Another piece on the internet by a Western* scientist calling indigenous knowledge superstitious woo that should be separated from the Mighty Western Science way of knowing. Take that as a content warning either way if you are reading on.
*The term Western Science refers to lineage and development of thinking/practice, not geography.
Jerry Coyne is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, with a focus on the origin of species. Here’s a quote at the start of his piece,
“In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection.”
—Nā Dr Michael Stevens, Emeritus Professor Atholl Anderson and Professor Te Maire Tau
It could also be said,
“In short, uncritical acceptance of Western Science knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its sometimes now current blanket rejection.”
And it’s dangerous (more on that in a minute).
I’m mentioning that quote because when I read Coyne’s piece, the ignorance was so blatant I had to resist the urge to not just write it off as another white dude doing white dudery. I’m mentioning race and sex, not because there is anything inherently wrong with being white and male, but because at this point in history there is a pattern of behaviour associated with white men, as a class, that needs mentioning for context. You know, the patriarchy and all that. The dominant system creates bias in science because of the particular non-universal way the Western mind sees and engages in the world, and then denies it. I can’t emphasise this point enough: different cultures have different world views, and they all have strengths and weaknesses. Dominant cultures have world views that theirs are the best and must be imposed, but this isn’t an idea share by everyone.
In my post, instead of making a bunch of assertions about how ignorant Coyne is, and how useless he is as a source in the current cultural debates in New Zealand, I want to showcase parts of the article and explain what the problems are. Because if anything is needed right now it’s stepping out of the reactive assertion style of the debate and instead dig deeper into the ideas and the evidence. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is very wrong in what he is saying. But the onus is me to demonstrate how, not just make the assertion.
After the quote above, he’s straight into classic Eurocentric perspective of rationalism as god. He makes ignorant-outside-his-field arguments but does them in a way that sounds plausible and triggers confirmation bias in people who are uncomfortable with integration of indigenous knowledge into wider society.
Also watch for how he provides links to back up his assertions but doesn’t explain the relevance or what part of the link matters. His assertions are often so false that the vague evidencing is a nonsense.
Sadly, too many Māori as well as sympathetic descendants of Europeans can’t seem to grasp this simple distinction, which explains why in NZ, more than in any other country, “indigenous ways of knowing” are valorized. In that country, there appears to be no stopping Mātauranga Māori—the gemisch of trial-and-error empirical fact, woo, and rules of conduct that constitutes the indigenous “way of knowing”—from snuggling in beside science, the only real way of knowing we have.
Here Coyne objects to the mixing different ways of gathering information about the world: human experience of and engagement with the world, cultural and spiritual practices he doesn’t understand, and tikanga. He doesn’t say what the problem is with that mix, but asserts that science is king and implies everything else is the lesser or downright useless.
Leaving aside the patronising hubris in his asserting, it’s obviously not the only real way of knowing we have. Humans lived and did all sorts of things before the advent of Western science. We knew that we needed to drink water, we learned how to make fire and cook food, we could swim and climb trees or mountains. We survived and thrived in extreme climates by adapting and developing new technologies and cultural practices. We learned how to grow food, build things, sing, practice genealogy, create art, tell stories, explore and travel the oceans.
None of that required Western science per se, it wasn’t accident that we developed those things, and all of it is meaningful in terms of human existence. Humans have always invented and adapted by deep engagement with the worlds we have lived in, and we have developed a range of ways of making sense of those worlds. This doesn’t denigrate WS, it just points out the obvious that science isn’t everything.
He also doesn’t define what he means by science, we are supposed to just know or perhaps intuit (lol). It’s a defining feature of this debate that the term science gets used in a range of ways, most of which are cultural or personal perspectives. It’s distinctly arational to not set out one’s definition at the start if one is going to say science is king.
Now we have news of the convening of a conclave of tohunga, the Māori equivalent of the “medicine men” of indigenous North American tribal groups—or “priests” of religious groups:
One man’s symposium is another man’s conclave I guess. Tohunga doesn’t mean medicine men (sic). It means expert and leader in one’s field (I imagine Coyne thinks of himself in this way). This matters because it’s an inaccuracy that leads to equating Tohunga with woo, and thus being able to write them off (and yeah, that’s the point that people start using terms like colonialist in the negative).
On this point, Mātauranga Māori doesn’t mean ‘Māori science’, it means the knowledge base that is distinctly Māori that covers knowledge, wisdom, understanding, skill i.e. it’s not limited to science, and in contrast to much of Western academia, it is multi-disciplinary and holistic. It’s a problem to position Mātauranga Māori vs Western Science as if they exist in polarity. That polarity is a consequence of a certain way of thinking by the Western mind, a conceptual approach that not all humans or cultures share.
Some people see Mātauranga Māori sitting easily alongside Western Science, and us having the best of both worlds. I have yet to see a good argument for why we shouldn’t do this, other than the problems inherent in trying to bring two systems into alignment when one system is consistently denied and denigrated.
