Pages tagged "Listener"

  • The intimidation of the Fellows


    Graham Adams

    Seventy notable academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society over its handling of the professors’ letter to the Listener — but some of their colleagues say they are too fearful to sign it. Graham Adams reports.

    If anyone ever believed universities are institutions where academics can speak their minds freely and openly, the stoush sparked by the letter that seven University of Auckland professors sent to the Listener last July should have thoroughly disabused them of that notion.

    What should have been an uncontroversial statement that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus led to a wave of condemnation and vilification of the professors. And this despite the fact they made it clear that indigenous knowledge was valuable both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”. What’s more, prominent Māori scholars such as Professor Sir Mason Durie had already acknowledged that science and indigenous knowledge are incommensurable.

    Even the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, hung them out to dry with what one British journalist described as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email” that referred to the “considerable hurt and dismay” the letter had caused staff, students and alumni.

    Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis, were Fellows of the Royal Society NZ, but — rather than supporting their right to speak publicly about their concerns about mātauranga Māori in a science syllabus — it responded with a statement on its website that said their views were not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. 

    Last November, it also instigated disciplinary action against Nola, Cooper and Corballis after complaints were laid. (Corballis has since died.)

    After a barrage of criticism from famous international scientists, including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, our premier academy for science and the humanities abandoned its pursuit of the two professors in March. But if it hoped that would be the end of the matter it was sorely mistaken.

    Last week, 70 of the society’s more than 400 Fellows signed a letter to the society calling for a no-confidence motion to be debated at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28 April. 

    It began: “Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists. 

    “We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the society’s very poor processes and actions.”

    The three specific objections made in the letter were to the statement published on the society’s website last year (described as “ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part”); the way the society handled the complaints against Professors Nola and Cooper; and lastly the “unfortunate” fact the pair felt compelled to resign.

    As the letter put it: “It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).”

    The motion was moved and seconded by two of the nation’s most prestigious and accomplished mathematicians, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin and Distinguished Professor Marston Condor.

    Among the 70 signatories were internationally renowned heavyweights, including Distinguished Professors Brian Boyd and Peter Schwerdtfeger — celebrated scholars in literature and theoretical chemistry respectively — and Professor Alan Bollard, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, and chief executive and secretary to Treasury.

    Having a substantial chunk of the Royal Society’s Fellows formally object to its handling of the Listener letter and the fallout is momentous but what is also remarkable — and remarkably depressing — is that the number of signatories would have been even higher if other Fellows had not feared for their livelihoods and careers by signing.

    Gaven Martin’s covering letter included these dismal paragraphs: ”Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour, but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their university), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public.  

    “Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter. 

    “Two Fellows (major Royal Society NZ medallists) said this: ‘Better not [sign] at this stage… I agree with all the statements — but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.’”

    And: “In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at [the University of Auckland] if I do so.” 

    Martin noted: “This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in New Zealand at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.”

    The letter’s signatories ask that the society write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process. 

    They also want the society to “review its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters”. 

    Lastly, that the entire society “be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests”. 

    While it is at it, the Royal Society might also like to apologise to the other four professors who signed the Listener letter but are not Fellows given that their reputations were all sullied by the statement the society put on its website about their views being misguided and harmful.

    However, you’d have to say that right now the society will have its hands full just dealing with the explosive no-confidence motion placed before it.

  • Why Robert Nola quit the New Zealand Royal Society

    Notes by Robert Nola just after quitting (March 2022)

    (1) The reasons have to do with lack of good support by the Royal Society NZ (RS) for important issues concerning science in a free society.

    (2) The dispute discussed here arose over a letter to the 31 July 2021 issue of the NZ Listener, called In Defence of Science. I was one of seven signatories to the letter.

    (3) Many good things are done by good researchers in RS; but not always because they are in it. Much of the good work might have been done before being made a fellow while the use of the acronym “FRSNZ” comes as a later bauble.

    (4) I received supporting comments from many Fellows during the dispute with the RS. And we should note that the Investigatory Panel (IP) set up by RS to look into the complaints against professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola ended up largely in support; it recommended not to continue the investigation. But the views of the IP set up by the RS are not necessarily the same as those of RS itself.

