A long-running and tetchy argument over science education in New Zealand has polarised academics at Auckland University and shattered one of the central institutions of science, the Royal Society. International scientific figures have pitched in to the debate, which also concerns questions of academic freedom, ‘cancel culture,’ and ‘decolonisation of learning’ similar to those that are tearing apart universities in other parts of the world.
The debate opened with a letter headed “In Defence of science”, signed by seven prominent academics at Auckland University, published in the New Zealand Listener magazine in July 2021. The academics opposed a recent government report which proposed “to ensure parity for Matauranga Maori with other bodies of knowledge credentialed by NCEA.” Matauranga Maori is commonly defined as traditional Maori knowledge or ‘ways of knowing.’ NCEA, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement, is the certificate of academic achievement awarded to secondary school students.
In the letter, the academics (who became known as the ‘Listener Seven’) quote from a course description contained in the report, which says “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 rationale for the colonisation of Maori and the suppression of Maori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Maori and other indigenous peoples.”
This passage, write the Listener Seven, “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… Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good…”
The fear that the proposed approach would encourage “mistrust of science” is at the centre of the concerns of the Listener Seven. “Science is helping us to battle worldwide crises such as Covid, [and] global warming… The future of our world, and our species, cannot afford mistrust of science,” they write.
Whether they are right or wrong, it is incontestable that the matters raised by the ‘Listener Seven’ academics are serious issues, raised in good faith by respected academic figures, which deserved to be widely discussed and debated. In fact, their letter met with exactly the opposite response. Within days the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University, Dawn Freshwater, publicly denounced the letter and dissociated the University from it, saying that the letter “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,” her statement read.
(Let us note in passing that by introducing the emotional considerations of ‘hurt and dismay’ into the argument, Freshwater completely negated her nod to freedom of expression.)
Two high-profile academics at Auckland University, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Professor Shaun Hendy, then initiated an open letter repudiating the ‘Listener Seven’ letter, which was signed by 2000 people, mainly academics at New Zealand universities. In a tweet calling for support to the open letter, Wiles also claimed that the Listener Seven letter had “caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.” Wiles is a prominent media commentator on scientific questions. She and Hendy have been leading figures in the government’s Covid-19 response. While this response was more akin to a Twitter pile-on than a serious debate of the issues, it stopped short of calling for sanctions against the Listener Seven.
Pitching the controversy as a power struggle between an entrenched old guard and enlightened younger scholars like herself, Wiles wrote an opinion piece in Stuff media in which she claimed of the Listener Seven that “The reason I got involved is because those professors and fellows have influence and power over people’s careers. Astonishingly, some are now intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters.” This claim was withdrawn after it was found by the Media Council to be untrue. The Council said it was “of the view that this is a most serious allegation to make, striking at the heart of academic freedom by asserting that the Professors were trying to stifle opposing views using lawyers’ threats. It required immediate public correction.”
The Royal Society took the cancel campaign still further. Three of the Listener Seven were Fellows of the Royal Society Te Aparangi, a statutory body for the promotion of science. The Society tweeted that “The recent suggestion by a group of 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 this narrow and outmoded definition of science.” In a statement, Society president Brent Clothier and academy executive committee chairwoman Charlotte MacDonald said they deeply regretted “the harm [my emphasis – JR] such a misguided view could cause.”
Prompted by complaints from some members, it launched a formal disciplinary investigation into the three of its Fellows who signed the Listener letter. The three (one of whom, Michael Corballis, later died of cancer) were informed that their membership may be terminated. Neither Freshwater, nor Wiles, nor the Royal Society explained exactly how expressing an opinion could cause harm.
The Tertiary Education Union also threw its weight behind the cancel campaign, stating in a letter that “members found the letter offensive, racist, reflective of patronising, and of neo-colonial mindset.”
One of the Listener signatories, Psychology Professor Douglas Elliffe resigned from his role as acting dean of the faculty in response to this backlash.
