Royal Society of NZ is split by disciplinary action taken against prominent professors who signed letter in defence of science

Let’s meet Professor Garth Cooper, described on the University of Auckland website as one of New Zealand’s foremost biological scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs.

He is professor of Biochemistry and Clinical Biochemistry at the School of Biological Sciences and the Department of Medicine at the University of Auckland, where he also leads the Proteomics and Biomedicine Research Group. He is a Principal Investigator in the Maurice Wilkins Centre of Research Excellence for Molecular Biodiscovery, a member of the Endocrine Society (USA).  He was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (London) in 2013

And – for now – he is a member of the Academy of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

But the society has subjected him and another prominent academic, Robert Nola, to disciplinary action which looks suspiciously like a witch hunt.

Nola is emeritus professor of the philosophy of science with his own impressive CV.

The society has called off its investigation into a third academic,  Michael Corballis, who died earlier this month.

The Emeritus Professor at the Department of Psychology at the university of Auckland, Corballis was awarded the Shorland Medal by the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 1999, the 2002 Queen’s Birthday and Golden Jubilee Honours, and was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to psychological science. In 2016, he received the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Rutherford Medal, its most prestigious award, for his work on brain asymmetries, handedness, mental imagery, language, and mental time travel.

The  investigation into Cooper and Nola – the modern-day equivalent of an inquisition into our science establishment’s charges of heresy – was triggered by a letter, “In Defence of Science”, published by the New Zealand Listener magazine a few months ago.

Seven University of Auckland professors signed the letter.  The others were Kendall Clements, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, and Emeritus Professor John Werry.

The critics of this defence of science (we kid you not) included the Royal Society of New Zealand], the New Zealand Association of Scientists and the University of Auckland’s vice-chancellor.

Professors Cooper and Nola face expulsion.

In a recent article posted on Kiwiblog, Graham Adams recorded Cooper’s impressive science credentials and concluded:

So, we have ended up in a situation where a very distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades is being investigated by the Royal Society for what can only be described as holding a heretical view about the distinction between science and mātauranga Māori. 

Who knew an eminent scientist expressing an honestly held opinion — that mātauranga Māori, while valuable as a form of knowledge, is not science — would end up dealing with an Inquisition in 21st century New Zealand?

 The professors’ letter in The Listener raised concerns about an NCEA working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with other forms of science. 

Māori knowledge – in other words – would effectively be given the same standing was physics, chemistry and biology.

Stuff reported the letter said indigenous knowledge may play some role in the preservation of local practices and in management and policy, but it “falls far short of what can be defined as science itself”.

They said mātauranga Māori should not be accepted as an equivalent to science, adding “it may help … but it is not science”.

As Graham Adams has written,

While the professors acknowledged “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” they concluded that, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.”

They also responded to the working group’s claim that science had been used as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”.

The professors conceded that science — like literature and art — “has been used to aid colonisation” but stated: “Science itself does not colonise.”

Newsroom reported the letter sparked significant controversy.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists said it was “dismayed” by the letter, stating “science has an ongoing history of colonising when it speaks over Indigenous voices, ignores Indigenous knowledge, and privileges a limited, Western-dominated view of science”, while University of Auckland vice chancellor Dawn Freshwater told staff in an email the letter had “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni”.

An open response signed by over 2000 academics said they “categorically disagree” with their colleagues’ views, which they said “ignores the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge”.

The Royal Society – which is conducting the disciplinary action – made no secret of its prejudice when it issued a statement rejecting the authors’ views.  It

“… strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science”.

Nola told Newsroom the society had informed him of five anonymous complaints made against him and Cooper, and it had established a three-person panel to investigate the matter.

However, the pair had successfully challenged the position of two of the panellists, who were among the signatories to the open response critiquing the Listener letter, while three of the five complainants had dropped out after the society required they be identified for the disciplinary process to move ahead.

Newsroom further reported that while a large number of academics have been critical of the Listener letter, several Royal Society fellows have expressed their support for the co-authors and threatened to resign if they are disciplined.

University of Auckland literature professor Brian Boyd, who received the society’s Rutherford Medal in 2020 for his “exceptional contributions to literary studies”, told Newsroom he was concerned with the “knee jerk reaction” of the society and others in initially condemning the letter’s authors and accusing them of racism.

