The importance of being Ernest – our royal society is using him to inspire youngsters to redesign our $100 bank note

As I observed in an article posted on the  AgScience blog earlier today, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand’s most celebrated scientist and the country’s first Nobel laureate, was noted by RNZ, and by some newspapers and universities.

On RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, the programme host talked about Lord Rutherford with  Professor David Hutchison, the director of the Dodd Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies.

Stuff featured an article by Nelson reporter Tim Newman under the headline Ernest Rutherford: From humble beginnings to New Zealand’s greatest scientist

This referenced an obituary in the New York Times on October 20, 1937, which described Lord Rutherford as one of the few men to reach “immortality and Olympian rank” during his own lifetime. Continue reading “The importance of being Ernest – our royal society is using him to inspire youngsters to redesign our $100 bank note”

Why NZ farmers should hope for positive results from research into the methane effects of lacing stock feed with seaweed

A warning  bell  sounded  for  New Zealand farmers  when The Economist – in an editorial  last week headed “It  is  not  all  about  the  CO2” – argued  that carbon  dioxide is by far the most important   driver of  climate  change, but methane  matters  too.

The  final  sentence of  the  editorial reads,  ominously:

“Methane  should be  given priority on the  COP26 climate  summit  this  November”.

NZ may  fight  its  corner   vigorously   at the   Glasgow  summit,  but  the   risk is  that  delegates  there   will  seize  on  the  thesis  advanced  by The Economist    that   methane is  a more  powerful  greenhouse  gas  than  carbon   dioxide,  and  decide  to  target  it harshly.

 “Reduce  methane  emissions and  you  soon  reduce  methane  levels;  reduce   methane  levels  and  you  reduce global  warming”,  says The Economist. Continue reading “Why NZ farmers should hope for positive results from research into the methane effects of lacing stock feed with seaweed”

The attacks on seven eminent professors over a Listener letter in which they championed science have missed their target


A letter in defence of science, published in The Listener last month, was signed by seven professors from the University of Auckland – Kendall Clements, Garth Cooper, Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, Emeritus Professor Robert Nola, and Emeritus Professor John Werry. 

Prominent scientists were among the critics of the letter-writers.  But despite their disquiet, dismay or outrage, the critics have avoided stating that mātauranga Māori is scientific. 

GRAHAM ADAMS asks why they are skirting the main issue.


A distinctly curious feature of the backlash against the seven professors’ letter published in The Listener titled “In Defence of Science” is that none of its most prominent critics have actually defended mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) as being scientific.

Yet the main point of the letter by the seven Auckland University professors — and the main point of contention for its critics — was summed up in its inflammatory conclusion:

“Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.”

The seven professors who signed the letter were responding to a proposal by a government NCEA working group that mātauranga Māori should have “parity” with “the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western / Pākeha epistemologies)” in the school science curriculum.

The “epistemologies” — that is, science — were also referred to as a “Western European invention”.

The professors objected to science being characterised in this way, on the grounds that…

“Science is universal, not especially Western European.”

They pointed out that the origins of science can be traced to many non-Western sources including ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India,

“… with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence across Asia”.

They also stated:

“In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, [mātauranga] falls far short of what we can define as science itself.”

In response to what she seems to see as heresy, the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University, Dawn Freshwater, announced that the letter’s question of

“.. whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni”.

Proclaiming feelings of dismay and hurt does not, of course, constitute a rebuttal of the professors’ assertion that mātauranga Māori is not scientific — and nor does describing it as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”, as Freshwater went on to do.

Whether she was aware of it or not, the VC was offering very faint praise, indeed. A “distinctive and valuable knowledge system” could equally describe Christian knowledge such as Creationism — which is part of Pakeha New Zealanders’ cultural heritage. Yet very few would want to see it given equal weight with science in a school curriculum.

In fact, the professors’ letter didn’t say anything that could be construed as hostile to a description of mātauranga Māori as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”. Indeed, they stated:

“Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy.”

Freshwater added a further faint endorsement:

“We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.”

Again, this says nothing about whether mātauranga Māori is scientific. And the question that remains to be answered by Professor Freshwater and others is — if it can’t be defended as scientific, what is it doing in the science curriculum?

A similar reluctance to respond directly to the professors’ contentious assertion about mātauranga Māori was evident in the statement by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the nation’s premier body representing science and the humanities.

It vehemently opposed the professors’ stance, writing:

“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.”

