Why Evolution is True is a blog written by Jerry Coyne, centered on evolution and biology but also dealing with diverse topics like politics, culture, and cats.

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Māori official in New Zealand’s Coast Guard insists that prayer to a god is the key to reducing drowning

This very short article appeared in Waatea News, which I gather is a purveyor of news related to the Māori of New Zealand. (It also runs, I believe, the country’s only Māori radio station.) I’m putting it up for one reason, and then we’ll get a break from the Kiwis and the iwi for a while.

First, a short answer: why am I banging on so much about Māori “ways of knowing”, codified as mātauranga Māori? The answer is simple: this set of “ways of knowing” may (and likely will) be taught in New Zealand science classes as co-equal to modern science. And I happen to be a big fan of New Zealand, so it saddens me to see this happening. New Zealand is, after all, by and large an enlightened land, but this is a huge exception.

I’m under no illusion that it can be stopped. Jacinda Ardern’s government is too keen to look inclusive, as are many New Zealand academics.

And there’s nothing wrong with inclusivity, but when you want to “include” in science class a mixture of legend, oral tradition, philosophy, morality, creationism, and, yes, a few bits of genuine knowledge, and parade the mixture as “equivalent to modern science”, then I get angry. Keep your damn hands off science! In fact, this same debasing of science is happening in the U.S., and for largely the same reasons. Sometimes I’m glad I’m retired.

And now we see, in this article at least, not just a justification for prayer, but a claim that praying is the key to keep people from drowning. And it’s made by an official of the NZ Coast Guard. I am not making this up. Read and weep:

Here’s the entire article. I’ve put the interesting bits in bold:

The top Māori manager at Tautiaki Moana Aotearoa – Coastguard New Zealand – says traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing toll.

Kaihautū Māori, Pererika Makiha, says the Māori god of the sea, Tangaroa, has the final say when it comes to swimming in his domain.

More than 30 people have lost their lives in rivers, lakes and seas over the summer holiday period. Coastguard and its volunteer rescue crews provide the primary maritime search and rescue service in the country.

Pictured at a special ceremony held by Te Arawa iwi to gift a Māori name to Coastguard late last year are – from left to right – Water Safety New Zealand kaihautū Rob Hewitt and chief executive Daniel Gerrard, and Coastguard chief executive Callum Gillespie and kaithautū Māori Pererika Makiha.

Karakia are the way people – children as well as adults – communicate with the gods.

Makiha says there were numerous kinds of karakia – some are still recited today for activities such as gathering kaimoana (seafood) and the sport of waka ama – and reviving those rituals of old could be a way to help keep people safe in the water.

In other words, we don’t need more lifeguards—we need more prayer.

Okay, it’s one thing to realize that prayer is futile since there are no gods to importune, and we also can accept that prayer by itself can constitute a calming form of meditation. But it’s another thing altogether when a big Māori official (in the Coast Guard) proclaims that if you pray to Tangaroa, drowning deaths will decrease.

You’d think the guy would be embarrassed to say something this ludicrous, but it may be his form of mātauranga Māori. If this is “knowledge”, give me ignorance. I worry that the numinous aspects of mātauranga Māori will indeed nose their way into science classes in NZ. And will PM Ardern stand up against them? Don’t count on it!

Besides, are there now going to be “god wars” in schools, pitting Jesus or Neptune against Tangaroa?

UPDATE: Reader Williams Garcia, in the comments below, called attention to this article in RNZ (I think that’s “Radio New Zealand”), and the article is not a joke. Click to read:


Yes, Māori, despite the claim of a Māori coast guard official that ” traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing toll,” drown at a disproportionately high rate compared to non-Māori, and a researcher has been given money to study this.

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Now we have four possible causes, some of which may interact (I’m assuming this is a real statistical difference, but it hasn’t yet been shown; see below):

This kind of prayer, directed specifically at a Māori deity, doesn’t work.Māori aren’t praying enough. (But then the drowning rates would be no higher than that of other people.)Māori may be around water more, as researcher Chanel Phillips suggests, and if drowning is a fixed percentage of immersion for all people, the Māori may drown more.A tentative explanation given by Phillips, which involves oppression:

One of the few existing reports on this topic suggested it might be because Māori, who had a strong cultural connection to water, no longer had access to traditional knowledge and tikanga associated with water safety, she said.

“Do we still have the knowledge that our tupuna had prior to colonisation, and do we still have that matauranga around being safe in the water and around our cultural connection to water?

“Maybe our high drowning rate could reflect the disconnection or severing of that relationship.”

First, of course, one has to do the statistics, and I can’t be arsed to see if the difference in drowning rates between Māori and non-Māori is statistically significant. But I’m sure someone will do them for us.