More Kiwi missteps: New Zealand tries to infuse spirituality into chemistry (and electrical engineering)

December 7, 2022 • 11:30 am

Here are a few items about the impending invasion of New Zealand’s “indigenous knowledge” into the chemistry curriculum (the government has decided to give the indigenous way of knowing, Mātauranga Māori (MM), status coequal to that of modern science in the classroom, and also bring about equity in funding of projects incorporating MM.

First, we have a very sensible article by Michael Matthews in last March’s issue in the HPS &ST Newsletter (“HPS” stands, I think, for the history and philosophy of science, but I’m not sure where the “ST” comes from.) Anyway, the piece is worth reading, for Matthews isn’t a huge critic of MM, but seems fair. (I’ve provided a link to the postmodern concept of “constructivism”.)

There are educational, cultural, ethical, and political reasons for the teaching and learning of local ethnosciences. But these reasons are all independent of the scientificity, or otherwise, of Māori or any other ethnoscience. The placement of ethnosciences in the school or university science programme depends upon confusing the first sets of reasons with scientificity. Indigenous knowledge systems or, more loosely, ways of knowing can be respected, championed, and learnt from without them needing to be called ‘science’. Much less deemed the equivalent of science. This should be a simple matter to understand, but the influence of constructivism in NZ education and philosophy, and the extension of post modernism in so many academic and cultural areas, has meant that this simple point has not been widely understood.

Click to read: Matthews’ piece begins on page 7:

Because the MM concept of “Mauri” (life spark or essence, said to be present in all matter) is increasingly vetted as something to put into science, I wanted to give an excerpt from Matthews’ piece about how it’s being used not just in education, but in public policy, and at taxpayers’ expense (bolding is mine):

The correct, clear-headed appraisal of Mātauranga Māori has not just cultural and educational consequences, but economic ones. Consider the once-routine monitoring of river, lake and drinking water quality. Local governments would periodically test for bacteria, acidity, nutrient levels, biochemical oxygen demand (BoD), oxygen levels and sundry other, up to 22, agreed upon and measurable factors. The Taranaki Regional Council, which includes Mt Egmont and the city of New Plymouth, has for decades done this monitoring at 13 sites. But as of last year, the Mātauranga Māori notion of Mauri has been added to the determinants of water quality and will be so monitored. With national government assistance, NZD4.95M has been set aside for the 5-year task.

Initially this might sound nice, and culturally sensitive, bringing Western science and Māori spirituality together. But what is mauri? The Te Aka Māori Dictionary provides this definition:

1. Mauri (noun) life principle, life force, vital essence, spe18 march 2022 hps&st newsletter cial nature, a material symbol of a life principle, source of emotions – the essential quality and vitality of a being or entity. Also used for a physical object, individual, ecosystem or social group in which this essence is located.

Gisborne Council defines mauri in their Tairawhiti Resource Management Plan as ‘essential life force or principle, a metaphysical quality inherent in all things, both animate and inanimate’. The NZ Peak Body for Youth Development (AraTaiohi) elaborates:

Mauri is the life spark or essence inherent in all living things that has been passed down from ancestors through whakapapa. Mauri affects and is affected by the surrounding environment. It is a motivating force and also encapsulates a process of change from Mauri moe, a state where potential is as yet unrealised; through Mauri oho, sparks of interest and the realisation that change is possible; to Mauri ora, an action-oriented stage of striving towards full potential

Unlike the 22 generally accepted ‘scientific’ indices of water quality, all of which have appropriate measuring techniques and instruments, there are precisely zero techniques, much less instruments, available for measuring mauri in water or even in water environs. So, at the end of five years and with the expenditure of nearly five million NZD, how does anyone know whether mauri has gone up, down, or remained constant? And, of course, once Taranaki has succeeded in getting grant money, it would be expected that the other ten councils in the country will do the same thing. Why not test mauri levels in the waters of Otago, Southland, Auckland, and so on? There is nothing in MM to dissuade councils from seeking such funds, and indeed MM supporters, or lobby, can be expected to push for such research funds.

