Bring on the Wiles v Dawkins debate and prospects of our being demystified (but he might be disqualified as a dinosaur)

We are heartened, at Point of Order, to find some of our scribblings have been drawn to the attention of Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

On his website, Why Evolution is True,  he has posted an article headed More news from New Zealand about the big science vs. indigenous “knowledge” ruckus. In this, he has referenced our recent report that Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, has set aside $1.6 million to hook kids on “science”, but by using “traditional knowledge”.

We have been rewarded, too, by keeping an eye on what Coyne is saying about science and matauranga Maori and its place in our education system on his website.

 For good measure, we have been given examples of the wit and wisdom exercised by Professors Joanna Kidman (University of Wellington) and Siouxsie Wiles (University of Auckland) when they rebut ideas expressed by people who disagree with them.  Age and gender seem to be over-riding considerations – in tweets, at least – which seriously corrode the validity of a contradictory argument.        

On December 14, Coyne says he suddenly had been inundated with emails from disaffected Kiwis who take issue with the New Zealand government’s and academia’s push to teach mātauranga Māori , or Māori “ways of knowing”, as coequal with real science in high-school and university science classes. 


Of course.  We are injecting notions of Treaty partnership into our science curriculum.

And if it’s good enough to debase our democracy with these partnerships, why should science be exempt? 

Coyne says of the emails he is receiving:  

Many of these people are worried that the country is being swept with an ideology that “all things Māori are good” (tell that to the moas!), and that such an attitude is going to affect not just science, but many parts of life.  It’s one thing to recognize and make reparations to a people who were genuinely oppressed for so long, but that doesn’t mean that that group should be valorized in every way, nor that their “ways of knowing”, which include creation myths and false legends, can be taken as coequal to science and taught in the science classroom.

Coyne recalls that  seven professors from Auckland University signed an innocuous (to rational folk) letter to the Listener, protesting the trend to make mātauranga Māori taught coequally with science in science classes.

He describes this as

“…a move equivalent to teaching Biblical creationism in evolution class.”

Two of the signers, Garth Cooper and Robert Nola, are fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand, which expressed their objections to the letter and began an investigation of them.

Coyne quotes one paragraph of a statement from the society which upbraided 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.”

He counters:  

This would be funny if it weren’t a ridiculous implication that truth is what any group maintains is truth. Further, the RSNZ is insisting that mātauranga Māori is a “valid truth.” They really should take this statement down, for it’s an embarrassment.

University of Auckland Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater initially said the seven professors’ letter had caused considerable hurt and dismay among university staff, students and alumni.

“While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.”

This month – as the controversy has been fuelled by overseas heavyweights such as Richard Dawkins – Freshwater has proposed a symposium where the issues can be debated.

Coyne says an open-minded exchange of facts about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science has the potential to be a good debate, but he is not optimistic.

For one thing, the “indigenous way of knowing” can be slipperly, varying widely depending on who’s interpreting it.

A bit like the Treaty of Waitangi, eh? 

Moreover,  he quotes one of his Kiwi colleagues as saying: 

“I think this is good news, but productive discussion is unlikely unless [Freshwater] discourages the ongoing use of terms such as racism and cultural harm to describe those who challenge the notion of equivalence.”

Freshwater – it should be noted – has criticised the “personal attacks and misrepresentations” of views during the controversy, including her own views. 

Coyne suggests she was probably blindsided and stung by the response to her “politically correct” statement, not realising that, to rational and science-minded folks,

… comparing mythology to science is like kicking a wasp’s nest. I am guessing that she’s ascribing the attacks and misstatements to the “science” side alone; if she didn’t mean that, she should have said that there was bad behaviour on both sides. 

His article then brings opposing opinions into considerations, recording the thoughts – no, the tweets – of Professors Joanna Kidman (University of Wellington) and Siouxsie Wiles (University of Auckland).  

Access to Kidman’s tweet is limited –   

You’re unable to view this Tweet because this account owner limits who can view their Tweets 

Hence we can’t verify she tweeted:    

Richard Dawkins, OWG in excelsis, argues, with numerous factual errors about indigenous knowledge, that @royalsocietynz shouldn’t follow up on complaints made about its  fellows In other, related, news, OWG barks at moon.

Coyne has posted this as a tweet from Wiles: 

I am listening to a talk by @WellingtonUni economist Peter Fraser & it is just the antidote I needed to all the emails I’m getting from the dinosaurs outraged by the fact that I have publicly supported my incredible Māori colleagues and their scholarship and world view.

OWG is twitter talk  for old white guys (rather than white old guys).

Dinosaurs are somewhat older.

Point of Order observes that the University of Auckland says of Wiles:

“Siouxsie also has a keen interest in demystifying science; she is a tweeter, blogger, podcaster, and media science commentator…”

 We relish the prospect of Richard Dawkins turning up for the debate and of two champions of demystification sorting things out in a robust intellectual discussion.  

Meanwhile, Point of Order has written to the Royal Society for information about its investigation into two defenders of science who – we are led to believe by other sources – are under investigation. We await enlightenment.      


3 thoughts on “Bring on the Wiles v Dawkins debate and prospects of our being demystified (but he might be disqualified as a dinosaur)

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