    (5) The RS raised three lines of objection. The first was based on what we said in the letter. The main critical target in the letter was a claim in a Government NCEA working party report that science itself has been used to support Eurocentric views and colonisation (as opposed to people as agents of colonisation who might also use science). We strongly objected to this view. But I am not aware of any response to this from RS (though there should be one given the state of science and mathematics education in New Zealand). This did not get as much critical comment in the ensuing discussion as the final sentence of the letter which said: ‘indigenous knowledge … is not science’. This is a contestable claim which is worthy of debate, but none was given through the RS. Its response was to shut down dogmatically such discussion, as will be seen.

    (6) The second line of objection was a note on the RS website set up by the President Dr Brent Clothier and the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee Prof Charlotte Macdonald (it remained up for about 5 months).

    (7) It made false claims about what we allegedly said in the Listener letter about Mātauranga Māori. And it added that ‘it deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause’ (presumably the view being that indigenous knowledge is not science!). No evidence was ever given concerning the harm allegedly caused. But this is also part of a view in which 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.

    (8) Even though the Code of Ethics of RS endorses freedom of speech (but not obviously academic freedom), the Code clearly admits restrictions which I would regard as highly contestable. I am strongly of the view, contrary to the Code of RS, 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.

    (9) Clearly, we had no support in advocating views about science and knowledge which were not sanctioned by RS, especially in the case where indigenous “knowledge” systems are given a privileged protection immune from criticism. 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.

    (10) The third line of objection arose when the RS 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. Of the five complaints only two were made public and were investigated by an Investigatory Panel (IP). The final conclusion of the IP was that the complaints be taken no further. Their grounds were clause 6.4(i) 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 an important win in the complaints’ procedure. But it is something which might have been arrived at by a more appropriate vetting procedure of the original complaints in the first place.

    (11) Clearly the investigation got bound up in the legalisms of a Code of Ethics rather than a discussion of 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 RS might have at least 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. It is a serious failure of the RS that it cannot have such a discussion of some claim rather than dogmatically adopting some stance which is then put beyond the pale of criticism.

    (12) Ten and eight years ago I published two papers on the nature of science with a co-author, Professor Gürol Irzik, a professor of Philosophy at Sabanci University in Istanbul. We have now been invited to write about the same themes after ten years and are in the process of completing the paper. Has the dispute I have had within the Royal Society in dealing with the complaints brought against me produced anything I could use in the paper? No! The dispute has been entirely unproductive of any research in this area and has been a waste of time. My complainants have produced nothing which would be of value for this paper.

    (13) In sum, why resign? The main issue underlying this dispute has to do with freedom of speech in the area of science. It has been long recognized 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, then this undermines the advance of science. At the moment the dogmatic stance seems to be in the ascendancy for the RS. And it is supported by the acceptance of a Code of Ethics which can be used all too easily to curtail free speech. The remark in the letter that indigenous knowledge is not science has clearly been taken by many within the RS to be an unacceptable claim to make, given the way in which it has been challenged by reprimands and investigations. But this stance should never have been accepted if the Royal Society NZ was a fully “open society”. A resignation can be a sharp reminder that it ought to provide a better forum for the discussion of contentious views instead of condemning them on websites or having panel investigations into them.

  • Lady Deborah Chambers QC Letter

  • Dawn Freshwater kicks for touch on Mātauranga Māori

    As international criticism mounts, Auckland University’s Vice-Chancellor pledges a symposium next year to debate the role of Māori knowledge in science education. Graham Adams suggests a public apology to the seven professors would show it was more than a PR stunt.

    Reading the statement last week by Dawn Freshwater announcing a symposium to be held next year to debate the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, it was impossible not to feel at least a little sceptical about her new-found enthusiasm for free speech.

    After all, in late July the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University effectively hung seven professors from her own university out to dry soon after their letter “In Defence of Science” was published in the Listener.

    The professors’ 300-word letter was written in response to 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, while it “may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways”, they concluded, “it is not science”.

    Freshwater’s immediate reaction was to disown the letter writers. Her brief statement began:

    “A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.

    “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.”

    Some were surprised the university actually has official “views” but apparently — in Freshwater’s eyes at least — it does.

    In the wake of the firestorm sparked by the professors’ letter, Freshwater had another go at articulating her position in a longer statement on August 10. It appeared in part to be an attempt to remedy the evident shortcomings of her email on July 26. This time, the possibility of hurting other people’s feelings or dismaying them was ruled out as a reason for her academic staff to bite their tongues:

    “The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity.”

