The bizarre case of the Royal Society investigating academics defending science

The Royal Society has begun a disciplinary investigation against a group of academics. The academics were defending science and in the past would have expected support from the Royal Society. The Free Speech Union has launched a campaign to defend the academics and academic freedom.

Māori professor under investigation for views on mātauranga Māori

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

Dr Garth Cooper

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

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

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

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

Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views. Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that, “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It’s caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.” More than 2000 academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain). Read the rest of the article here.

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