Richard Dawkins is among eminent scientists who have written to NZ’s Royal Society in defence of two professors

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is among the eminent scientists who have been writing to the Royal Society of New Zealand in defence of two society members whose expression of opinion about what is science and what is not may result in their expulsion.

Professor Dawkins, supporting colleagues who contend that myths do not belong in science classes, has posted on Twitter the letter he emailed to the chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The society will have received another letter from Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus in  the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago.

Professor Coyne expressed his concerns about goings-on within the New Zealand science establishment in an article headed “Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class.

The same issue was critically aired in The Spectator in a column by associate editor Toby Young headed “Why punish a scientist for defending science?”

All three were reacting to the Royal Society of New Zealand’s reported reaction to a letter to The Listener, signed by seven professors at the University of Auckland.

In a nutshell, their letter raised questions about the relationship between Maori knowledge and science and about what might  be taught to school children about science  and matauranga Maori.

A copy of the letter is embedded in Professor Coyne’s article about the letter and the reaction it engendered.

The writers were criticised by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Tertiary Education Union, many fellow scientists, and their university vice-chancellor.

According to Newsroom, the Royal Society is carrying out an investigation into whether two of the letter’s co-authors should be expelled from its membership as a result of the views they endorsed.

The two society members under investigation  are Professor Garth Cooper, described on the University of Auckland website as one of New Zealand’s foremost biological scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs, and Robert Nola, emeritus professor of the philosophy of science.

The society called off its action against a third eminent academic, Michael Corballis, after he died earlier in November.  He was Emeritus Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

Besides writing a lengthy report on and analysis of the furore fired by the letter to The Listener, Professor Coyne wrote a letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand.

He says he wrote this

… so that two of the seven don’t get booted out of New Zealand’s Royal Society. If they are, that society will have branded itself as a huge joke.

Among the points he made in this letter, Professor Coyne said:

The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.

Professor Dawkins has also written to the society.

Among his contentions:

The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.

Professor Dawkins a few years ago reacted to Donald Trump’s shock election victory in the United States by urging fellow scientists to move to New Zealand.

He called on this country to offer British and American academics citizenship following the “catastrophes” both countries had suffered at the hands of “uneducated, anti-intellectual” voters.

He might have changed his mind since then, although the mainstream media here either haven’t noticed what he and the likes of Professor Coyne have been saying – or don’t think it’s a matter of public interest.

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