Dr Liz Gordon: On science


There is an academic field of study called the philosophy of science.  It is concerned essentially with what constitutes scientific endeavour, and what rules science must play by.

The work of Thomas Kuhn was dominant for many years in this field.  He introduced the notion of a paradigm shift.  A scientific approach can go on and on until something causes a deep disruption in our thinking, leading to fundamental new approaches to science. The Copernican revolution, for example, was triggered by the publication of a study, in 1543, that posited that the earth revolved around the sun – that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the universe.

This hugely annoyed the Catholic Church who controlled science at the time, and had built up the theoretical edifice of the earth and the heavens based on an earth-centric model.  Fortunately, Copernicus died just before his work was published, thus saving himself from a fate worse than death (and probably death anyway) at the hands of the church.

Kuhn’s view was that science built up its own edifices of discourse that are self-fulfilling and which reject, at any one time, all other views about what science is. He called this ‘normal’ science.  Those working within scientific paradigms define science entirely and only by things that take place within their particular paradigm.

Current debates within the philosophy of science are about things such as the question of scientific realism.  Can we posit things we cannot see as if they existed, even though their existence can only be theoretically proposed? Yes, of course we can – we do it all the time!  Are there any limits to such approaches?  Well not so much in the quantum world.  Such debates are all within the boundaries we know as the ‘scientific method’, which defines normal science in this age.

I am interested here, then, in reviewing the letter sent in July by a number of senior academics at the University of Auckland. They basically argued that science was ‘normal’ science, in Kuhn’s terms, and other discourses of science would not do.

It was a good letter from jobbing scientists – those who go to their labs and lecture theatres, expound on what they know and burrow away on their own stuff for a lifetime.  Some of them are very good at it, too. No, I am not being patronising.  These people make great discoveries in their field.  They do the business.  But, essentially, their view of the world can be somewhat narrow.

This is what has happened in this case. Because the paradigm case of normal science is not adequate to explain the world.  In my field, sociology, a lot of the work we do is interpretive and captures stuff that science cannot.  We could build a person from organic bits and pieces (probably) but we could never explain things such as likes and loves, art appreciation, the love of literature, historical review, venal motives or so much else about what makes us human.

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It is easy to forget this.  And also easy to forget is that every culture, every group has its own science. Don Brash makes much of Māori being from the ‘stone age’, which is meant as a commentary on inferior origins. But stone age people need science too.  Māori had very efficient systems for cultivating and collecting food, cooking it, defending themselves, transmitting knowledge between generations, reading the sky, winds and currents for navigation purposes.  They may have used methods different to scientific norms, but the science cannot be denied.

If this was just a debate about a letter, I wouldn’t bother writing.  But these views have real material effects at our largest university.  They are far too few Māori professors, a difficult road for Māori graduate students and not nearly enough scientific studies taking place into Māori, our indigenous people.

The scientists who wrote that letter were wrong.  This is not about parity of scientific method, but of understanding all the things that we can know about what it is to be human.  Recently, scientists have been able to peer behind a black hole in space to see what is on the other side. Yet we know so little still about that unique group, Polynesian people who became the Māori of Aotearoa, and how they helped populate this fine world. Both are important in a post-colonial world, where the point is not to do things in a particular way, but to acknowledge there are more ways that we have known of doing things.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. Much of modern science is a plaything of the elite rather than enlightenment of the people. Publicly funded knowledge inaccessible to the public and exploited by the upper classes using ideological manipulation for financial gain. We the people should be thankful that these big brains have given us faster phones and weapons of mass destruction and we must clap and bang pots every evening for their discoveries.

  2. Although Thomas Kuhn’s claim about “normal science” contains a grain of truth, it’s a caricature of science by someone who wants to take science down a peg or two. In the real world, ambitious scientists are always trying to knock over each other’s ideas, and there is tremendous kudos in ushering in a “paradigm shift” (actually an over-used expression).

    If Don Brash described pre-contact Maori as “stone-age” then he would have been technically correct – though “neolithic” would have been more accurate and more polite. Contrary to your claim Liz, such a statement would not be a “a commentary on inferior origins” – Maori had a neolithic culture for reasons of history and geography, not genetics.

    If having efficient systems for cultivating and collecting food, defending themselves, navigating etc made pre-contact Maori “scientists”, then the Vikings must have been scientists too. But I’ve never heard anyone touting the scientific advances of Viking culture. If everything is science, then nothing is – the word loses its meaning.

