Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins a few years ago reacted to Donald Trump’s shock election victory in the United States by urging fellow scientists to move to New Zealand.
He called on this country to offer British and American academics citizenship following the “catastrophes” both countries had suffered at the hands of “uneducated, anti-intellectual” voters.
He might have changed his mind since then, although the mainstream media here either haven’t noticed or don’t think it’s a matter of public interest.
Dawkins is troubled by what is happening to some of our scientists and is supporting colleagues around the world who contend that myths do not belong in science classes. He has posted on Twitter the letter he emailed to the chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
He wrote to Roger Ridley, unaware that Paul Atkins (firstname.lastname@example.org) has succeeded Ridley as CEO.
Dawkins’ letter was prompted by another eminent scientist, Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago.
Let’s hear first from Coyne, who has a has posted an article headed “Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class”
Coyne has been alerted to the furore which we mentioned here yesterday and which was critically aired in The Spectator in a column by associate editor Toby Young headed Why punish a scientist for defending science?
The furore was triggered by a letter to The Listener by seven professors at the University of Auckland who raised questions about the relationship between “Maori knowledge” and science.
The writers were denounced by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Tertiary Education Union, a dismaying number of fellow scientists, and their own vice-chancellor.
Coyne wrote to Roger Ridley (we are sure the letter will be received by his successor, Paul Atkins)
… so that two of the seven don’t get booted out of New Zealand’s Royal Society. If they are, that society will have branded itself as a huge joke.
Here’s the letter I just sent…
Dear Dr. Ridley,
I understand from the news that New Zealand’s Royal Society is considering expelling two scientists for signing a letter objecting to teaching “indigenous” science alongside and coequal with modern science. As a biologist who has done research for a lifetime and also spent time with biologists in New Zealand, I find this possibility deeply distressing.
The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.
I presume you know that the Maori way of knowing includes creationism: the kind of creationism that fundamentalist Christians espouse in the U.S. based on a literalistic reading of the Bible. Both American and Maori creationism are dead wrong—refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, and so on. I have spent a lifetime opposing creationism as a valid view of life. That your society would expel members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like, is shameful.
I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago
Professor Dawkin s read Coyne’s article and wrote this to our Royal Society:
Dear Dr Ridley
I have read Jerry Coyne’s long, detailed and fair-minded critique of the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.
The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Maori myths. Why choose Maori myths? For no better reason than that Maoris arrived in New Zealand a few centuries before Europeans. That would be a good reason to teach Maori mythology in anthropology classes. Arguably there’s even better reason for Australian schools to teach the myths of their indigenous peoples, who arrived tens of thousands of years before Europeans. Or for British schools to teach Celtic myths. Or Anglo-Saxon myths. But no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the right place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.
The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.
If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country who will? What else is the Society for? What else is the rationale for its existence?
Yours very sincerely
Richard Dawkins FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science
University of Oxford
Meanwhile, the Ardern government – in a frenetic programme to effect change – is using a document signed in 1840 as the critical component of policies for comprehensively reshaping the country’s future.
In October, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods and Associate Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall announced the launch of Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways Green Paper to prompt a discussion on the restructuring of the country’s science system.
“Te Tiriti needs to be embedded right across the design and delivery of the system, and more opportunities need to exist for mātauranga Māori,” Ayesha Verrall said.
What will the reforms entail?
The discussion paper recommends:
- National research Priorities need to be developed and defined in partnership with Māori and give effect to Te Tiriti. We need to carefully consider what partnership and co-development look like at different stages of the development process and how the process can ensure that voices and views from across Te Ao Māori are recognised.
- We need to reimagine how to give life to Māori research aspirations, the right ways to enable mātauranga Māori – Māori knowledge – in our research system and the interface between mātauranga Māori and other activities in the system.
A glossary provides definitions:
Mātauranga Māori – The body of knowledge originating from Māori ancestors, including the Māori world view and perspectives, Māori creativity and cultural practices. (Note: this is provided as a general description and not as an authoritative Crown position or definition.)
Transformative research – Research that has the capacity to revolutionise existing fields, create new subfields, cause paradigm shifts, support discovery and lead to radically new technologies, such as the opportunities offered by mātauranga Māori methodologies, that consequently generate discoveries that lead to step-changes in our understanding and abilities.
In the latest annual report of the Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia (the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor) the head of the office signs off simply as “Juliet” .
The report looks back on the 2020/21 year of science advice, evidence, communication and conversation and mentions another report which refers to “A Tiriti-led science-policy approach”
A team of Māori researchers has outlined a science-policy approach that honours Te Tiriti and Mātauranga Māori.
Mātauranga Māori and Te Tiriti are unique features of Aotearoa New Zealand’s science, research and innovation sector, but both are undervalued, according to a report published in April 2021.
Titled Te Pūtanhitanga: A Tiriti-led science-policy approach for Aotearoa New Zealand, the report calls for greater inclusion of Māori and Pacific voices within science advice to government, and an approach to evidence-based policy led by Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Dawkins and Coyne seem to have left their run too late, if they want to persuade our Royal Society that it’s job is defending science and supporting – not disciplining – dissidents who challenge the government’s blending of science with belief.
Our Science Establishment is doing the government’s bidding and the dissidents are being regarded not as critics but as heretics.