College Professors Met With Backlash for Writing That Maori Knowledge Isn't Science

In a letter to the editor published in the current affairs magazine The Listener last week, seven professors at the University of Auckland contended that traditional Maori knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, is categorically inferior to Western science when it comes to "the discovery of empirical, universal truths."

However, their opinions have drawn criticism from national academic organizations such as the Royal Society Te Apārangi and the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) for supposedly making invidious comparisons between the two, according to The New Zealand Herald.

The term Maori refers to the indigenous people of New Zealand, Polynesian immigrants who first arrived in what they call "Aotearoa," or "Land of the Long White Cloud," centuries before the first European settlers did. Like the Native Americans of the United States, people of Maori descent continue to be disadvantaged by racial and ethnic disparities in health, income, housing, occupation and education to this day. For example, they are less likely to pursue higher education than their white and Asian counterparts, according to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

The letter was written in response to proposed changes to the Maori school curriculum that would "ensure parity for mātauranga Māori with…other bodies of knowledge" in the classroom. Titled "In Defense of Science," the letter criticized the proposed changes on the grounds that mātauranga Māori "falls far short of what we can define as science."

"Better to ensure that everyone participates in the world's scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science," the authors concluded. Treating it as such, they added, could disseminate "disturbing understandings of science" as well as "patronize and fail indigenous populations."

Their stance was almost immediately met with backlash from other academics, Maori activists and people who identify as both, prompting University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater to release a statement that clarified that the institution itself did not endorse the letter's contents.

"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," she wrote. "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."

Likewise, the Royal Society "utterly rejected" the letter, and the NZAS was "dismayed" by it. Other critics went further. In a blog post, Tina Ngata, an advocate for environmental, indigenous and human rights, described the letter as a "true testament to how racism is harbored and fostered within New Zealand academia." That racism, she wrote, "is so normalized that people can hold senior academic positions whilst holding and promoting harmful discriminatory views towards marginalized groups."

The seven professors work in the fields of biological sciences, psychology, philosophy, education and psychological medicine.

Prince Charles receives a traditional Maori welcome.
In July, a group of University of Auckland professors authored a letter that drew a controversial distinction between Maori knowledge and science. Above, Britain's Prince Charles receives a traditional Maori welcome in November 2019. MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images