Royal Society drops action against controversial letter writers

Dispute over indigenous knowledge ‘not amenable to resolution’, investigation panel finds, as New Zealand society pledges ‘helpful and constructive’ dialogue

March 11, 2022
Auckland, New Zealand - August 10, 2015 People walk near a Traditional Maori entry gate at Aotea Square. Its one of the biggest squares in New Zealand used for open-air concerts, gatherings, markets and political rallies.
Source: iStock

New Zealand’s learned academy has discontinued disciplinary action against two of the country’s most distinguished scholars for criticising a proposal to incorporate indigenous knowledge in science curricula.

The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) has decided not to proceed with an investigation into medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola over a controversial letter the pair and five colleagues published in current affairs periodical The New Zealand Listener.

The seven drew fire for disputing the equivalence of mātauranga Māori, or Māori knowledge, and science. The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the society fellows who had co-authored the letter.

An “initial investigation panel” convened to look into two of the complaints has now determined that they do not warrant further investigation. A summary of the panel’s report, which has been posted on the society’s website, says the panel found that the matter was “not amenable to resolution”.

This was partly because further action on the complaints would have required “the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion or of contested scientific evidence”.

The summary says the panel’s role was to decide whether the issue should be elevated to a “complaints determination committee”, and not to assess the authors’ views. “Both the complainants and the respondents referred to a considerable number of matters that were outside the panel’s scope, including the merits or otherwise of the broader issues raised in the letter or elsewhere.

“In the panel’s view, the matters raised are of substance and merit further constructive discussion and respectful dialogue.”

An early version of the summary contained the sentence: “The panel considered there was no evidence that the fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.” However, this sentence does not appear in the published version.

Indigenous knowledge is a sensitive topic in New Zealand, where there is widespread pride in Māori culture and respect for the achievements of traditional and contemporary Māori in environmental management, marine biology and many other fields. But views on how Māori knowledge should be treated in university curricula are mixed.

The authors of the Listener letter attracted both support and censure following its publication last July, with the RSNZ itself among the groups that denounced them. In a statement posted on the society’s website, its president and the chair of its academy executive committee condemned the authors’ “misguided view” and “narrow and outmoded definition of science”.

That statement has since been replaced by a message from chief executive Paul Atkins expressing concern at how the controversy has unfolded. “Please be assured that Royal Society Te Apārangi is taking the high level of local and international comment on matters related to the letter very seriously,” it says.

The issue has escalated to a point “that is profoundly unhelpful for discussing and addressing the issues originally raised”, the message says, adding that the society will embark on a new “expert advice” initiative to “explore and deepen…communities’ understanding of mātauranga and its relevance to science and vice versa.

“It is important that we get the current discussion back onto a helpful and constructive basis that better serves Aotearoa New Zealand’s interests.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

As ever, truth and integrity are the casualties of ideology; when power is the goal, and ideology the justification, then truth, integrity, logic and reason are inconveniences to be opposed and vilified. It is an embarrassment to see New Zealand kidding itself that, uniquely in the world, it has an alternative perspective that is equivalent to science - a claim remarkable for its inherent implausibility and evident invalidity. Valuable, complementary, worthy of respect, sure - but equivalent? That sort of misunderstanding of the heritage and nature of science in relation to other spheres of knowledge, at odds with the rest of the world's understanding of science, makes New Zealand a sad joke in which words and concepts with internationally accepted and recognisable meaning that might allow common understanding and constructive dialogue are considered dispensable and redefinable in pursuit of local power agendas.


Featured jobs