    Nevertheless, the idea that the university may deem some views acceptable and others unacceptable was repeated, although its chilling effect on freedom of expression was downplayed:

    “Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.”

    It was hardly a convincing statement of academics’ rights to air their opinions. In what way, for instance, does your employer reserving the right to point out publicly that it does not approve of your views not function as an act of censorship or an attempt to silence?

    And how could any particular group’s views ever be “representative of the myriad views within the institution”?

    For that matter, in what universe is it “healthy” for a university to “disagree with the views expressed by its academics”? In fact, some would see it as a symptom of serious underlying illness.

    In last week’s statement promising a symposium, Freshwater appeared to have given up on wrestling with the complex problem of what academic freedom and freedom of expression might mean in practice. She simply declared repeatedly that the university is in favour of it.

    The question of the university approving some views and not others had disappeared and the whole debate was thrown over to the panel for discussion next year.

    It is not impossible that in the past five months Freshwater has had a Road to Damascus experience about the value of free speech and academic freedom. But it is also evident that things have recently become a lot more uncomfortable for Auckland University and for the Royal Society Te Apārangi, our premier academy for the sciences and humanities, over their apparent hostility to views they find unacceptable.

    In November, news broke that Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis — the three Fellows among the seven professors who had signed the Listener letter — were to be put under disciplinary investigation by the society for their role in writing it. (Corballis has since died.)

    New Zealand’s mainstream media has almost entirely avoided covering the debate but the society’s disciplinary action — and its earlier statement rejecting the professors’ views as “misguided” with the potential to cause “harm” — has sparked international outrage and condemnation from heavyweight public intellectuals.

    Celebrated scientists — including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne — have trained their sights variously on the Royal Society NZ; the open letter denouncing the professors’ views written by Auckland University academics Drs Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles; and Dawn Freshwater herself.

    Influential journalists have joined the fray too. Toby Young, writing for The Spectator, described Freshwater’s July 26 statement as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university” — a characterisation repeated in the Daily Mail.

    Columnist Rod Liddle weighed in on the issue in the Sunday Times in an article headed “We’re Screeching into a New Dark Age” (and included Freshwater’s comment about “considerable hurt and dismay”), and Times Higher Education — the international bible for academics — has covered the debate in detail.

    Given the fame of Dawkins, Pinker and Coyne — and the extensive reach of the media outlets mentioned — it’s easy to imagine the question of Auckland University’s international standing beginning to prey on a VC’s mind.

    Perhaps that is why Freshwater felt compelled in her statement last week to remind us that her university is “a world-class, research-led university” — just in case anyone mistook it for a parochial institution struggling to understand the difference between science, myth and creationism.

    Certainly, being blasted by Jerry Coyne — professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the highly ranked University of Chicago — would have helped focus her mind about the damage to Auckland University’s international reputation.

    A fortnight ago, the best-selling science author wrote on his blog: “It’s not clear whether the Vice-Chancellor has any authority to declare what the ‘views of the University of Auckland’ are, nor whether there are any official views.

    “It’s clear she is demonising the professors at the same time she says well, they have the right of free speech — but note that the University can officially criticise them and the Royal Society can punish them!

    “As for the Vice-Chancellor emphasising the ‘considerable hurt and dismay’ at the university, I consider that a ludicrous form appeal to emotion rather than reason.”

    Coyne’s comments have been noticed at Auckland University. He reported that Todd Somerville, its Associate Director Communications, had sent him a “letter of complaint” about his original post, in which Somerville defended Freshwater ”at great length”.

    Announcing a symposium at some as-yet-unspecified time in the first quarter of 2022 will undoubtedly seem to the VC to be a very effective circuit-breaker that will provide a breather for her and her beleaguered university.

    Freshwater will no doubt also be hoping that by then the fates of Professors Cooper and Nola at the hands of the Royal Society NZ will be known — preferably, perhaps, concluding with a discharge on the grounds that a letter is not research and therefore isn’t covered by the society’s Code of Conduct — and that much of the heat in the debate will have dissipated over summer.

    Such optimism is evident in her promise of a symposium “in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully”.

    “I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.”

    It certainly sounds noble, but who exactly in New Zealand will want to put their head above the parapets to argue that matauranga Maori is not scientific, and should not be part of a science curriculum, as the seven professors did in July?

    Perhaps some of the professors who signed the Listener letter will be willing to risk further public vilification and adverse consequences for their careers and reputations by arguing their case at a symposium. But why would they?