    As for this claim “these views have real material effects at our largest university. They are far too few Māori professors, a difficult road for Māori graduate students and not nearly enough scientific studies taking place into Māori.” Current woke orthodoxy attributes the scarcity of Maori academics in STEM to our universities not being “Maori” enough, not “maatauranga” enough, “systemically racist”. But consider this – how could we expect Maori to be well-represented in science when less than half of Maori children attend school regularly (44% in 2019)? Science is hard – it requires accumulation of a lot of knowledge, as well as technical skills. Did our universities need to be permeated with Asian philosophies and Asian worldviews for people of Asian descent to succeed in STEM in New Zealand?

    The seven academics who dared to the write to the Listener were right to be concerned about Government plans to change the NCEA science curriculum. One proposed change involves telling students that science has been a tool of colonial oppression – I wonder, how is this going to motivate Maori students to study STEM? There are also plans to incorporate concepts like “mauri” into science classes – but science is about things that can be measured, and I’d like to know how I can measure “mauri”. Science students need to learn about seminal scientific ideas, as well as recent major advances, so it’s difficult to see how maatauranga Maori would fit in a 21st century classroom.

    • “it’s difficult to see how maatauranga Maori would fit in a 21st century classroom.” Especially if experts (western scientist) dont know what maatauranga is. Let us also not forget the Tohunga Suppression and language suppression acts which created barriers for Maori knowledge experts (Maori) to share the knowledge is another reason there are so few Maori in science.

      • Yeah Nah: “…the Tohunga Suppression and language suppression acts…”

        Ok: enough with the revisionism. It was Maori at the time who urged both of these courses of action on the then government.

        There was in those years concern among some Maori at the practices of Tohunga being ineffectual and sometimes dangerous, especially when they were treating introduced diseases such as smallpox.

        As to the so-called language suppression, the advocates wanted English only to be taught in schools. They saw English as being the language of the future.

        There was no intention to suppress the use of te reo in the home and elsewhere.

        Language survival is critically dependent upon native speakers: people who speak a particular language exclusively till about age 4 or 5. The native language is always acquired in the home. This course of action remained open to Maori, and many did just that, of course, many years ago.

        • Maori were quick to adopt many aspects of colonial culture applying them to their base way of living. This is a complex interaction not dealt with comprehensively by picking on a few remnant aspects visible today.
          Maori culture had a hierarchy of kinship and mana (power) complete with a slave class but we are led to believe that a slave could accrue mana to become well accepted in some cases.
          The hierarchy of the colonising culture was much more rigid and money along with blood or commercial connections were more rigid until a more socialist element emerged in the new colony, that partly rejected the old order. Trade unions and collective strength in numbers was not unlike the equality sought in a less structured society, with Maori values not being too far away with the emphasis on sharing and group support.

      • The “Tohunga Suppression Act (1907)” was designed not to suppress knowledge but to protect Maori from charlatanism. The equivalent act for Europeans was the “Quackery Prevention Act (1908)”. The banning of the speaking of Maori at schools was not an act of colonial oppression but the result of petitions to parliament by eminent Maori who realized that if Maori were to succeed Maori children needed to be fluent in English (the was no punishment for speaking the Maori language outside of school). [Translation.] — 7. “Native Schools Act, 1867.” | NZETC (victoria.ac.nz)

    • Pope Punctilious II – well said! It saved me having a rant 🙂

      As for “Māori had very efficient systems for cultivating and collecting food, cooking it, defending themselves, transmitting knowledge between generations…” Give me a break!

      The facts:
      By the time Europeans arrived Maori had reverse evolved their sole staple crop (Kumara) to the size of a finger so that they spent all day and every day gardening to feed themselves (in fact the arrival of the potato is thought to be one of the factors contributing to the Musket Wars).

      As for defending themselves they hadn’t even developed a ‘distance weapon’. Aussie aborigines had spear throwers and boomerangs. Amazonian Indians had blow pipes. My ancestors had had bows and arrows 10,000 years ago in Europe (see their beautifully flaked arrow heads in the British Museum). Maori had a stone club and a stick.

      Transmitting knowledge between generations? They had no form of written language. Not even notches on a stick. No pictograms. Nothing. In Eurasia we see the the rise of written languages 4-5,000 BC.

      Is ‘social science’ an oxymoron, a bit like ‘military intelligence’?

      • “Transmitting knowledge between generations? They had no form of written language. Not even notches on a stick. No pictograms. Nothing. In Eurasia we see the rise of written languages 4-5,000 BC”.

        What nonsense Andrew. Especially this. What evidence do you have that written language is superior to oral traditions? Yes, written language is a technology (and form of knowledge) that some societies developed very early on in human history but so what?

