Kendall Clements, a marine biologist who signed the letter, said they were not trying to disrespect mātauranga, but to emphasize the differences between it and conventional science.
Mātauranga has the “seeds of science,” he said, “but to then say that mātauranga Māori is equivalent to science makes no sense, because there are a whole lot of elements that are not in science, like visions, prophecies and dance.”
Advocates of mātauranga say that misses the point. Dr. Hikuroa agreed that mātauranga is not the same as conventional science. But it is valuable, he said, because it provides alternative explanations about the world and encourages people to think differently.
“In trying to probe that difference, we may collectively come to a better understanding of a solution than if we drew on a single body of knowledge in isolation,” he said.
As an example, Dr. Hikuroa pointed to the construction of a state highway in the early 2000s. It was supposed to run through a swamp that local Māori said was inhabited by a tempestuous taniwha. Engineers had not identified any risks, but rerouted the road to address their concerns. A year later, a major flood hit the area. The redirected road was spared major damage.