New Zealand academics investigate Maori acquaintance letter

A debate over the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some prominent academics risk expulsion from the country’s scholarly academy.

The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand auditor, published in July, criticized the integration plans Maori mātauranga (Maori knowledge) in the science school curriculum.

The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three members of society who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, as well as psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Professor Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal – RSNZ’s highest honor – in 2016, died suddenly last month.


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New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test conventional wisdom, come up with new ideas, and express controversial or unpopular views” within the framework of the law. The Listener the authors of the letter insisted that they were exercising this right by criticizing the incorporation of Maori mātauranga in school and university science programs, which they equated to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology.

But the plaintiffs alleged that the perpetrators had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics – including by failing to behave with … protecting vulnerable persons “- and violated” the obligation of good character ” of the society.

The RSNZ then opened a formal investigation. Its complaints procedures state that the board of the society “may initiate an investigation if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached … obligations.”

Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the company’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was rejected outright. The Royal Society is now so influenced by Maori mātauranga the ideology that they’ve started a formal process, and once you’ve started it you can’t stop it, ”he said.

Professor Nola said the investigation is currently determining whether the complaints can be prosecuted under RSNZ rules. He said the Listener the letter was not a research and therefore was not covered by the company code.

“The Education Act and Code give us the right to express our opinions, in a clause about being a critic and a conscience of society, even though the opinions may be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They turned out to be more popular than we thought, ”he said.

Critics have questioned how the RSNZ could undertake an impartial investigation after its president and the chairman of its academy’s executive committee denounced the Listener authors of the letter in a statement posted on the company’s website.

Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panelists originally recruited to investigate the complaints were withdrawn after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter.

RSNZ said it was unable to comment until disciplinary proceedings took their course. THE also unsuccessfully solicited comments from the president of the company, the president of the executive committee of his academy and several leading critics of the Listener letter.

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