Pages tagged "University of Auckland"

  • Princeton Principles to protect Academic Freedom?

  • Disagreement, even vehement disagreement, is not abuse nor ‘harassment’.

    Disagreement, even vehement disagreement, is not abuse nor ‘harassment’.

    There is little pleasure to be found in ‘I told you so’ when inevitably those who have perpetuated cancel culture and attempted to prohibit others from speaking freely are in turn subject to similar behaviours.

    Nonetheless, just as any Kiwi should be able to do their job free from threats to their lives and safety, Professor Shaun Hendy and Dr Siouxie Wiles are right to expect that they should not experience such behaviour as a result of their public work. The pair have filed complaints against their employer, University of Auckland, arguing that it hasn't protected them against "a small but venomous sector of the public" that has become increasingly "unhinged".

    There are some distinctions to be made as to whether the University of Auckland is responsible for adverse reactions to the academics’ public communications, but the following points from the Employment Relations Authority ruling merit highlighting:

    1. The University of Auckland admitted they advised Hendy and Wiles to reduce their public commentary as an option to reduce Health and Safety risks. This is wrong. The academics should not be expected to stifle themselves in order to be safe. It is disappointing to learn that University of Auckland executives would apparently want to allow a “thug’s veto”.
    2. The University of Auckland attempts to argue that Hendy and Wiles’ public commentary is not part of their employment, despite Wiles' contract including a 40% portion for science communications. This is a core matter for the Employment Court, but it seems prima facie to be clear that the science communication of Dr Wiles is part of her work. 
    3. Hendy and Wiles take their complaints beyond physical intimidation and threats, and refer to "targeting by harassment and abuse of Māori academic researchers who comment on racism and race issues, sexism directed at academics who comment on the gender pay gap...". This appears to be an opening for quasi-hate speech laws, where employers may have to 'protect' employees from social media comments. If the Employment Court decides that employers must protect employees from online abuse around contentious issues, then it would be justification for their apparent want to simply shut down any controversial discussions.

    Academic experts play a vital role in leading and participating in public discussions and have the right to not have their contributions met with violence (of the actual kind) and threats. Threats of violence are ultimately a matter for police. The university should take reasonable steps to enable academics to do their job, for example they may intervene to reduce the use of university facilities and resources by those found to be contravening university policies or the law.

    This includes academics with whom Hendy and Wiles might not agree and includes threats to employment.

    While we want to make our condemnation of threats clear, it is important to recognise that part of expert academics’ role in the public sphere is to facilitate the exchange of ideas, be the “critic and conscience of society" and "promote community learning".

    Both Hendy and Wiles have publicly taken part in attempts to silence colleagues they disagree with. They have signed open letters, levelled unfounded accusations of racism, and aggressively sought to discredit fellow academics who either disagreed with their covid commentary or asserted that Mātauranga Māori is not necessarily science. 

    Public communications engaged in by academics should not be treated as edicts handed down, not to be questioned. Indeed, science itself is the process of testing and questioning and adding to a wider, proven body of knowledge. In expressing an expert opinion, academics should be willing to engage with critique and challenges in good faith. Disagreement, even vehement disagreement, is not abuse nor ‘harassment’.

    A certain degree of robustness should also be expected from public figures, particularly those engaged in political work of any kind. We need to draw a line between what is illegal threatening behaviour and what is unpleasant (sometimes downright nasty) commentary made by an impassioned critic.

    To silence and punish rude or subjectively offensive speech in this context would have a chilling effect on all who seek to criticise or question particularly controversial topics. For example, we would not want to see New Zealanders prohibited from expressing the strength of their feelings in protests against Government action as many did during the TPPA marches even though some of the rhetoric was potentially offensive to then Prime Minister John Key. Being rude or offensive should never be a crime.

    As New Zealand’s union for freedom of speech, we advocate for an academic environment in which academics like Hendy and Wiles do not find themselves in a situation of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’, so to speak.

    Reciprocal respect for the rights of others to express and defend their views ensures that when situations of threats and abuse arise, the entire community feels able to speak against it.

    We encourage the University of Auckland to reflect on how a robust policy of free speech that is not vulnerable to the “thug’s veto” would bring greater confidence and solidarity to its academics. It would also allow the university more time and resources to deal with the kind of threats and doxxing Hendy and Wiles raise in their case.

     

    Ani O'Brien


    Ani O'Brien 

    Council Member
    Free Speech Union

     

     

     

     

  • 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

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    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.

