The University of Auckland’s Stephen May explains how mātauranga Māori is a complementary counterweight to the arrogance and insularity of so much European thought

Comment: A controversy has erupted over a letter to the editor in last week‘s Listener collectively penned by seven of my professorial colleagues at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. Actually, the letter is more a mini position statement aimed squarely at dismissing acknowledgement and recognition of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge/epistemology) alongside western science in proposed revisions to the Māori curriculum.

For them, the authors, mātauranga Māori (MM) simply cannot hold a candle to western science. They see western science as universal and (generally) progressive, while MM is culturally located, particularistic, and regressive. Like folklore or religion, MM is therefore depicted as essentially anti-rational – possibly useful for the purposes of cultural “preservation” but not much else.

Subsequent responses by the University of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor, Te Apārangi (the Royal Society of New Zealand), and the New Zealand Association of Scientists, while acknowledging the right of my colleagues to express these views, have specifically repudiated them and defended the importance and validity of mātauranga Māori. Meanwhile, researcher and scholar Tina Ngata, in a more directly acerbic rebuttal, highlights just how tired and tiresome this kind of thinking is, and yet how pervasive and pernicious its effects still remain.

So what, if any, are the merits of my colleagues’ arguments? What are their key precepts and, more importantly, do they stand up to scrutiny? Let me answer this by examining a similar, more extensive, position statement outlined in an academic newsletter by the most visible and vocal subset of this group – Michael Corballis, Elizabeth Rata, and Robert Nola – from a couple of years back.

In this academic opinion piece, the same dismissal of MM, and indigenous knowledge more broadly, applies. However, the authors proceed to outline how this rests crucially on philosopher Karl Popper’s notion of “falsifiability”. The key aspects of (western) science – “objectivity, universality and dedication to progress” are predicated for them on the basis that “originating ideas” can be tested and retested via the rigour and impartiality of scientific methods. Moreover, these methods can be seen as separate to the purposes that scientific discoveries can be put since these purposes are the domain of the ethical, political and social, rather than scientific.

But this is simply nonsense. Take scientific racism, for example: for centuries, the “originating idea” underpinning it – basically, a presumptive belief in the racial and gender superiority of white men – remained resolutely intact. When the scientific methods of the day eventually faltered or failed to prove this point, they were simply replaced by new methods.

While many of these look ludicrous to us now (measuring the size of skulls, weighing brains), they were deemed to be “objective” and “serious” scientific methods in their day. In short, falsifiability doesn’t necessarily change values, beliefs, or preconceptions – no matter how misinformed these might be.

Corballis, Rata and Nola would be far better served by instead addressing seriously US science philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s famous critique of European science, which highlights how it has never proceeded solely by logical/rational and impersonal/objective inquiry. Rather, it has, more often than not, been driven by false beliefs (like scientific racism), fashion and emotion, and the socio-historical and socio-political contexts in which they are formed and situated (like colonialism).

But why, you might ask, does this kind of esoteric debate over mātauranga Māori really matter? Well, precisely because you can never separate scientific method from purposes or effects. And, in sharp contrast to Corballis and his fellow authors’ blithe belief in the “relentless progress of science”, those effects can be devastating, deleterious, injurious.

We see this in the thousands of First Nation children in Canada, forced to attend residential schools over 150 years in order specifically to eradicate their cultures and languages; whose bodies are literally being unearthed from unmarked, often mass, graves across that country, as we speak. The Royal Commission set up there to examine that system concluded in 2016 that it constituted a form of cultural genocide. Now we find that it extends even beyond that. That’s what results from racism dressed up as objective science.

Or think here of the “Unfortunate Experiment” and Herbert Green’s “originating idea” that carcinoma in situ (CIS) was not predictive of progression to invasive cervical cancer. This resulted in the deliberate and unethical withholding of treatment for countless New Zealand women, many of whom were to die as a result. Or take the current inquiry into the abuses perpetrated at Lake Alice Psychiatric hospital with electroconvulsive (shock) therapy – an attested practice at the time – used indiscriminately against children.

Or, coming back to mātauranga Māori, consider the consequences for Māori students in Aotearoa New Zealand throughout our colonial history and up to the present day. Their academic trajectories have often been truncated by institutional practices over time that have been based on racialised notions of intellectual ability, alongside the systemic devaluing and/or exclusion of Māori language and culture, and ways of knowing (MM).

That’s why mātauranga Māori is so important and why it is, and should remain, a complementary counterweight to the arrogance and insularity of so much European thought. That is why this debate matters so much. And it’s why my colleagues, at least in this instance, are so spectacularly wrong.

Professor Stephen May, FRSNZ, is from Te Puna Wānanga (School of Māori and Indigenous Education), Faculty of Education and Social Work, and Director of Tai Tokerau Campus, University of Auckland

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