As a defender of free speech, I sometimes feel like a man falling through a collapsing building. Just when you think you’ve finally reached rock bottom, the floor gives way again. That was my sensation last week when I read about the disciplinary investigation of Professor Garth Cooper by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
For background, Professor Cooper is about as eminent as you can get in his field. He is professor of biochemistry and clinical biochemistry at the University of Auckland, where he also leads the Proteomics and Biomedicine Research Group. He’s principal investigator in the Maurice Wilkins Centre of Research Excellence for Molecular Biodiscovery, a member of the Endocrine Society (USA), and he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK) in 2013.
So why is this distinguished scientist at risk of being expelled from New Zealand’s most prestigious academic society? Several months ago he was one of seven signatories to a letter in the New Zealand Listener that took issue with a proposal by a government working group that schools should give the same weight to Maori mythology as they do to science in the classroom. That is, the Maori understanding of the world — that all living things originated with Rangi and Papa, the sky mother and sky god, for instance — should be presented as just as valid as the theories of Galileo, Newton and Darwin.
The authors of the letter, ‘In Defence of Science’, were careful to say that indigenous knowledge was ‘critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy’ and should be taught in New Zealand’s schools. But they drew the line at treating it as on a par with physics, chemistry and biology: ‘In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.’
In a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial.