Fury has erupted after academics in New Zealand were threatened with expulsion from the Royal Society for criticising plans that would see Maori knowledge added to the school curriculum.
Current and former professors at the University of Auckland wrote a letter to the editor of the New Zealand Listener criticising a government working group’s plans to give the same weight to Maori mythology as they do to science in the classroom.
The letter was signed by seven professors, including Garth Cooper, a professor of biochemistry and clinical biochemistry at the University of Auckland.
Five members of the Royal Society of New Zealand complained about the letter, saying it caused ‘untold harm and hurt’, prompting the society to launch a formal investigation.
Critics claimed the ongoing investigation was an attack on free speech and that scientists were being punished for defending science.
In the letter, titled ‘In Defence of Science, the professors accepted indigenous knowledge should be taught in schools as it is ‘critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy’.
But they argued it could not be treated on a par with biology, chemistry and physics, adding: ‘In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.’
After the letter was published in July, the Royal Society of New Zealand received complaints from five members demanding disciplinary action against three society fellows: Professor Cooper, philosopher Robert Nola, and psychologist Michael Corballis. Mr Corballis died suddenly last month.
Fury has erupted after academics in New Zealand were threatened with expulsion from the Royal Society for criticising plans that would see Maori knowledge added to the school curriculum. Pictured, Maori warriors celebrating Waitangi Day in 2017
A letter criticising plans was signed by seven professors, including Garth Cooper (pictured), a professor of biochemistry and clinical biochemistry at the University of Auckland
The authors of the letter argued they were exercising their rights under New Zealand’s Education Act, which allows academics and students freedom to ‘state controversial or unpopular opinions’ as well as ‘question and test received wisdom’.
But those complaining said the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the Royal Society’s code of professional standards and ethics, which included claims of failing to behave with ‘integrity and professionalism’.
The complainants included Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy, two colleagues of Professor Cooper.
Maori beliefs argue that all living things originated from Tane Mahuta sending his father Ranginui up to the sky and his mother Papatuanuku down to the earth.
Columnist Rod Liddle, writing in today’s Sunday Times, called the reaction to the professor’s letter ‘madness and stupidity’.
He wrote: ‘So, from New Zealand, comes more evidence that what I call the De-Enlightenment really is upon us.
‘There, a government working party has demanded that the story of Tane Mahuta and his various strange relatives should be given equal emphasis when children are taught the origins of the world: equal emphasis, that is, to the stuff we know to be true. To the science.
‘One very eminent scientist called Garth Cooper, a professor of biochemistry and clinical biochemistry at the University of Auckland, slightly balked at this.
‘He signed an open letter suggesting that, while it was important everybody knew about the interesting Maori take on creation, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.”
‘Yet for once freedom of speech is not the crucial issue for me here. It is instead the burgeoning madness and stupidity, condescension and racism that are propelling us towards the De-Enlightenment.
‘All of those academics, and the Royal Society, know full well that the Maori explanation for the creation of the world is not correct. And yet, hypocritically and patronisingly, they pretend otherwise.’
Initially, five members of the Royal Society complained about the professors’ letter, but three pulled back after the society asked them to identify themselves.
Two of the complainants remained, prompting the Royal Society of New Zealand to launch a formal investigation, before saying it cannot comment until the disciplinary process has ended.
Columnist Rod Liddle (pictured) called the reaction to the professor’s letter and the ensuing investigation ‘madness and stupidity’
Commentator Toby Young (pictured) said the plans would give Maori schoolchildren ‘even greater disadvantage’
Commentator Toby Young argued the government working group’s plans would give Maori schoolchildren ‘even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge’.
Writing in the Spectator, he added: ‘The moment this letter was published all hell broke loose.
‘The views of the authors, who were all professors at Auckland, were denounced by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union — as well as their own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. In a hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university, she said the letter had ‘caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni’.
‘Two of Professor Cooper’s academic colleagues, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy, issued an “open letter” condemning the heretics for causing “untold harm and hurt” and said it pointed to “major problems with some of our colleagues”.
‘Apart from the obvious difficulty of prioritising one religious viewpoint in an ethnically diverse society like New Zealand (what about Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?), there is the problem that Maori schoolchildren, already among the least privileged in the country, will be at an even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge.
‘Knowing about Rangi and Papa won’t get you into medical school.’