Press coverage of the controversy in New Zealand was noticeable for its discreet silence on both the issues raised by the Listener Seven and the implications of the subsequent cancel campaign. However, news began to circulate in the international press of the bizarre spectacle of a prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society, launching a punitive investigation of its own members for engaging in a debate about science – and moreover, in the name of opposing racism and supporting the participation of Maori in science, preparing to expel from its ranks one of the country’s most eminent Maori scientists: Garth Cooper, one of the Fellows of the Royal Society targeted by the investigation, is of Ngati Mahanga descent, and has a distinguished record of initiatives to promote Maori health and advance the participation of Maori in science. He explains that his objection to the statement that science is a ‘rationale for the colonisation of Maori’ is precisely that teaching “young Māori scholars … that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them” would discourage their participation in science. (For a detailed description of Cooper’s record and thinking, see this article on NZCPR by Graham Adams.)
Columns defending the Listener Seven appeared in the Spectator, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, Times Higher Education, and other international papers. The Spectator was the first to call the investigation a witch-hunt.
Internationally renowned evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins got hold of the story, and wrote scathing criticisms of the conduct of the University and of the Royal Society. “If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country who will?” Dawkins asked in an open letter to the Royal Society. Harvard experimental psychologist Steven Pinker also decried the cancelling of his friend Michael Corballis, one of the Listener Seven. “If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished then we’ve kind of turned off the only mechanism that we have of discovering knowledge,” he said.
Both the University and the Royal Society began to feel the heat.
And both institutions began to step back a little from the stance of enthusiastic support for the bullying campaign that they had adopted at the start. The AU Vice-Chancellor issued a further statement in August with greater emphasis on freedom of expression and the statutory protections of academic freedom. Contrary to her earlier statement, this one recognised that “The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort [my emphasis – JR], nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity.”
In December 2021, the first academic voices in New Zealand began to speak up in defence of academic freedom, and against the Royal Society’s punitive ‘investigation’ of the Listener Seven.
By this time the pressure of the international criticism had brought the RSNZ to a state of crisis. A December 2021 statement by the Chief Executive complained of having received “a barrage of frequently vitriolic and abusive messages.” “We are deeply concerned at what has been playing out, as I am sure you all are. Please be assured that Royal Society Te Apārangi is taking the high level of local and international comment on matters related to the letter very seriously. We are acutely aware of the potential for significant damage to be inflicted in multiple directions, not least to relationships and our ability to have a balanced and informed dialogue about important questions for the future of our country… The situation has developed to a point that is profoundly unhelpful for discussing and addressing the issues originally raised in The Listener letter over four months ago.”
In March 2022, the Society announced that the disciplinary investigation of the two Fellows would not proceed. In the opinion of the initial investigating panel, “the matters raised are of substance and merit further constructive discussion and respectful dialogue.” The two Fellows targeted by the investigation, Garth Cooper and Robert Nola, resigned as soon as the decision not to proceed was announced. Nola explained his resignation by saying that the matters raised in the Listener letter were worthy of debate, “but none was given through the Royal Society. Its response was to shut down dogmatically such discussion.” Since then, some seventy Fellows have published an open letter containing a motion of no confidence in the Academy Executive and Council of the Society for their handling of the criticisms of the Listener Seven. The Society appears to be headed towards implosion at its next Fellowship on 28 April.
So, at this point, the campaign to cancel the Listener Seven seems to have met the same fate as Putin’s assault on Kyiv. The decision by the Royal Society not to proceed with its ‘investigation’ is a welcome development. The scientific and philosophical questions remain unresolved – in fact, still largely unaddressed at this point – but at least a measure of political space in which to discuss and debate them has been forced open.
In addition to the issue of freedom of academic discussion and debate, the working class has a great deal at stake in the scientific aspects of this discussion – including the defence of materialist and scientific thinking against obscurantism, and the fight against national oppression and racist discrimination.
