Hokum Locum

Diffidence based medicine

Some doctors see a problem and look for an answer. Others merely see a problem. The diffident doctor may do nothing from sense of despair. This, of course, may be better than doing something merely because it hurts the doctor’s pride to do nothing.
New Zealand Medical Journal Vol 113 No 1122 p479

Maori Traditional health (Rongoa Maori)

I have received a letter dated Sep 30 2002 answering some questions I had asked on this matter. $1,190,000 has been allocated nationwide to 12 contracted Rongoa Maori Providers. The Marlborough share amounts to $100,000. This seemed to me a golden opportunity to have Rongoa Maori evaluated by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Alternative Health (MACAH) but the letter tells me “The Rongoa Traditional Healing services will not be referred for evaluation by the MACAH at this time as it does not fall within their terms of reference”.

It seems to me that MACAH has become a redundant quango, much like the similar body in the US (National Institute of Health) which has also failed to make any meaningful comments on the efficacy or otherwise of any alternative medical modality. It would of course be disrespectful to Maori to test Rongoa medicine and show that it was useless.
Letter from Deputy Director-General, Maori Health, dated 30 Sep 2002.

Nuclear Test Veterans

When people believe that their health has suffered from some experience they can become obsessional and develop all sorts of strategies for defending their delusional beliefs. A British study found that veterans of nuclear tests were no more susceptible to cancers than members of the public. Sound familiar? Just think about Gulf War Syndrome and the current fuss over the spraying of the painted apple moth in Auckland.

A spokesman for the veterans was quoted as saying that the findings would not affect the push for compensation. I have seen claims from these people that as various tests were conducted they could see an Xray of their hand bones during the flash! This is fantasy and the whole thrust of the compensation issue is the belief that they were used as “guinea pigs”. There has never been any evidence that servicemen were deliberately exposed to radiation as an experiment.
Dominion Post 26/2/03

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids), Murder and logic

After a family had suffered four deaths from Sids, a woman’s estranged husband found her diary in which she documented how she had actually murdered the children. Post-mortem examinations at the time were inconclusive (Marlborough Express 2/4/03).

This case reminded me of another similar episode where a plausible woman murdered five children and was written up by a gullible paediatrician as a case of “familial Sids”, despite the protestations of an experienced pathologist who is quoted as saying: “One unexplained infant death in a family is Sids. Two is very suspicious. Three is homicide”. There is a book about this case and in my opinion it is essential reading for all Skeptics because it has so many lessons about belief, logic, flawed research and delusional thinking.
The Death of Innocents by Richard Firstman & Jamie Talan, Bantam Books

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(Sars)

The media have been doing their usual excellent job of fostering panic and hysteria over a viral illness that has a mortality rate of only about 3 per cent and kills mainly old sick people. The reporting has been abysmal with no attempt to compare Sars with, say, influenza, and no intelligent discussion about mortality rates as compared to other common infectious illnesses. In my hometown of Picton there has been a run on facemasks and pharmacies are having to restock. After about 15 minutes of use facemasks become useless.

I have heard only one commentator reminding us that millions of people die every year from tuberculosis, malaria and Aids.

Variations on a Theme

When a placebo therapy becomes commonplace, it can be a good marketing tool to introduce some subtle variation which adds novelty and appeal. Chiropractic is a placebo therapy based on a plausible but unproven theory and using the power of touch (laying on of hands). The “McTimoney is a more gentle form of chiropractic involving small fast movements to release key muscles, allowing the bones to naturally move back into place”. A new local practitioner is quoted as saying “It’s very exciting. I feel a bit like a missionary”.This is quite an appropriate metaphor because many alternative practitioners have an air of religious fervour and this type of personality enhances the placebo effect.

These subtle variations of alternative medicine are unlimited and it makes good sense to use them in combination. This maximises the placebo effect.
Marlborough Express 9/4/03


Placebos are sometimes referred to as “sugar pills”.It is rather fitting that Ambrotose is made from eight sugars, aloe vera and vegetable extracts. A month’s supply costs $300 so the profit margin must be huge. It appears that New Zealand has a vast population of gullible consumers with too much money. As WC Fields said: “Never give a sucker an even break”.

