Thursday, 17 November 2011

lies, damned lies, and Elizabeth Rata

They say there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I didn't post yesterday because I was so grumpy after the talk I went to in the early afternoon that I decided it would be better for all concerned if I stepped back from the keyboard...

Elizabeth Rata was speaking yesterday at the University of Toronto and I was in two minds about whether to attend her talk. A Pakeha woman with a massive chip on her shoulder, Rata is well known at home for raving on endlessly in a fact-free kind of way about biculturalism, Maori education, and Maori language. She is highly critical of what she calls 'culturalism' and the 'elite' in Maoridom, and the problems of Maori language education.

I am not going to bother trying to explain what point she makes about each of these things, because frankly her reasoning is so confused and her logic is so mixed up that it is difficult to parse  her arguments at all.

Furthermore, the evidence she uses to support her claims is decontextualised, inaccurate or a fabrication most of the time and this is made possible partly by her refusal to follow the basic rules of any research. (Cite your sources, be able to name the document you have quoted on a powerpoint slide, provide an account of how you have arrived at specific statistical claims, etc.) So, I am also not going to bother repeating this questionable 'evidence' either - although three claim that stood out for me from yesterday would be that students in Maori-language schooling within the mainstream school system speak Maori language 12% of the time, that the reason Maori students in immersion don't do well in science is because we believe that "lightening comes from the earth mother," and that government scholarships for Maori university students require an elder to sign off on genealogy (this last one was a bit confusing, because I couldn't think of any scholarships 'the government' offers to Maori students at university now that Manaaki Tauira has been discontinued, and when I sought clarification about which scholarship she was referring to she said it was the scholarships offered by the Ministry of Education which, um, doesn't fund tertiary students).

Now, let me be clear that I am not being snobby or facetious here: as a teacher (and researcher) at the university level I spend quite a bit of time reading through poorly or naively constructed arguments, seeking out the key claims, figuring out how the evidence (which can often be a bit dodgy or uncarefully framed) is being used to support those claims, and usually I am capable of engaging as generously as possible with the work... but Rata's research (or so she calls it) is so deeply flawed and so poorly carried out that engaging with it on intellectual terms is impossible.

I will also be clear that I do not believe these things - biculturalism, Maori education, Maori language revitalization - are above or beyond critical thinking and thorough research-based discussion. Certainly I myself have been involved in holding up some of the assumptions or gaps that can be present in certain discussions about these, and I enjoy reading the work produced by other scholars and practitioners (Maori and non-Maori) which grapples with these topics in a way that makes us all think better and harder and, ultimately, have the opportunity to create better futures for all of us.

I am angry at Elizabeth Rata because she is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland on the basis of such poor scholarship, and because she refuses to engage with a range of scholarship or to conduct her own research in ethical or even methodologically robust ways. This is how holocaust denial research works: regardless of the ridiculous claims and the reasons we might believe the research to be questionable for political and moral reasons, ultimately the research falls apart anyway because it cannot help but be bad research.

I suppose, at the end of the day, I disagree with Rata but this is not the problem. Her rallying cry is to call for more critical engagement with claims that are made (supposedly or actually) about Maori Education but this is not the problem either. She was rude to me and others during the talk yesterday, but hey I've seen that all before too.

The problem is that the research didn't stack up. Despite the claims she made about Maori scholars, I am in this game for the purpose of doing scholarship: I hope it's live-giving, politically relevant, space-making scholarship, but I'm not going to pretend that the tools in my belt aren't academic tools. If I was an olympic swimmer, I'd be in the pool every day. If I was a rugby player, I be at the gym or on the paddock every day. If I was a plumber, I be working with pipes and hoses every day. Me? I'm at the library, in the classroom, reading, writing, trying to find ways to think harder and better everyday.

Claim what you want, critique what you want, argue what you want... but as long as you're being paid as a scholar and flying around the world as a scholar, do it as a scholar.

Else just do it on a blog. Ha.


  1. Phew! Good to get that off your chest cuz. Touche! Loved your parting line. Keen to hear more about your research into our history. Much aroha to you cuzzie, xx

  2. Once you get the chip off your shoulder you may be able to read and listen to Dr Rata objectively raher than a sensless emotional outburst. It is very concerning to me the strong hint of racism coming through your comments. Try and be objective in future before you start ranting.

  3. I have read some of Elizabeth Rata's bleats against biculturalism in which she talks of New Zealand history but avoids the Treaty of Waitiangi; describes National as a group of social liberals; and paints Labour as confused over public ownership of assets and infrastructure. I am disappointed that such a shallow writer is an associate professor. It does AUT no credit to have her on their books.

  4. ...this last one was a bit confusing, because I couldn't think of any scholarships 'the government' offers to Maori students at university...

    Get the chip off your shoulder and get wise:

    1. Good to point out some of the scholarships govt agencies provide... but perhaps it would also be good 'to get wise' and note that this 'expert' on Maori education is not even aware that the Ministry of Education does not offer scholarships as she claims, and hasn't since labour shat it pants about Maori policy back in the mid 2000's.

  5. Ah, so if you disagree with Rata, point out the lack of robust research behind many of her claims (which pretty much permeates much of her commentary on tribal elites and the impact of Maori schooling), it makes the critic 'unobjective' and emotional? There was nothing senseless about the critique, and it matches a number of other commentators, both Maori and non-Maori, who have pointed out the weak empirical basis to many of her claims. In fact the only really 'overly emotional' comment I've read so far is the silly comments about objectivity and 'hints of racism', which are totally irrelevant to the blog. Perhaps a bit too emotional a response to someone expressing a different point of view?