Where was the Royal Society’s forum for debate during “science” dispute? Professor (and former fellow) explains his resignation

Two distinguished academics – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand (as Point of Order reported on March 18).

Cooper is a scientist; Nola is a philosopher who has studied and taught the philosophy of science.

Their resignations followed the society’s decision not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as fellows of the Society.

The complaint was laid after they and five other University of Auckland professors signed a letter – headed In defence of science – published in the 31 July 2021 issue of the NZ Listener.

The letter criticised proposals to include mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum and to give it equal standing with Western/ Pakeha subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry.

The professors do not oppose the teaching of mātauranga Maori in anthropology, Māori studies, cultural studies, or any of the similar social studies. They do challenge its being taught in the science curriculum.

Furthermore, their letter was addressed at claims that science was a coloniser (“we find this quite wrong,” Nola told Point of Order).

Today, he explains why he resigned.

Fundamentally, he complains about the lack of support by the Royal Society for discussing important issues concerning science in a free society.

The main point in the letter to the Listener had been to object to science being depicted as a tool for colonisation.

But the assertion that mātauranga Māori isn’t science had attracted much of the condemnation.

The Royal Society hastened to join the many critics with a statement that said:

“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.”

Yet the professors never said mātauranga Māori was not a “valid truth”; nor did they “outline” a definition of science.

On the other hand, the society didn’t argue that mātauranga Māori is scientific

Explaining why he resigned, Professor Nola said:

“The reasons have to do with lack of good support by the Royal Society of New Zealand for important issues concerning science in a free society.”

He provided his perspective of the events triggered by the letter In defence of science and said he received supportive comments from many fellows during the dispute with the Royal Society.  Moreover, he said, the Investigatory Panel set up by society to investigate the complaints against himself and Garth Cooper ended up largely in support:  it recommended not to continue the investigation.

But the views of the panel are not necessarily the same as those of the society.

In Nola’s assessment of what happened, the Royal Society raised its objections in three ways.

  • The first was based on what the professors said in the letter.

The main critical target in the letter was a claim in a Government NCEA working party report that science has been used to support Eurocentric views and colonisation (as distinct from people who might have used science when they were agents of colonisation).

The professors strongly objected to this view, but Nola said he was not aware of any response from the Royal Society to that aspect of the matters addressed in their letter

“… though there should be one given the state of science and mathematics education in New Zealand”.

But much more critical comment in the ensuing discussion had been prompted by the final sentence of the Listener letter which said “indigenous knowledge … is not science”.

Nola regards this is a contestable claim which is worthy of debate,

“… but none was given through the Royal Society.  Its response was to shut down dogmatically such discussion…” 

  • The second line of objection was a note on the Royal Society website set up by the President, Dr Brent Clothier, and the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee, Professor Charlotte Macdonald.

Nola says this note – which remained on the website for about five months – made false claims about what the professors had said in the Listener letter about mātauranga Māori.

It added that “it deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause” (presumably the view that indigenous knowledge is not science).

No evidence was ever given concerning the harm allegedly caused, Nola observed.

Moreover, the note reflected a view that any harm caused by free speech, and even the extent of academic freedom, ought to lead to the curtailment of such freedoms.

In fact, it has now become much more common for there to be requests for restrictions on academic freedom as defined in the relevant 2020 Act.

“I regard this as an unwelcome development.”

The Code of Ethics of the Royal Society endorses freedom of speech (but not necessarily academic freedom) and clearly admits restrictions which Nola would regard as highly contestable.

“I am strongly of the view, contrary to the Code of the Royal Society, that no Code of Ethics should impose restrictions on the freedoms that the laws of the land would permit. This is a problem with many codes of ethics – they need to be challenged in the courts.”

Clearly, the professors had no support in advocating views about science and knowledge which were not sanctioned by the Royal Society, especially in the case where indigenous “knowledge” systems are given a privileged protection immune from criticism, Nola said.

“We are simply not permitted to say that indigenous knowledge is not a science (even though many scholars working in the field of mātgauranga Māori say that it is not!).

“Even if one might disagree with these views, at least support of the doctrines of academic freedom and free speech would not lead one to reject these views out of hand. In sum, I regard the website note as obnoxious, as did many who commented to me about it.”

