The New Zealand betrayal of science

I follow Richard Dawkins on Twitter. I don’t read all his Tweets but one recently caught my attention because it mentioned the “New Zealand betrayal of science”. I naturally took a closer look and also stole his click-bate words for my title. It turns out he’s written a letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand to complain about the introduction of Maori “ways of knowing” into the science curriculum. Here’s an excerpt from his letter (actually it’s most of his letter because it’s so good I didn’t know which bits to remove).

The world is full of thousands of creation myths and other colourful legends, any of which might be taught alongside Maori myths. Why choose Maori myths? For no better reason than that Maoris arrived in New Zealand a few centuries before Europeans. That would be a good reason to teach Maori mythology in anthropology classes. Arguably there’s even better reason for Australian schools to teach the myths of their indigenous peoples, who arrived tens of thousands of years before Europeans. Or for British schools to teach Celtic myths. Or Anglo-Saxon myths. But no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the right place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. Creationism is still bollocks even it is indigenous bollocks.

The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. 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. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.

Myths do not belong in science class – Richard Dawkins

Apparently, seven academics from Auckland University are under investigation for expressing their concerns about the curriculum change in an open letter to The New Zealand Listener magazine. Here’s a screenshot of their letter:

Their letter contains the description for what the proposed course is.

“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 colonisation of Mãori and the suppression of Mãori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance of Mãori and other indigenous peoples”.

Is science a Western European invention? That seems a bit nonsensical. Science is about observation and discovery rather than an invention and as the signatories to the letter point out, many civilizations have contributed to science over time going back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made for learning about the history of science in science but that’s not what the description suggests. They talk of the “notion that science is a Western European invention” which is nonsense.

I completed teacher training in New Zealand with the intention of teaching computer science in secondary school. It was appallingly dreadful. Perhaps, hopefully, the situation has changed because this was 15 years ago now, but their idea of computer science at the time was learning to use Microsoft Office products. I was dismayed and after completing my diploma went back to working in IT , turning my back on teaching. Computer science is about creating software, not learning how to use it. Both our kids here are doing computer science at school and I’m pleased to say it is computer science rather than what I witnessed in New Zealand.

But I digress. Back to the letter. A second letter was published in response to the original letter in The Listener and that had 2000 signatories prompting an investigation into the original letter. I find it increasingly alarming that people are being hounded and investigated for having opposing views. It’s completely absurd to punish scientists for defending the scientific method. One of the signatories, fish ecologist Kendall Clement, has been removed from two ecology and evolution courses he has taught for many years and he was blocked from responding to a critical email that was distributed among staff and students at the school. Another signatory, Garth Cooper, has Mãori grandparents and has worked for many years with Mãori patients and communities and yet has been accused of racism. The only New Zealand institution defending these scientists, that I could find, is Free Speech Union. Regardless of whether it’s a good or bad idea, it should be possible to debate it. That’s what universities are for.

6 Replies to “The New Zealand betrayal of science”

  1. The English computing curriculum (IT – there was no computer science) looked like Microsoft Products as well until about 2017, when the GCSE was reformed. It was part of the government realising that we had a shortage of programmers. Until the reform there was a plethora of “easy” qualifications available to 16 year olds, although no one was allowed to say at the time that these qualifications were obviously not equivalent to a GCSE in eg French or Physics.
    Hopefully in 5 or 10 years time people will be looking at this inclusion of myth in the Science curriculum as similarly absurd.
    I am reading a book about German postwar society and it’s only been recently that German society has been allowed to say “Maybe we suffered during the war too and are allowed to talk about it and come to terms with it” without being associated with being a right wing denier.
    It’s unfortunate that we have to go through these periods of insanity before (hopefully) sense prevails.

    1. I’m glad the curriculum here changed. Both our kids are following the English curriculum currently and for computer science it is very good. It was so long ago now that I did teacher training in NZ that probably they’ve caught up there too.

  2. It’s an appalling and absolutely cringe-worthy situation. What’s even worse, is that the letter against these scientists circulated to gather signatures was initiated by Siouxsie Wiles, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siouxsie_Wiles), New Zealand’s spokesperson on infectious diseases who has advised the public on Covid, won New Zealander of the Year last year, and is also a massive attention-seeker and woke virtue-signaler. She fits right into the awful coterie of uber-woke virtue-signalers we have running the country right now. She would probably get on very well with Nicola Sturgeon. I agree that matauranga Maori should be taught in schools, but to insist it’s science and should be taught as a science alongside chemistry, physics and biology is total nonsense. I’m pretty sure they can all interact with each other, but matauranga Maori is not a science unto itself. I belong to the Free Speech Union now, too, because they’re the only organisation here in New Zealand defending the worst aspects of wokery in any way, and as a ‘terf’ I might need them some day – lol!

    1. I don’t know what’s happening to the world. I feel like everything is upside down. I used to be left-leaning politically but find myself moving to the right because of this cancel culture we have developed. I listened to Allison Bailey’s talk at the recent LGB Alliance conference and she said never in her life has she experienced as much homophobia and misogyny as she does now. The right here seem to be doing more for animals too. Good to hear you’ve got at least one organisation there championing free speech.

  3. You are feeling what so many of us are – the left have failed us, and the right seem to be more tolerant, effective, and tethered to reality. The centre-right, that is. It’s quite a quandary. I have also never seen such vitriol levelled at women who won’t toe the woke line before in my life, either. Much of it is due to the almost consequence-free ability to say what one likes online – except if one is a gender-critical feminist, of course, then we get cancelled. Btw – in case you haven’t heard, 19 December is Gender Critical Coming Out Day, for those who can do it without risk of the poison woke mob coming after us, and/or job loss. Dec 19 has been chosen because that’s the day two years ago that JK Rowling made her now famous tweet.

  4. My mind is now full of gentle thoughts that include: “A rose by any other name”. Then again, how I sense the rose might be different to how a dog could sense a rose. What the word science means is now up for discussion. Will it make the rose different or just our perception of it?

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