We can gauge volumes of water and count contaminants – but measuring the mauri may be challenging for modern scientists

The latest press statement from the office of Kiritapu Allan serves as a reminder that this is a country where science is being positively blended with – or negatively debased by – a knowledge and belief system known as mātauranga Māori.

The press statement looks innocent enough.  It tells us the Associate Minister for the Environment, Kiri Allan, is urging all New Zealanders to give feedback on proposed changes aimed at making drinking water safer.

“The current regulations are not fit for purpose and don’t offer enough protection, particularly for those whose water comes from smaller supplies,” Kiri Allan said.

“This was highlighted in the 2016 campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North when close to 60 people were hospitalised.

“We are proposing improvements in three areas; standardising the way we define source water areas, strengthening regulation of activities around water sources, and adding more water suppliers to the register.”

Allan impedes the comfortable digestion of her statement by English-speaking readers at this juncture by melding two languages:

“The changes recognise Te Mana o te Wai, the fundamental importance of water to the health and wellbeing of our people and our environment.”

The blurring of languages is mercifully brief and Allan goes on:

“No one should have to worry that their water may not be safe to drink.

“Making sure our rivers, lakes and ground waters are free from contamination is the first step in protecting our drinking water supplies, so it’s crucial we have protections in place along each stage of the water supply process, from source to tap”, Kiri Allan said.

The proposed changes are aimed at helping water suppliers to maintain and improve water quality around drinking water catchments.

Consultation on changes to the National Environmental Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water (NES-DW).begins today* and runs until March 6.

Feedback will be used to further refine the proposed changes to the NES-DW, before the regulations are redrafted and gazetted later in 2022.

The consultation document and online consultation form are available on the Ministry for the Environment’s website: https://consult.environment.govt.nz/freshwater/nes-drinking-water.

Inquisitive readers will encounter the government-sanctioned blending of science with mātauranga Māori when they dip into the discussion document.

Two references are made to the concept of mauri, for example:

  • Protecting water upholds our Treaty partnership There are difficulties in quantifying benefits that fully reflect the aspirations and expectations of iwi/Māori. The proposed amendments are designed to contribute to Te Mana o te Wai, and to the spiritual and theological aspects of iwi/Māori water use and access. The amendments are expected to enhance Māori customary activities such as mahinga kai (gathering food), and the centrality of freshwater’s mauri (vital essence).
  • Scenario 4: Wastewater discharges Wastewater discharges contain bacteria and pathogens that can make people sick if they source water. Wastewater discharges can also affect the mauri of a water body if they enter the water body

We know how to measure water in terms of volume (litres, let’s say) or contamination.

The Taranaki Regional Council (for example) says physical and chemical measurements are used to assess pressures on the health of rivers.

The measures include bacteria levels, water clarity, conductivity and acidity (pH levels), nutrient levels, dissolved oxygen levels and the amount of oxygen consumed in the breakdown of organic matter. The latter measure is known as ‘biochemical oxygen demand’ or BOD, and is low in healthy rivers.

In all, there are 22 individual measures, which the Council monitors by taking regular samples at 13 sites across the region

But wondering how the effects of wastewater discharges on “mauri” is measured and who does the measuring lands us smack bang in the middle of the science versus mātauranga Māori  debate.

The Ardern government is robustly promoting the mātauranga Māorii side of this debate, unbothered by the myths and creationism that are part of it.  Dissidents (or defenders of unsullied modern-day science) are apt to have their funding cut off and/or their job prospects impaired

American evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne – who has been closely monitoring the debate –  has recorded his latest observations in a post titled What’s going on in New Zealand? Three easy pieces

His article includes a steer to all his posts on the topic (here) along with a brief update on the fracas about the way to teach science in New Zealand and whether mātauranga Māori should be taught in science classes as coequal with modern science.

Coyne recalls how seven University of Auckland professors signed a letter in the magazine The Listener arguing that mātauranga Māori isn’t the same as modern science, and while deserving to be taught in anthropology or sociology classes, it would be a disaster as taught as a “way of knowing” identical in content and validity to modern science.

He notes:

Outside of NZ, people are uniformly appalled by the disapprobation raining down on these two, as well as the other five. But within the country, people are pretty split between the science-friendly and the Woke.

A lot of the disapprobation from Kiwis was inspired by a petition started by two U. Auckland professors, Siouxie Wiles and Sean Hendy, both experts in Covid with high national profiles. You can see part of the petition they started, that garnered 2,000 signatures, here.)

Coyne includes a bit of the petition and spells out what he argues are a few logical errors or instances of distorted reasoning.

He proceeds to observe the irony of Wiles and Hendy complaining they have been the subjects of harassment and aren’t getting support from the University of Auckland.  

He then draws attention to an article in The Spinoff,  with funding from the University of Otago, a promoter of mātauranga Māori and Māori studies in New Zealand.

This is propaganda, not journalism, he contends, while highlighting:

  • a lack of examples of scientific knowledge acquired using Māori “ways of knowing,” and
  • a plethora of mātauranga Māori words so frequent that they make the article almost unreadable to those who don’t speak the language. To me it seems a way of showing off, as if one were describing a kerfuffle about science in France by heavily larding it with French words.

Finally, Coyne references an article in Stuff headed “We are having the wrong debate over how we teach science”, by Gaven Martin, a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Massey University

Martin begins:

There has been considerable debate around the intersection of NCEA, mātauranga Māori, and science. But it is the wrong debate.

I would like to offer a different perspective, informed by the review of mathematics education I chaired for the Royal Society of New Zealand and Ministry of Education recently.

Coyne notes that Martin is not one of “the Satanic Seven” but ventures:

“… he’s going to get into trouble for writing this.”

We trust he is wrong.

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