Thursday, November 24, 2022

Bob Brockie: The Science v. Matauranga rumpus still smoulders

There has been considerable debate over the last few years on how mātauranga Māori should be regarded in relation to world knowledge and especially science. The Science/Matauranga rumpus still smoulders.

Summarising: In a Listener letter, seven Auckland professors wrote that Maori knowledge (matauranga) ‘falls far short of what we define as science’. The professors were alarmed that the government wants schools to give the same weight to matauranga as to science. Matauranga is a complex set of ideas — a mix of pre-European mythology, traditional and current, knowledge, and ritual. It is virtually a Maori religion.

All Hell broke loose. Outraged critics have attacked the professors for disrespecting Maori thought, ignorance, racism, perpetuating injustices, false, hurtful or demonstrably wrong claims, cherry-picking evidence, or plain ad hominem. The critics miss the point. They attack everything except the professors’ main point – that “matauanga falls far short of what we define as science”.

There was not enough space for the professors to explain why matauranga falls short of science but as I see it:

Science deals with the natural world but matauranga is rooted in the supernatural. Science has plenty of evidence to prove that humanity evolved from apes by Darwinian natural selection. Maori believe the god Tane created people.

Science aims to make universal laws, such as Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, Ohm’s laws of electricity, and Hubble’s law of cosmic expansion. These laws apply in New Zealand as they do on distant galaxies. Matauranga is limited to local situations and local events, and has produced no universal laws.

Writing about matauranga, leading Maori thinker Aroha Te Paraeke Mead writes (2007) that “Maori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, transmission and protection”. By contrast, science is in public hands. Anybody can contribute to it and every word or calculation is open to world-wide challenge and criticism. But challenge matauranga and you’ll be branded a racist, and say goodbye to your funding, promotion, and perhaps your job.

Fourteenth century Polynesians were remarkably skilled at celestial navigation. But world astronomy and navigational techniques have come a long way since then. Twenty-four satellites and a GPS gadget will take you to any spot-on Earth. These days, heroic Maori navigation science is only of antiquarian interest.

The differences between world science and matauranga are so great that they cannot be reconciled. This opinion is shared by Sir Mason Durie who wrote (2020) “You cannot understand science through the tools of matauranga and you can’t understand mataurangi through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge and if you see one of them through the eyes of the other, you mess up.”

Renowned New Zealand scientist Sir Paul Callaghan FRS famously wrote the aim of science is “To make discoveries of permanent value, to transcend nation, race, culture and political perspectives in truly international endeavour, and to collaborate with people all over the world”.

Councillors of today’s Royal Society don’t wear Sir Callaghan’s precepts. They prefer the thinking of French postmodernists Michelle Foucault and Jacques Derrida who assert that science is just another myth like the rest of the world’s myths, and try to knock science off its exalted perch. They argue that there are no such things as facts, only opinions about facts. Everybody’s opinions are of equal value, are to be respected and never challenged. Postmodernists want to empower the marginalised

Parroting Foucault and Derrida, councillors of our Royal Society assert that science is “based on ethnocentric bias and outmoded dualisms (and the power relations embedded in them) ” and they want “to place the Treaty of Waitangi centrally and bring alongside that, inequality and diversity issues holistically”.

But the Treaty is a political document with no scientific content. It has no place in science.

The Society was once the bastion of science in New Zealand. It now champions woke anti-science and paradoxically punishes professors who defend science. Matauranga would best be taught in history or religious studies, certainly not in science.

I know of two eminent professors who have resigned their fellowships of the Society in protest at its political and racial stance. A colleague of mine has resigned his Companionship, as have I.

Bob Brockie MNZM CRSNZ is a New Zealand cartoonist, scientist, columnist, and graphic artist. This article was first published HERE


Robert Arthur said...

The statement from the councillors is a typical example of modern academic tertiary speak. It is not the English as used by Churchill and, despite his intelligence, I suspect he would have struggled to undrstand what it means.
Past science is all documented. Matauranga is not. I gather the UN has ruled that indigenous persons have a right not to disclose lore. So matauranga is, as with many other things maori(te ao. tikanga, mauri, wairua etc etc) whatever they care to define it as at any time.
Maori groups have been paid public monies to experiment placing bone dust etc around infected kauri trees and other random acts on the basis of "matauranga"

Richard Arlidge said...

While I'm no scientist, I feel I have sufficient education and experience to well appreciate what you're saying, Bob. You, and your colleagues that have relinquished their ties with the Society, deserve much credit for remaining faithful to your calling, while those that have bowed to virtue signalling wokeism should keep their heads down in shame - for what they've done is effectively the equivalent of treason.
I can only hope that when Richard Dawkins visits here soon, he again rightly chastises the Society - reigniting worldwide approbrium for the perfidy and hypocrisy the patently prevails within it.

David Lillis said...

Like many others I agree with the sentiments of the professors’ original letter to the Listener and agree that traditional knowledge should not be confused with science or taught as science until tested through the methods of science and shown to be valid.

