Speaker by Various Artists


“Foreign forces”, hope and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

by Nickkita Lau

Selfies have made way for Hong Kong news and images on my Facebook Timeline over the past two weeks. As a Hongkonger living in New Zealand, I have been explaining to Kiwis what our Umbrella Revolution is all about, through social media, media interviews and even the classes I’m teaching at the university.

Many of my friends and former students are actively participating in the peaceful movement in Hong Kong, demanding nothing more and nothing less than real democracy and real elections. In one of the many bilingual posts I've made, a friend commented, “Thank you. You foreign force.”

The Chinese central government has been using “internal affairs” as an excuse to fend off criticisms from the West on its handling of the situation in Hong Kong. It has framed the movement as a riot and the protesters as having been manipulated or supported by “foreign forces”, which presumably refers to foreign governments and intelligence.

Ironically, what foreign governments have done for us so far is minimal. China is one of the biggest trade partners of many Western countries including New ZealandU.S. President Barrack Obama was reportedly “watching the protests closely”, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation, but no countries have issued any real threat to China.

Our young protesters, mostly students in their teens and early 20s, understand the disadvantage they are at. They can’t survive if China deploys its Liberation Army in a violent crackdown. They only have one weapon—peace.

The moment our police fired the first round of tear gas at our peaceful protesters on the 28th of September, it shocked the world and angered Hongkongers overseas. Before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers moved to Western countries, including New Zealand, for fear of Communist rule. The emigration trend has since slowed down, but revived over the past few years because many are frustrated with the political, economic and social situations in Hong Kong.

Not only have Hong Kong homes become the most unaffordable in the world, the influx of Chinese tourists, immigrants and women giving birth in Hong Kong to get around China’s “one child policy” have put a strain on our welfare, health care, education and even public transportation systems. Many people who once loved our city lost hope and moved away.

I studied in the U.S. for almost four years. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I returned to Hong Kong after graduation because I felt strongly that I should contribute my knowledge to my city, but my passion for Hong Kong eroded over the following years to the point that it no longer felt home to me.

The Chinese presence in Hong Kong has diluted our local culture. My office was in Tsimshatsui, a shopping district popular among rich Chinese tourists. Everyday, I heard more Mandarin (the official dialect of China) than Cantonese (the mother tongue of most Hongkongers). Small local restaurants, shops and even McDonald’s have been replaced by jewellery stores, pharmacies and cosmetic stores because many Chinese don’t trust merchants or manufacturers in China. They stock up on supplies when they visit our city. Hong Kong parents even have a hard time finding baby formula sometimes.

Many merchants now cater to only Chinese tourists, incorporating or even replacing traditional Chinese (the writing system used in Hong Kong) with simplified Chinese (used in China). Some schools have adopted Mandarin as their teaching medium.

Hongkongers are ethnically Chinese. Our nationality is also technically Chinese now, but we feel very strongly that our culture and customs are vastly different from that of the Chinese. Hongkongers often correct foreigners when we are called “Chinese”. The British governed us for more than a century under the rule of law. We had an uncorrupted government. We enjoyed liberty and the freedom of speech, press, and assembly. But all these have been fading away since the handover because our current government officials and lawmakers are not elected by popular votes. They are not accountable to us, but to Chinese interests.

“This city is dying” is a quote from Hong Kong TV drama When Heaven Burns. It has since become memetic and viral among Hong Kong netizens. Before I moved to Auckland in May to pursue a Ph.D, some friends who didn’t have the means to leave told me, “Don’t come back. This city is dying.” That was exactly how I felt. I had lost hope.

The night of 28 September was a turning point. I’d just came back from a road trip when I saw numerous posts on the arrest of Joshua Wong, our teenage student leader, on my timeline. I found a live link of the protest and witnessed the police’s firing of tear gas at my own people. I’ve never felt so scared for something so distant from me. In real time, I watched how our student protesters ran away from the riot police and then courageously came back minutes later until the police fired another round, again and again. I saw the image of their bloodshot eyes and chemically burned arms. I felt powerless, not knowing what I could do to help them

A Facebook friend wrote, “Please tell your students and people in New Zealand about us.”

The next day, with the blessing of my lecturer, I informed my students what was going on and urged them to read the news, to spread the word and to learn more about what students their age were going through in Hong Kong. From that day onward, while my friends and former students are demonstrating the highest level of peace, discipline and courage in Hong Kong, holding their ground against thugs allegedly hired by the pro-Beijing camp, I’ve been promoting our cause in New Zealand. The determination our youngsters have displayed despite the attacks and threats from the government and triads made me proud to call myself a Hongkonger again.

I’m not the only one bringing international attention to the turmoil, telling everyone Hong Kong is more than ready for democracy. Hong Kong students and expatriates across the world are doing this too. The White House statement was a response to the petition created by Hongkongers living in the U.S. At least 64 rallies have been staged worldwide to support the student protesters. We are talking to international media, big and small, so that more people will hear our demands.

We do this because we understand “foreign forces” not longer only lie in governments but also with global citizens who believe in democracy, freedom and justice.

