Maori knowledge and science? Don’t mix chalk and cheese

Dr Michael Johnston
The Australian
26 May, 2022

In July last year a furore erupted when seven eminent professors from the University of Auckland published a letter in the New Zealand Listener. They wrote to criticise Ministry of Education plans to include mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) in the science curriculum for schools.

The letter drew fire from many quarters. The Vice Chancellor of Auckland University, the Tertiary Education Union and the Royal Society Te Apārangi all piled on. The professors were accused of causing “hurt and dismay” and told that their letter was “offensive” and “racist”. They were denounced in an open letter signed by more than two thousand university staff.

Three of the professors were investigated by the Royal Society, a process that could have led to their expulsion. Eventually the investigation was called off after the Society was taken to task by international giants Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. Sadly, one of the three, Michael Corballis, died before his name was cleared.

The overheated response to the letter stymied what could have been a productive debate. Who will risk sticking their head above that particular parapet again?

With the foolish optimism of Voltaire’s Candide, I’ll give it a go.

If it is properly contextualised, including mātauranga Māori in the school curriculum stands to enrich young New Zealanders of all cultural backgrounds. To do that successfully though, we must be careful not to attempt to force it into a place in which it doesn’t fit.

Pre-colonial Māori had an impressive amount of knowledge about many things. For one, they were astonishing navigators. By observing the stars, sea currents and the flight patterns of birds, they were able to traverse millions of square kilometres of open ocean in small outriggers, to successfully locate, and land on, tiny islands.

An important subtlety lost in the media storm over the Listener letter is the distinction between knowledge itself and the methods by which it’s discovered. Did the navigators of the Pacific Ocean develop their knowledge through a process of explicit theory testing like that used in Eurasian science?

It wasn’t until 1959, when philosopher of science Karl Popper published his book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, that this approach was fully articulated in Eurasian scientific thought. The idea of making predictions from generalisable, universalist theories, though, has been around for considerably longer.

Even so, while Māori almost certainly developed their knowledge on the basis of systematic observation, they probably were not motivated to construct generalisable theories. Mātauranga Māori is more concerned with the local and particular than with the universal and abstract.

Philosophically, this is probably one of the two truly substantive differences between Eurasian science and mātauranga Māori. Whereas the former seeks to make claims that are true everywhere and always, the latter is often more concerned with what is true in a local area, for the benefit of the people living there.

To understand the other substantive difference, I think we have to go back to Rene Descartes. Descartes noted that, as Europe emerged from the middle-ages into the Renaissance, the European worldview had bifurcated, separating the sacred from the material. It had become dualistic.

This was a great boon to nascent science. Although Renaissance scientists like Galileo were persecuted by religious authorities, within a couple of centuries it became possible freely to promulgate theories of the natural world that ran counter to religious narratives.

Whatever the precolonial Māori worldview was like, it was not dualistic. Everything was at once material and spiritual. This is perhaps the most important reason not to try to shoehorn mātauranga Māori into the science curriculum. To do so would be a disservice to both knowledge systems.

When pre-colonial Māori were on the ocean, they would chant karakia (prayers) to Tangaroa (the god of the ocean). Apart from expressing deeply held beliefs and imbuing mariners with courage in their perilous endeavours, these chants may well have had practical import. The practice might have been a way to keep track of time, or to keep rhythm while rowing. These possibilities illustrate the internal coherence of a non-dualistic worldview.

Contrastingly, a draft biology standard recently produced by New Zealand’s Ministry of Education claimed that fermentation can be enhanced by chanting karakia. This illustrates that trying to force a non-dualistic belief into a materialist knowledge system produces incoherence and confusion. (That standard, thankfully, has been revised.)

Rather than attempting to mix chalk and cheese, we’d do better to represent each knowledge system in its own right. If we do that, instead of sowing confusion we might start a conversation that will provide food for thought for generations to come.

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