I have thought of a product for such people:

“Gullitose” is made from only natural sugars and salts. It is a health supplement (insert here 20 fictitious testimonials from cripples, mother of six and Aids victims) and assists the natural healing of the body. Send $400 to (insert PO Box number). Discovered by Professor Leiw PhD (University of Wakula Springs) (insert picture of jovial bearded man).

All joking aside, it is sad to think that people are wasting their money on sugar pills. $300 is a week’s wages for many people.
Dominion Post 12/3/03

Wellingtonians Roll Up

Cynthia Shakespeare, Tony Vignaux and I are proud to report that we held a remarkably successful winter lecture series in June. We had organised speakers for local Skeptics before, with attendances of 30 or so, but this time we decided to group three speakers a week or so apart at the same venue, and advertised them jointly. We did a broader-than-usual mailout of a nice professional-looking flyer that included a map. Door charges were $2 to cover room hire and refreshments, but even at that low price we made a modest profit.

The first speaker was me, on “The Case Against Maori Science”, an expanded version of the short paper presented at the 1993 Christchurch conference (see the last Skeptic for another version of it). The lecture theatre was packed out, with many standing at the back. A block from the Maori Studies department glowered all the way through, and at the end the lawyer Moana Jackson got up and gave a 15-minute prepared speech, essentially calling me, “with the greatest respect”, a ignorant racist colonialist. Questions were animated and sometimes angry, and discussion could have easily continued for an hour. Thanks to some publicity in City Voice and in the university magazine, over 100 attended.

A fortnight later, Kim Sterelny from the Philosophy Department talked about creationism and the difference between science and pseudoscience, to an audience of 52. Quite demanding, but so well presented we could all follow it. Kim concluded that there is in fact no simple distinction between science and non-science, despite what Popper says. That doesn’t mean there’s no distinction at all, but possibly it’s more profitable to talk about good and bad science instead. Creationism can then be shown to be absolutely rotten science. Kim used as his example the Victorian scientist Philip Gosse, who hypothesised that God was obliged to create the appearance of past history (e.g. fossils) just as he created Adam and Eve with navels. Questions were restrained, and the few creationists in the audience were polite.

A similar number attended the final talk, historian Peter Münz on “Subjective and Objective Historical Knowledge”. Peter pointed out that history is often constructed to prop up preconceived religious or political ideas, such as the belief by the 17th-century revolutionary English Puritans that wicked Catholicism was imported in the Norman invasion. He pointed out that while we might never be able to get a fully objective account of history, we should always strive to avoid subjectivity and be prepared to hold our beliefs up to rigorous testing. Peter also got some newspaper publicity before the talk, and we had to organise a larger lecture hall to cater for the unexpectedly large numbers that attended.

All in all, a most successful series of talks. I would encourage Skeptics in other cities to recruit speakers for their own lecture series, and not be afraid to make a noise to the media. The Wellington Skeptics are planning another series soon, with a stronger theme, perhaps satanic abuse and recovered memories. No doubt this will be even more popular.

Mike Dickison, Wellington

PS: Before we get too smug: two creationists came through town a week later. Charging $6 a head, they filled a hall with 700 people (not a typo) for three nights in a row. So there’s a little way to go yet.

Maori Science

Can traditional Maori knowledge be considered scientific?

The idea of a separate indigenous science, practised by Maori before European settlement and passed on to their descendants, is an appealing one. The phrase “Maori science” has cropped up in school curriculum reform and in Museum of New Zealand planning documents. Courses on it have been taught at university level. The Department of Conservation has decided it is “highly relevant to future policies for science and research”. But does “Maori science” even exist?

At first, this seems a silly question. After all, we know that Maori possessed a huge body of knowledge about their environment, passed on orally for generations, even if today much of it has been lost. The knowledge of how to make bird snares, process karaka berries to destroy their toxins, and differentiate dozens of different varieties of harakeke surely qualify as science.

