scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs.
  • Robert Nola, emeritus professor of the philosophy of science.

The society has called off its action against a third academic,  Michael Corballis, who died earlier in November.

Toby Young reported on the disciplinary investigation of Professor Cooper, explaining that this distinguished scientist was at risk of being expelled from New Zealand’s most prestigious academic society

The reason?

According to Young:

Several months ago he was one of seven signatories to a letter in the New Zealand Listener that took issue with a proposal by a government working group that schools should give the same weight to Maori mythology as they do to science in the classroom. That is, the Maori understanding of the world — that all living things originated with Rangi and Papa, the sky mother and sky god, for instance — should be presented as just as valid as the theories of Galileo, Newton and Darwin.

That is, the Maori understanding of the world — that all living things originated with Rangi and Papa, the sky mother and sky god, for instance — should be presented as just as valid as the theories of Galileo, Newton and Darwin.

As Young points out:

The authors of the letter, ‘In Defence of Science’, were careful to say that indigenous knowledge was ‘critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy’ and should be taught in New Zealand’s schools. But they drew the line at treating it as on a par with physics, chemistry and biology: ‘In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.’

In a rational world, Young reasons, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial.

Surely the argument about whether to teach schoolchildren scientific or religious explanations for the origins of the universe and the ascent of man was settled by the Scopes trial in 1925? Apart from the obvious difficulty of prioritising one religious viewpoint in an ethnically diverse society like New Zealand (what about Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?), there is the problem that Maori schoolchildren, already among the least privileged in the country, will be at an even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge. Knowing about Rangi and Papa won’t get you into medical school.

Point of Order readers will know what happened next.  The views of the authors, all professors at the University of Auckland, were denounced by our Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Tertiary Education Union, their own vice-chancellor – and by fellow academics:

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

Toby Young likens this to a witch hunt:

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

Young urged The Spectator’s readers to write letters pointing out the absurdity of punishing a scientist for engaging in debate about the validity of science.  He provided the email address of Roger Ridley, chief executive, at and concluded:

Remember, the only thing necessary for the triumph of intellectual intolerance is for believers in free speech to do nothing.

The two academics might recant, of course.  But let’s suppose they don’t budge (as seems likely) and are found guilty of heresy (which can’t be ruled out, no matter the absurdity)?

Point of Order has encouraging news.  At some time in the future their reputations (and mana?) may well be restored.

In 1992, the Vatican apologised for condemning Galileo as a heretic 359 years earlier and admitted the astronomer had a point.

In 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei, one of the founders of modern science, to recant his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun. Under threat of torture, Galileo… recanted. But as he left the courtroom, he is said to have muttered, ‘all the same, it moves’.

Last week, 359 years later, the Church finally agreed. At a ceremony in Rome, before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was right. The formal rehabilitation was based on the findings of a committee of the Academy the Pope set up in 1979, soon after taking office. The committee decided the Inquisition had acted in good faith, but was wrong.

All going well, it won’t come to that in the case of the Kiwi scientists who have become the modern-day equivalent of Galileo.

But whatever happens, Judith Collins will soon find there’s much more to the politics of science Down Under than perhaps she imagined.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton.

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