An University of Auckland professor has stepped down as acting dean of science after backlash to a letter he co-authored claiming Māori knowledge “is not science”.
Professor of Psychology Douglas Elliffe emailed the science faculty to say his role in writing the letter meant his leadership had the potential to “increase division” among the university’s scientific community.
Elliffe was one of seven professors to sign the letter published in the Listener magazine last week in response to proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum.
Those changes are meant to put mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) on a par with other types of knowledge, particularly Western knowledge.
However, the academics – drawn from biological sciences, psychology, philosophy and education – claimed that although indigenous knowledge contributes to our understanding of the world, “it falls far short of what we can define as science”.
The letter met widespread backlash, with the New Zealand Association of Scientists saying they were “dismayed” by it.
Elliffe subsequently emailed the science faculty to say that he had decided to step down.
“I now think that my leadership of the faculty has the potential to increase division and divert attention from the real issues that face us,” 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 faculty-level contributions.”
He said the decision to step down was his and that he hadn’t been pressured by the university’s leadership.
“I also want to express my deep gratitude for the messages of support that I’ve had, including pleas for me not to step down, from so many of you.”
He said society needed to ensure it fostered robust debate.
“I think there is a journey that society, and the university as its critic and conscience, needs to take towards robust discussion and debate within a culture that doesn’t assume disagreement must imply disrespect,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, but I profoundly hope we’re on the way and that our university will be helping to light the path.”
Earlier the New Zealand Association of Scientists was “dismayed” to see mātauranga’s value to science being questioned so publicly by prominent academics, and the letter was “utterly rejected” by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
And University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater told staff the letter did not represent the university’s views.
It had caused “considerable hurt and dismay” among staff and students, she wrote in an email on Monday.
“While the 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 are not at odds 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 senior lecturer in Māori studies at Auckland University, said science was “a method for generating knowledge, and all knowledge generated using that method”.
Some indigenous knowledge – though not all – had been generated using the scientific method so it was clearly science, Hikuroa said.
He pointed to the Maramataka – the Māori lunar calendar – and how it is applied as science.
“It predicts that things will happen and they continue to happen. That knowledge is accurate and precise. It’s been arrived at through the empirical approach. Make an observation, then you make a prediction, and that prediction comes true – so cool, then you embed that knowledge.”
Ecologist Dr Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngāti Porou) rejected the “inaccurate assertion that my tīpuna 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 preeminent astronomer and expert on maramataka.
The Listener letter took issue with proposals that would show students “the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views”, including how it’s been used to colonise Māori and suppress mātauranga Māori.
The course would also discuss “the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples”.
The authors claimed that would spread “disturbing understandings of science” and lead to mistrust in science.
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