Bob Brockie: THE FLIGHT FROM REASON
In the 1960s, French intellectuals Michelle Foucault, Jacques Derrida and others dreamt up a new philosophy that came to be known as Postmodernism.
Dissatisfied with modernity, they sought to overthrow its thinking . They asserted that men, women, black, white, straight, gay, powerful or powerless read words differently, that truth, reason, justice, social progress, and natural reality mean different things to different people and are really code words for the establishment. They think the Enlightenment is a fraud perpetrated by white males to consolidate their own power. They want to empower the marginalised.
These people argue that there are no such things as facts, only opinions about facts. Everybody’s opinions are of equal value, whether you’re a rocket scientist or a stone-age nobody, and everybody’s opinions are to be respected and never questioned or challenged. The supernatural and ambiguity are OK. Rules are made to be broken. Make your own rules. Anything goes.
Postmodernists argued that science is not absolute, and no better than any other system of knowledge — if not worse. In 1996, the postmodern journal Social Text published a ‘science wars’ double issue in which eighteen authors presented their case against science. A typical extract laid out the battle lines:
“In these wars, the self-appointed defenders of Science are seeking to police the boundaries of knowledge and to resurrect canonical knowledge of nature, against the attempts of the Others (including feminists, antiracists, psychoanalysts, post-colonialists, leftists, multiculturalists, relativists, postmodernists, etc., in all our bewildering diversity) to extend, transform, or maybe even dissolve the boundaries between the privileged truth claims of science and other knowledge”.
Postmodernism spread like wildfire in the late 20th century. Free of rules, architects, artists, musicians, linguists, sociologists, and educationists struck out in new directions with some remarkable achievements but left science untouched. Since the 1990s, most of the world has moved beyond the extremes of postmodernism but, belatedly, New Zealand has entrenched it in the country’s laws, in its schools, and universities.
New Zealander Sir Paul Callaghan famously wrote the aim of science is “To make discoveries of permanent value, to transcend nation, race, culture and political perspectives in truly international endeavour, and to collaborate with people all over the world”.
Council reps from the humanities on our Royal Society, calling themselves Te Whainga Aronui o Te Aparangi, don’t wear this. They have brought their postmodernist ideology with them and, parroting Flaubert and Derrida, assert that science is "based on ethnocentric bias and outmoded dualisms (and the power relations embedded in them)” and want “to place the Treaty of Waitangi centrally and bring alongside that, inequality and diversity issues holistically”
Postmodernist councilors have white-anted the scientific integrity of our Royal Society, and brought political, racial, cultural, and religious bias into its workings. In embracing the Treaty, they are imposing political, racial and cultural obligations, expectations, and limitations on scientists - the equivalent of imposing the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Hindu Vedas, or the Book of Mormon on them.
World science and matauranga cannot be reconciled. Science operates in the natural world but Maori thought is rooted in the supernatural.
Matauranga is often defined as traditional knowledge, passed from generation to generation. A prominent Maori maintains that indigenous knowledge belongs to iwi and that they should control it. How different is science! All science is provisional, and open to criticism and challenges. But challenge matauranga and you will be branded a racist.
Earlier this year, a Government educational Working Group argued that Maori science (matauranga) be given equal status with world science in our school curricula. Seven Auckland professors were alarmed at this idea and wrote that Maori knowledge ‘falls far short of what we define as science.’ The academics were also alarmed that kids could be taught that science is a tool of colonisation and belittles Maori culture.
President and CEO of the Royal Society, ‘utterly reject [the professors] narrow and outmoded definition of science’ and, again parroting Foucault and Derrida, ’strongly uphold the value of matauranga’. What is a science teacher to say when a pupil asks which of the two stories is true?
Our Royal Society was once a bastion of science but has now abandoned truth, reason, and science, to become a mouthpiece for faddish woke politics. The supernatural world of matauranga would be better taught in religious studies instead of science.
Robert Ellison Brockie MNZM is a New Zealand cartoonist, scientist, columnist and graphic artist. He was an editorial cartoonist for the National Business Review from 1975 to 2018, specialising in political satire.