But science is more than a body of in-depth knowledge about the world. Other bodies of knowledge include history, literary theory, gardening, auto mechanics and rugby. If knowing a lot about flax is enough to make you a scientist, then so is knowing a lot about rugby. Although scientists tend to know a lot about their area of study, as astronomer Carl Sagan has said, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

Defining Science

The aim of science is to understand how the world really works. Not just collecting facts about the world, but questioning the mechanisms behind those facts. Knowing how to prepare karaka berries is knowledge; trying to find out why and how they are poisonous, and how your preparation is removing the poison, is science. A perfect scientist (most are mere human beings) is continually questioning, never accepting hearsay or declaring an area closed to inquiry. This aim of science, and all the methods that flow from it, is responsible for the extraordinary understanding of the natural world we have today.

Dr Ian Hawthorn of Waikato University defines science as “objective rational co-operative knowledge acquisition”. That is, it deals with the real or empirical world as opposed with subjective opinion or personal belief. It believes that the world can be understood rationally, without recourse to the supernatural, and it operates through the sharing of knowledge by scientists.

Under this definition of science, how does Maori knowledge measure up? The answer, it seems, is not very well.

Kaumatua Morris Grey has pointed out that there was no demarcation between religion and knowledge in Maori culture. Religion’s goal is not to understand the natural world, but to help people to live in it. It operates on faith and authority. However good the knowledge database possessed by Maori, questioning (“Why don’t kakapo fly? Why is the sky blue? What is a rainbow?”) would quickly bring you up against religious and supernatural explanations, which by their nature are not open to questioning.

Maori culture was not alone in this, of course. On the contrary, every society in the world until very recently operated much the same way. Society then was what we today would call authoritarian, where the authority of your elders and gods was not up for challenge. In Maori society, knowledge was not freely available, but imparted to those who were deemed worthy in a controlled environment. Knowledge was power, and had to be restricted. It was legitimised by the authority of your teacher.

A society in which science can develop needs to have people with sufficient technology and leisure time to do research. It also has to have a good communications network, and ways of reliably storing, disseminating and duplicating information. This state was nearly reached in several ancient societies, but the right conditions were only achieved a few hundred years ago in Europe, and it is only an accident of history that science began there and not in China or South America. Maori society had neither the communications network nor the social structure for collaborative research to go on between different iwi.

So Maori knowledge acquisition was neither objective (relying as it did on religious faith), rational (it mixed supernatural with mundane explanations), nor co-operative (it relied on authority rather than challenge and consensus).


It seems then that “Maori science” doesn’t qualify as science. What should it be called then? Botanist Murray Parson has suggested the useful word matauranga, one Maori term for knowledge, and one which makes no assumptions about how scientific that knowledge is.

The phrase “Maori science” is problematic in a second sense. Most scientists would agree that the universality of science is one of its strongest features. Science is only accidentally European and, more importantly, can be practised by any culture. So the terms “Pakeha science” or “Western science” do not make sense — either a practice is science or it is not, regardless of the practitioner’s culture.

Maori knowledge or matauranga seems to have concentrated more on getting along in the world than understanding what makes it tick; it has more to do with technology than science. The words science and technology are often used together or interchangeably, but biologist Lewis Wolpert has argued that until quite recently the two areas had very little to do with each other — the technology our ancestors used for hunting, farming and building houses was uninformed by science until the 19th century. So matauranga may not be science, but that is only one of the problems that would assail anyone that tried to defend it as a research method or a curriculum subject.

Demeaning Traditional Knowledge

Calling matauranga a science demeans it. Maori knowledge — a mixture of religion, mythology and observed facts — is sometimes inconsistent and often resorts to an appeal to authority to justify a statement. It has different aims and standards to science. Moreover, to contrast it with “Pakeha” science, which is wider in scope and both more detailed and more accurate in almost every case, will teach Maori children that they are heir to a “science” that is less comprehensive and often simply wrong. Scientific standards are the wrong ones to use when examining matauranga.