    ************

  • 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.

  • 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

    ***

     

  • Free Speech Union is fighting for Academic Freedom

    Dear Supporter,

    There is a worrying trend in universities and research institutions attempting to muzzle the very people whose job it is to ask questions. Some subjects are simply now off-limits. Academic freedom is under attack.

    I'm emailing with disturbing news regarding the New Zealand Royal Society, which is on the cusp of giving in to the censors and expelling two scientists for signing a letter defending science.

    The Royal Society has just launched a disciplinary investigation against a group of academics. I'm emailing to ask for your help defend the academics and stand up for academic freedom.

    The Royal Society is prosecuting complaints against scientists for defending science!

    The Free Speech Union can reveal that two academic fellows are being investigated for being among those to put their name to a letter In Defence of Science which was published earlier this year in The Listener.

    Matauranga Maori Listener Article

    The full text of the letter is copied at the end of this email

    For context, the seven professors who co-signed the letter were responding to an NCEA working group that proposed that mātauranga Māori should have “parity” with “the other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA (particularly Western / Pākeha epistemologies)” in the school science curriculum.

    The key argument of the letter was that “...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…”.

    They further opined: “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 across Asia”.

    The group who signed the letter faced swift backlash online, lead by Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles:

    Siouxie

    Dr Barry Hughes of the Tertiary Education Union also wrote a letter to the authors on behalf of the Union. He opened by affirming that the authors were entitled to express their views, but informed them that “[TEU] members found your letter “offensive”, “racist”, and reflective of a patronising, neo-colonial mindset in which your undefined version of “science” is superior to – rather than complementary to – indigenous knowledge”.

    Similarly, rather than defend the right of academics to attempt to grapple with difficult questions, Auckland University's Vice-Chancellor put out a statement stating that asking the question of “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni”.

    She too also implied the academics had disrespected mātauranga Māori, asserting that "mātauranga Māori [is] a distinctive and valuable knowledge system".

    There is nothing, however, in letter to The Listener that contradicts this. In their letter, the authors argue that mātauranga Māori and science are epistemically distinct, and that "indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture ... and plays key roles in management and policy". So, clearly, the letter actually supports the view that mātauranga Māori is valuable.

    Notably, none of the criticisms levelled at the authors attempted to grapple with the author's key contention: that mātauranga Māori is simply distinct from science.

    While the debate may rage as to whether the author's assertions are correct, there should be no doubt that the debate must be allowed to take place. That's why we have offered to help the academics, and crowdfund to defend them with an academic freedom fighting fund.

    Whereas the letter to The Listener comprised only a reasoned argument – whether or not it is deemed valid and sound – some critics have resorted to ad hominem attacks on the authors, in particular accusing them – both directly and by implication – of racism. 

    Similarly, proclaiming "hurt and dismay" and pointing to "major problems with some colleagues" does not help the rest of us understand why mātauranga Māori should be considered science. 

    To shut down debate of this kind is to undermine the purpose of the academy: to wrestle with what we know, and try and extend it.


    >>> Donate now to defend academic freedom <<<

    Ironically, the Royal Society was set up for the very purpose of advancing and promoting science, technology, and the humanities in New Zealand. Now it's trying to expel scientists for defending science. We have to help the scientists to fight back.

    It is ironic that The Royal Society is trying to purge from the acadmy the authors of the letter.

    The investigation of The Listener co-signees sends a chilling message to other academics: state contentious views at your own peril.

    If the complaint is upheld, it will only serve to make academics feel less safe to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues in the future. This cannot be allowed to stand. 

    The process of the human pursuit of knowledge depends on free speech, including of those who may hold views contrary to the mainstream. The Royal Society are abandoning its own heritage and the proud traditions of academic freedom which historically has been the defining mechanism allowing scientific knowledge to develop.

    When academics can no longer ask questions or make certain arguments, without the fear of personal and professional reprisals, academic freedom is in peril. We must stand with those who are punished and have their reputations denigrated for having the audacity to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues.

    The Free Speech Union is starting a fighting fund for Academic Freedom. The academics have been called ‘racist’ and smeared by fellow scientists and are now having to engage lawyers to defend their opinions on science from an institution that should, instead, be encouraging debate and promoting science. This fight is a fight for the right of anyone to peacefully and reasonably voice their opinion. 

    Times like this make us question the real value we put on our liberties and freedoms. We are not willing to let the Royal Society, or anyone, bully and censor academics doing their job without reminding them that we still have free speech in this country.

