Tuesday, May 21

Letter to the NZ Herald: NCEA pseudoscience: “Mauri is present in all matter”

Dear NZ Herald,

I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. I teach evolutionary biology, but I also have long experience in science education and (especially) political attempts to insert pseudoscience into science curricula in the USA.

I just read the NZ Herald article on mātauranga Māori and NCEA: How mātauranga Māori is being rolled out in schools, Rangi Mātāmua explains the knowledge system.

Unfortunately, I think the NZ Herald is uncritically repeating an overly rosy take from NCEA and the Ministry of Education. At least amongst scientists and science teachers, there has actually been a huge controversy over the NCEA Level 1 Chemistry & Biology draft curriculum.

A particularly significant problem is that the concept of mauri, meaning life force, was inserted directly into the basic chemistry curriculum. Please google the phrase “Mauri is present in all matter. All particles have their own mauri” — this is the language that NCEA used in their pilot Chemistry standards in 2022.

Unfortunately, the concept of ‘life force’ is a well-known pseudoscience, known as vitalism. Vitalism was experimentally debunked by chemists in the 1800s. Having a government agency force it back into the chemistry curriculum by political fiat — while steamrolling the vehement and informed objections of science teachers — is a huge problem. Vitalism is a pseudoscientific error on the same level as asserting that the Earth is flat, or that the world is only 6,000 years old. If vitalism is right, then all of chemistry and biochemistry is wrong.

Just recently, at the end of 2022, the NCEA Level 1 Chemistry/Biology standards were quietly updated to drop mauri, without any explanation of what happened or why. So the Ministry of Education told teachers and students that mauri-in-particles was valid mātauranga Māori and science for most of 2021 and 2022, and now, suddenly, it isn’t.  

Compare the three versions of the NCEA Level 1 Chemistry/Biology Learning Matrix to see the change.

Clearly, all is not well at the Ministry of Education, if such radical shifts in claims about basic chemistry (which has been established for 100+ years, and is the same in all countries) are occurring.

And, despite the change, the “mauri is present in all matter” pseudoscience is still on the NCEA Chemistry/Biology website in numerous places, right now!

Professor Paul Kilmartin, from the School of Chemistry at the University of Auckland, has taken the lead in pointing out the problems with the actions of NCEA & the Ministry of Education. He gave a seminar talk last year, that I have quoted extensively.

He also published an article in a 2022 edition of the journal Chemistry in New Zealand titled “Mātauranga Māori and chemistry teaching: ‘mauri is present in all matter.'”. The article is very patient and has a detailed exploration of the various meanings of “mauri”, but it also notes that science teachers’ objections in 2021 were valid, but were ignored by the Ministry of Education/NCEA, apparently in service of a political objective.

Thanks very much for your attention to this important issue, which has for some reason received zero attention from NZ media so far. 


Nick Matzke
Senior Lecturer
School of Biological Sciences
University of Auckland

*the above letter was sent to New Zealand media. There has been no response received. 

** This letter contains Nick Matzke’s personal views, and not necessarily those of current or former employers.