        And I think you may be wrong about the ‘literacy’ capabilities of pre-European Maori. Depends on how literacy is defined. Many would argue that tukutuku panels found in marae, woven from flax, are a form of literacy, as are the ‘notches’ in the intricate carvings. Is being able to ‘read’ the sky a form of literacy?

        • “What evidence do you have that written language is superior to oral traditions?”

          Because it doesn’t change with the telling

      • Yeah nah Andrew. Maori culture was an oral culture.
        Storytelling to pass on knowledge particularly lineage and kinship for both health reasons and political alliances.
        Poetry ,oratory and rhetoric as in Greek culture was the primary form of communicating knowledge.Socrates for example was illiterate.
        This cultural tradition has evolved to speaking rights and ceremony on the Marae of today.
        Even tho’ I sympathize with the scientists who wrote the Listener letter, I think every one in this debate is talking past each other in a desperate and worthless game of one upmanship.
        ” Especially if experts (western scientist) dont know what maatauranga is”
        So WTF is it? and why if it is of so much importance in communicating science has this not been explained or incorporated into the education curriculum.
        Methinks there are bunch of very precious people with chips arrayed on both shoulders whinging rather constructively communicating a matter of such vital cultural importance.
        This stuff works both ways. Get over it and make it work or shut the Fu** up!

        • The Greek culture are seen in the various city – states had an economy and political system based on a large slave class population. So called Athenian democracy was only expressed in the small ruling upper class. One rule did not fit all.

      • I usually find your opinions are agreeable but I would disagree with you about the Maori. A boomerang or spear would not be much us in a country that was heavily wooded. Hunters adapted to their surroundings. You would have to give the Maori credit for their navigational skills and their knowledge of the curing qualities of plants and trees. I believe they invented trench warfare and we’re much praised by the British for their battle plans. With plenty of food and space there was no need to develop in the way Europe did. Remember necessity is the mother of invention.

        • Maori did not have metal. Metal changes so much in a culture and the accident of discovering metal rich rocks that could be worked into various items for agriculture, weapons and items of value are shown to be very significant in archeological research.
          Science is a way of thinking that promotes change and refinement of knowledge and should be seen as evident in many cultures including Polynesian thinking.
          Religion on the other hand tends to manipulate thinking conforming to support belief regulated hierarchy of power over others. That is the antithesis of science.

  3. Maybe there are few Maori professors because few Maori want to be professors?

    I’m not a professor either and that is simply because I don’t have any interest in being a professor.

        • Not academics – practical engineers making things work in the field. Look at all the 18th and 19th century greats – few if any were in universities and our more recent inventions in the field of electronics and nuclear were for weapons development and mostly done in government labs well away from those ivory towers.

  4. “… where the point is not to do things in a particular way, but to acknowledge there are more ways that we have known of doing things.”

    What a fine conclusion. Contemporary societies, particularly those who hold the so-called scientific method in high esteem, tend to discount the knowledge of indigenous people. Yes, for sure, the scientific method has resulted in huge gains in knowledge, as has more interpretative inquiry – although it might be fair to say that such knowledge hasn’t always made us any the wiser. Take the issue of planetary heating for one.

    What people find hard to accept I think is that indigenous knowledge is often too closely aligned with myth, historically passed down orally through stories over generations – now increasingly codified in written language. And myth is for a good many part of the dark ages, too closely aligned with supernatural beings or events to be considered legitimate knowledge – and I might add has often been associated with legitimization of ideologies of power. But in the case of ideologies of power, could one argue that the knowledge derived from the scientific method is doing much the same?

    Those who know more about myth (or indeed the relationship between knowledge and idelogies of power) than I do might want to add to this, as I suspect myth plays an important role somewhere. Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between knowledge as myth from knowledge as observation and lived experience, although for the epistemologies of indigenous knowledge this may well be a false dichotomy.

    The philosophy of science is not my strong point Liz, fascinating as it is, but thank you for raising it. Its important.

  5. There is scientific method and there is non scientific method.
    Within science there are things that are well proven and there are things that are theoretical backed by varying degrees of evidence. At the outer edges of physics or subatomic particles where evidence and testability are thin, there is a blurring to philosophy – by necessity- otherwise attempts to blend philosophy and science are likely poisonous: deliberate bias in a method that tries to reduce it.

    Attempting to blur the lines of what is science and worse, attempt to infuse it with any particular culture are not going to take the world to a better place:
    Maui did not fish up the North island – we know this from the actual sciences of physics and geology- but feel free to test the hypothesis.

    • Did God create the world in six days? Scoffing at others’ belief systems is a pretty low blow, don’t you think?

