Friday, 18 February 2022

Decolonisation and science

Wow: Tara Brabazon just keeps it coming. In a wonderful vlog last year, she began a clip on academic publishing with reference to a 2021 debacle at the University of Auckland (UoA). She began exploring the issue of academic publishing by talking about seven university academics having published an open letter:

In the last week of July 2021, some scientists based at the University of Auckland wrote a rather enraged letter to the Listener” (Brabazon, 2021, 2:25). 

Before we go on, I will provide a brief explanation of the New Zealand magazine, The Listener. The Listener is not a scientific journal: it is a traditionalist, white, middle-class TV & radio guide. It has an ageing demographic; my Mother has read it for fifty years (though I must admit, she is considering giving it up). This publication was once considered political, arty, literary, and boundary-testing. It now appears staid, overly-conservative and targeted at an aged, middle-class, and somewhat xenophobic readership. A demonstration of content quality was seen when Covid-19 struck Aotearoa last year. The Listener provided a 'fake news'-style op-ed, suggesting that global death rates were inflated as many infected would have eventually died anyway from other ailments (Radio New Zealand, 25 March 2020). Ouch. The Listener found themselves alone, on the somewhat Breitbart side of thinking.

So when I stop to think about the platform that the UoA professors chose, it seems to me that the letter was not meant to inform, but to scare those in the community who are most likely to be frightened by the dominant Pākehā culture being ‘eroded’. Of them losing their place in society - that their cultural existence was under threat.

A bit like Māori have been since colonisation.

Tara went on to say:

The “seven professors […] expressed their worry that a working group was transforming Aotearoa New Zealand's curriculum to recognise a parity between mātauranga Māori and other bodies of knowledge” (Brabazon, 2021, 2:59).

Tara then pointed out that “this is an ontological discussion, and that's great. We need more ontological discussions. But it was also a moment of questioning of colonisation, decolonisation, and maybe - just maybe - a light of post-colonialism” (Brabazon, 2021, 3:16). 

She related that the University of Auckland professors “attacked the course that was supposedly embedding Māori knowledge into the science curriculum. And what was the course doing? Well, I'll use a quote directly from the course syllabus details: ‘to promote discussion and analysis of the ways in which the sciences have been used to support the domination of a Euro-centric view’.” (Brabazon, 2021, 3:42) 

Tara went on to say that “those Euro-centric views include how Māori knowledge has been demeaned, and marginalised, and erased to allow colonisation to occur” (4:08). The “course was discussing the very nature of knowledge, and how knowledge is used by the powerful to continue their power” (Brabazon, 2021, 4:21). 

These University of Auckland professors “argued that indigenous knowledge, and languages, and people may be important for ‘local practices and policy’ but ‘falls far short of what could be defined as science itself’. The professors were implying that mātauranga Māori may help science, but it's not science. OK. Wow, I wish in my daily life I had that degree of epistemological, methodological, and ontological certainty” (Brabazon, 2021, 4:57). 

Tara continued “Now science is many things, but one thing it's not is closed off to alternative arguments and evidential bases [, or closed off to] testing against alternative ideas” (Brabazon, 2021,5:44). “We also do need to recognise […] that colonisation was fuelled through science: remember that James Cook's expeditions were called scientific expeditions” (6:04). 

Her conclusion? “Why are we creating a binary opposition between white science and Māori knowledge?” (6:16). “of course, this is a false binary opposition” (6:26), with the implication that by the UoA professors saying what they were saying, it is an act of continuing colonisation of indigenous knowledge. “The point of decolonization – the actual point – is to create an openness to knowledge systems to ensure that we experiment, and we explore, and we test in multiple contexts” (6:46). “Mātauranga Māori is not antithetical to Western science” (7:00). “Knowledge systems improve when [there is] dialogue” (7:10). 

And ain't that the truth.


Sam

References

  • Brabazon, T. (20 August 2021). Vlog 283 - The politics of publishing [video]. Office of Graduate Research Flinders University. https://youtu.be/VrX9JebU6dQ
  • Radio New Zealand (25 March 2020). An outlandish call for Covid-19 surrender. https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/mediawatch/audio/2018740142/an-outlandish-call-for-covid-19-surrender

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