A professor without honour in his own country

A professor without honour in his own country

Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker marked the death of his former teacher New Zealander Michael Corballis with a laudatory tweet. NZ’s Royal Society — of which Corballis was a Fellow and recipient of its most prestigious award — still hasn’t provided an obituary after putting him under investigation for his views on mātauranga Māori. Graham Adams reports.

The late Prof Michael Corballis

After Auckland University emeritus professor Michael Corballis died on November 13, the celebrity scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker tweeted to his 736,000 followers: “Sad to learn of the death of cognitive psychologist Michael Corballis, who taught me stats at McGill (I cite his lectures in Rationality) & did brilliant work on handedness, mental rotation, & [evolution] of lang. Also urbane, charming, witty, irreverent.”

The Harvard University professor of psychology expressed similar sentiments last December when Corballis published his autobiography, “Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind”, which tracked his brilliant career from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand to teaching at McGill University in Canada before returning to Auckland University.

Pinker: “Michael Corballis is among the world’s deepest and most creative cognitive scientists, and he illuminates every subject he takes on with insight, wit, and charm. We’re fortunate that he has stepped back to and applied these gifts to the science of mind.” Five years ago, the Royal Society of New Zealand thought very highly of Corballis too. In 2016, it awarded him the Rutherford Medal, its most prestigious award, for his work on brain asymmetries, handedness, mental imagery, language, and mental time travel. 

Prof Steven Pinker

The award — named after Ernest Rutherford, our most famous scientist and Nobel laureate, who pioneered the orbital theory of the atom — bestows a medal and prize of $100,000. In its statement, the awards panel outlined Professor Corballis’s achievements: “He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Psychological Scientists, the American Psychological Association and the Royal Society of New Zealand. 

“He is an Honorary Fellow of the International Neuropsychology Symposium and the New Zealand Psychological Society. He was awarded the Shorland Medal from the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 1999, a James Cook Research Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2000 and the Hunter Award from the New Zealand Psychological Society in 2006.”

The panel also noted: “Professor Corballis has written a string of popular books including: The Lopsided Ape, From Hand to Mouth, The Recursive Mind, Pieces of Mind and The Wandering Mind. These titles have made the latest thinking on difficult topics such as the origins of human language, mental time travel and the question of human uniqueness easily accessible to a broad audience.” 

Some senior academics say Corballis was the best chance Auckland University has ever had to snare a Nobel Prize given that he was arguably the leading authority in the world on left-hemisphere / right hemisphere issues in neuropsychology. Yet — despite having awarded him the Rutherford Medal — a full fortnight after his death the society had still not written an obituary. Unfortunately, Corballis had lately been relegated to zero from hero. His crime was effectively one of heresy.

At the time of his death, he was being investigated by the Royal Society — along with two other Fellows, Professors Robert Nola and Garth Cooper — with a view to expulsion.

They were among seven eminent professors who signed a letter published in the Listener in July that objected to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) being given equal status in the school science curriculum with what an NCEA working group referred to as “Western” science. The Royal Society quickly denounced the professors: “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.”

What was baffling about the society’s statement — apart from the fact it felt moved to make one at all — is that it appeared to be responding to a letter the professors hadn’t actually written. They never said anything that implied mātauranga Māori isn't a “valid truth” — whatever that means — but simply that, in their opinion, it isn’t science. The professors also upheld “the value of mātauranga Māori” in their letter, stating that, “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy.” They also acknowledged that “Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge” — even if “it is not science”.

The society’s assertion that the professors were using a “narrow and outmoded definition of science” also seems odd given that the society itself didn’t go as far as to claim mātauranga Māori is scientific — even if its statement implies it might be able to be roped into a more expansive and more modish view of science than the one the professors hold.

Listener LetterThe society has dropped its charges against Corballis posthumously but Professors Nola and Cooper are still in its sights. Unsurprisingly, the issue is causing deep divisions within the Royal Society. 

Theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger  a German scientist, who holds a chair in theoretical chemistry at Massey University in Auckland and is the Director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics, the head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study, and former president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, one of Germany’s premier scientific and research institutes, commented:

“This witch hunt against the authors of the Listener article has to stop immediately. And shame on those who are drawing the racist card without even having allowed for a much needed and timely discussion on the involvement of mātauranga Māori in science teaching. 

“Many of my colleagues are too scared to speak out because they are attacked by the post-modernist ideologists. As a (yet) Fellow of the Royal Society, I am deeply embarrassed and shocked about this investigation, and perhaps a review of the Royal Society NZ is required to avoid leaving a sizeable stain in their history books.”

It is an open question whether the Royal Society can survive this scandal. Like  other organisations that have abandoned their founding principles for more fashionable standards, oblivion and irrelevance awaits.

Perhaps what is particularly telling about the nature of this “witch hunt” is that it has been reported that three of the five complainants to the society dropped out when it became clear they would have to be identified for the inquiry to proceed.

It seems they were happy to help damage others’ careers and reputations anonymously but not quite as keen to put their own on the line by coming forward in public.

In contrast, in an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ on Saturday, Pinker made his own position very public.

“Silencing or punishing someone for an opinion runs counter to reason. … No one is infallible; no one is omniscient. The only way our species has been able to do anything worthwhile is by voicing opinions and allowing them to be criticised…

“If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished then we’ve turned off the only mechanism we have of discovering knowledge. It is a way of locking ourselves into error…

“If we have a regime that can subject someone to an investigation based on an opinion, we know from history that’s the way totalitarian autocracies work and oppressive theocracies work.

“We know that the countries that have done well — the liberal democracies — have had freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.”

Later in the interview, Pinker made it explicit who he was referring to as having been silenced: “My beloved former professor Michael Corballis…”

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Graham Adams has been involved in publishing in New Zealand for the past 40 years as a journalist, columnist, reviewer, magazine editor and subeditor. He has also worked as a book editor and screenwriter. He has a BA in psychology and French, and a MA in classical Greek, from the University of Auckland. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore with his partner, Megan. He believes strongly in free speech.