Māori knowledge and Western science: the final frontier

By Guest Author 07/12/2012

By Gretchen Carroll, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Indigenous Centre of Research Excellence.

Interfaces between Pāhekā and Māori have been occurring since first contact, and understanding these have become essential around governance issues, Treaty based claims, as well as education, politics and health. When it comes to science, the two world views are traditionally different and the interface between matāuranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and science is the last to be explored and understood.

A growing number of iwi are collaborating with scientists on conservation, resource management and energy projects, so there is an increased need to discuss the philosophical worldviews underpinning these interactions.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Dr Ocean Mercier from Te Kawa a Māui (School of Māori Studies) at Victoria University, Wellington was the first Māori woman to graduate with a PhD in physics in 2002. Matāuranga Māori and science is a particular research interest of hers, and she is the lead author with Nathan Stevens and Anaru Toia on the paper “Matāuranga Māori and the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy” published in MAI Journal last week.

In the paper, the authors reason that Ackoff’s Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) pyramid has applications in many areas of Western philosophy, and can also describe matāuranga Māori. Different cultures have different ways of gaining knowledge, and together these define the realm of science.

The DIKW model is a hierarchy of comprehension with each layer building upon the one below it, as shown in figure one in the paper. Systematisation of data gives it form and structure, which leads to information. Knowledge emerges when information bodies are organised and connected in order to convey a message or a fact. Wisdom draws upon different knowledges and experiences for its construction. “Science” therefore organises known and verified data and information to productively generate new information and knowledge.

A principal component of matāuranga Māori is whakapapa (genealogy or taxonomy). Human knowledge comes from symbols (the data) that represent objects’ reality, and knowing the whakapapa of these symbols leads to information, knowledge and understanding. Through understanding whakapapa connections of data and information, Māori ancestors built up knowledge and understanding of their world.  Knowledge comes from a source outside of human hands and is unattainable except through an intermediary such as symbols. Therefore matāuranga Māori readily acknowledges the limits of human perception. By contrast, the Western scientific approach strives to perceive all of reality, which arguably is an impossible feat.

Dr Mercier and her co-authors created an upended version of the DIKW hierarchy (shown in figure five) which represents a matāuranga Māori perspective. Wise words traditionally were used as vehicles for delivering knowledge, information and data, rather than the other way around. Māori have an oral tradition of sharing wisdom and it is not just the knowledge as a commodity itself that is important, but the relationship maintained and invigorated in the act of sharing wisdom. As shown, compared to wisdom, knowledge and information have less significance and data the least significance of all.

The DIKW pyramid provides a model of human comprehension that when recast can work for matāuranga Māori. The common ground is that both Western Science and matāuranga Māori attain wisdom through the interpretation of symbols (data) and their interconnection.

Dr Mercier argues that by adapting the DIKW model, it is a compromise and yet it still works. In a way it is a metaphor for the Māori and Pāhekā relationship.

0 Responses to “Māori knowledge and Western science: the final frontier”

  • Frankly, I struggle to see how this justifies or defines a “Maori science”.
    With very limited methods for recording symbols and methodology, “wisdom” and the sharing thereof is the only option left. Relating this to science via an inverted DIKW hierarchy does not create a science. It simply identifies the limitations of the dissemination of wisdom.
    A definition of science is:
    (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science )
    Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge” ) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

    If it is not that then it is not science.

    Note also that science is, most importantly, sans any culture and its related “values”.