Auckland University professor stands by letter dismissing mātauranga Māori as science

One of the professors behind a contentious letter dismissing mātauranga Māori as science stands by what was said, claiming the authors were trying to defend science.

The letter was published in The Listener last week and was signed by seven professors from the University of Auckland - Kendall Clements, Garth Cooper, Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, Emeritus Professor Robert Nola, and Emeritus Professor John Werry.

The letter was in response to an NCEA working group's proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum, which would "promote parity for mātauranga Māori with other bodies of knowledge". It would also include discussion on the way science has been used as a rationale for the colonisation of Māori.

The professors say that while "indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways", to accept it as "equivalent to science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations".

The letter has sparked criticism, with the University of Auckland distancing itself from its sentiments.

One of the authors, Michael Corballis, says from what he and the letter authors know, mātauranga Māori "seems to be antithetical to what science does a lot of the time".

"Our main purpose was not to explain mātauranga Māori, our main purpose was to complain about the fact that kids are being taught that science is colonising and evil," he told The Hui.

"It may have been a mistake to add stuff on mātauranga Māori. We were there primarily to defend science and that's what our article is for."

Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis.
Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis. Photo credit: The Hui

Corballis did say that early navigators who travelled using the stars showed their knowledge of "brilliant science", but this is now proto-scientific since the understanding of the cosmos today is more detailed and sophisticated.

"Nowadays we have GPS. The science of navigation has proceeded a long way beyond what those early navigators did," he says.

"The thing about science is it changes, it progresses. At the time, they were as good scientists as anyone… As navigators, they were terrific. But navigation now has moved light-years beyond that."

He maintains the letter isn't wrong, even though he admits he's only "tried to understand" mātauranga Māori. He believes there are "unscientific" elements, including creationism and spiritualism, and it doesn't equate to science. 

"If some of mātauranga Māori is science, there's no problem - we can teach it because it's science. But if some of it is antithetical to science, if they're teaching creationism, for example, if there are different views on the planets and how the cosmos works, then it's in opposition to what science believes to be the case in terms of its observations and so forth."

Corballis adds the authors tried hard not to present mātauranga Māori as "inferior" - they just don't believe it is a science.

Auckland University professor stands by letter dismissing mātauranga Māori as science