Matthews says this about a “mauri compass”, supposedly a way to measure mauri, but really just a written “set of conversation starters:

. . . The developers say: We are not trying to define mauri. But it [the compass] is a tool to help people articulate it, a good conversation starter with trigger questions for conversations with people around their waterways.

Matthews goes on, showing the weakness of trying to use mauri as any kind of quantity to estimate:

Such conversations do no harm and can do some good, but the process is a long way from scientific measurement. Feng Shui consultants charge money for ascertaining that a dwelling near water, in the sun, protected from wind, not overlooking a cemetery has good chi (Matthews 2019, chap.4). Manifestly, the chi appellation does not add anything to what is already known. Such a dwelling will be pleasant to live in. Indicators are that mauri is in the same situation.

It is a relatively easy task to show that mauri is in the same non-scientific league as Eastern, and increasingly Western, chi beliefs (Matthews 2019). And as with chi, the ever-present danger is that mauri commitment becomes pseudoscientific; an accessory for hucksters and rent seekers. ‘Life sparks’, ‘life forces’, and ‘living essences’ have all the hallmarks of well known, and discredited, Vitalism in the history of science.

As well as direct costs involved in monitoring mauri, there are oft-ignored ‘lost opportunity costs’. What else in the Taranaki Council area could NZD4.95M be spent on: Women’s shelters? Public housing? Community transport? Infant health clinics? Expanded library service? These are unfunded while a fantasy is pursued.

So much for the life force—a “fantasy”. But the fantasy of mauri is invading all of the sciences, and presumably will be taught in science classes, even though it’s pretty much the same thing as “chi”. Take a look at the set of chemistry and biology standards below put out by a NZ government organization, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. You can look at the “Big Ideas” yourself, or just see the one I’ve highlighted below (click on either screenshot):

Look! They bring up mauri again. But look at the other “Big Ideas” on that page: more numinous junk MM stuff.  All particles have life force! This is perilously close to panpsychism:

Yes, folks, that’s a proposed bit of the science curriculum in New Zealand.

Below is more invasion of mauri into chemistry in New Zealand. Fortunately, I needn’t go over this, as Nick Matzke has already covered this very article (click to read), as well as a talk by Kilmartin, over at The Panda’s Thumb website. Nick also adduces more intrusions of the numious mauri into other places, even electrical engineering. I’m glad that Nick is on this distortion of real science in NZ, as I’d hate to be the only American banging on about this.

But wait—there’s more! Here’s mauri in electricity (the figure comes from Nick’s piece; the arrow is mine).  This is bizarre—an unnecessary intrusion of spirituality into wiring!

Finally, below you can read a new article from the New Zealand Herald. The “makeover” of science, of course, involves embedding more MM and more indigenous “science” into the whole science sector, not just the curriculum:

There’s also cautious optimism the three-year makeover will tackle long-standing diversity gaps across our universities and institutes – particularly among under-represented Māori and Pasifika researchers.

The proposed revamp, outlined in a white paper launched by Research, Science and Innovation (RSI) Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall this evening, would come in three major phases.

The first would be an overhaul of the workforce itself, including an expansion of research fellowships and applied training schemes, along with another programme aimed at attracting more international talent to New Zealand.

“There will be a stronger focus on people, with an emphasis on building sustainable and fulfilling career paths in science, improving diversity and addressing precarious employment,” she said.

Alongside that, the Government will set out how Te Tiriti o Waitangi [The Treaty of Waitangi, often used as a reason to give MM status coequal to science] should be better embedded in the system, with a statement to be released later.

The second phase, beginning in 2024, would set yet-to-be determined research priorities that tackled the most important issues facing New Zealand.

Well, I can tell you, if the government still insists on equating MM with modern science, or on trying to blend spiritual concepts of the Māori “way of knowing” into science and technology education, it is not going to “attract more international talent” to New Zealand. In fact it’s the opposite: the infusion of MM, which includes religion and spirituality—stuff like mauri—into science teaching, will in the end drive good researchers out of New Zealand.