      • That’s a strange thing to say; why not question belief? Isn’t that what you’re doing in this essay
        “In the realm of facts science reigns supreme, in the realm of values we have to look elsewhere” J B Peterson
        Our aim should be to encourage our youngsters and, try and become ourselves, a people of sufficient moral character to manage the distinction. The difficulty arises when unfalsifiable belief is conflated with science.
        Without a commitment to objective truth pre scientific man lived with superstition and in fear of a pantheon of invisible ghosts and goblins. Be careful what you whish for.

      • Scoffing at people in 2021 living in a modern secular society who fully believe in the idea that a sky wizard created the world in 6 days 6000 years ago is perfectly fine.

        I tolerate people with such beliefs, but that does not mean I respect such beliefs nor believe that such beliefs are a positive force in the world.

        If a professor at a university was to uncritically teach that Scottish Highland/Gaelic music has magical powers that can heal people or cause someone to die (as is the traditional belief in Gaeldom), do you believe that it would be racist to criticise the professor’s teaching and their lack of application of the scientific method?

      • I should add that I think we should be teaching our kids the ancient myths, Maui and all, just not in science. In fact we should go further and include the great stories from cultures in special lessons at school.
        The Maui legend is an example of the classic, archetypal, heroes journey common to all cultures: the reclaiming of habitable order (the land) from undifferentiated chaos (the sea). St George and the dragon is essentially the same; what you seek will be where you least want to look. What a great message for our young people as they set off on the great adventure of life. Joseph Campbell’s The Heroes Journey and The Hero With a Thousand Faces are a great examination of these various legends and their very real implications.
        There are people foolishly looking for the remains of Noah’s Ark. Why? The truth of that story is there for the seeing, it’s a meta-truth: Allow yourself, or your society, to be characterised by lies and corruption and you will drown in chaos.
        We’re failing to introduce our kids to these ancient wisdoms; they’re lost and nihilistic, suicidal even as a consequence. I’ve been teaching my eleven year old grandson some of this and showed him this great wee animated story. He was enthralled, they’re starving for this sort of thing. Best Lessons Learned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJrEaLYacwc

      • “Did God create the world in six days? ”

        No evidence of that at all. Furthermore, all evidence suggests not – and it is a non-falsifiable claim. It is therefore a scientifically untenable hypothesis.

        It follows that your question is as valid as asking if it is fair to scoff at claims that invisible purple gnomes burped the universe into existence.

    • If I understand correctly, history and geography are encoded poetically in the Maui stories. “Fishing up land” meant Maui was a great discoverer of new lands. The hook fashioned from his gran’s jawbone sounds macabre if taken literally, but I’ve heard this represents Maui’s feats being enabled by the knowledge of navigation passed down orally (by jaw) from older generations.

      You could also read it as knowledge (from the jaw) translating into power (the fishhook).

    • Sometimes it’s spoken of as “hard” science, and “soft” science.

      Hard, for example:
      The periodic table (and a nod to the utter brilliance of 19th century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev)
      Force = mass x acceleration (Newton)
      E = mc2 (Einstein)
      DNA (Watson, Crick, Wilkinson, Franklin)

  6. Science is exploring and interpreting the nature of reality using observation and evidence.
    If a stone-age culture employs elements of scientific method it is still science, it’s not “stone-age science”. It is simply science practised within a certain cultural context.
    Attempts to culturally appropriate science are flawed.

    • About a hundred years ago the great Carl Jung spent a lot of time among African hunter-gatherer-herder tribes trying to discover how modern “scientific man” and pre scientific man differed in the way they thought about things. He wrote about it in a chapter of his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

      He spoke Swahili so was able communicate directly, what he found was quite remarkable; how we had changed more than anything perhaps. Archaic man (his words) seemed to have no concept of random chance, everything had to have an explanation. When there was no obvious causal explanation one was, essentially, fabricated. Random events with no apparent connection recalled, connected and given authority by a hierarchy of medicine men. This the people believed; I guess un-falsifiable bullshit is better than no explanation at all. We often do it too, the connect-the-dots conspiracy theorists, astrologers and bullshit artists of every stripe have their legion of followers. Unfortunately much of, so called, indigenous knowledge is in this category.

      The trick is to separate that which has value, that offers lessons on life, appreciate it and incorporate those lessons for their moral value. The Lion King is a great moral story as well; the hero’s journey. Perhaps we should include analysis of that as a lesson for the kids . Your life is a journey and you can be it’s hero?
      Put the rest up for proper scientific falsification and, if it withstands scrutiny, incorporate into the body of knowledge we call science for the benefit of all of humanity.

