Royal Society’s handling of complaints against two fellows could shape the future of NZ science – and of Kiwi reality

The politicians seem to have steered clear of the controversy over matauranga Maori and science in which the Royal Society of New Zealand has become embroiled.

This is perturbing. The meaning of “science” in this country – and how it is taught – will be influenced by the way the controversy is resolved.  So, too, will the difference between truth and belief.

Soon the government will be evaluating feedback after launching the Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways Green Paper to prompt a consultation on the future of the country’s research, science and innovation science system.

Associate science minister Ayesha Verrall ominously said at the launch:

“Te Tiriti needs to be embedded right across the design and delivery of the system, and more opportunities need to exist for mātauranga Māori.” 

Does she mean opportunities for a belief system? An alternative view of the world? Or what?

She has also declared: 

We need to match the benefits from our research and science, with a modern, future-focused research system that is connected, adaptable and resilient, that embeds Te Tiriti across the design and delivery attributes of the system and supports opportunities for mātauranga Māori.

Opposition politicians (perhaps intent on avoiding vilification from commentators who seem to support the merging of science with mataranga Maori) have not challenged the direction in which science policy is being taken.

But we note mention of these matters and the controversy they have generated in a newsletter from the ACT Party which says:

 If you care about liberalism (free speech, universal human rights, scientific progress, and ultimately human welfare), then this issue underpins everything else.

We note, too a message from the boss of the Royal Society, Paul Atkins, Tumu Whakarae Chief Executive.

He says:

“We are responding to the current situation in relation to the letter, ‘In defence of science’, published in The Listener in July 2021, and the various actions and reactions that have ensued.

“Firstly, we are deeply concerned at what has been playing out, as I am sure you all are. 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.  We are acutely aware of the potential for significant damage to be inflicted in multiple directions, not least to relationships and our ability to have a balanced and informed dialogue about important questions for the future of our country.

“Media have reported that the Society has received complaints about the Fellows who contributed to the letter, with premature speculation about the outcome of the Society’s Complaints Procedures. Taken out of context, these comments have subsequently gained traction across a number of international networks. Whilst this has stimulated some considered correspondence from local and international commentators, it has also resulted in a barrage of frequently vitriolic and abusive messages from other individuals and groups with what appear to be quite different and unconstructive agendas.”

The situation has developed to a point that is profoundly unhelpful for discussing and addressing the issues originally raised in The Listener letter over four months ago.

The society is going on the front foot with a new educative initiative, ‘Mātauranga Māori and its Interface with Science’, to be run through its “expert advice function”, co-led by Professor Rangi Matamua FRSNZ, School of Māori Knowledge Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, Massey University.

The aim will be to further explore and deepen the Society’s, its members’ and hapori communities’ understanding of mātauranga and its relevance to science and vice versa.

The work will seek input from a wide range of experts, networks and perspectives.

Oh – and lest there be any doubting it:

Royal Society Te Apārangi remains committed to supporting science and the principles of freedom of speech.

It continues to support, foster and recognise research “within multiple knowledge domains” and continues to uphold the value of mātauranga Māori, mana whenua, te ao Māori and a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi in practice.

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


When our Ministers of Science are embedding matauranga Maori considerations in their public statements and in their funding and policy decisions, sorting things out and reinforcing the notion that science is science is science is desperately overdue.

But what is happening with the Royal Society’s investigation of complaints against two of the signatories to the letter to the Listener?

A helpful society press officer referred me to the chief executive’s statement (mentioned above) in response to questions emailed to her.

She made these further points:

  • The investigation is being conducted by the Academy, not by the society.  The Academy is made up of the society’s Fellows (FRSNZ) and Honorary Fellows (Hon FRSNZ).
  • The complaint has been laid by an academy member (or members) against other academy members.
  • Investigations are conducted by “a panel of peers” (the spokesperson said she doesn’t know who they are).
  • The society doesn’t know when the investigation will be finished – but a statement will be issued then.

The spokesperson did acknowledge the society has received hundreds of letters and emails from New Zealand and abroad.

They are for and against the society’s actions.

 “It’s a polarising issue”.

One commentator on the Why Evolution is True website agrees the society has a complaints procedure to follow and it must be followed. 