28 thoughts on “More Kiwi missteps: New Zealand tries to infuse spirituality into chemistry (and electrical engineering)

  1. It seems that the Kiwis are, willy-nilly, providing a negative example to the rest of the world. May we learn from their mistakes and hope that things don’t get so bad there that they will take a long time to recover.

    1. Sad to say, on the basis of recent political history, NZ will take a decade or so to recover from an ideological enthusiasm once it takes hold.

      In the 1980s, following a stretch of particularly poor economic management, a new government was elected, which then enthusiastically pursued neoliberal policies from the Chicago School (, to the extent that the rest of the economics world called it the “The New Zealand Experiment”. It took a decade before this failed experiment was repudiated, via a non-violent political revolution (; and much of the damage still lingers.

      IMO this is a downside of NZ’s culture of “give it a go”, “she’ll be right”. (BTW, there are also major upsides.)

  2. “Mauri is present in all matter” and “Mauri is the life spark or essence inherent in all living things that has been passed down from ancestors through whakapapa.”

    This is delightfully reminiscent of the work of the Soviet biological thinker Olga Lepeshinskaya (Stalin Prize, 1950), who discovered the emergence of cells from acellular “living matter”, and interconversion of plant and animal cells. These discoveries were triumphantly reported at a special symposium “Live Matter and Cell Development” of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences in May of 1950, and were imposed on the Soviet biology curriculum. Just as Lysenko’s “Michurinism” was presented as the correct, Marxist-Leninist substitute for reactionary, Menshevising
    Mendelism-Morganism, so Lepeshinskaya’s discoveries were presented as the Soviet antithesis to reactionary idealism like the cell theory and the work of Louis Pasteur.

    Similar revolutionary advances can perhaps be expected from MM entrepreneurs in Aotearoa, and such insights will then presumably be installed in the science curriculum of that fortunate country.

  3. The sad thing is that most New Zealanders are unaware of these developments. Any broadly read media are totally silent.

  4. When matter is broken into smaller particles each particle remains as part of the taiao, for example when a substance is burnt or dissolved the particles remain, with their own mauri. They do not just disappear.

    One of the hallmarks of a good scientific theory is that it generates other theories and new discoveries. Looks like MM is well on its way to establishing a scientific-y basis for Homeopathy.

    This entire redefinition of science looks just like what my New Age-y friends envisioned as the Science of the Future — holistic, vitalistic, sincere, and open to Other Ways of Knowing from indigenous peoples.

    New Zealand is doomed. I know the sort of “scientific talent” this will attract. Deepak Chopra will look like a genius.

  5. Unfortunately, the public service and certain non-government agencies must submit to Government because they are in receipt of funding. I suspect that many senior persons in those institutions don’t really believe in the intrusion of traditional knowledge in science or science education but cannot articulate against the party line. At the height of the Seven Professors controversy, and when matters had escalated to the international forum, some of them were really under pressure; on one hand defending the system but on the other hand, not believing the party line.

    Another interesting article was published yesterday:

    My analysis on the background to the problem includes the following (some of them overlapping slightly):

    1. Public sector organizations where many senior people have little education and little or no science background but rise ever higher to decision-making roles

    2. Public sector organizations unquestioningly doing Government’s bidding in relation to traditional knowledge and where middle-ranking policy and curriculum staff, some with little or no science background, see no issue with equating traditional knowledge with science

    3. Public sector organizations that will unhesitatingly performance-manage out anyone who questions the current ideology

    4. Many people with education, social science and Indigenous Studies academic backgrounds (valid areas of study in themselves) and also some science-trained people who are on a social justice mission (which has justification, per se, if we wish to address present inequities), but who believe that creating a bicultural nation when in fact we are multicultural, and who believe that equating traditional knowledge with science is a moral imperative and cannot see that it will do damage to both education and science

    5. Intrusion of traditional knowledge into science and education as part of a wider cultural revision of New Zealand society, in line with the current ideology of co-governance

    6. Media space being given to people who are both intelligent and well-meaning but whose platform is based on particular notions of social justice, who are very convincing and probably are supported by many within the general public, but who know (evidently) very little about science.