      That’s not what this is about though is it. The motivation is to make specifically Maori knowledge somehow special, the deification of their particular brand of woo-woo. The reason for that is the really interesting question.

  7. Liz, you have managed to misrepresent both Thomas Kuhn and the seven Auckland Uni professors.
    Kuhn was describing how one dominant paradigm in science is overturned by a new dominant paradigm. He describes how scientists beaver away refining and improving a theory (normal science) until irrefutable evidence emerged that makes it untenable (ie revolutionary science).
    That establishes a new paradigm that then becomes normal science.
    Kuhn wrote a sociology of science — as the title of his book indicates: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
    The professors were defending the scientific method.
    There is a big difference.
    You seem also not to understand the difference between knowledge (which includes matauranga Maori and Creationism and any other belief system) and science (which is a method of discovery that is always being tested and refined, and often overturned).

    • Indeed.
      There is increasingly good reason to defund the humanities at university- they are contributing to misinformation and mistrust of actual science by politicizing science.
      Cases in point : Maori lore as science, sex as gender, Critical Race Theory.
      Up is down and black is white, they are actively undermining cohesive society.
      Whatever Imelda it is it’s not scientific.
      Having been a defender of the arts and humanities I say we follow Australia’s lead and defund the humanities , they are making society worse not better.

    • Not at all. What I am against is the notion that proper science is limited to a certain narrow set of methods and that anything else is not science or is lesser science. The relationship between science and belief is a really interesting one. Sir Mason Durie tells a very interesting story about this in relation to mental illness. Was it the pills or was the curse removed to cause the cure? Yes, have read Kuhn, thanks, although admittedly thirty-mumble years ago. What I think we need to do to be grown up about science is to always consider what we do, and what others do, within a broader framework that yes, including cultural framing among other forms. The one best system for understanding the world is not one system. Current scientific method by no means explains all that needs to be explained, though it is great at what it does well Thanks for all your views and comments on this. Interesting debate.

  8. The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly gives a good insight into how non literate people remember all the detailed information that makes up their history, genealogy, landscape, sciences & other pieces of knowledge that enabled their tribes to survive & prosper without written knowledge. This was not myths told around campfires that change with every retelling, but a sophisticated system of learning that ensured information was passed correctly along from generation to generation. Navigation, finding food & water, agriculture techniques, safely identifying plants & animals is all knowledge that is often the difference between life & death in less developed, non illerate societies.

    Many “primitive” societies are underestimated as language barriers make communication & understanding difficult. Since explorers are outsiders, they will not be told tribal secrets or knowledge, at best they will be told (or that’s the best the translation will allow) the children’s version of specific knowledge. In the same way we teach primary school children a very simple model of matter (if we teach them anything at all), high school students get electrons, neutrons & protons, university students add in sub atomic particles, things get even more complicated whilst doing your post doc & by the time you’re getting your Nobel prize for your work at CERN, the number of people who actually understand your theory will probably fit in your lounge. You of course, will also know that your best model for the atom is still only an approximation for reality.

    So don’t write off other people’s knowledge systems or sciences, even if they were never written down. After all even if you don’t appreciate the concept of the Mauri of a river, you should be able to appreciate the concept that the Mauri/wellbeing/ecology/water quality of a river will be negatively affected if pollution is pumped in to it or too much water is taken from it.

    All knowledge should be questioned, but dismissing knowledge out of hand because it comes from a “primitive” source puts you in the same category as people who believe aliens must have built the pyramids or Stonehenge because “primitive” people couldn’t have built something so large & complicated.


    • Thanks Richard, the section on pre-modern/scientific man in Carl Jung’s “Modern Man in search of a Soul” is very interesting as well. He lived among these sorts of societies and spoke the languages so it’s not just theorising. No we shouldn’t sneer at oral traditions but they no longer seem to teach (or more correctly facilitate) it’s use in schools.
      The traditional (and in pre literate societies) way was with chants and poems. They are designed to be remembered and spoken with rhyming (gives a clue to the following lines) and rhythm. It helps children develop the ability to see complex patterns and sequences in the process. We used to have to recite great poetry at school but I don’t think they bother anymore, certainly it’s now rare to come across anyone that can recite lengthy poetry from memory. I heard Boris Johnson recite The Iliad in Greek, very impressive. He was showing off a bit I guess but there’s something to be said for a classical education and a lot to be said for great poetry.

  9. “We could build a person from organic bits and pieces (probably) but we could never explain things such as likes and loves, art appreciation, the love of literature, historical review, venal motives or so much else about what makes us human.”

    It seems to me that the above is at least as dogmatic as the viewpoint it is intended to criticise.

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