But on the scientific and philosophical questions, neither of the two contending poles of opinion gives an adequate lead. The following are my thoughts on some of the points raised by the Listener Seven, and their supporters and detractors.
The first thing to note is that the concerns of the Listener Seven are at least partly justified: it is clear that under the banner of equal status for matauranga Maori, fundamentally anti-scientific notions are being introduced into the science curriculum.
We find the following in the NCEA Chemistry curriculum website, for example: “Mauri is present in all matter. All particles have their own mauri and presence as part of a larger whole, for example within a molecule, polymer, salt, or metal. When matter is broken into smaller particles each particle remains as part of the taiao [environment – JR], for example when a substance is burnt or dissolved the particles remain, with their own mauri. They do not just disappear.”
Mauri is a Maori term. The website contains a Glossary which defines mauri as “The vital essence, life force of everything: be it a physical object, living thing or ecosystem. In Chemistry and Biology, mauri refers to the health and life-sustaining capacity of the taiao, on biological, physical, and chemical levels.”
Now, it is fundamentally unscientific to attribute ‘vital essence’ or ‘life force’ to all matter. Life is a particular form of motion of matter which is only present in living things. While life may ultimately be explainable in terms of complex chemical processes, life cannot be reduced to those chemical processes; nor do all chemical processes constitute life. Life has its own laws of motion. This is why biology, the study of living things, is not simply a branch of chemistry. To blur the distinction between chemical and biological forms of motion in nature can only obstruct the study of both disciplines, and of the points of connection between them.
The objection might be raised that my conception of mauri is too narrow, that if we translate the term mauri as ‘energy’ or ‘essence’ the curriculum statements can be reconciled with modern science. But I am using the definition given on the curriculum website itself.
However, this problem must be kept in proportion. It is by no means the only pathway by which anti-scientific ideas find their way into science teaching; it is far from the only form that the degeneration of scientific thinking takes. I doubt very much that it is the main one. I believe the Listener Seven’s concerns about the retreat from scientific thinking both in education and in society in general are fully justified. But this retreat has material, not merely ideological, roots. Matauranga Maori may be one of the forms it takes, but it is not the source of the backsliding.
Nor does the recognition of matauranga Maori constitute a new wave of Creationism, as it is often presented. Dawkins and some of the other defenders of the Listener Seven present the push for “Equal status for mātauranga Māori in NCEA” as a kind of re-run of the creationists’ campaign for ‘equal time’ with evolutionary biology in the US in the 1980s. As Dawkins puts it, “Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.”
This parallel with the religion-driven creationist drive is false. The creationist campaign of the 1980s was explicitly aimed at denying and discrediting the established scientific fact of biological evolution. The claim for ‘equal time’ was in effect a demand to ban the teaching of evolution other than on terms dictated by the creationists themselves. It was in continuity with a long history of church-instigated legal attacks on the teaching of evolution in US schools, going back to the infamous Tennessee ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925, and earlier. Equal status for matauranga Maori implies no such restrictions or obstacles to teaching scientific fact.
“But it is not science,” the Listener Seven conclude their letter. Taken as a whole, of course matauranga Maori is not science – any more than all of French literature, or all of German philosophy, or British economics is science. That is simply not the issue. In order to get a useful answer, first we have to pose the issue correctly.
Matauranga Maori is the cultural heritage of a people. It includes elements of scientific knowledge, gained through scientific method – careful observations of nature, formation of hypotheses, and testing and verification of those hypotheses. It also includes mythology, genealogy, songs, ritual practices, proverbs, religious and magical beliefs, and more. In mātauranga Maori these elements are all bound closely together – and in a society resting on oral traditions it could not have been otherwise.