Many people mean well when they propose traditional knowledge as the equal of science and probably it is also true that many scientists know little of traditional knowledge. The earnestness with which various people assert the equality of the two domains is quite disarming and often their view is based on a limited understanding of science. More unexpected is when this this view comes from professional scientists.

However, it is useful to remember that sometimes traditional knowledge embodies real and demonstrable science and that traditional knowledge served a very valuable purpose throughout the evolutionary history of our species. Can we call science and traditional knowledge ‘partially-overlapping magisteria'? To some extent we have to make judgements on the delineation between science and that which does not quite count as science. If we use Popperian Falsification as the demarcation, then even here we have to make a call as to exactly where the line is to be drawn. Thus, does testing the edibility of fruit of an unfamiliar tree count as falsification or is it simply trial and error? Does Popperian Falsification require a higher level of abstraction and the proving or disproving of an hypothesis? To an extent, we have a value judgement to make here.

I, too, have gone on record in support of the professors and stand against the unclear, if well-meaning, thinking that posits knowledge of centuries ago as the equal of the science of randomised controlled trials, particle physics, waste management and climate change. However, I suggest that we should indeed recognise that traditional knowledge has added value and indeed embraces elements of true science.

Last month I attended a meeting of researchers at the Royal Society Te Aparangi. I spoke of the need for more informed and respectful dialogue from all parties and within all contentious issues. Royal Society Te Aparangi staff spoke of the controversy from their perspective and I learned just how difficult the situation had been from their point of view. Things became acrimonious and personal at times and surely the lesson for all of us is that we have to do better. It may have been believed widely that the Royal Society Te Aparangi had a fixed endgame in mind when embarking on an investigation of certain of its fellows but I believe that this was a misapprehension. It behoves us all to be fair in our dialogue of contentious subjects, particularly in today’s world of social media.

My own perspective, for what it’s worth, is that all traditional knowledge ought to be valued and preserved, but no traditional knowledge of any cultural group, anywhere in the world, should be taught as science until tested and shown to be valid through the methods of science. Nor is there the slightest justification for resourcing traditional knowledge equally to science, however valuable that knowledge may have been in the past. We have duty of care to define clearly what sits within the ambit of science and that which lies beyond, just as we have a critical obligation to exercise the utmost rigour when we test the efficacy of newly-proposed cancer drugs and other treatments.

Advocates of traditional knowledge have a right to be proud of their knowledge, accumulated over millennia, and also to be proud of their cultures. Let’s support them while remaining firm on what it is that constitutes science and stand up to well-intended but misguided thinking. Let’s also give the Royal Society Te Aparangi the opportunity it needs to recover from the recent dispute and emerge as the proponent of science that in truth it is.
David Alexander Lillis

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

Science is a way of knowing; a process rather than a product. This 'way of knowing' is exclusively empirical i.e. based on observation and measurement and not ideology. That's why it is pointless comparing assertions between the two - they do not operate on the same wavelength.

Allen Heath said...

Well done Bob, everything you say is true. How can a mix of animism and nature study ever be considered science?

Anonymous said...

I think we'll find that the purpose of advocating for mātauranga being treated the same way as science is more about trying to ensure a portion of current science funding is now made accessible to those seeking to promote mātauranga. My observation on this along with a lot of other new interpretations of meeting our 'treaty obligations' is a simple case of following the money. Unfortunately that will be at the expense of real science since the overall funding available won't change.

Mudbayripper said...

Anyone buying into the absurd believes ( just about all who attend any university in the western world) of postmodern subjectivisum, need to experiment a little.
I know, try breathing under water for a bit. Science dictates that likely you will drown after a bit.
A postmodernist may apply a subjective view to the outcome of such an act.
We all know who's fooling who.

Anonymous said...

I try to explain matauranga and science by way of a chemistry example. Matauranga: Maori acquired by trial and error observation the knowledge that totara heartwood is durable and good to making canoes and buildings. Science: Chemistry explained why, by extracting heartwood with solvent and using laboratory bioassay methods demonstrated that the durability factor was resident in the extract. Chromatography methods separated the extract into molecular components, each of which could be tested for bioactivity, killing bacteria and fungi. Spectroscopy methods were used the determine the molecular structure of the compounds which had been separated, the major compound named totarol. The biosynthesis process by which totara heartwood cells produce totarol is explained by the Ruzicka isoprene rule. Science explained, using apparatus and methods, why totara heartwood is durable and how the durability is produced. In this case, matauranga may have been the starting point to propel the science. This example of matauranga is unique to Maori as is the traditional, historical totara use. The chemistry science methods are universal as is the Ruzicka isoprene biosynthesis rule.

*** said...

The elevation and promotion of matauranga is a cult. Those engaged in it are not interested in logic and do not respond to logic. Your well-formed, logical argument falls on deaf ears. In NZ, this cult now controls science and education. NZ has become the laughing stock of the world.