Two distinguished scientists – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Professor Cooper is described on the University of Auckland website as one of New Zealand’s foremost biological scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs. The professor of Biochemistry and Clinical Biochemistry at the School of Biological Sciences and the Department of Medicine at the university where he also leads the Proteomics and Biomedicine Research Group, he is a distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades.
Robert Nola, emeritus professor of the philosophy of science at the same university, for more than 50 years has focused on what makes science science.
Books written by him include Theories of Scientific Method: An Introduction (co-authored with Howard Sankey in 2007), which has been described as an exploration of the major recent theories of scientific method. It addresses questions such as what is it to be scientific, and is there such a thing as scientific method, and if so, how might such methods be justified?
“This book offers readers a comprehensive introduction to the idea of scientific method and a wide-ranging discussion of how historians of science, philosophers of science and scientists have grappled with the question over the last fifty years.”
The resignations of the two luminaries follow the society’s decision – announced last week – not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as Fellows of the Society for being among seven University of Auckland professors who signed a letter to the New Zealand Listener headed ‘In defence of science’ in July last year.
The letter criticised proposals to include mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum and to give it equal standing with “Western/ Pakeha epistemologies” (which means subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry).
The seven professors acknowledged the value of indigenous knowledge as “critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and that it “plays key roles in management and policy”. But (they wrote) while it “may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, it is not science”.
Complaints were laid with the Royal Society against Cooper and Nola because they are fellows of the society.
In its statement announcing the outcome, the society says the complaints particularly referred to the vulnerability of Māori and early career researchers.
The society convened an Initial Investigation Panel to consider the complaints as set out under the society’s Complaints Procedures.
The panel’s role was not to consider the merits of the views expressed in the New Zealand Listener letter but to decide whether the complaints should proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee.
Concluding that the complaints should not proceed, the panel cited (or took refuge in) a clause of the complaints procedures which says:
“The complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion or of contested scientific evidence amongst researchers and scholars.”
The panel did note that both the complainants and the respondents had referred to a considerable number of matters that were outside it’s scope, including the merits or otherwise of the broader issues raised in the letter or elsewhere.
“In the Panel’s view, the matters raised are of substance and merit further constructive discussion and respectful dialogue.”
The society’s decision not to proceed has spared it the prospect of being criticised – if not mocked – by scientists around the world.
Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, pointed out that mātauranga Māori contained strong elements of Creationism (“refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, and biogeography”) and that “expelling members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like is shameful”.
He concluded his letter to the society by advising:
“I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughing stock.”
World-wide interest in the case is reflected in a report on Research Professional News headed Royal Society bows out of Māori science row.
The report says:
“The Royal Society of New Zealand has decided not to proceed with an investigation into a letter published by seven University of Auckland academics about Māori scholarship. In a statement released on 11 March, the society said that a complaint about the letter was outside its scope and would not go to a complaints determination committee.”
“Māori scholars said the letter was damaging and complained to the society that it would adversely affect Māori and early career researchers.”
Research Professional News further noted that in December, the society published a statement by its chief executive appealing for constructive discussion and noting that there had been a “barrage of frequently vitriolic and abusive messages” sent to some individuals in the science community.
The statement said the society remained committed to science, freedom of speech and “the value of mātauranga Māori”.
Sociologist Elizabeth Rata, who was a signatory to the letter to the New Zealand Listener but was not one of the society fellows named in the complaint, told Research Professional News the signatories still had serious concerns about an earlier statement made by the society about the views of the group. That statement was removed in December.
After the In defence of science letter had been published last July, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy co-authored an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views.
Furthermore, Wiles tweeted a request for support:
“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 signed.
Auckland’s vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater distanced herself from the letter written by seven of her professors, saying:
“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.”
The Royal Society pitched in at that time to say:
“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 as Graham Adams noted on Point of Order, the professors never said mātauranga Māori wasn’t a “valid truth” and didn’t “outline” a definition of science.
Moreover, “misguided” can cover a multitude of sins, from being “unreasonable or unsuitable because of being based on bad judgment or on wrong information or beliefs” (Cambridge English Dictionary) to “led or prompted by wrong or inappropriate motives or ideals” (Merriam-Webster).
Adams report for The Platform on the Royal Society’s decision not to proceed with the complaints against the two professors can be read here.
But the society didn’t argue that mātauranga Māori is scientific, which was the critical point of the Listener letter.
This week, Adams has reported for The Platform on the Royal Society’s decision not to proceed with the complaints against the two professors (his account can be read here).
He reports that the society made it clear in an early version of its statement:
“There was no evidence that the Fellows acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.”
But this sentence doesn’t appear in the version now published online.
In another post, this time for The BFD, Adams has drawn attention to Stuff’s questionable reporting of the Royal Society’s decision not to proceed. This is headed “Why won’t Stuff give the ‘Listener’ professors a fair go?”
Newsroom reported last November on the disciplinary action being taken against the two professors:
“Two authors of a controversial letter on the scientific status of Māori knowledge may be expelled from a prestigious academic society, following several complaints.”
In the upshot, there have been no expulsions – but the professors have decided they no longer want to remain members and fellows of this society.