To take an example from the purest mythology: many people in New Zealand are familiar with the myth of the demigod Maui hauling up a giant fish which became the North Island of New Zealand, and the place-names associated with it (like Te Upoko o te Ika, the head of the fish, the name for the Wellington region.) Is there anything in this myth beyond an imaginative story about magic fish-hooks, envy, fear, greed, and the human tendency for destruction? There is, most certainly. In addition to those things, this story is a form of knowledge of the geography of the North Island. Before this story could be told, Maori would have had to circumnavigate the island often enough, and make sufficiently close and accurate observations of the coastline to be able to determine both the overall shape of the island, with its two wings like a stingray (Taranaki and Te Tai Rawhiti), a narrow ‘tail’ pointing northwest (Te Tai Tokerau), and the rugged mountains ranged like a dorsal fin down its interior – all of which are described in the story. In a culture which had no means of representing such knowledge graphically or in writing, this mythical story provided a repository for important scientific knowledge, and a means by which this knowledge was transmitted to later generations.
The scientific elements in matauranga Maori should be recognised and studied. It is perfectly appropriate to study those scientific elements in a science class, while disregarding the rest (or at least, while studying the non-scientific aspects outside of the science class). We do this all the time in science education. When, for example, we study Newton’s laws of motion in a science class, we generally disregard Newton’s dabblings in alchemy and the occult, and his religiosity. Should Newton’s whole life’s work be considered “science” or “not science”? To put the question more concretely: Does anyone worry, when the curriculum mandates teaching Newton’s laws of motion, that students will also be required to learn that the cure for plague is powdered toad’s vomit, as Newton believed? And if not, then what is the basis for the fears (or rather, sneers) in the ‘defence of science’ posted by Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and others, that students may be required to learn that rain is the tears of Papatuanuku?
Professors Coyne and Dawkins have performed a very useful service in bringing the bullying cancel campaign against the Listener Seven to wider scrutiny. Their efforts were key to defeating it. Their arguments in defence of science, however, are not so useful.
Jerry Coyne seems particularly troubled to discount traditional Polynesian navigation, which he says is “often touted as a form of indigenous ‘science’.” Having strongly asserted that science is what enables human beings to accomplish feats such as taking human beings to the moon and back, he is hard-pressed to explain the accomplishments of Polynesian navigation as anything other than feats of science.
A thousand years ago, while European mariners still clung closely to the coastlines and regarded the open ocean with dread, Polynesian science enabled their navigators to range across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, to find within that vastness tiny specks of land, islands so low they disappear below the horizon at a distance of a few kilometres, and to make return journeys between these islands. In his moment of greatest generosity towards matauranga Maori, Coyne concedes that indigenous cultures’ knowledge of nature gained through ‘trial and error’ methods is ‘science construed broadly’. But then he dismisses the Polynesian navigation techniques as something greatly inferior to real science, on the basis that they were built on random wanderings. “So yes, ‘trial and error’ is science,” he writes, “but it seems to me that modern science involves far more than trial and error, but rests more frequently on testing a priori hypotheses… [Polynesian navigation techniques] couldn’t have developed, I think, as an a priori set of hypotheses used to get from place A to place B. Rather, we must remember all the voyagers who didn’t make it compared to those who did.”
Should we then also remember the many millions of human beings who died of curable diseases along the winding road to a scientific understanding of disease, and count these millions as proof that medical science is inferior to real science?
But more to the point, does Coyne really believe that the Polynesians, who lived on small islands and took their sustenance from the sea, actually set out on these voyages without a single hunch informing their decisions, testing no hypotheses other than random guesses? There is of course no written record of the development of their science, but why is it so inconceivable to Coyne that they began with hypotheses such as this: “Gannets return to their nests on land every night. If we follow the direction of the gannet in the evening, we should find land” Or perhaps this one: “There are often clouds hanging over the mountains on our island when the rest of the sky is clear. Let us see if that solitary cloud on the horizon indicates a mountain beneath it, out of sight below the horizon.” Even the most cursory familiarity with traditional Polynesian navigation science demonstrates that it is far more sophisticated than simple ‘trial and error.’