    I realize that’s a somewhat negative take on the background but I believe it to be largely true. The positive, on which we should focus from now on, is what we do about it and it is reassuring to know that there is a movement of senior and influential people who have good intent and who want to initiate action.

    The question is which initiatives are most likely to be successful in order to defend the integrity of science and, especially, education. That’s for a later conversation.
    David Lillis

    1. David, commenters on other websites I visit lay much of the problem in education as well as energy policy at the door of Maori rent-seekers exploiting and monetizing their influence on government. Some commenters mention wealthy Maori families by name, which I won’t do here, as being the chief beneficiaries of all this. In other words, it’s a grift, much as we see in Canada. The academic social-justice warriors are useful idiots.

      (In case readers elsewhere in the world are unaware, as I once was, one of the unsavoury features of NZ life is the large number of motorcycle gang members, mostly Maori. The police estimate that 30,000 Kiwis have close ties to gangs, a figure that outnumbers the Army and is said to be the highest prevalence by population in the world. A third of the prison population are gang members, where they recruit. They are plugged in with gangs in Australia and, increasingly, multinational gangs and control the supply of methamphetamine. Contrary to the business model used by other drug dealer networks, many gang-based dealers are addicted themselves, which leads to lurid violence in the turf wars….and recriminations when an entrusted supply disappears mysteriously.

      (Like good liberals elsewhere, the government of Jacinda Ardern talks about getting to the “root causes.” But at least she isn’t defunding the police. The gangs have told her that she can confiscate the guns of Kiwis all she likes but she isn’t getting theirs.), with other info picked from the news at other times, including prior articles from The Economist.

      It would be a remarkable thing if a criminal phenomenon that enjoys considerable cachet among ordinary Maoris and even non-Maori Kiwis at large was not being exploited by rent-seekers one or two steps removed from overtly violent criminality.

      1. Leslie.
        I suspect that you have a point and greed plays a part. Statisticians like to create statistical models that explain the variance of some outcome. If I were to guess the main independent variables within the present problem in New Zealand (i.e. wokism and re-inventing society, science and education) and guess at their explanatory power in percentage terms, here is what I might come up with (approximately):

        Inequities that are the residual, present-day effects of past oppression: 20%
        Well-meaning white and non-white communities on a social justice mission: 15%
        A government on a social justice mission: 30%
        Institutions with little science or education background: 15%
        Greed, rorting and self interest: 15%
        Biased media: 5%

        That’s my take! And the numbers add to 100 – I think!


  6. I appreciate Jerry continuing to post about this topic. When viewed from high altitude, the posts together show what a weird parochial narrow-minded view is generated by this valorizing of local indigenous knowledge. In the case of New Zealand, it’s made more obvious by the sprinkling of Maori phrases throughout the text. It makes the arguments and justifications unreadable to anyone else.

    This is only possible bc New Zealand had only one recent indigenous culture and language.

    By contrast, where I live, the indigenization of science & education is handicapped by the diversity of much older indigenous cultures and languages that can’t speak to each other (except through creole-like Chinook Jargon). Advocates from those diverse cultures and languages are forced to work together within one indigenization movement. Ironically, that movement is almost entirely English-based, and advocates can’t impose Maori-like phrases from one language onto their arguments without disadvantaging other members of the movement who speak some other very different language.

    Is it still ok to say “handicapped”, or is that too ableist? I thought about “constrained” but that sounds like an allusion to the carceral state. “Handcuffed” could be misconstrued as making fun of the BDSM kink. I should just stop…

  7. “…an accessory for hucksters and rent seekers.” Yes – the more indigenous ways of knowing can be elevated, the more they can be monetised. This is already happening in other areas.

    How people who would scorn astrology, deny the existence of phlogiston, reject animism can support this, I don’t know.

