A public letter from a group of prominent academics at the University of Auckland has claimed that Maori knowledge “is not science”. NZ Herald photo
A professor at the University of Auckland has resigned as acting dean of science following a setback to a letter he co-authored, claiming that Maori knowledge “is not science”.
Professor of Psychology Douglas Elliffe emailed the Faculty of Science to say that his role in writing the letter meant that his leadership had the potential to “increase division” among the university’s scientific community.
Elliffe was one of seven more professors sign the letter published in Listener magazine last week in response to proposed changes to the school curriculum.
These changes are intended to put mātauranga Māori (Maori knowledge) on a par with other types of knowledge, especially Western knowledge.
However, academics – drawn from biological sciences, psychology, philosophy and education – argued that although original knowledge contributes to our understanding of the world, it “falls far short of what we can define as science”.
The letter faced widespread backlash, with the New Zealand Association of Scientists saying they were “appalled” by it.
Elliffe subsequently emailed the Faculty of Science to say he had decided to resign.
“I now believe that my management of the faculty has the potential to increase the division and divert attention from the real problems we face,” he said.
“The future of the faculty is more important to me than my own ambitions, although I will greatly miss the opportunity to make more contributions at the faculty level.”
He said the decision to resign was his and that he had not been pressured by the university management.
“I would also like to express my deep gratitude for the messages of support I have received, including a plea to me not to resign from so many of you.”
He said society needed to ensure that it promoted robust debate.
“I think there is a journey that society and the university as its critic and conscience must take towards robust discussion and debate within a culture that does not assume that disagreement should imply disrespect,” he said.
“I do not think we are there yet, but I deeply hope that we are on the way and that our university helps illuminate the path.”
Earlier, the New Zealand Association of Scientists was “appalled” to see the value of mātauranga’s science being so publicly questioned by prominent academics, and the letter was “completely rejected” by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
And University of Auckland Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater told staff that the letter did not represent the university’s views.
It had caused “significant harm and dismay” among staff and students, she wrote in an email Monday.
“While academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland,” Freshwater said.
“The University has deep respect for mātauranga Māori as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system. We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science do not disagree and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.”
Dr Daniel Hikuroa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato-Tainui), a geologist and associate professor of Maori studies at Auckland University, said science was “a method of generating knowledge, and all knowledge generated using this method”.
Some native knowledge – though not all – was generated using the scientific method, so it was clear science, Hikuroa said.
He pointed to Maramataka – the Maori lunar calendar – and how it is used as a science.
“It predicts that things will happen and that they will continue to happen. That knowledge is accurate and precise. It has been reached through the empirical approach. Make an observation, then you predict, and that prediction comes true – so cool, so you integrate that knowledge. “
Ecologist Dr. Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngāti Porou) rejected the “inaccurate claim that my tipuna did not do science”.
“As Rangi Mātāmua says, we did not navigate to Aotearoa on myths and legends. We did not live successfully in balance with the environment without science. Māori were the first scientists in Aotearoa.”
Mātāmua is a prominent astronomer and calendar expert.
The listener letter raised questions with suggestions to show students “the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views”, including how it has been used to colonize Maori and suppress mātauranga maori.
The course will also discuss “the notion that science is a Western European invention and in itself evidence of European dominance over Maori and other indigenous peoples”.
The authors argued that it would spread “disturbing understanding of science” and lead to distrust of science.
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