(By the way, the country is now often called “Aotearoa New Zealand” as a concession to the Māori, in whose language the first word means “land of the long white cloud”. I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually dropped the “New Zealand” part.)
Click on the screenshots below to hear a 57-minute podcast showing what I see as a deeply misguided and unscientific attempt to give New Zealand schoolchildren two—count them, two—”knowledge systems”. One of them is simply modern science, and the other is Mātauranga Māori (MM), a pastiche of knowledge accumulated by trial and error, but also of religioun, superstition, ethics, word of mouth tradition, etiquette, and many things having nothing to do with science. These latter things should be regarded not as “ways of knowing” but as “ways of feeling” or “ways of behaving”.
The site below is sponsored by the New Zealand government, so you know it’s serious.
In this recorded webinar Pauline Waiti and Rosemary Hipkins explore the idea of knowledge systems with examples from science and mātauranga Māori.
The report Enduring Competencies for Designing Science Learning Pathways introduced the idea of exploring both science and mātauranga Māori as knowledge systems. Thinking about knowledge as a system is likely to be an unfamiliar idea for many teachers. In this webinar we unpack the metaphor, using familiar science concepts to show which of them might be appropriately explored through both knowledge lenses (i.e. science and mātauranga Māori) and when this might not be helpful.
Rosemary Hipkins is in fact the mother of NZ’s present Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who himself served as Minister of Education for the Labour Party. She began as a biology teacher but now is a Big Noise in “improving” the curricula in New Zealand’s schools. For her services to education she was recognized in the 2023 New Year Honours List, becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit “for services to science education”.
Pauline Waiti is the director of Ahu Whakamua Limited, a company whose brief I can’t really find, but she’s also a Māori educational consultant.
Click on the screenshot above or below to go to the 57-minute lecture/discussion/slideshow below.
The video begins with a lot of untranslated Māori, which is annoying given that the vast majority of the audience can’t understand a word. But the object is achieving “mana ōrite”, which means “equal status” in Māori. How to do this with science and MM?
First of all “MM” isn’t a “knowledge” system in the way you probably think, since “knowledge”, conceived of as “generally accepted empirical truth” is only a small part of MM. The discussants get around this by including “values”, “experiences,” and “standards” as aspects of “knowledge”. Then, as the defendants of MM do so often, they present a complex diagram of what science is (13:30). It adds nothing to the “unpacking” of science.
At 14:54 Waiti introduces the MM idea of “mauri,” which is simply a “teleological force” that adds nothing to our understanding of nature; it is simply a quasi-religious concept. Waiti admits that this is a different way of looking at empirical problems, but is “equally as valid” as is modern science. My response is “no, it isn’t.” But at last we see some proponents of MM who say that they’re not plumping for equal time for science and MM in the classroom, nor a direct equivalence. Instead, but just as bad, they argue (see slide below) that although these nonequivalent ways of knowing, they can still be brought together usefully to present a complete picture of nature.
How? That’s the big problem, and one that, as far as I can see, has no solution. That’s because there really is only one way of knowing about the world, and that’s using the tools of science. Dragging in ideas like “mauri” not only pollutes science, but confuses students. “Mauri,” again, is a quasireligious concept, defined by the Māori dictionary in this usage as as “life principle, life force, vital essence, special nature, a material symbol of a life principle, source of emotions – the essential quality and vitality of a being or entity.” When you see the word “mauri,” you know you’re not dealing with science but with something else.
The next slide brings in the MM concept of “mana”, defined by the Māori dictionary as
prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object. Mana goes hand in hand with tapu, one affecting the other. The more prestigious the event, person or object, the more it is surrounded by tapu and mana.
. . . and tapu means this:
be sacred, prohibited, restricted, set apart, forbidden, under atua protection – see definition 4 for further explanations.
restriction, prohibition – a supernatural condition. A person, place or thing is dedicated to an atua and is thus removed from the sphere of the profane and put into the sphere of the sacred. It is untouchable, no longer to be put to common use.
Hipkins then points out that in MM, unlike science, both living and nonliving objects have agency. (This is of course connected with mauri.)
Note that in the next slide, MM as a “knowledge system” also “conveys wisdom about how to live and be.” How on earth can views about the best way to live one’s life be usefully folded into modern science? Don’t ask me.
Finally, Hipkins defines what she means by “equal status” for both MM and science. At least she admits it doesn’t mean equal time in class! But in the entire podcast they give not one example of how “western” science can be brought together fruitfully with MM.