    As well as the disciplinary action taken by the Royal Society against Corballis, Nola and Cooper, others among the seven professors may have suffered professionally as a result of signing the Listener letter — including evolutionary ecologist Kendall Clements.

    As John Ross, Asia-Pacific editor for Times Higher Education, wrote: “Co-authoring the letter in the Listener may have taken a professional toll [on Clements]. Within 12 days of the letter’s publication, Clements was removed from two collaboratively taught ecology and evolution courses that he had helped deliver for years.

    “And while an email criticising the authors was distributed to staff and graduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, [Garth] Cooper’s attempt to respond through the same channel was blocked.

    “The university says the school email distribution list was ‘not the appropriate medium’ for this type of debate, so its moderators were told not to allow further emails on the topic. And Clements’ teaching duties were changed to balance his workload after another academic’s departure, ‘and to ensure that the best teaching teams were in place to deliver all courses. The Listener letter was a catalyst for actioning this, but not for the decision.’”

    If such luminaries haven’t been protected by their status within the academic community, why would anyone who is looking to further their own careers in academia decide to stand up publicly to defend science? Why would any researcher with even vague hopes of securing grants from the public purse in the future put their head in that particular noose?

    In contrast, more than 2000 (mostly New Zealand) academics felt free to sign the open letter co-authored by Drs Hendy and Wiles heavily criticising the professors’ letter — presumably without any need for concern about the consequences for their careers.

    Some commentators have suggested that in the current climate not signing the open letter could have been more dangerous professionally for many academics than signing, given the pressure to be seen to take a stand against anything that can be alleged to be “racist”, no matter how far-fetched and divorced from reality that accusation might be.

    Racism has been only one of the slurs directed at the professors. Others have included the extraordinary description of them on Twitter by a professor at Victoria University as “shuffling zombies”.

    In short, in such a febrile atmosphere, Dawn Freshwater’s grand vision of a truth and reconciliation symposium featuring a “respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science” seems extremely optimistic.

    If the Vice-Chancellor really wants to set the symposium on a firm footing, and convince sceptics it is more than a PR ploy, she could start by apologising publicly to the Auckland University professors for not supporting — much more clearly and forthrightly — their right to voice their views in the first place.

  • Free Speech Union Welcomes Vice-Chancellor’s Pivot Towards Free Speech

    15 December 2021


    After speaking on behalf of the University in July to condemn seven eminent scientists for offering a defence of science in the Listener magazine, saying their words "caused hurt and dismay", University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dawn Freshwater, is now organising a symposium where all views on this topical debate can be aired in an open and constructive way.

    A spokesperson for the Union, Ani O'Brien says “This should have been done from the start. Scholars within a university frequently disagree, and the role of the university itself is to maintain the ground on which that disagreement can take place, in good faith and in a scholarly fashion. That means that the university ought to take a neutral stance, to unequivocally defend the right and duty of its academics to make good-faith arguments, and to defend them from unfair attacks on their reputations.”

    “Facilitating a forum for debate will benefit wider society by exposing us all to a more nuanced presentation of the original letter writers’ concerns, along with offering us all a more detailed understanding of Mātauranga Māori. All the hot button topics of today can only benefit from engagement.”

    Following the publication of the Listener letter, an open response was prepared by Drs Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles in which they disagreed, saying “Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to ‘Western’ science…” and “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” More than 2000 academics signed the open letter.

    The Royal Society of New Zealand also opened an investigation into the three Listener letter authors who are Fellows, following complaints from other members. This, and the Hendy-Wiles letter, has received attention across the world, including from distinguished individuals — for example, a letter to the Royal Society from Professor Richard Dawkins and rebuttal of parts of the open letter from Professor Steven Pinker.

    The Free Speech Union is supporting the Fellows being investigated by the Royal Society and continues to work to defend the right of all New Zealanders to freely express their opinions. We hope that Professor Freshwater’s proposed symposium is conducted in the spirit of her announcement and look forward to robust debate flourishing in our universities and in our society once more.

  • 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.


  • Foreign academics and media weigh in on Royal Society investigation

    Dear Jonathan,

    Young's Spectator Article

    News of the Royal Society's troubling decision to investigate three of its distinguished Fellows for defending science in a letter to the New Zealand Listener magazine has now made international headlines.

