I’m in New Zealand, climax to my antipodean speaking tour, where I walked headlong into a raging controversy. Jacinda Ardern’s government implemented a ludicrous policy, spawned by Chris Hipkins’s Ministry of Education before he became prime minister. Science classes are to be taught that Māori ‘Ways of Knowing’ (Mātauranga Māori) have equal standing with ‘western’ science. Not surprisingly, this adolescent virtue-signalling horrified New Zealand’s grown-up scientists and scholars. Seven of them wrote to the Listener magazine. Three who were fellows of the NZ Royal Society were threatened with an inquisitorial investigation. Two of these, including the distinguished medical scientist Garth Cooper, himself of Māori descent, resigned (the third unfortunately died). I was delighted to meet Professor Cooper for lunch, with others of the seven. His resignation letter cited the society’s failure to support science against its denigration as ‘a western European invention’. He was affronted, too, by a complaint (not endorsed by the NZRS) that ‘to insist Māori children learn to read is an act of colonisation’. Is there an implication here – condescending, if not downright racist – that ‘indigenous’ children need separate, special treatment?
Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of this sorry affair is the climate of fear. We who don’t have a career to lose should speak out in defence of those who do. The magnificent seven are branded heretics by a nastily zealous new religion, a witch-hunt that recalls the false accusations against J.K. Rowling and Kathleen Stock. Professor Kendall Clements was removed from teaching evolution at the University of Auckland, after the School of Biological Sciences Putaiao Committee submitted the following recommendation: ‘We do not feel that either Kendall or Garth should be put in front of students as teachers. This is not safe for students…’ Not safe? Who are these cringing little wimps whose ‘safety’ requires protection against free speech? What on earth do they think a university is for?
To grasp government intentions requires a little work, because every third word of the relevant documents is in Māori. Since only 2 per cent of New Zealanders (and only 5 per cent of Māoris) speak that language, this again looks like self-righteous virtue-signalling, bending a knee to that modish version of Original Sin which is white guilt. Mātauranga Māori includes valuable tips on edible fungi, star navigation and species conservation (pity the moas were all eaten). Unfortunately it is deeply invested in vitalism. New Zealand children will be taught the true wonder of DNA, while being simultaneously confused by the doctrine that all life throbs with a vital force conferred by the Earth Mother and the Sky Father. Origin myths are haunting and poetic, but they belong elsewhere in the curriculum. The very phrase ‘western’ science buys into the ‘relativist’ notion that evolution and big bang cosmology are just the origin myth of white western men, a narrative whose hegemony over ‘indigenous’ alternatives stems from nothing better than political power. This is pernicious nonsense. Science belongs to all humanity. It is humanity’s proud best shot at discovering the truth about the real world.
My speeches in Auckland and Wellington were warmly applauded, though one woman yelled a protest. She was politely invited to participate, but she chose to walk out instead. I truthfully said that, when asked my favourite country, I invariably choose New Zealand. Citing the legacy of Ernest Rutherford, the greatest experimental physicist since Faraday, I begged my audiences to reach out to their MPs in support of New Zealand science. The true reason science is more than an origin myth is that it stands on evidence: massively documented evidence, double blind trials, peer review, quantitative predictions precisely verified in labs around the world. Science reads the billion-word DNA book of life itself. Science eradicates smallpox and polio. Science navigates to Pluto or a tiny comet. Science almost certainly saved your life. Science works.
Postscript on the flight out: Air New Zealand think it a cute idea to invoke Māori gods in their safety briefing. Imagine if British Airways announced that their planes are kept aloft by the Holy Ghost in equal partnership with Bernoulli’s Principle and Newton’s First Law. Science explains. It lightens our darkness. Science is the poetry of reality. It belongs to all humanity. Kia Ora!
Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and popular-science writer. This piece was published in The Spectator and is archived here.