To anybody with a passing understanding of science, it is obvious that the complaint is spurious, but there are many people who do not think that this is the case – including, obviously, the complainant. If the RSNZ do what you want and dismiss the complaint out of hand (I agree that is all it deserves), all the people who support the complaint will level charges of whitewashing and lack of transparency. There may even be law suits. They have to do things according to their rules.

In its regular Free Press newsletter, ACT says it has covered the attack on liberalism by identity politics in a review of Cynical Theories.

The Royal Society, of all institutions, has brought the matter to a head this year with its inquisition into two of its members who dared to debate what science is and isn’t.

 How did we get here? The long story is set out in Cynical Theories. Post modernism started out theoretically enough, but it has come to dominate public affairs. It makes it hard to have rational debate.

The newsletter then explores the philosophy underpinning the undermining of “science”, explaining that the father of Post Modernism, Michel Foucault, said there is no one reality.

Instead there are many truths. We don’t think the earth is round because it is, he’d say. It’s just our culture happened to construct that view. Other people might think it’s flat and that’s equally valid. Free Press studied philosophy; we didn’t take any of this seriously.

 Turns out, a lot of other people did. Over the past 50 years post modernism metastasised because it gives many mediocre ‘academics’ a meal ticket. Now you don’t need to advance human knowledge according to rigorous agreed methods. 

 You just need to write ‘from a (insert identity here) perspective’ and you can sit and ponder, even on full pay through lockdown. If anyone questions you, call them (insert identity here)-ist.

Consistent with this reasoning, the Ministry of Education is introducing Mātauranga Māori into the school curriculum with ‘equal status.’

The question is, equal status to what?

 That’s the question that the ‘magnificent seven’ focused on with their now famous letter to the Listener. The seven University of Auckland academics argued that science is a method belonging to all humanity. Many civilisations have carried it forward in different times and places. Some indigenous knowledge may be scientific but not all of it, and not automatically, they said. 

 Because of an array of responses to the letter, the ACT newsletter says, this country is now a laughing stock. Toby Young wrote a scathing piece in the Spectator; Richard Dawkins pointed out we were mixing science and religion; Stephen Pinker got stuck in during an interview with Kim Hill.

The question is how to recover – preferably before the Government “modernises” science by gearing it to a treaty written and signed in 1840. That was almost 20 years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution (with compelling evidence) in On the Origin of Species .

5 thoughts on “Royal Society’s handling of complaints against two fellows could shape the future of NZ science – and of Kiwi reality

  1. The society is going on the front foot with a new educative initiative, ‘Mātauranga Māori and its Interface with Science’, to be run through its “expert advice function”, co-led by Professor Rangi Matamua FRSNZ, School of Māori Knowledge Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, Massey University.

    Is this the same Professor who attained his doctorate in listening to Maori on radio, or an MA.on traditional Tūhoe weaponry. Is this the same Professor who said “Anywhere that you see it, a clock in the middle of a town, the bells that ring in a church, that is all a symbol of British expansion and colonialism, and one of the most significant and biggest forms of colonialism is time”.

    New Zealand “science” where your credentials become a handicap to future employment prospects.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Dame Anne Salmond had something sensible to say on Treaty “partnership” in comments on the Three Waters controversy published in Newsroom on 22 December which are also relevant to this matter. She described how in 1987 the Judiciary had effectively “rewritten” the Treaty by injecting the idea of idea of “partnership” into it. She went on to say: “The 1980s rewriting of Te Tiriti is overdue for critical examination; and this time it should involve all parties to the original agreement, including ordinary citizens, both Māori and non-Māori. Open debate is the key to good governance, on the marae as in a healthy democracy.”

    The historically and constitutionally absurd “partnership” dogma has been rammed down our throats for more than 30 years with unfortunate consequences. It is likely to be the motivating factor in the current bid to give Maori folklore and traditional knowledge equal status to the STEM sciences. If that bid is successful then New Zealand students will be hobbled, their qualifications regarded as worthless by the world beyond our fantasyland. New Zealand’s future development will likely nosedive because we will lack the necessary skills to innovate and to compete internationally. There is an awful lot at stake here which unfortunately our current crop of politicians playing identity politics are sadly either too ignorant or too dishonest to recognize. Dame Anne is right, open debate is the key to good governance.

    Liked by 3 people

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