The philosopher stoned for his defence of science

Robert Nola’s academic specialty is the philosophy of science but the Royal Society is investigating him over what it claims are “misguided” views regarding Māori knowledge. Graham Adams reports.

Professor Robert Nola’s bread and butter is analysing what makes science science. And it has been his focus for more than 50 years. Yet, he is facing a disciplinary hearing by the Royal Society for expressing his views on science and mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge).

Nola was one of seven eminent professors from Auckland University who, in a letter to the Listener in July, criticised plans 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 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”.

For reasons best known to itself, the Royal Society felt moved to respond with a public statement: “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.”

Unfortunately for a statement put out in the name of the nation’s premier academy for the sciences and humanities, it was sloppily worded and seemed to show a poor grasp of what the professors had actually written.

As has been noted elsewhere, the professors never said mātauranga Māori wasn’t a “valid truth” — which of course could describe anything from witchcraft (at least in the eyes of its practitioners) to the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Furthermore, the professors didn’t “outline” a definition of science in their letter, as the society claimed, although it perhaps could be said to have implied one.

Possibly the Royal Society’s most egregious assertion, however, was that the professors’ views were “misguided”.

That description 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).

Synonyms include unwarranted, unfounded, ill-advised, ill-considered, foolish and confused.

To accuse a group of no fewer than seven outstanding professors of being “misguided” because they hold a particular view of what demarcates science from non-science seems… well… misguided. And perhaps no more so than in Professor Nola’s case.

It would certainly be news to the editors of the prestigious journals and book collections which have published his work in the philosophy of science over decades that his views are misguided. Just as it would be news to the eminent scientists around the world who have contacted the Royal Society to condemn its investigation and to back the professors’ opinion on mātauranga Māori and their right to offer it.

Professor Nola, a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has an MSc in mathematics, and an MA and a PhD in philosophy.

His résumé on the University of Auckland website details his professional interests as: “Philosophy of science; metaphysics, including naturalism; epistemology; selected areas in social and historical studies of science; atheism; science and religion.”

It is difficult to imagine anyone in our universities who might have a better-informed view on the boundaries of science or why mātauranga Māori should not be included in the school science curriculum. Obviously, that is not a reason to immediately assume his views are correct but it is a reason to assume they are well considered and that he has the standing to make such a judgment in a professional capacity.

That is, of course, unless it is argued that mātauranga Māori is a form of priestly knowledge that only an initiate — presumably Māori — could understand and comment on. But if that is the case, it confirms immediately that traditional Māori knowledge is not scientific.

As the professors stated in their letter: “Science is universal” — which Nola points out can mean that it is “applicable by anyone anywhere”.

The same point was made by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the letter he sent to the Royal Society NZ last week (and tweeted to his 2.9 million followers) that decried the disciplinary investigation against Nola and his eminent colleague, Māori medical researcher Professor Garth Cooper:

“Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what ‘tradition’ they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc.”

In his letter to the Royal Society, Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made the point that only scientific method can determine what parts of mātauranga Māori can be classified as scientific knowledge:

“Māori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only ‘true’ way of knowing.”

The problem for the Royal Society in rejecting what they see as the professors’ “narrow and outmoded definition of science” is that a wider and more fashionable view of what constitutes science leads inevitably to a philosophy of “anything goes”, or a sort of epistemological anarchy.

Once Māori myths and legends are introduced into the school science curriculum there is no justifiable reason not to include Creationism (the belief that the universe and the various forms of life were created by God out of nothing) as well.

Parts of mātauranga Māori are, of course, creation myths, including the roles played by Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, in the formation of the world.

As Dawkins wrote: “No indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes.”

As it happens, Professor Nola is no stranger to an elastic view of science — and what areas of knowledge and belief might fall under such an expanded remit.

He was a lecturer in Auckland University’s philosophy department when Paul Feyerabend arrived from the University of California, Berkeley, to teach during the winter terms of 1972 and 1974.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Feyerabend was one of the world’s best-known philosophers of science — and certainly the most mischievous.

He was a charismatic showman with a prodigious intellect and astonishing range of interests, and one who reliably packed out the biggest lecture halls in the university. He argued (as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it) that “in order to maximise the chances of falsifying existing theories, scientists should construct and defend as many alternative theories as possible”.

Feyerabend’s first book, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge — published in 1975 (and expanding on the essay version that appeared in 1970) — consolidated his reputation as a thorn in the side of the profession. He argued that there is no such thing as the scientific method.

In an era when university lecturers were still allowed to discombobulate if not alarm their students with radical ideas, he challenged his Auckland University students to convince him that witchcraft was not scientific — and prescribed the 15th Century text Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witches) as a set text.

So Feyerabend ended up likening science to voodoo, witchcraft and astrology and defending them as systems of knowledge. He also expressed support for Creationism being included in the public school curriculum.

You might even say, to echo the Royal Society’s formulation, he saw each of them as “valid truths”.

Interest in Feyerabend’s views, however, dwindled in the succeeding decades, not least because what makes science science is manifestly different to traditional belief systems such as religion. Presented with evidence that confounds their theories, scientists are obliged, sooner or later, to adapt them to fit the facts or to abandon them entirely — unlike religion.

Professor Nola has written extensively on Feyerabend’s philosophy. While freely admitting that the demarcation between science and non-science is contestable, he has rejected a Feyerabendian epistemological free-for-all.

He wrote in the NZ Herald in 2016 to warn about “post-truth" displacing “objective facts”:

"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.”

However, a significant problem for anyone — including the seven professors — who wants to assess the scientific nature of mātauranga Māori is deciding exactly what status it has.

Nola points out that there are two distinct camps of thought regarding mātauranga Māori — the “accommodationist” and the “exclusionist” positions.

The former accommodates the possibility of scientific testing to determine the scientific truth or validity of its claims. As Vision Mātauranga (2007) tells us: “Scientific knowledge has superseded traditional Māori knowledge in many ways, however, mātauranga Māori contains suggestions and ideas that may yet make a contribution to research, science and technology.”

The latter exclusionist view asserts that it is impossible to judge mātauranga Māori by the standards of science because they are fundamentally incompatible ways of knowing. (Feyerabend would have called them “incommensurable”.)

A quote by Professor Sir Mason Durie in the document Rauika Māngai: A Guide to Vision Mātauranga, published in 2020, made this position explicit: “You can’t understand science through the tools of mātauranga Māori, and you can’t understand mātauranga Māori through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge, and if you try to see one through the eyes of the other you mess up.”

In the same document, the exclusive nature of mātauranga Māori was further emphasised. Aroha Te Pareake Mead expressed a view about the exclusive control of mātauranga Māori which appears to preclude any non-Maori from learning about it: “Māori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, its transmission, its protection.”

Nola says that “lots of the claims from Vision Mātauranga Māori (2007) can be accommodated into science in a quite familiar way and with that I have no problem” — but the exclusionist position is more challenging.

It is ironic that the professors who wrote to the Listener have been roundly criticised for saying “Indigenous knowledge… is not science” when influential Māori thinkers like Mason Durie — who is one of New Zealand's most respected academics — have been making a much more radical claim along these lines for years.

In a 300-word letter to the Listener it was simply impossible for the professors to make the distinction between the accommodationist and the exclusionist approaches, but the problem remains.

As Nola puts it: “Which version of MM is the real MM? There might not be one!”



Graham Adams was a philosophy student in 1972 and 1974 at Auckland University when Paul Feyerabend was a visiting professor. Dr Nola taught a course in the philosophy of science in 1974 that Adams was enrolled in.