    Let's keep it that way. 

    Donate button

    Thank you to all of those who make these effort's possible. Our work relies on your support.

    Dr David Cumin

    David sig
    Dr David Cumin
    Spokesperson
    Free Speech Union


    The Listener Letter 

    In defence of science

    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

    ***

    Donate to our Academic Freedom Fund

  • Free Speech Union Academic Advisory Council Statement on the Listener Letter

    The Free Speech Union unequivocally supports the free expression of seven distinguished New Zealand academics who recently authored a letter to The Listener, titled, In Defence of Science as well as the free expression of their critics.

    We neither support nor oppose the argument in question, but instead defend the right to express honestly-held views, free of individual or institutional attempts to diminish or suppress them. In this regard the authors and some of their critics differ: Whereas the letter to The Listener comprised only a reasoned argument – whether or not it is deemed valid and sound – some critics have resorted to ad hominem attacks on the authors, in particular accusing them – both directly and by implication – of racism. We encourage critics to engage in a constructive, evidence-based way, rather than making allegations that seem intended to damage reputations or careers.

    Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of New Zealand universities (under s 268(2)(d)(i)(E) of the Education and Training Act 2020), is that they perform “a role of critic and conscience of society.” This, in turn, requires universities to provide an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution – where they can question and test received wisdom and to state controversial or unpopular ideas [s 267(4)(a)]. It also creates an expectation that university authorities will tolerate a broad variety of views, and will defend staff from any pressure they may face as a consequence of expressing those views.

    It is, therefore, deeply concerning that among the critics were Professor Dawn Freshwater, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland – where all of the authors of the letter are resident – and the Tertiary Education Union, to which many academics belong. The criticisms levelled by these organisations warrant especial comment.

    In a public statement, Professor Freshwater affirmed the authors' right to express their views, but also implied they had disrespected mātauranga Māori, asserting that "mātauranga Māori [is] a distinctive and valuable knowledge system". There is nothing, however, in letter to The Listener that contradicts that assertion, and by making this a caveat to her affirmation of the authors right to free expression, Professor Freshwater risks impugning their reputations unfairly. In their letter, the authors argue that mātauranga Māori and science are epistemically distinct, and that "indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture ... and plays key roles in management and policy". A charitable reading of their letter would therefore suggest that the authors agree with Professor Freshwater that mātauranga Māori is valuable.

    It is worth noting that The Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao, an integral component of the New Zealand Government’s Science in Society Plan seems to agree with the authors, stating that "Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge base in its own right. It is Māori knowledge, including values and culture. It is different from modern science" (emphasis added).

    Scholars within a university frequently disagree, and the role of 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, like the FSU, ought to take a neutral stance, to defend unequivocally the right and duty of its academics to make good-faith arguments, and to defend them from unfair attacks on their reputations. Instead, Professor Freshwater’s statement has made it more difficult for academics at her university to voice honestly-hold views on contentious topics in the future.

    Dr Barry Hughes, also at the University of Auckland, wrote a letter on behalf of the TEU to the authors. Like Professor Freshwater, he opened by affirming that the authors are entitled to express their views, but informed them that “[TEU] members found your letter “offensive”, “racist”, and reflective of a patronising, neo-colonial mindset in which your undefined version of “science” is superior to – rather than complementary to – indigenous knowledge”. Dr Hughes went on to accuse the authors of being confused about what science is, of taking it to comprise “a set of indisputable facts about the world” and of “[presuming] that nothing is really known until it is known scientifically”. He concluded by asserting that “[the authors’] letter was damaging without being enlightening”. There is nothing in the letter to The Listener that, to our reading, justifies any of those acerbic accusations. It is outrageous for a representative of an organisation with a duty to protect academic freedom to make such baseless claims, and in such heated terms, in response to an argument put forward in good faith. Like Professor Freshwater’s statement, such a missive can only serve to make academics feel less safe to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues in the future and to render statements affirming free expression as lip-service only. We are not confident that the TEU would wholeheartedly fight for the free speech of members they disagree with should they need to.

    It is lamentable that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland and the TEU have taken such strong stances against the letter to The Listener, rather than encouraging respectful debate. In this context their comments about free expression come across as hollow platitudes. The net effect of the comments will be to chill scholarly debate, not to promote it.

    The Free Speech Union is committed to supporting all academics to freely engage in debate. If you would like to join us at the Free Speech Union, go to fsu.co.nz.

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