    Toby Young – the General Secretary of our sister organisation (the UK's Free Speech Union) who is an Associate Editor of the Spectator Magazine – couldn't believe his ears when we told him about the NZ Royal Society's investigation into its members who signed the Listener letter. You can read his full piece here.

    Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union UK'In a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial. Surely the argument about whether to teach schoolchildren scientific or religious explanations for the origins of the universe and the ascent of man was settled by the Scopes trial in 1925? Apart from the obvious difficulty of prioritising one religious viewpoint in an ethnically diverse society like New Zealand (what about Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?), there is the problem that Maori schoolchildren, already among the least privileged in the country, will be at an even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge.' 

    Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most well-known public intellectuals, also tweeted an article by Emeritus Professor Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago on this issue.

    Professor Dawkins (who is a Fellow of the British Royal Society) wrote 'SHAME on the NZ Royal Society' and called on his Twitter followers to write to the President of the Royal Society, Roger Ridley.  Richard Dawkins Tweet

    In a letter to the President of the Royal Society, Professor Coyne wrote 'I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.' Jordan B. Peterson TweetJordan B. Peterson

    Tweeting Young's Spectator column, Jordan Peterson asked the question on everyone's mind, "Why punish a scientist for defending science?"

    The bullying and 'pile-on' which is being orchasrated by the Royal Society and cultural elites like Siouxsie Wiles is baffling the scientific establishment around the world. 

    If you are an academic, we encourage you to join with these eminent international academics and scientists like Professors Dawkins, Coyne, and Peterson, and call on the Royal Society to drop this witch-hunt- you can email the President at [email protected]

    The Free Speech Union will again be contacting every academic in the country to ensure that they are aware of what an embarrassment this investigation is (and the witch-hunt it represents). 

    Times Higher Education is another global publication that has reported on the NZ Royal Society's investigation (behind a paywall - republished with permission at the end of this email). It added its voice to condemnation:

    'The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.' 

    To defend free speech with people power, we need you onboard

    Jonathan, as we've built momentum this year, our opponents have looked for ways to discredit us. They like to say that we are just a small group of disgruntled individuals out of step with progress (the irony being progress has only ever come because of free speech). 

    When we first broke the story about the Royal Society's investigation, we were referred to as 'the so-called Free Speech Union' or 'the organisation calling itself the Free Speech Union', like this tweet from Dr Siouxsie Wiles:

    Tweet by Dr. Siouxsie Wiles

    But someone needs to be there to call out bullying and craziness like the Royal Society's investigation. If we band together, our opponents' smears just won't work. Going into 2022 we need as many individuals as possible standing up for free speech. 

    Jonathan, will you join us in this fight to defend free speech and debate in New Zealand? 

    Membership means you'll have a team in your corner if someone comes after you because of your speech. Whether it's with embattled professors, local councillors, activist groups, or DHBs, we have a track record of standing up for our member's speech- and winning. Click here to join.

    Join the Free Speech Union

    Thank you for your support and making this effort possible. 


    Jonathan Ayling

    Free Speech Union

    Article from Times Higher Education:

    New Zealand academics investigated over Māori knowledge letter 

    Royal Society asked to expel decorated members who criticised plans to incorporate mātauranga Māori into curricula 

    December 6, 2021 

    John Ross 

    A debate about the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some leading scholars face possible expulsion from the country’s learned academy. 

    The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand Listener, published in July, criticised plans to embed mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in the school science curriculum. 

    The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three society fellows who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, along with psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Professor Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal – RSNZ’s highest honour – in 2016, died suddenly last month. 

    New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions” within the law. The Listener letter authors insisted that they were exercising this right in criticising the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university science programmes, which they likened to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology. 

    But the complainants alleged that the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics – including failing to “behave with…integrity and professionalism”, “claim competence commensurate with their expertise” or “take reasonable…precautions to protect vulnerable people” – and violated the society’s “good character obligation”. 

    The RSNZ then launched a formal investigation. Its complaints procedures state that the society’s council “may initiate an inquiry if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached…obligations”. 

    Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the society’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was just bluntly rejected. The Royal Society now is so influenced by mātauranga Māori ideology that they started an official procedure, and once you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said. 

    Professor Nola said the investigation was currently determining whether the complaints could be pursued under the RSNZ rules. He said the Listener letter was not a piece of research and therefore not covered by the society’s code. 

    “The Education Act and the code give us the right to express our views, in a clause about being a critic and conscience of society, even though the views might be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They’ve proven to be more popular than we thought,” he said. 

