Thursday, July 27, 2023

Brian Gill: Who promotes science thinking when everyone defers to culture?

With New Zealand science agencies shy to push the general power and wonder of science, and instead applauding ethnic world views, the science view-point flounders.

 The seven University of Auckland academics whose letter to the Listener in July 2021 provoked what a former newspaper editor called "the full, vindictive fury of the woke academic left", weren't just concerned that a government educational working group proposed making science and Maori knowledge of the natural world equivalent in the school science curriculum.  They also worried generally about "disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding".


Poor grasp of science isn't hard to find.  There were media reports in May 2022 that AgResearch, a government science agency, had launched a Maori Research and Partnership Group to help Maori-led agribusinesses "conduct their research in a safe space, where their matauranga was protected".  But all scientific findings must be open to scrutiny and criticism.  Protecting ideas in "safe spaces" is more like religion or totalitarianism than science, but nobody was pointing that out.


It's the perfect time for science groups to promote science's history and philosophy, and make clear the power of the modern scientific method.  The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) publicises individual science projects that it funds.  But it and other science groups seem strangely silent on the benefits of science thinking generally.


The RSNZ, formerly our science academy, in 2010 amalgamated with the Humanities Council.  It now focuses heavily on Maori and Pacific culture and identity, and promotes what it calls "multiple knowledge domains" with science rather off to one side.  The RSNZ rejected the Listener letter-writers' "narrow and outmoded definition of science".  That's the former science body responding under influence of the humanities, which often portrays science as merely one of many world views, all equally valid.  It's a serious problem that New Zealand now lacks an academy devoted solely to science.  


The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) claims to be "an independent body that stands for and advocates for science and scientists".  Yet, after the letter of the "Listener Seven", the NZAS seemed to have a new ideological purpose.  Instead of supporting science and the letter-writers, it stated in its press release that science "has an ongoing history of colonising when it speaks over Indigenous voices" and that matauranga Maori (traditional knowledge) has "equal importance and role in scientific work".


In the new school science curriculum the Ministry of Education has included "mauri" (a mystical force that some believe is present in animate and inanimate objects).  Other cultures have a similar concept ("vitalism") but in Europe it was discredited as part of science in the early 1800s.  Shamefully, the science organisations have been tight-lipped on this important issue in science philosophy, seemingly unwilling to defend science thinking in schools.  


Perhaps they consider science too powerful to need promotion.  Or they may feel that too strong an advocacy for the scientific method makes other world views look inadequate.  They might just be falling in line with the current attitude of the liberal (some say "illiberal") left, that "Western" institutions deserve no praise.


With science agencies missing in action, allow me a moment to articulate some of the characteristics of science.


(1) Universality.  Modern science has roots in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe so it isn't "Western".  Science today is an international and universal endeavour.  There is only one kind of science and it has no national, regional or cultural varieties.  Talk of "Western science" or "Indigenous science", meaning particular kinds of science, betrays poor understanding.  Concepts can be part of science only if they are known and understood around the world by scientists irrespective of cultural background.


(2) Evidence.  Science holds the world to be intelligible, rejecting spiritual and supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.  Science is guided by tangible evidence collected from activities like measurement, experimentation, double-blind trials and computer modelling.  Current scientific findings are those best supported by the evidence.  


(3) Endless scrutiny.  Science needs a free exchange of ideas.  All scientific findings are provisional.  Results must be repeatable.  Scientists test and try to falsify hypotheses.  Constant challenge and revision strengthens science rather than weakening it.


(4) Objectivity.  Scientists are people, with human frailties and biases, but the strict scientific method compels them to put feelings aside and, in their scientific work, at least strive for objectivity.  Before publication, scientific results are checked by peers, often anonymously.


(5) Grand theories.  Cultures may generate specific, local information about the natural world, but science goes beyond facts to deep understanding.  This yields general and unifying explanations of nature (atomic structure, gravity, evolution by natural selection) with unprecedented power and utility.


(6) Openness and publication.  Science and writing are interlinked.  For several centuries scientists have made a permanent, detailed written record of their findings.  Publication enables easy scrutiny of current and past results and allows findings to be transmitted accurately (via libraries and the internet) around the world and through time.  Publication makes science open and available (though often with access fees in neoliberal economies).  Once published, scientists can't control and limit access to their knowledge, and neither do they wish to.


(7) Neutrality.  Science is a method.  It is neutral and cannot be blamed for misapplications of its findings.  Science does not "colonise", "marginalise" or "oppress".  It cannot be racist or sexist.  Only individuals can do or be those things.


All these characteristics describe a brilliant system with a unique and pre-eminent role in modern society, but our science bodies seem too coy to tell us.  Perhaps the RSNZ should de-merge to release science from the stifling embrace of the humanities.  Or the RSNZ could at least allow its "multiple knowledge domains" to speak separately even if at times they contradict each other.  We may need a new organisation: "Advocates for Science".  It would be for those prepared to put science thinking ahead of social justice activism.


