New Zealand academics investigated over Māori knowledge letter

Royal Society asked to expel decorated members who criticised plans to incorporate mātauranga Māori into curricula

十二月 6, 2021
A Maori carving under the Milky Way at Omaha, New Zealand to illustrate Academics investigated over Ma¯ori knowledge letter
Source: Alamy

A debate about the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some leading scholars face possible expulsion from the country’s learned academy.

The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand Listener, published in July, criticised plans to embed mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in the school science curriculum.

The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three society fellows who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, along with psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Professor Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal – RSNZ’s highest honour – in 2016, died suddenly last month.

THE Campus resource: how to create an open atmosphere for discussing difficult subjects

New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions” within the law. The Listener letter authors insisted that they were exercising this right in criticising the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university science programmes, which they likened to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology.

But the complainants alleged that the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics – including failing to “behave with…integrity and professionalism”, “claim competence commensurate with their expertise” or “take reasonable…precautions to protect vulnerable people” – and violated the society’s “good character obligation”.

The RSNZ then launched a formal investigation. Its complaints procedures state that the society’s council “may initiate an inquiry if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached…obligations”.

Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the society’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was just bluntly rejected. The Royal Society now is so influenced by mātauranga Māori ideology that they started an official procedure, and once you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said.

Professor Nola said the investigation was currently determining whether the complaints could be pursued under the RSNZ rules. He said the Listener letter was not a piece of research and therefore not covered by the society’s code.

“The Education Act and the code give us the right to express our views, in a clause about being a critic and conscience of society, even though the views might be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They’ve proven to be more popular than we thought,” he said.

Critics have questioned how the RSNZ can undertake an impartial inquiry after its president and the chair of its academy executive committee denounced the Listener letter authors in a statement posted on the society’s website.

Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panellists originally enlisted to investigate the complaints were removed after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter.

The RSNZ’s activities have drawn criticism from the New Zealand Free Speech Union, which took out a full-page advertisement in The New Zealand Herald to defend the surviving authors’ “academic free speech”.

The episode has also drawn attention overseas. In a Radio New Zealand interview, Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker lamented the treatment of his “beloved” friend Michael Corballis. “If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished, then we’ve…turned off the only mechanism that we have of discovering knowledge.”

The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.


Print headline: Academics investigated over Maori knowledge letter



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Reader's comments (7)

As long as they are consistent. We can’t condemn alternative and indigenous medicine as valid responses to the pandemic, but champion them in science classrooms. The comparison with creationism is apt. If Maori mythology is valid, so must be biblical mythology.
It would have been helpful to include a link to the letter or more quotes so that we could judge for ourselves.
Responding to report above: Pinker's response is hypocritical: 'We' are entitled (sic) to 'silence' 'them' but they mustn't silence us. Pinker's works are over-rated anyway; he's hardly an authority in these matters. He is in my view notorious for eurocentrism.
Pinker isn't advocating the silencing of anyone. He surely believes that science ought to remain scientific and that it ought not to adopt methodologies, viewpoints, or ideologies that run counter to scientific modes of thought. Maori culture and mythology may have much that is wise or lovely, but that doesn't make it scientific. Talk about Maori culture all you want, but don't call aspects of it scientific when they are not scientific. And don't cancel scientists who raise objections about non-science or anti-science being introduced (jammed, shoehorned) into scientific realms.
In order to understand, never mind comment, on this article we need more details. What exactly are they proposing to add to the science curriculum? As a botanist (my original subject before I ended up a computer science academic) it was well known that indigenous peoples often had valuable insights into the plant life of their region, even if they did not express them in (western) scientific terms. I could certainly see ways of incorporating Maori ideas into discussions about the biology of the environment in ways that would enhance not diminish what is to be taught. If this is just general waffle about adding indegious material just for the sake of it, I can see why scientists might squeal. So analyse what is being proposed specifically so that it can be judged on its merits, please.
Mythology? Difficult to claim academic freedom applies to speech on that about which one is profoundly ignorant. The use of compelling and exciting natratives in 'fireside tales' is only the recording and transmission method of ecological and social science, reflecting Maori psychologies about ethics, persuasion, memory recall, and regulatory enforcement. No wonder they're being investigated.
"Freedom of speech" cannot be interpreted as a right to disparage the worldviews of historically marginalised groups, reproducing ideas of their inferiority and primitivism which they have suffered through for 200 years. The idea that real "science" is based only on observations, not linked to myths, ideologies and theories is ridiculous. Ever heard of paradigm shifts?