The professors, of course, never said anything that implied mātauranga Māori isn’t a “valid truth” — whatever that means — but simply stated that, in their opinion, it isn’t science.

The society’s statement that the professors are using a “narrow and outmoded definition of science” doesn’t directly claim that mātauranga Māori is scientific, although it implies it might be able to be corralled into a wider and more modish view of science than the one the professors hold.

Perhaps the most extraordinary public denunciation, however, came in the form of an open letter thundering against the professors that quickly gained more than 2000 signatures, the vast majority from academics and researchers.

It was the brainchild of Auckland University’s Professor Shaun Hendy and Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles. As authors of the open letter, they could not bring themselves to say that mātauranga Māori represents a scientific view of the world, either. They were keen, however, to insist that:

“Indigenous knowledges — in this case, mātauranga — are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with ‘Western’ understandings of the scientific method.”

Presumably the overlap includes those parts of mātauranga Māori that are not mystical or animistic (for example, that do not include taniwha, or do not anthropomorphise mountains or other natural features). Notably, the authors didn’t give any real clue as to what these “overlaps” are or how substantial they might be.

They described mātauranga as offering “ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems”. This description, once again, could be applied to any distinct belief system, including the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and wasn’t denied by the professors.

The open letter is particularly remarkable for the fact that Dr Shaun Hendy and Dr Siouxsie Wiles have both been deeply involved in the government’s Covid strategies and management since the beginning of the pandemic, including regularly discussing the topic in public. But here they are castigating their academic peers who are defending scientific methodology.

The doozy in their open letter has to be this paragraph:

“The professors present a series of global crises [including Covid] that we must ‘battle’ with science — again failing to acknowledge the ways in which science has contributed to the creation of these challenges. Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.”

Say what? As New Zealanders wait anxiously to have a shot of an effective vaccine created by legions of scientists worldwide, they are being told by the microbiologist named the New Zealander of the Year for her leadership through the Covid-19 response and the scientist whose predictions of possibly 80,000 deaths from Covid helped put the nation into lockdown in March 2020 that science is not paramount in the fight against Covid.

The news that more than 2000 mainly academics and researchers have endorsed science being knocked off its pedestal will be music to the ears of those opposed to wearing a mask in public or wary of being vaccinated, who are routinely denounced for not “following the science”.

What is most disturbing about the open letter, however, is that by drumming up signatures in support it appears to be an attempt to silence an opposing viewpoint.

Dr Wiles reinforced that impression by tweeting:

“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.”

The troublesome defenders of science allegedly causing “untold harm and hurt” include an emeritus professor of philosophy, Dr Robert Nola, who is a member of the Royal Society and who has been studying, writing and lecturing in the philosophy of science for more than 45 years.

In late 2016, soon after Donald Trump won the US Presidency, Dr Nola wrote in the NZ Herald to warn about “post-truth”. As he put it:

“This new, fancy word tells us: ‘Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ No need for truth, it is yesteryear’s notion…

 “Insofar as studies in humanities have not resisted the views of post-truthers, too bad for humanities. But what of science? It would be quite alien for science to reject the search for truth and evidence, the core of its critical methods.

 “In science we have models of what the rational approach to believing ought to be. If followed, they are an important way to keep the post-truth era from engulfing us.”

Less than five years later, it has become clear that Dr Nola’s warning has fallen on deaf ears. As the firestorm over the professors’ letter shows, New Zealand science is indeed being engulfed by the post-modern mantra that there is no such thing as objective truth.

It is also clear that anyone who dissents must be silenced.

The problem with Australia’s opening plan is that it closes things

Australian PM Scott Morrison is under pressure from a Delta Covid outbreak that just won’t go away and a vaccination programme which – what shall we say – lacks urgency.  

So it’s the right time to bring out a bold long-term plan for re-integrating Australia into the modern world.

Continue reading “The problem with Australia’s opening plan is that it closes things”

Here’s a letter to the editor you might have missed on science and how it should be shaped by the Treaty and spirituality

Scimex drew our attention around two weeks ago to news that Māori researchers were calling for a Tiriti-led science-policy approach.

A multi-disciplinary group of Māori researchers – most of them from the humanities – had published a report which recommended the appointments of Māori Chief Science Advisors and the development of Treaty-based guidelines for science and innovation funding.

In other words, scientists should have their funding chopped off if they don’t subscribe to the authors’ ideas about how the Treaty should play a role in this country’s science and innovation systems.