And the advantages of combining two knowledge systems? The answer is in the slide below. It isn’t convincing.because the main object of MM appears to be to “live as ethically and responsible as possible” That’s a goal completely different from that of science, even though they imply that that’s also a goal of science.
In the end, these aren’t two “knowledge systems”. They aren’t at all comparable, much less compatible, and to call MM a “knowledge system” is mostly false. Imagine watching the podcast as a teacher and then trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do in class!
What appears to be happening is a pullback from teaching MM as coequal to science qua science in science classes and its replacement with MM’s characterization as coequal to science as a “knowledge system” (whatever that means). That is, students will now be taught a form of cultural relativism in science classes and there will be emphasis on the limitations of science—limitations overcome by learning about MM, which has knowledge not present in science. This is no improvement over the previous plan, but a recipe for added confusion.
In my view, as the authors of the Listener letter argued, MM shouldn’t be dragged at all into the science class, but reserved for sociology or anthropology class. There’s already a word for the small part of MM that can be incorporated into science. It’s called “science.”
I have comments from three Kiwi scientists (all anonymous, of course) about this presentation. Here’s the first one:
This is not an improvement in epistemic terms. Arguably it’s even worse than integrating MM into science, as social constructivism/epistemic relativism are antithetical to science.
I think it does make it easier for us to criticise what’s going on, however, as the postmodernist ideology is more evident. It’s pretty hard to argue that criticism of postmodernist ideology is racist!
You ask: how are they going to teach MM now? The answer is they’re not – to do so would be “recolonisation”. This was never really about teaching MM. It was always a political project designed to promote an ideological agenda. Here’s a relevant quote from Doug Stokes’ book “Against decolonisation”:
“[A]ctivists impose decolonisation as part of a counter-power move to push back against what they claim is knowledge power plays of historically tainted thinkers and institutions. In short, if all knowledge is relative, it becomes politically acceptable to impose your agenda in the name of social justice and a form of restorative activism. Decolonisation is thus an explicitly political power play.
This, in turn, transforms the academic social contract. It moves from a process whereby the sum of human knowledge improves in terms of its capacity to explain the world to a form of radical political deconstruction underpinned by an ethical claim that this is justified to compensate for the legacy effects of the alleged perfidiousness of Western civilisation. The assertion that all human knowledge is equally valid and the university is a site of power contestation makes it easier to understand the abandonment of fundamental academic principles, not least that of academic freedom; Itself often portrayed as a conspiracy on the part of bigots to justify discrimination and ideas that may run contrary to those of the progressive ‘woke’ Left. Aside from the obvious fact that if all knowledge is relative, why should we subscribe to the assertions of the decolonisation critique itself, [when] this form of unbounded judgmental relativism abandons any notion of reality or truth for a seeming endless play on meaning, identity and power that is transforming the university system.” (p. 83-84)
In short, the inherent attack on science is a feature, not a bug, and we’re replaying the science wars of the 1990s. People here in NZ should be asking themselves the following questions: if any of the MM proponents actually had a commitment to science, why are they all engaging with MM instead, and why to they consistently seek to caricature modern science?
From anonymous scientist #2
I’ve come across this video resource for teachers at a site that to the best of my knowledge is funded by the NZ govt. If you ever want to go through a painful experience, do watch this and then tell me if it makes any sense to you. The Q&A at the end is also telling.
I just cannot understand how anyone can watch this type of talk and think it can be useful for school teachers. But if you say anything about it in NZ you will be most certainly labelled as racist, intolerant, and/or full of prejudice…
And from the third anonymous Kiwi scientist with whom I’ve discussed the podcast:
Thanks for taking this issue on, and I look forward greatly to you taking up the issue. In my opinion it’s full of pretentious, impenetrable, but vacuous nonsense. Education here is ruled by a clique, membership of which (and thus career prospects) is confined to those who are happy to relinquish any belief in science and indeed, critical thinking. It brings to mind Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
I don’t think that the educational and political powers in New Zealand realize how much their “sacralization of the oppressed” has angered and frustrated Kiwi scientists. And they’ll never know this so long as they deplatform, demonize, or fire those who speak against the Official Position.
Just give me a little less than an hour of your time to watch this presentation, and you’ll see what a mess science education (and education in general) has become in New Zealand. For here we have two recognized science experts trying to mix two immiscible liquids.
I’ll finish with a bit I’ve published before, quoting an ex-pastor. You can substitute Mātauranga Māori for “religion” here, as there’s quite a bit of faith in MM’s “knowledge system”:
[This is the quote] I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. . .
When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.
Jerry Coyne is an American biologist known for his work on speciation and his commentary on intelligent design, a prolific scientist and author. This article was first published HERE