Consider the story quoted by early anthropologist Elsdon Best about the pukeko arriving in New Zealand on the Aotea or Horouta canoes. This is a good example of the sort of knowledge claim that might be put forward in a Maori science class. It is also empirically testable. Ornithologists will point out that although pukeko are indeed found though most of the Pacific, New Zealand pukeko belong to the Australian subspecies, not the Pacific. This is consistent with other facts, such as the ancestors of takahe being pukeko which settled here long before humans, and the number of other bird species that have arrived here from across the Tasman. It is not, however, consistent with matauranga.

Such contradictions and anomalies are not rare. If matauranga were to qualify as science, it would have to play by the rules of the game and discard its mythological and religious elements. To many, and I am sure to most Maori, this seems a ludicrous solution, one which would rob matauranga of its coherency and richness.

There is another problem with the concept of Maori science. Although some of its promoters have the laudable aim of making science more accessible to Maori children, setting up an opposition between Maori and Pakeha science will have a different effect. The message conveyed will be that “real” science, with its wide-ranging and powerful explanations, is owned by Pakeha, and that Maori own only a lesser version.

As artist Cliff Whiting has pointed out, this ignores the fact that any race and culture can practice science. Members of historically excluded groups, such as Maori and women, should be encouraged to participate in science, not taught that it is the tool of the dominant culture and that to study it is to sell out.

Why Indigenous Science?

Given that there are so many problems with the notion of indigenous science, why is it being promoted at all?

The seminal publication in this area is a paper by Liz McKinley, Pauline Waiti and Beverley Bell, published in 1992 in the International Journal of Science Education. It advocates studying the culture of Maori students to encourage their achievement in science. The proponents are not cynical and malicious, as the creationist movement in the US has been in its struggle to introduce religion into science classes. They genuinely believe that Maori knowledge is science and should be taught. The problem here is that criticising their solution could be misinterpreted as criticising the very real problem of poor Maori participation in science.

About half the paper offers constructive suggestions for making science relevant to Maori. Again and again, however, the authors slide from this point to actively defending a separate indigenous science. Their use of the term “Maori science” seems to be an attempt to legitimise matauranga in Pakeha eyes, by borrowing the cloak of science to confer some mana. As Mere Roberts, a zoologist studying kiore, has pointed out, this is a little like the situation of some decades ago, where some Maori discarded their language and culture by “trying to be Pakeha”. Why should Maori have to “legitimise” their matauranga by trying to turn it into science?

Maori science is not being talked about only in academic journals. In 1992, the Department of Conservation, in response to the debate generated over the poisoning of kiore, the Polynesian rat, gave a bicultural presentation. Roberts talked about kiore from a scientific point of view, Bradford Haami from that of matauranga (which DoC called tikanga Maori, or Maori custom/protocol). The message was that each of these “techniques” of data-gathering are of equal value when doing research, and that this approach was highly relevant to future policies for science and research.

In 1993, McKinley and Waiti are on contract to the Ministry of Education to translate the NZ Curriculum Science Statement into Maori. An interesting point made in their paper is that some scientific concepts will not be crossing the language barrier; the concepts taught in Maori may not be the same as those taught in English. Their example is that in Maori “wind” would be termed “Tawhirimatea” for the name of the Maori god of wind. They defend the inclusion of religion in a science course by pointing out that concepts of energy taught by a physics and a chemistry teacher also differ, which hardly seems a reasonable analogy even if it is true.

The idea of Maori science seems to make sense at first hearing, partly because of a vernacular but inaccurate definition of science as “a body of knowledge”, and partly because it appeals to the fairness of teachers, who genuinely want different perspectives and to tell both sides of the story. The latter appeal is misleading, and echoes creationist requests for equal time for their story. Presenting two alternative viewpoints is only appropriate if the viewpoints are genuine alternatives; that is, if they are seeking to do the same thing in different ways. Science and matauranga do not seek to do the same thing.

The transitions going on in New Zealand society at the moment mean that discussions of cultural beliefs can become emotionally polarised, with misquotation and misunderstanding running riot. Posturing, name-calling or Maori/Pakeha-“bashing” will not help answer these issues. It is vital that critical and constructive argument can occur instead.