In 2010 New Zealand's venerable science body, the Royal Society of New Zealand, amalgamated with the Humanities Council. Science doesn't have all life's answers. Where would we be without literature, art, music, diverse cultures and the work of humanities scholars? But warm, fuzzy talk of inclusion and connection papered over a fundamental and long-standing philosophical clash.

Most scientists believe their scientific method is a superior way of building factual knowledge and, through technology, contributing to humankind's material well-being.

What other human endeavours have delivered the internet, space exploration, organ-transplantation or knowledge of natural selection and continental drift?

This is self-evident to the public, but many in the humanities dismiss the scientific stance as "Western arrogance" and consider science is merely one of many world-views, all equally valid.


The "Western arrogance" idea, and a revisionist interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, are presumably behind the policy at the University of Otago that all research proposals by its scientists must be vetted by a Maori committee. In similar vein, the draft of the Royal Society's new code of conduct now places the Treaty central to the society's work.

There follows a proposal that New Zealand zoologists should "partner with Maori" whenever they study native animals. This goes too far.

Public expectation is that our animals belong equally to all New Zealand citizens irrespective of race. The draft code is silent on whether scientists studying animals brought to New Zealand from Europe, such as honey bees or farm animals, should have to "partner" with an ethnic European.

In my view, scientists are already burdened enough by grant-funding, performance assessments, ethics committees and legislated permits and regulations without having to act out new charades of politically correct consultation dreamed up by the humanities.

One of the great indictments against the intellectual elites of the baby-boom generation is surely their unprecedented enthusiasm for political correctness. I see parallels with how the intellectual climate must have been in China under the Cultural Revolution.

New Zealanders can't say what they really believe if it departs from the party line of our vocal intellectuals, and to do so risks being ostracised as a "class enemy".

When scientist Dr Bob Brockie protested recently that the Treaty has no place in scientific endeavour he was quickly mocked by an academic commentator in the Press in Christchurch and opposed in two official postings on the Royal Society website.

The organisation that formerly promoted science now has a humanities slant. It criticises scientists for the common-sense claim that science is entitled to intellectual autonomy unfettered by culture and religion.


Western societies are deeply and dangerously divided on many major issues. It's clear now that a backlash against the extreme behaviour of elites in politics, government and the financial world was a factor in the Brexit and Trump debacles.

New Zealand hasn't had the backlash – yet – but elitism that is out of touch with common views, is abundantly evident. Many corporate CEOs pay themselves obscene salaries and bonuses while holding down their workers' wages. Some district health board and Auckland Council executives have enjoyed excessive salaries or travel perks while cutting services. Activist judges ensure that soft sentences are still the norm when the 1999 referendum showed that the public wants tougher sentences.

And on a smaller scale we have universities and scholarly bodies adopting or proposing extreme policies that run counter to common sense and public expectation.

Those in power in New Zealand's influential elites would do well to curb the extremity of their policies and actions lest they add pressure for an ugly populist backlash.

Brian Gill is an Auckland zoologist and wrote The Unburnt Egg: More Stories of a Museum Curator.