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.