Boyd said some proponents of mātauranga Māori seemed to hold the view that it should be both protected and transmitted only by Māori, which he believed was “contrary to the principles of universities’ open inquiry or the Royal Society’s”.

“There’s no question that mātauranga Māori, especially in terms of ecological knowledge and guardianship of the environment and so on, can have a lot to contribute to science, but it’s also seen, as other indigenous knowledges are, as being holistic – everything hangs together.

“And that means things like the Māori creation myth and … whakapapa are regarded as an intrinsic part of mātauranga Māori and their equivalent of science, and those things seem to me as problematic as introducing Christian creationism as an equivalent of science.”

Peter Schwerdtfeger, the director of Massey University’s Theoretical Chemistry and Physics Centre and the 2014 Rutherford medallist for “his world-leading contribution to fundamental aspects of chemical and physical phenomena in atoms, molecules and condensed matter”, told Newsroom the society’s investigation into Nola and Cooper was “shameful” and it had misinterpreted the point of the Listener letter.

“They should be open to debate and discussion, and it shows me that they are not – they are just buying into a certain ideology, which to my opinion really means that the Royal Society is failing badly a lot of members.”

The first of two articles by Graham Adams (who contributes to Point of Order) notes that Dr Garth Cooper has devoted his career to helping fellow Māori but he now finds himself in the gun over his opinions about science and indigenous knowledge.

Adams notes that none of the professors’ critics defended mātauranga Māori as being scientific.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views.

Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.”

Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It’s caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.”

More than 2000 academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain).

Challenged by a Māori academic to elaborate his understanding of the need of young Māori scholars, Cooper provided a comprehensive response which Adams has quoted at length.

Cooper concluded:

“In all, I estimate that I have provided substantive input and career guidance to as many as 5000 young Māori over 30+ years in these various roles. 

“So this is how I know about young Māori and their aspirations.”

Graham Adams has revisited the inquisition today in an article posted on Kiwiblog which examined the work of  Michael Corballis.

He quoted a tweet from the celebrity scientist and public intellectual, Steven Pinker, who told his 736,000 followers:

“Sad to learn of the death of cognitive psychologist Michael Corballis, who taught me stats at McGill (I cite his lectures in Rationality) & did brilliant work on handedness, mental rotation, & [evolution] of lang. Also urbane, charming, witty, irreverent.”

Pinker has described Corballis as one of the world’s deepest and most creative cognitive scientists,

“… and he illuminates every subject he takes on with insight, wit, and charm. We’re fortunate that he has stepped back to and applied these gifts to the science of mind.”

 In this article, Adams reminds us of the Royal Society quick denunciation of the letter writers:

“”The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi.”

“The society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener letter to the editor. It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.”

But the professors had acknowledged “the value of mātauranga Māori” in their letter.

Adams says the issue has caused deep divisions within the Royal Society.

The Wellington branch of the society wrote last week on its website (in a post that now appears to have been deleted):

“Our view is that the seven experts gave their professional opinions in good faith and with which nobody is obliged to agree. However, in the subsequent debate they have been accused variously of racism, protection of their privilege and advancing a narrow and outmoded view of science.

“One of them, Professor Douglas Elliffe, has resigned as [acting dean of science]. Whether this action was voluntary or forced upon him is not clear.”

The Wellington branch contends the society has breached its own Code of Professional Standards and Ethics toward the seven letter signatories.

CORRECTION:   The Royal Society Te Apārangi rejected the suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics “that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth”, not “a valid form of knowledge” as was originally reported in this post  The error has been corrected.

5 thoughts on “Royal Society of NZ is split by disciplinary action taken against prominent professors who signed letter in defence of science

  1. The Royal Society has sent a shockwave out to its members in what appears to be tantamount to censorship against freedom of expression. As a professional grade member of the Royal Society, in my 80’s, I am disgusted at their behaviour.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. What an embarrassing collection of woke people who have put their common sense on hold! Cancel anyone who doesn’t toe the party line! Punish anyone who dares to say the emperor has no clothes! Stephen Pinker himself even remarked how irrational the baying crowd from the NZ Royal Society are. Pathetic is the word that comes to mind…


  3. Anybody involved in the conspiracy to investigate these honourable scientists must be identified and publicly named.

    In essence, they are bullies and cowards, and will shrink from view if the kind of unreasonable pressure they seek to exert is applied to them.


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