Monday, 23 April 2018

Science belongs to every culture

I submitted this to Stuff Nation after this piece by one Bob Brockie, complaining about the New Zealand Royal Society’s choice to officially acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi, came across my Facebook feed. They haven’t published it, so I guess I’m free to put it here.

Bob Brockie thinks that the Treaty of Waitangi is irrelevant to the scientific endeavour, and the Royal Society of New Zealand ought therefore to ignore it. I think he’s wrong, and I’ll show you why.

First of all, while the phrase “the principles of the Treaty” does sound worryingly vague, its twenty-year history in legal usage has pinned down its precise meaning. I don’t think Brockie is aware of this. The principles of the Treaty are often summed up as: partnership; protection; and participation. Partnership would mean granting Māori people and Māori institutions equal say with Pākehā in decision-making around science, such as what areas of research should be given priority over others. Protection would mean respecting Māori cultural sensibilities just as much as Pākehā ones in ethical deliberations over research on human subjects. Participation would mean ensuring that Māori and Pākehā have equal opportunities to become scientists and to benefit from science and technology. I can’t imagine that Brockie would object to any of that; so I presume he just didn’t know what “the principles of the Treaty” are.

Second, Brockie is simply wrong to assert that, in the humanities, “everybody’s opinions or beliefs can be of equal value and should never be challenged.” Of course, many humanities academics make the equal and opposite error of claiming that the sciences do not teach critical thinking, and therefore the humanities ought to be in charge. Nor are science and the humanities “parallel universes” with little to say to each other. To take just a couple of examples: history and archaeology greatly enrich each other, while literature and the arts contain a goldmine of long-term information about the human mind that can benefit psychology.

Personally I would go so far as to say that the humanities themselves constitute a science as rigorous and empirical as any other. As geology is the science of rocks, and astronomy the science of stars, the humanities are the science of meaning. I do share Brockie’s suspicion of postmodernist ideology, which in my opinion has greatly hampered progress in the humanities. But other scientific fields have also had their fads and fancies, such as behaviourism in psychology, or group selection in evolutionary biology.

Finally, while Brockie is strictly correct that traditional Māori belief “has its roots in the supernatural and vitalism”, he is mistaken if he thinks that this in any way distinguishes it from traditional Pākehā belief, with its heavens and its hell, its angels and devils and immortal souls, and its fixed Platonic or Aristotelian essences. I think Brockie here falls prey to a common confusion between two related, but distinct, meanings of the word “science".

If by “science” we mean any systematic endeavour to understand the world through strictly empirical investigation, then I quite agree with Brockie that this is the only source of reliable knowledge. But “science” in this sense does not exclude the knowledge of non-Western cultures, of which the traditional navigation methods that brought the ancestors of the Māori across the Pacific Ocean to these shores are a shining example.

If on the other hand by “science” we mean the body of knowledge that the West has gradually accumulated since Francis Bacon and Copernicus, then of course this tradition has drawn more heavily on European thought than on other cultures’. But “science” in this sense has no especial claim to be more reliable than other systematic, empirical traditions of knowledge.

I don’t claim to know very much about traditional Māori lore, and yet I can name four points on which it beat the West to the scientific punch off the top of my head:

  • Western tradition gives the universe an eternally pre-existing God; Māori lore states that it began from nothing (Te Kore).
  • Western tradition has God create plants and animals in separate kinds from the beginning; Māori lore acknowledges the familial kinship of all life.
  • Western tradition puts the seat of consciousness and will in the heart; Māori lore puts it in the head.

And on a more mundane but practical note,

  • When Western doctors were still cross-infecting patients left, right, and centre, Māori practitioners had long been guarding against sickness by washing their hands after dealing with blood.

I imagine it’s this sort of thing that the President of the Royal Society had in mind in recommending that scientists “embrace the research methodologies of multiple knowledge systems”, as Brockie complains. I can report that pharmacists are only now beginning to investigate traditional Māori healing practices (rongoā); an initial study found that many of the plants used contain pharmacologically useful substances – and that’s as far as they’ve got.

Obviously more progress needs to be made, and obviously it won’t be made by uncritically accepting whatever cultural traditions tell us. But it won’t be made by uncritically throwing them out either. Nor will it be made by walling off the different fields of knowledge from each other. “Sticking to one’s knitting” is not the way to go.