Here Coyne not only demonstrates his ignorance of Polynesian navigation science, but betrays precisely the Eurocentric assumptions and prejudices of which the Listener Seven are unfairly accused. Coyne’s article is not a defence of scientific thinking, but of established scientific authority. These two things are not the same, as we shall see.
“Science itself does not colonise,” write the Listener Seven. On this point I generally agree, though in the letter the thought is incompletely developed, and is somewhat contradicted by their subsequent assertion that science “also provides immense good.”
Science is not an independent force for good or bad. Science does not hover above society, detached from it; rather, it is a tool in the hands of human beings. Through understanding the laws of nature and acting in accord with them, those in possession of scientific knowledge magnify their conscious power over nature. It is the human beings, or more precisely, classes, that use science for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – for antibiotics and for nuclear weaponry, for launching billionaires into space, for ending pandemics and for starting them, for accelerating and for mitigating the effects of climate change.
In a class-divided society, scientific knowledge also increases the power of its possessors over other human beings. For science, like all forms of culture in class society, is largely monopolised by the ruling class and their supporting middle layers. In the hands of a rapacious capitalist class, driven by the competitive drive for self-enrichment, science enhances their capacity for plunder of nature, for squeezing the maximum labour out of other human beings, for oppression and exploitation of all kinds.
On the other hand, in the hands of the producing classes, the working class and the small farmers, science is an essential tool in their efforts to build a society free from exploitation and national and colonial oppression, a society no longer at war with nature. This is one reason the working class has such an important stake in defending scientific thinking and practice. This is also why it is in the interest of the whole working class to support every initiative that will increase equality of access to scientific education and entry into the scientific professions for Maori and other oppressed nationalities. The best of the Maori scholars will be attracted to scientific studies, not by prettying up the past, but by the opportunity to use science to bury the brutal past, and the oppressive social relations in the present that it bequeathed.
But the working class has no interest in defending the bourgeois institutions of science – not the Royal Society, not the private research institutes and laboratories attached to capitalist corporations, not even the universities. These institutions were all created by the capitalist class, they serve that class above all, and they are headed for oblivion along with the political rule of that class – just as, in an earlier epoch, the monasteries and cathedral schools, the foremost scientific institutions of feudal times, faded into obscurity with the extinction of the feudal landlord class.
Siouxsie Wiles and the signatories of the “Open Letter” appear to consciously and tendentiously conflate scientific method with the institutions of science when they assert that “the Professors claim that ‘science itself does not colonise,’ ignoring the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge. And while the Professors describe science as ‘universal’, they fail to acknowledge that science has long excluded indigenous peoples from participation.”
In fact, the Listener Seven did not ignore the way science had been used in these oppressive ways – on the contrary, their letter specifically mentioned the way it had been used in the service of colonisation. It is also very clear in the letter that their claim for the universality of science relates to scientific method and knowledge – they make no claim that the institutions of science are free from discrimination. Garth Cooper’s thirty year record of promoting Maori participation in science prove that he at least is well aware of this problem.
So where does mistrust of science come from, and how can it be overcome? The Wiles-Hendy ‘Open Letter‘ offers this answer: “We believe that mistrust in science stems from science’s ongoing role in perpetuating ‘scientific’ racism, justifying colonisation, and continuing support of systems that create injustice. There can be no trust in science without robust self-reflection by the science community and an active commitment to change.”
The problem with this solution is that it has already happened: ‘robust self-reflection’ has already placed those with ‘an active commitment to change’ fully in charge of the universities, Royal Society, and Ministry of Education – as the overwhelming response to the Listener Seven makes clear beyond doubt. And yet, mistrust of science continues to grow. (The fact that the Seven felt they had to publish their criticisms in a letter to The Listener, a magazine entirely outside of science and education, demonstrates how little they are in control of these institutions.)
Both sides of this debate see reforming the educational institutions in various ways as the path to restoring the authority of science. But the problem is both deeper and broader than that.
