Teaching Indigenous Knowledge in the Science Classroom (Part 1: Colonization)

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Every month, I host a livestream where I answer any questions posed by my Patreon supporters. A few months back, one of them asked if I was familiar with what was happening in New Zealand concerning creationism as science in schools. I was not, but I’m obviously very much against the teaching of creationism in science class because it’s a ridiculous myth, so I dove into the rabbit hole.

What I found surprised me, because I actually didn’t find any evidence that anyone in any position of authority actually wanted to teach creationism in the science classroom. I talked a little bit about what I found in that Q&A, and while I found the topic really interesting I decided not to make a video on it because it was so localized to New Zealand AND because it felt like an incredibly complicated situation that would be better handled by a New Zealander, ideally a Maori, and ideally a scientist. Maori scientists WERE addressing it, so I didn’t think my un-nuanced perspective was necessary.

But months later the to-do is still going on, and it’s officially become an international debate now that Western biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have weighed in. And I was surprised because Coyne’s recent (absolutely FROTHING) blog post explicitly repeats the idea that this whole thing is about teaching creation myths in the science classroom. I thought, “Wait, is this the same thing I looked into last year? Maybe I didn’t dive deep enough, maybe I missed something about creationism.” So I read Coyne’s post, Dawkins’ letter, a dozen other similarly VERY angry articles, and then I went AAALLLLLL the way back to the beginning to what kicked this entire thing off. And since I’ve already done all this dang research, I figure I may as well share it with all of you, just in case you hear about any of this hubbub and you’re also trying to disentangle fact from fiction.

So let’s start at the start: in early 2020, the New Zealand government issued a recommendation that teenagers in the country should learn more about the body of knowledge created by the indigenous Maori people (who still comprise about 15% of the country’s population) over the hundreds of years that they stewarded the islands before the arrival of Europeans. That body of knowledge is known as “matauranga,” and it basically encompasses everything. Not just “science,” but also mythology, art, and culture.

And the recommendation was really just this: “Mana arite ma te matauranga Maori (equal status for matauranga Maori in NCEA) – develop new ways to recognise matauranga Maori, build teacher capability, and improve resourcing and support for Maori learners and te ao Maori pathways.”

Because again, this is the indigenous population of New Zealand that still makes up a significant portion of the population, and they’ve asked the government to beef up their educational efforts. Makes sense!

So the government formed a working group to address that issue, and last summer they released their slightly more fleshed out recommendation. For the life of me, I cannot find this document, but apparently it read in part that a new course for teens should promote “discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Maori and the suppression of Maori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Maori and other indigenous peoples.”

Again, I cannot find the original report, but this is the sentence that launched a thousand white men’s blood pressure, because it was included in a letter written and signed by seven academics at University of Auckland and published in a magazine called Listener.

So, nothing about teaching creation myths in the science classroom – literally just a suggestion that when talking to 16-18 year old students (a significant portion of whom have Maori heritage) about the history of science, maybe spare a thought for the fact that European colonists used their understanding of “empirical” science to subjugate the Maori and other indigenous populations.

There’s nothing really controversial there, it’s just a known fact. The “American School” of ethnology in the mid 19th century proposed a hypothesis of polygenesis to suggest Native Americans evolved from a separate species and thus weren’t truly “human.”

In 1899 Nobel prize winning scientist Sir Ronald Ross returned to Britain from Sierra Leone to report that “in the coming century, the success of imperialism will depend largely upon success with the microscope,” pushing the idea that superior science would not only aid British armies by keeping them healthy from disease but also the idea that colonial occupation of Africa was a benevolent exercise.

A similar thing had already happened in the Amazon, where indigenous people were infected with the diseases of their invaders and with no prior knowledge of those diseases, they were forced to go to their conquerors for medical treatment. As science historian Rohan Deb Roy told Smithsonian Magazine in 2018, “Modern science was effectively built on a system that exploited millions of people. At the same time, it helped justify and sustain that exploitation, in ways that hugely influenced how Europeans saw other races and countries.”

While this point is in no way even up for debate by serious scientists and historians, it does seem to hurt the feelings of some people who would prefer to cling to the belief that science is an objective process that exists independently of our culture. For more on that, check out the video I made last year on why scientists only study sexy plants – the tl;dw is that even if we have made an objective tool, we apply it subjectively and interpret the results through our own biased lens.

Which brings me back to the upset academics at University of Auckland. Their letter didn’t bother to counter their quoted claim from the working group that science has been used in the service of atrocities; indeed, they actually agree with it, writing, “Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation.” So you…so you agree? Great.

They go on to say science is actually great, which I’m sure the working group agrees with, which is why they didn’t suggest just doing away with science class altogether and teaching a dance class instead.

The academics wrap up by taking a shot at “indigenous knowledge” (matauranga), writing that it “is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

“To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations 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.”

This is the point where the letter went from “weirdly hostile considering you agree that science is a tool that has been used to oppress indigenous populations” to “oh that’s why you’re so mad.”

This video is already running very long, so I’m going to end it here. In my next video, I’ll talk about the idea that matauranga is fine as “culture” but severely lacking as “science.”

Watch Part 2 now!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. Introductory biology or genetics courses commonly cover some “folk knowledge” about farming and selective breeding, since that informed our knowledge of heredity and led to the idea of the gene. Of course, that folk knowledge “falls far short of what we can define as science itself”. It’s funny how Dawkins and Coyne have never complained about that.

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