    Still, this is a government which thinks that putting NZ farmers out of business to stop climate change, though they are among the most carbon efficient in the world, and raising the costs of those who survive, won’t lead to their replacement by less efficient protein producers elsewhere, and pretends it won’t have any bad consequences for our standard of living and the ability of the government to provide social welfare.

  8. With apologies to all, but where are Mauri Curley, Mauri Larry, not to mention Mauri Shemp and Mauri Curley Joe? [Re: “… Mauri moe, … through Mauri oho, … to Mauri ora…”]

    It is interesting, though, to contemplate where all this certainty about MM derives from. There seems to be a recently cobbled-together feel to it. Says Sir Hirini Moko Mead, “Put simply, the term refers to Māori knowledge. … It is a part of Māori culture, and, over time, much of the knowledge was lost. The reasons for the loss are well known. Several minds have worked to recover much of what was lost — to reconstruct it, to unravel it from other knowledge systems, to revive parts of the general kete or basket of knowledge, and to make use of it in the education of students of the land.” Sir Hirini doesn’t indicate who the “several minds” are, and we understand that to inquire is impolite if not strictly verboten.

    But if MM is to be promoted as equal in all fields to “Western” science and “ways of knowing”, something more than the authority of “several minds” appearing in recent times to reconstruct what is presumably a vast body of knowledge, much or most of it oral knowledge embedded in countless living minds.

    Here’s Sir Hirini’s interesting statement:

  9. “…at the end of five years and with the expenditure of nearly five million NZD…”

    Welcome to the aboriginal industry. A breathtaking number of people here in Canada have spent literal billions of dollars paying themselves for going to meetings to organize other meetings to discuss the need for future meetings to discuss (amongst other things) infrastructure problems in native villages. Meanwhile, the intended targets of the government largesse are often still shitting in a ditch behind their houses because none of the leeches at the meetings have bought a few shovels and gone out and done something useful like digging a septic field. The aboriginal industry is largely a scam intended to separate taxpayers from their money. The victims (other than the taxpayer) are the needy rural members of the community who are used primarily as PR fodder to justify more billions of dollars to “study” the various problems. With the money aboriginal bureaucracies have wasted over the last four decades, a small management team and a few hundred tradesmen could have solved the infrastructure problems that appear and reappear in the media ten times over.


  10. It won’t just drive our good researchers away; it’ll make ones from overseas not want anything to do with us. And I say good riddance, they have their dignity to maintain, their mana.

  11. This may be pretty nasty to say, but attitudes like this really justify the colonization of NZ by Europeans (which to be fair, at the time were only slightly less superstitious morons).

    There’s no functional difference between this mauri stuff and the backwoods dousing in the rural United States or the cultures involved in each. Both are in need of civilizing.

  12. I had an interesting conversation today with a teaching colleague (NZ secondary school) about this very issue. We were discussing what the word “mauri” would mean in relation to the curriculum statement “Mauri is present in all matter. All particles have their own mauri”. My main concern is that the term and the official Ministry of Education meaning doesn’t mesh with our accepted chemistry knowledge relating to the fundamental forces that we make reference to in explaining how atoms and particles work (e.g. electromagnetic, strong, and weak nuclear forces etc.). Science knowledge “hangs together” in the sense that a given concept or idea is nested within a larger knowledge structure (I think E.O. Wilson called this “consilience”). So, we can explain biological phenomena in reference to chemistry, and chemistry in terms of physics, and physics in terms of mathematics. The issue of including “mauri” in the chemistry vocabulary is particularly concerning to me as a teacher because effective “learning” of a science concept only happens when that concept can be related to something the student already knows and understands. In that way, learning science is rather similar to doing science. The problem is, the word “mauri” hasn’t been satisfactorily defined so as to “fit” within our existing knowledge framework in science (and it looks like you can’t in relation to particles and atoms). Interestingly, when I discussed this with a colleague, the conversation immediately became quite heated…I was told that I didn’t need to understand and that students would decide what it meant to them. Aside from the fact that these sentiments don’t align with the spirit of science, this conversation (along with the larger dialogue on this issue in NZ) reveals that what we’re really engaged in is an argument about the rules of the game (i.e., how science and science knowledge is generated). What I realized from this conversation is that when people do disagree on this issue, it is probably because we are talking past each other in that we don’t agree on the axioms that underpin our arguments. To me, I take it as self-evident that there is a reality independent of my existence, one that is empirically measureable and can be explained in reference to a larger structure of causes and effects. I take that as being a fundamental and self-evident premise for doing and understanding science, one that has put planes in the air and antibiotics in our hospitals. Perhaps we need to dial back our conversations to first principles when having conversations with people on this issue?