Brian Gill is an Auckland zoologist.  His most recent book, promoting natural history to the general reader, is "The Unburnt Egg: More Stories of a Museum Curator" (


Peter Young said...

Well said, Brian. I don't know how many scientists we have in New Zealand, but those 2000-odd woke group-think individuals that signed the Hendy/Wiles letter suggests that to get the 'AVS' up and running, it's going to be something of an uphill battle.

All the best with that - but a very sad indictment of how the 'way' of science has been 'lost' by many of your colleagues and how corrupt the RSNZ has become. Who said He Puapua is not policy?

A said...

”Protecting ideas in "safe spaces" is more like religion or totalitarianism than science, but nobody was pointing that out.”

Exactly right. I think the closest analog to the current moment is the upheaval experienced during the period we now refer to as the Protestant Reformation. However, that also suggests that de-merging the RSNZ or setting up a new organisation advocating for science is likely insufficient.

As I commented in a previous blogpost (see: I suspect the problem is more fundamental than the anti-science attitude of postmodern relativism.

Although epistemic relativism helped pave the way to where we find ourselves today, the current intellectual climate is the result of a fundamentalist agenda that seeks to subsume not merely science, but western values more generally, up to and including the Westminster legal system (see:

Of course modern science has roots in Asia and the Middle East, but this should not overlook the fact that the development of modern science during the Age of Enlightenment is a predominantly western story. The point in emphasising this fact is simply to bring to attention that modern science did not emerge in a vacuum, it was accompanied by a constellation of political, economic and ultimately theological ideas that we largely take for granted today (see for example: Gillespie The Theological Origins of Modernity). Which brings us back to the Protestant Reformation.

The political consensus that emerged following the bloodshed of the thirty years’ war essentially amounts to an agreement to disagree. The problem is that this consensus is historically and culturally contingent. The values embedded in liberalism (e.g., the idea of a secular state separated from religious authority, the distinction between private belief and the public space of reason) are neither self-evident nor universal.

The weakness of your argument is that you presuppose what you set out to prove. I realise that the focus of your article is the role of science in society today and I appreciate your point. The problem is that science also presupposes a certain worldview or “culture”. Although the values embedded in this worldview may appear self-evident, they are in fact contingent (see for example: Holland Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind). And it is precisely these western values that are under assault today.

Science is not being criticised for its universality, objectivity, and openness etc. per se, science is being criticised because it is perceived as an instrument of oppression, colonialism, structural racism, etc. As such I am doubtful that advocating for science without addressing the worldview it presupposes will be sufficient to undermine the indigenous fundamentalism that is intruding the public sphere at present. To paraphrase Professor Clair Charters (co-author of He Puapua ): Universalism constitutes an imperialist approach. (cf., Charters 2003)

Gaynor said...

Actually I believe Maori along with all other low socio economic status students have been disadvantaged by progressive education ideology and science, and specifically by the product of this ideology which is the whole language (WL) reading method. Higher SES children have their parents to supplement deficiencies in this destructive school method with resources and expensive remedial programmes. This is out of reach for the lower SES. Traditional teaching of reading centered on the soundly based science of using phonics, which maybe originated with scientist Blaise Pascal and certainly linguists. Traditional methods concentrated on having all children achieve in the basics which WL fails to do. In NZ last century, there was not the long tail of underachievement we have now. Whole Language, now solidly, proven wrong by more recent science was based on wonky pseudo science from psychology, sociology and socialism.
My conclusion bad science can selectively damage low SES people which can also include certain ethnic groups. Social mobility is prevented for them.

Anonymous said...

The University of Auckland and other universities in New Zealand should have an open debate on this issue. There are many proficient scientists and philosophers at New Zealand Universities on both sides of this debate that may have a lot to contribute.

Behindthebounce said...

Instead of leading and informing the debate, science in NZ led by wiles and hendy groupthink just tags along behind picking up the crumbs and corrupting data to reinforce the the narrative. They are following the money! They do this to get funding. It’s so bloody obvious. Maybe the private sector needs to reward and defend science by stepping up to the plate and offer up another Ava us to funding that is based on scientific truth - just like the good old days. If we allow the government to fund science we can all see where we will end up. Bendy Hendy Logic And custom modelled responses tailored to reinforce governments desired outcomes

Dr Mark Laslett said...

100% correct Brian. As a clinical scientist, I am appalled at the lack of understanding of the history of science, the history of medicine and how we have come to know what we do know about the human body. The medical and allied health schools have been taken over by post modernism philosophically, and have seemingly warmly embraced critical race theory in their enrolment policies. Science is being corrupted at source, and students are being indoctrinated in tribalism, vitalism & political activism which is almost exclusively anti white, anti colonialist, all the while talking up indigenous culture as being superior and all there is of New Zealand culture. The achievements of European and Asian science & culture have been sidelined and are often sneered at or even metaphorically spat upon. The biracial division of New Zealand culture and society has a long history in academia (in my experience going back to the 1980s) but has reached flash point in the last 5 years. We have a lot of work to do to avoid continued social and institutional degradation, if not actual civil war.