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The “scientific” parent of The Disinformation Project

In brief
  • The government funded organisation that created The Disinformation Project is equally politically biassed.
  • It was at the centre of controversy calling science racist, making the NZ Royal Society an embarrassment to many scientists overseas.
  • Media publishes its research with little qualification or criticism.

A heavily politicised institute

The parent organisation of The Disinformation Project is Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM). It is one of NZ’s Centres of Research Excellence – previously a group of widely-respected scientific research institutions. It is funded by the Government for $4m/year (before special commissions), and hosted at University of Auckland. TPM says it is focused on the study of complex systems and mathematical modelling using a range of scientific disciplines. 

However this is just one of three “central threads”. The second department aims for compliance with culture that is “grounded in Te Tiriti”, “equitable outcomes”, and “drawing from kindness in science in particular”. The third department is communications.

Its main research page emphasises a strong leftist political bent, not science, with talk of “intersectionality”, redress of discrimination, and reducing poverty. What any of this should have to do with mathematical modelling or hard sciences is questionable at best.

The “scientific” parent of The Disinformation Project - Centrist
Kindness is wonderful, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with science.

Scientists who de-emphasize science

TPM was founded by physicist Shaun Hendy in 2014. He was called a disease modeller and COVID expert by the media, but he had no published research in epidemiology before COVID.

In February 2020, seven eminent NZ scientists wrote a public letter objecting to Cabinet’s proposed changes to school curriculum that characterised science as colonialist domination over Māori, and equated indigenous knowledge with science. This is part of what TPM refers to as “kindness in science”. Hendy & Auckland University colleague Siouxsie Wiles penned a counter-letter defending the changes and denouncing the seven for “[describing] science as ‘universal’” and “putting science on a pedestal”.

The controversy led to resignations of scientists, criticism from internationally-famous scientists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, and a motion of no confidence from 73 academics of the Royal Society after it launched disciplinary action against the writers of the first letter.

Conservation biologist Priscilla Wehi took over from TPM director Hendy in June 2021. At the same time, the Royal Society published her study claiming Rarotongans journeyed to Antarctica in the seventh century. 

Other Ngāi Tahu scholars denounced the work as spurious, without nuance or critical investigation. They said “uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection”, and that “the state continues to invest significant amounts of taxpayer money into Māori-themed scholarship of questionable quality.”

Not the single source of truth

Opinions from TPM are often presented by the media as if they are the expert consensus, with no hint of political bias or dissenting views from other scientists. This couldn’t be further from the truth – especially regarding COVID, as we’ll examine in a future article.

TPM claims to be “a safe place for researchers”, “inclusive and respectful of difference” – but, as with safe spaces on university campuses, apparently it’s not safe or inclusive for those with the wrong politics.

How can publicly-funded science survive in New Zealand when it is politically captured and enforced, with critical review prevented in the name of kindness?

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