“Mistrust of science” is above all mistrust of the institutions of science; it is closely related to the growing mistrust of the political institutions of capitalist society, which lean on ‘science’ to bolster their authority. No amount of exhortation to ‘trust the science’ can overcome it. For mistrust of these institutions is not entirely lacking in justification.
Modern science arose in tandem with capitalism. In the epoch of mercantile capitalism, the capitalist class nurtured science in order to broaden its economic activities; in the epoch of industrial capitalism, it continued to foster science because the constant revolutionising of the productive technology is a necessary feature of the capitalist mode of production. This led to a flowering of scientific thought unmatched in history, in which science was emancipated from its religious and superstitious entanglements. For the first time in more than a thousand years, materialist philosophy – the assertion that a material world exists independent of human perception, is lawful and knowable, and is the rock against which all human knowledge must be tested – prevailed over its idealist opposite. Science rested firmly on the empirical method – the test of objective reality – for verification.
The working class grew in numbers and strength, and through their struggles, won a share of the benefits of scientific advance – in improved health and longevity, cheaper prices for the necessities of life, broader access to scientific education, and in other ways. So long as scientific advances seemed to result in improvements in standards of living, confidence in science remained high.
But in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, scientific thinking and practice increasingly becomes an obstacle, both to capitalist profit-making and to capitalist political rule. Monopoly profits depend less on technical advance; the anti-competitive practices of monopolies tend to actively suppress technical innovation. As the economic morass of capitalism deepens, science is no longer synonymous with social progress. Capitalist political rule increasingly rests on the propagation of illusions, even as it calls on ‘science’ to enhance its authority.
The scientific corruption on a vast scale described by Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Pharma is but one small example – corruption of evidence, of scientific methods, of academic institutions, of government regulators, of individual people and their morality – as the drug monopolies bring their colossal economic weight to bear on the process of testing and marketing drugs. Objective scientific testing is frequently an impediment to their profit-making.
And this is only one form the recoil from science takes. As the rate of profit in industry continues to fall, the source of capitalist profit shifts towards monopoly price-gouging, investment shifts from industrial production towards unproductive speculations in real estate, cryptocurrency trading, trading in stocks and bonds and fictitious values, and other forms of gambling that create no new value. This produces a corresponding shift in bourgeois thinking and culture – away from scientific investigation of the real material world, towards idle speculations and reactionary fantasies of all kinds, including conspiracy theories. The universities themselves engage in the production of fictitious values – in their case, degrees and diplomas, entitlements to a privileged income which have in many cases very questionable connection to any socially useful skills. In all these ways, real science becomes less and less useful to the capitalist class.
This is the material basis of the contemporary erosion of scientific thinking. This, not matauranga Maori, is the source of anti-scientific tendency about which the Listener Seven rightly sound the alarm.
The fact that a prominent ‘science populariser,’ backed by the vice-chancellor at the country’s largest university, and by the most prestigious organisation for the promotion of science, can lead 2000 fellow academics in a campaign of denunciation of a group of scientists with an opposing view, rather than engaging in a scientific debate; their impulse to appeal to feelings of “harm and hurt” and their corresponding reluctance to appeal to objective evidence and engage in debate – these are rather stark indications of just how far the reaction against scientific thinking has gone, and how widespread and ingrained it has become in the institutions of higher learning.
When Richard Dawkins asks, “If the Royal Society will not defend science, then who will?” my answer is this: at the present stage of history, the Royal Society is incapable of defending science; it is doomed to be sidelined by the further progress of science. But the working class of the world will, in the course of its struggle to overthrow capitalist bestiality, forge new institutions of science and learning, institutions allied to the needs of the working class and arising out of its organisations and armies of production, just as the early universities arose out of the guilds of the nascent bourgeoisie.
When that happens, it will be the first time in human history that the labouring classes fully take possession of science. This circumstance alone will produce a scientific renaissance that will make today’s modern science look like the blind fumblings of the alchemists in comparison.