They wrote that the way scientists and policymakers work with each other left little room for Māori participation or leadership, although it seems they have been doing nicely, thank you, with their own careers.

But they were championing a different way of working and said the Treaty of Waitangi offers a “powerful framework” for connecting communities of knowledge that are mutually beneficial.

Other recommendations over the medium term include establishing an independent Mātauranga Māori entity, and developing regionally based Te Ao Māori policy hubs. Continue reading “Here’s a letter to the editor you might have missed on science and how it should be shaped by the Treaty and spirituality”

Innovation works very well indeed

Matt Ridley – former science editor of The Economist and prolific popular science writer – has tackled a slippery subject in his book How Innovation Works’. He succeeds in painting a vibrant and at times counter intuitive picture of this process. One that policy makers and public alike can usefully ponder.

A major contribution is demystification.  He trashes the model of a tortured genius locked in the lab. Innovation comes from lots of people, competing or in concert, working by trial and error, sharing or stealing knowledge. It occurs when the conditions are right, because it bubbles out of the accumulation and testing of knowledge (hence the prevalence of simultaneous invention from calculus to light bulbs). ‘Ideas having sex’ is his metaphor of choice. And this tends to happen where innovators can gather and experiment free of restrictions.   

Continue reading “Innovation works very well indeed”

A year in the life of an Octopus

A regret.  Point of Order doesn’t cover octopi with sufficient rigour and detail.

So it’s a pleasure to recommend to readers looking to expand their knowledge the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher.

The plot is sui generis.  Craig Foster, a film-maker in crisis, retires to an isolated cottage on the far edge of the world (the Cape of Good Hope).  Each day he swims in the kelp forest at the joining point of the land and the ocean, until he knows it as well as his home, indeed it becomes his home.

And it is also the home of the Octopus. 

Continue reading “A year in the life of an Octopus”

When the Greens press party leaders to continue commitment to science, we wonder if they include themselves

Latest from the Beehive

We drew a blank, when we paid our morning visit to the Beehive website.  Nothing had been posted since Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage announced the Government’s plans to phase out more single-use and problem plastics to reduce waste and protect the environment.

Hmm.  Let’s check our email in-tray.

This contained advice about the PM’s next media conference – in tandem with the DG of Health – on the virus thing that has thrown politics and politicking into a bit of a tizz. The conference is at 1pm today.

Our email also brought statements (all Covid-related) headed  – Continue reading “When the Greens press party leaders to continue commitment to science, we wonder if they include themselves”

Scientists and their microscopes have a place in Govt programmes – but a Māori world view will help monitor the mauri

It looks like science has come off second best in government considerations during the development of Te Mana o te Taiao, the Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, which envisions New Zealand as a place where ecosystems are healthy and resilient, and people embrace the natural world.

The press statement announcing the strategy says the Science Reference Group provided information that underpins many of the key decisions about the way forward for prioritising the recovery of biodiversity. But it also says:

The Te Ao Māori Reference Group was responsible for getting a Māori world view to form the basis of the strategy structure.

We should not be surprised.  Politicians in recent years have striven or been pressed to ensure a Māori world view is more firmly accommodated in governance and decision-making, including the development of New Zealand’s algorithms charter.

In mathematics and computer science (according to Wikipedia), an algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation.

“Algorithms are always unambiguous and are used as specifications for performing calculations, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks.” 

But in this country, te ao concepts must be incorporated in the rules that will govern the preparation of algorithms. Continue reading “Scientists and their microscopes have a place in Govt programmes – but a Māori world view will help monitor the mauri”

Now that non-scientists can win a Rutherford Medal, there’s a good case for changing the name of the award

Until this year, the Rutherford Medal has been the most prestigious science award the Royal Society of New Zealand can bestow on worthy scientists.

But big changes are being made to the meaning of “science” and the society has proudly announced:

Rutherford Medal now includes humanities

The announcement explains that Royal Society Te Apārangi’s highest award, the Rutherford Medal for recognition of eminent research, scholarship, or innovation, will now include humanities scholarship in the fields of recognition.

This change has been made to recognise the widening of the object and functions of the Society under our Act, with the inclusion of the humanities, so that now the Society’s highest award will be opened to all disciplines covered by the Act.

In light of this change, the nomination deadline for the Rutherford Medal (and $100,000 prize money) will be extended out for an extra month (to 30 April 2020) to allow time for humanities nominations to be submitted for the current year.  Continue reading “Now that non-scientists can win a Rutherford Medal, there’s a good case for changing the name of the award”