I refer in this piece mainly to the role of tohunga in curing physical ailments, which, before science-based medicine arrived, was based largely on herbal medicine. Some may have even worked, but we don’t know as they were never tested, and they are powerless against ailments that can be cured by scientific innovations like antibiotics or antivirals.
At this point I just want to call him an idiot and be done with it. Honestly, this guy is a numpty. I’m reasonably confident he knows how to use the internet, so why would he not just go and look these things up?
The thing that always surprises me about uber rationalists is that they can’t see the irrationality in their own thinking, nor apparently acknowledge their own belief sets. We know that herbal medicine works, because people have used it successfully over very long periods of time (ie it was tested) and kept records of that. We also now have science research that has either tested the specific medicine, or provided enough experimentation to support a proposed mechanism for how the medicine works eg lab tests to show the anti-bacterial properties of a plant.
Rongoā Māori (particularly healing with plants) has evidence bases in both practitioner empiricism and science. Here’s a piece this week from that bastion of woo, NZ Doctor, Scientists confirm kawakawa’s healing properties. For those wanting a solid sciency entry point into the topic, the classic New Zealand Medicinal Plants (1967, revised 1984) by two chemists and a botanist (S.G. Brooker, R.C. Cambie, R.C. Cooper) is worthwhile not least because of their referencing.
I need to diverge for a moment and point out that there is a plethora of science demonstrating the efficacy of plants generally in healing the bacterial infections that Coyne thinks can only be treated by antibiotics. The idea that plants are powerless against pathogenic bacteria, and that only the mighty science saves us from infection, is a belief, and a pig ignorant one at that.
You can look up the research done on garlic for example, here’s a pubmed search as a starter. It would pay to also read up on antibacterial resistance and the end of the age of antibiotics and consider whether the Western mind beliefs of scientists have led us to squander the effectiveness of antibiotics in a mere 70 years and that we might now need plants. Coyne’s obvious bias against herbal medicine is an exemplar of why we have a schism between conventional and alternative practices instead of them being integrated and available to all. That’s just dumb.
Humans didn’t need Western science to develop effective medicine. Other ways of knowing were sufficient for that development in the same way that we built boats or dyed cloth long before WS arrived. Yes, yes, science gave us a whole bunch of bloody useful things as well. Both/and. Read this paragraph again, because I am not saying WS is not useful or that it didn’t bring us essential things. It is and it has.
What Coyne is doing is demonstrating his belief that the only real way of knowing is the one he asserts (Western science). It’s a strongly held belief by some. What I don’t get is why it’s not acknowledged as a belief, as if belief is somehow bad. But belief is central to human experience, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s instead be honest about our beliefs and how they impact on what we do.
In the next part of the article, Coyne takes issue with the idea that colonisation of New Zealand by the British had a severely negative impact on Mātauranga Māori, particularly in respect of the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act.
The penultimate line is a gross distortion bordering on a lie. First, the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act wasn’t designed to “stop traditional traditional Māori practices”, but rather to replace dangerous and ineffective Māori ways of healing (and unfounded prognostications) with scientific (called “Western” medicine). Here’s the Wikipedia description of the Act (which, by the way, was wholly repealed in 1962, so that now Māori can subject themselves at will to the dangerous ministrations of tohunga)
The genesis of the Act is complex and requires listening more deeply to Māori from a range of perspectives (rather than just quoting the ones that support Coyne’s narrative). But has Coyne provided any evidence that traditional Māori practices were dangerous or ineffective? It would also be interesting to look at the state of Western medicine at that time.
I’d like to finish by quoting Incognito, who offered this superb short critique of Coyne’s work when it was discussed last year,
The denigration of indigenous medicine is strong in this haplessly biased piece. The writer also has his facts wrong and I suspect this is a deliberate ploy to push his narrative, as is often the case with many pig-headed closed-minded people who have an axe to grind. Any good (?) points he makes in his piece have to be taken with extreme levels of scepticism and warning.
Western medicine is slowly moving away from its mechanistic foundations of simple lock & key, drug & target biological interactions to more holistic thinking such as systems biology.
Old testing paradigms and dogmas in medicine and clinical trials are approaching their use-by-date to make room for personalised medicine based on validated biomarkers and unique patient profiles, which is ironically similar to what tohunga practised.
The biggest thing to be learned from indigenous ways of knowing perhaps is the vital importance of connection. Where Western science excels at taking things apart to understand them, Indigenous frames put them back together as whole that is more than the sum of the parts. There’s a sense of being bilingual here (or, more likely, multilingual). I don’t expect many hard scientists to soften their gaze sufficiently to allow this (although there are definitely those that do), but the rest of us have an opportunity with the current cultural debates to learn a new way of thinking that complements rather than colonises what we already know.