  • The third line of objection arose when the Royal Society took up five complaints about the letter to be addressed by their Complaints Procedures and their Code of Professional Standards and Ethics in Science, Technology and Humanities.

Only two of the five complaints were made public and were investigated by an Investigatory Panel

The panel ruled that the complaints be taken no further.

The grounds for this were a clause  of the Complaint Procedures which provides circumstances in which a panel can conclude no further action should be taken, viz.

“… 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….”.

This was an important win, Nola said, but the outcome might have been reached by a more appropriate vetting procedure of the original complaints.

He believes the investigation became mired in the legalisms of a Code of Ethics rather than discussing a substantive issue about science, such as whether indigenous knowledge is, or is not, science.

“But one would have thought that this was something for which the Royal Society might at least have provided a forum instead of evading it by retreating behind its Code. This is just one example of how codes might be employed to stifle free speech.”

Nola contends it is a serious failure of Royal Society procedures that it cannot encourage discussion about a contentious claim rather than dogmatically adopting a stance which is then put beyond the pale of criticism.

Summing up his reasons for resigning, Nola said the main issue underlying the dispute related to freedom of speech in the sphere of science.

“It has been long recognised that science best advances when it is open to the critical discussion of any of its doctrines, whether alleged to be indigenous or not. This is something found in the 19th century discussion of freedom of speech by John Stuart Mill.

“If anything is given privileged protection from criticism, the advance of science s undermined.

At the moment the dogmatic stance seems to be in the ascendancy for the Royal Society, and it is supported by the acceptance of a Code of Ethics which can be used all too easily to curtail free speech.”

The contention in the Listener letter that indigenous knowledge was not science had clearly been taken by many within the Royal Society to be unacceptable, given the way in which it had been challenged with reprimands and investigations.

But that stance should never have been accepted if the Royal Society was a fully “open society”.

Nola said a resignation could be a sharp reminder that the society ought to provide a better forum for the discussion of contentious views instead of condemning them on websites or appointing panels to investigate them.

As Point of Order noted in the opening paragraph, Professor Garth Cooper has also resigned.

Some other  members and fellows are rumoured to have talked of resigning.

On the other hand, the Royal Society has announced that 23 new fellows have been elected to the academy of the society.

It announced this in a statement which – adopting the government’s practice – cumbersomely blends English with te reo:

“Twenty-three Ngā Ahurei hou a Te Apārangi new Fellows have been elected to the Academy of the Royal Society Te Apārangi …”

The chair of the Academy Executive Committee said it was pleasing to see an outstanding cohort of fellows elected this year, all with exceptional expertise.

“Ngā Ahurei Hou a Te Apārangi the newly elected fellows have made exceptional contributions to knowledge in their fields and across disciplinary boundaries. Their election adds to the depth of knowledge held within the Academy; they will help support the purpose of Royal Society Te Apārangi to engage with New Zealanders on topics important to all and to recognise outstanding researchers working in Aotearoa.”


“The new fellows will be formally inducted at a mixed mode in person and online event in Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington on 28 Paenga-whāwhā April 2022.”

The press statement says the new fellows have been elected

“… for their distinction in research and advancement of mātauranga Māori, humanities, technology and science.”

That sentence is instructive because of what comes first on the list and what comes last.

6 thoughts on “Where was the Royal Society’s forum for debate during “science” dispute? Professor (and former fellow) explains his resignation

    1. I note you don’t define “harming”.
      Mankind has been modifying the environment ever since human existed Look at all the creatures exterminated by stone age people – long before they transitioned out of the hunter gather phase. Then there were all the forests burned down. When did the Aboriginal tribes stop burning Australia? Probably about the same time the settlers started burning it.
      I gather you are trying to imply from the article’s context that.mātauranga Māori will give us the ability to measure environment damage. That is just specious rubbish. What can it specifically tell us about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, or safe e-coli levels in water?

      Liked by 2 people

  1. All 23 of the new Fellows have promoted matauranga Maori? That’s a qualification for a fellowship? No wonder this country is going downhill. A good move by the next (National/ACT) government would be to withdraw every cent of taxpayer funding.

    Liked by 5 people

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