The philosopher stoned for his defence of science

Journalist Graham Adams is one of the few voices covering the strange attack on science and scientists by the Royal Society. He has written about the episode and the scientists Michael Corballis and Garth Cooper under attack for defending science.

Background: A letter in defence of science, published in New Zealand Listener in July, was signed by seven professors from the University of Auckland.  Emeritus Professor Robert Nola,​ one of the signatories, specialises in the philosophy of science.  But the Royal Society of New Zealand is investigating him over what it claims are “misguided” views regarding Māori knowledge.

Professor Robert Nola’s bread and butter is analysing what makes science science. This 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).

Prof. Robert Nola

Nola was one of seven eminent professors from the University of Auckland who, in a letter to  New Zealand 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”.

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 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. Read the rest of the article here.