    Critics have questioned how the RSNZ can undertake an impartial inquiry after its president and the chair of its academy executive committee denounced the Listener letter authors in a statement posted on the society’s website. 

    Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panellists originally enlisted to investigate the complaints were removed after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter. 

    The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.

  • 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 Letter

    The 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…”


    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.

  • Māori professor under investigation for views on mātauranga Māori

    Dr Garth Cooper has devoted his career to helping fellow Māori but he now finds himself in the gun over his opinions about science and indigenous knowledge. Graham Adams reports from the front lines of the culture wars.

    Prof Garth Cooper

    New Zealanders like their heroes talented and modest and preferably devoted to public service as well. Sir Edmund Hillary is the exemplar of that breed and very few have the mana he enjoys in our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, there are many others similarly talented and dedicated to the collective good but who go largely unnoticed outside their professional lives. One such is Professor Garth Cooper, who is suddenly in the news because he is under disciplinary investigation by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the nation’s premier organisation promoting science and the humanities.Cooper is a Fellow of the society and — alongside eminent philosopher of science Robert Nola — risks being expelled from the nation’s most prestigious academic club.

    The reason for the investigation is that Cooper and Nola were among seven professors who wrote to the Listener in July questioning a government working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with what were described as other “bodies of knowledge” — “particularly Western / Pākehā epistemologies” — in the school science curriculum. In other words, Māori knowledge would effectively be given equal standing with physics, chemistry and biology.

    While the professors acknowledged “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” they concluded that, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.” They also responded to the working group’s claim that science had been used as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”. The professors conceded that science — like literature and art — “has been used to aid colonisation” but stated: “Science itself does not colonise.”

    In the uproar that followed, their views were denounced by organisations including the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union — as well as the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. Notably, none of the professors’ critics defended mātauranga Māori as being scientific. Freshwater, for instance, lamented the “hurt and dismay” caused by the professors’ stance on “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science” but she never went beyond faintly praising it as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”.

    Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views. Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that, “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “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 answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain).

    Shortly before news of the Royal Society’s disciplinary action against Cooper and Nola broke, the Times Higher Education — the bible for hundreds of thousands of academics internationally — discussed the “unintended consequences” of the push for the “incorporation of Māori understandings into curricula”, and asked whether debate was being stifled. 

    On November 11, under the heading “Does the teaching of indigenous knowledge need to be examined?”, the magazine’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Ross, outlined the expanding role of Māori language and culture in New Zealand before interviewing some of the protagonists in the national discussion that erupted in the wake of the Listener letter. The Royal Society declined to answer Ross’s question of how it had decided the professors’ letter was not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. Others — no doubt mindful of possible risks to their academic careers — offered their opinions anonymously. Professor Cooper was happy to respond. He said that although he didn’t speak te reo — because his Maori grandmother “thought my brother and I should learn English” — he nevertheless knew “quite a lot” of words in the language. He went on to explain that the main reason he signed the Listener letter was because he was “concerned [that teaching] Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [would] lead to loss of opportunity”. 

    Crediting Ross Ihaka — a Māori mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language — with producing “the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years”, Cooper worried about “young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them.“ In response to this last assertion, a Māori academic — who had signed the open letter penned by Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — emailed Cooper to ask if he “could please elaborate on how you came to the conclusion about what young Māori scholars want?”

    The Listener Letter

    In his reply (supplied to this writer), Professor Cooper thanked her for her query — and took the opportunity to “elaborate” as requested. His reply is worth quoting at length to give some idea of the calibre of the doctor and medical researcher the Royal Society is now considering expelling over his defence of scientific method: 

    “I have taught young Māori scholars in medicine and in science for more than 30 years; during that time, I talked to several hundred (I estimate more than 400) about their career aspirations. Before that, I served as a medical officer (MB ChB) in Rotorua (1979-1980) where I served as house officer for Sir Peter Tapsell) and then in Auckland (1981-1985), including several years in South Auckland (based in Middlemore Hospital), where I looked after many (i.e. a large number) of young Māori as patients). During my time in Auckland, along with Dr David Scott, I pioneered a programme for a new approach to health care delivery in Ōtara, where a large proportion of the patients were Māori (1983-1985). I wrote and delivered the first course in New Zealand for lay community health workers, who went on to receive recognition by the Mayor of South Auckland (1985). The place where this programme was developed was the Whaiora Marae, where I worked part-time along with my roles in Middlemore. In my role as Professor in Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Auckland (1995-present), I have personally written courses for young Māori and Pasifika students — specifically as part of the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme programme at the University of Auckland — perhaps you know of it? This was between ~1994-2006. These courses were credited with leading to a substantial increase in the overall pass rate…" 