  13. More racist “anti-racism” from New Zealand. How is it not racist to assume that Maori people can’t do real science but need to have their tender sensibilities coddled by pretending that their mythology is science? Science is a project which all humans can understand and benefit from. Mythology is not science. How is this not obvious to the virtue signalling “Woke” blockheads pushing this bullshit?

    1. Ullrich.
      It is not obvious to them because:

      1. Many have little or no scientific training or interest and/or
      2. Are engaged in a social justice jihad and/or
      3. Must comply in order to keep their jobs.

      If we devise a Venn Diagram, some will fall into the intersection of all three categories above and others will fall into two. Of course, we can devise other categories that may apply.

      However, to be fair, elements of traditional knowledge do embody scientific features. Thus, like most or all traditional societies, following arrival in the islands of New Zealand, Māori developed and refined their understanding of several domains of knowledge that were critical to their survival, including agriculture, food technology, manufacture of tools, textiles and clothing, navigation, astronomy and medicine. Such knowledge was acquired through observation, experience and testing. Is this corpus of knowledge to be classed as science? Possibly so, in parts. The mythology? Of course – no.

      However, Emeritus Professor Neil Curtis, former Professor of Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, said something very simple but very profound (at least, to me) in a friendly conversation when Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger and I were preparing an article defending science and defending those seven professors. Neil said something like this:

      “We remember the motto of The Royal Society – Nullius in verba – which translates as “Take nobody’s word for it.“ As such, the motto excludes traditional knowledge as science until it has been tested by the methods of science.”

      Professor Schwerdtfeger and I retained this common-sense idea (probably rather obvious to many but one that struck a chord with me) and we wrote it into our article. This notion leaves the door open to inclusion of certain kinds of traditional knowledge within the ambit of science – once they have passed a kind of “Litmus Test”. That Litmus Test will be appropriate for the kind of knowledge under discussion – predicting weather, judging ocean currents, growing and preparing food, making tools, understanding the flora and fauna of their environments, understanding human psychology and behaviour, understanding, developing and applying herbal and other remedies and medicines etc.


    2. Agreed, Ullrich. It is racist for this group to negate science and give the world the image that they are very backward. Sad. And, students are going to be paying for this junk. The schools will be sued. Hopefully, this fraudulent excuse for science stops soon.

  14. How embarrassing for anyone in NZ with two neurons to rub together. Does MM have a technique for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers that the NZ government can throw a few millions at?

    1. No, because in the absence of any evidence, and of the possibility that some numinous will can influence matter (see Sean Caroll), our best guess is that we can’t have chosen otherwise. Therefore, I think it’s wise to rule out libertarian free will when we do things like consider judicial punishment.

  15. New Zealand might end up like South Africa. There was a recent headline here saying how a family was “distraught after man killed while talking to swarm of bees.” I know what you’re thinking. That’s weird but why murder a guy while he’s talking to bees? Nope, he was stung to death by the bees and he was talking to them because he believed they were his ancestors. Not only that but in the wake of this tragedy, the newspaper, uncritically, quotes a traditional healer who suspects it happened because the man didn’t make the proper rituals to his ancestors!

    This superstition is something that has been supported by the South African government. And yes, this was also where the #sciencemustfall protests happened with one woman at a top university demanding an apology after being told people couldn’t magically control lightning.

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