By Bob Brockie

There has been considerable debate over the last few years on how mātauranga Māori should be regarded in relation to world knowledge and especially science.  The Science/Matauranga rumpus still smoulders.  

Summarising:  In a Listener letter, seven Auckland professors wrote that Maori knowledge (matauranga) ‘falls far short of what we define as science’. The professors were alarmed that the government wants schools to give the same weight to matauranga as to science.  Matauranga is a complex set of ideas — a mix of pre-European mythology, traditional and current, knowledge, and ritual. It is virtually a Maori religion.

All Hell broke loose. Outraged critics have attacked the professors for disrespecting Maori thought, ignorance, racism, perpetuating injustices, false, hurtful or demonstrably wrong claims, cherry-picking evidence, or plain ad hominem. The critics miss the point. They attack everything except the professors’ main point – that “matauanga falls far short of what we define as science”.

There was not enough space for the professors to explain why matauranga falls short of science but as I see it:

Science deals with the natural world but matauranga is rooted in the supernatural.  Science has plenty of evidence to prove that humanity evolved from apes by Darwinian natural selection.  Maori believe the god Tane created people. 

Science aims to make universal laws, such as Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, Ohm’s laws of electricity, and Hubble’s law of cosmic expansion.  These laws apply in New Zealand as they do on distant galaxies. Matauranga is limited to local situations and local events, and has produced no universal laws. 

Writing about matauranga, leading Maori thinker Aroha Te Paraeke Mead writes (2007) that “Maori are the only ones who should be controlling all aspects of its retention, transmission and protection”.  By contrast, science is in public hands. Anybody can contribute to it and every word or calculation is open to world-wide challenge and criticism.   But challenge matauranga and you’ll be branded a racist, and say goodbye to your funding, promotion, and perhaps your job.

Fourteenth century Polynesians were remarkably skilled at celestial navigation.  But world astronomy and navigational techniques have come a long way since then.  Twenty-four satellites and a GPS gadget will take you to any spot-on Earth. These days, heroic Maori navigation science is only of antiquarian interest.

The differences between world science and matauranga are so great that they cannot be reconciled.  This opinion is shared by Sir Mason Durie who wrote (2020) “You cannot understand science through the tools of matauranga and you can’t understand mataurangi through the tools of science. They’re different bodies of knowledge and if you see one of them through the eyes of the other, you mess up.”  

Renowned New Zealand scientist Sir Paul Callaghan FRS famously wrote the aim of science is “To make discoveries of permanent value, to transcend nation, race, culture and political perspectives in truly international endeavour, and to collaborate with people all over the world”.

Councillors of today’s Royal Society don’t wear Sir Callaghan’s precepts. They prefer the thinking of French postmodernists Michelle Foucault and Jacques Derrida who assert that science is just another myth like the rest of the world’s myths, and try to knock science off its exalted perch. They argue that there are no such things as facts, only opinions about facts. Everybody’s opinions are of equal value, are to be respected and never challenged.  Postmodernists want to empower the marginalised

Parroting Foucault and Derrida, councillors of our Royal Society assert that science is “based on ethnocentric bias and outmoded dualisms (and the power relations embedded in them) ” and they want “to place the Treaty of Waitangi centrally and bring alongside that, inequality and diversity issues holistically”. 

But the Treaty is a political document with no scientific content. It has no place in science.

The Society was once the bastion of science in New Zealand. It now champions woke anti-science and paradoxically punishes professors who defend science. Matauranga would best be taught in history or religious studies, certainly not in science.  

I know of two eminent professors who have resigned their fellowships of the Society in protest at its political and racial stance.  A colleague of mine has resigned his Companionship, as have I.

This article was submitted to The Listener as one of my usual two-weekly columns. But the editor turned it down saying the topic was ‘well covered in three other articles’ that week.