    “I contributed, along with Profs Michael Walker and Linda Smith (~2005-2007), to the initial writing of the first (successful) application that led to the funding of Te Pai o Te Māramatanga, during which time I discussed their futures with numbers of Māori scholars who were entering into research careers through that programme. I have supervised young Māori and Pasifika scholars to completion of MSc and PhD programmes in science and in medicine. This involved in-depth interaction with these students over several years. They worked on my research programme on the origins and experimental therapeutics of type 2 diabetes, which I have undertaken over 40+ years because it is of major interest to Māori (kaupapa Māori research; vision Mātauranga). I have presented my teaching and research programmes to iwi at Hui a Tau, including Tainui/Waikato (with Dame Te Ata present), and to Te Rarawa and to Ngā Puhi. My teaching/research programmes were endorsed on each occasion."  

    “I was elected and served as a member of the Māori committee of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (for six years if I remember correctly), during which time I had the privilege of meeting with large numbers of young Māori at different marae from the deep South (Ngai Tahu) to the far North (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi). I served in a supervisory role on the Health Research Council for three more years, where my role was as an advocate for research in Māori Health. I also had the good fortune to be mentored during this time by people including Irihapeti Ramsden and Eruhapeti Murchie and was able to learn from them their views of the aspirations of young Māori. I also spent several years providing oversight and governance for a therapeutic intervention programme in the Bay of Plenty and East Cost of Te Ika-a-Maui for hepatitis B; this involved several thousand patients, most of whom were Māori, many of whom were young. I had the opportunity to learn from many of them at that time. Recently, I spent in-depth time with a young Māori MSc student who explained to me that he was very upset at Māori staff members who insisted on taking a one-sided view concerning his background, which was Pākehā (i.e. Ngāti Pākehā) as well as Māori, and that he was equally proud of both his Māori and non-Māori backgrounds. Finally, I also know what I think personally as one with Māori heritage (Ngāti Mahanga of Tainui/Waikato as well as Ngāti Pākehā) who underwent primary, secondary and tertiary education in New Zealand. In all, I estimate that I have provided substantive input and career guidance to as many as 5000 young Māori over 30+ years in these various roles. So this is how I know about young Māori and their aspirations.”

    Donate to the Academic Freedom Fund

    Astonishingly, this response to a specific query is not an exhaustive résumé of Professor Cooper’s work. As someone who is well acquainted with the extent of his contribution to medicine and health said: “There is much more he has done which he doesn’t discuss. Calling him ‘humble’ risks understatement.” So, we have ended up in a situation where a very distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades is being investigated by the Royal Society for what can only be described as holding a heretical view about the distinction between science and mātauranga Māori.

    Who knew an eminent scientist expressing an honestly held opinion — that mātauranga Māori, while valuable as a form of knowledge, is not science — would end up dealing with an Inquisition in 21st century New Zealand?



    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

  • In Defence of Science Article

    The Listener Letter (published in 31 July 2021 edition of the New Zealand Listener)

    The Listener Letter

    In defence of science (republished with author's permission). 

    A recent report from a Government NCEA working group on proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum aims “to esure parity for mātauranga Māori with the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western/Pakeha epistemologies)”. It includes the following description as part of a new course: “It promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

    This perpetuates disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding. These encourage mistrust of science. Science is universal, not especially Western European. It has origins in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence acoss Asia.

    Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world. Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Such science is informed by the united efforts of many nations and cultures. We increasingly depend on science, perhaps for our very survival. The future of our world, and our species, cannot affort mistrust in science.

    Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

    To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

    Kendall Clements
    Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland 

    Garth Cooper, FRSNZ
    Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

    Michael Corabllis, FRSNZ
    Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, Universituy of Auckland

    Douglas Elliffe
    Professor, School of Psychology, University of Auckland

    Robert Nola, FRSNZ 
    Emeritus Professor, School of Philosphy, Universituy of Auckland

    Elizabeth Rata
    Professor, Critical Studies in Education, University of Auckland

    John Werry
    Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland



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