Nickkita Lau is a PhD student in Media, Film & TV at the University of Auckland. She is interview in this week's Media Take, which can be viewed here on the Maori Television website.


Why we should not dismiss conspiracy theories

by Matthew Dentith

Often when we think of conspiracy theories we also think of conspiracy theorists. There’s David Icke and his theory that the world is secretly controlled by blood drinking, alien shape-shifting reptiles. Then there’s Glenn Beck, who worries that the world is controlled by a combination of liberals and socialists who want to destroy America and American values. Icke and Beck are big, identifiable names in the conspiracy theory literature, and their views are rightfully treated with disdain by most of us.

Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of conflating the wackiness of some conspiracy theorists – like Icke and Beck – with the question of whether it is a rational to believe a particular conspiracy theories.

Think of it this way: it would be silly to dismiss the thesis of atheism just because we can point towards some atheists who have less than rigorous reasons for believing that God does not exist. The truth or falsity of the thesis of atheism is a fact independent of what we believe about the world. Either there are Gods or there are not.

However, what makes atheism a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold depends both on the evidence and the arguments they put forward in support of their position. In the same way, what makes a conspiracy theory a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold also depends on arguments and evidence, and it would be a mistake to dismiss someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory merely because Glenn Beck also believes it.

One person who expresses this worry is Robin Ramsay, the editor of “Lobster”, a British para-political magazine. Ramsay argues that we often confuse what we take to be problems with the reasoning of certain conspiracy theorists –  like David Icke and Glenn Beck – with issues to do with belief in conspiracy theories generally. While we can single out a sub-set of conspiracy theorists who believe that ‘nothing happens by accident’ this tells us nothing particularly interesting about whether belief in conspiracy theories tends to be irrational. After all, while conspiracy theorists who assume the existence of conspiracies without good reason certainly do exist, they are, in the end, just a subset of the larger group of conspiracy theorists.

Luckily, there is a way to respect the pejorative claim that “They’re just a conspiracy theorist”, but only if we are willing to distinguish between belief in conspiracy theories and the thesis of conspiracism. Conspiracism describes a particular problem with belief in conspiracy theories on the part of certain conspiracy theorists, or what we should properly call ‘conspiracists’ – someone who believes in the existence of a conspiracy without good reason.

Conspiracism is a folk-psychological thesis. When we say: ‘They’re just a conspiracy theorist’ what we are really saying is: ‘Look, this person believes some conspiracy theory pathologically.’ Conspiracists are not merely wrong to think some event was caused by a conspiracy – i.e. they have not just made a faulty inference – they have, rather, jumped to the conclusion a conspiracy is the best explanation. However, analysing conspiracy theories solely through the lens of conspiracism turns out to be problematic, because, after all, conspiracism assumes that belief in conspiracy theories is prima facie irrational.

This is not to say that discussions about the psychology of particular conspiracy theorists should be off-limits. Rather, we should not let folk-psychological theses about the rationality of certain types of conspiracy theorists – conspiracists – influence discussion about whether particular conspiracy theories can be warranted.

People like David Icke and Glen Beck might be the kind of people we immediately think of when we hear the term ‘conspiracy theorist’, but this does not make them typical. Rather, they are significant and thus prominent, but nothing about that significance or prominence tells us anything about how typical they are with respect to the wider group of conspiracy theorists.

Which gets us to the nub of the problem: under what conditions is belief in a particular conspiracy theory irrational, and when is belief in conspiracy theories, in general, pathological? Answering the former question does not necessarily tell us much about the latter.

So, whatever we believe about the potentially pathological psychology of conspiracists, this does not tell us anything particularly useful about the merits – or lack thereof – of individual conspiracy theories. We cannot use our skepticism of the beliefs of particular individuals like Beck and Icke to justify a suspicion of an entire field of theories, which span from the utterly mundane to the bewildering complex.

If that were the case, then Republicans of a certain stripe would be justified in thinking Anthropogenic Climate Change was not occurring merely because some Democrats believe it as a matter of dogma, rather than because they have looked at the evidence. Yet damning belief in conspiracy theories generally because of the beliefs of certain conspiracists is rife in public discourse, even though it turns out to be, at best, a mistaken reaction to the absurdity of some conspiracists and their peculiar conspiracy theories.

If, in the end, there really is an argument which justifies the common sense intuition people have that belief in conspiracy theories is bunk, it will not be based upon a view – like conspiracism – which assumes conspiracy theories are irrational. Rather, it will come out of the analysis of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ and examining in depth just how hard (or easy) it is to show that they are warranted.


This post is adapted from chapter 3 of Matthew Dentith's forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, which will be published on November 8. Matthew speaks at TedX Christchurch on November 1.

Matthew also has a PledgeMe campaign to help him raise the money to travel to Miami to present a paper at the Conference on Conspiracy Theories at the University of Miami next March. He would welcome your contribution and offers a range of intriguing rewards to donors.


An Open Letter To David Cunliffe

by James Macbeth Dann

Dear David,

I want to first congratulate you on the campaign you ran. You gave it your all, and did well in the debates. I was deeply disappointed in the result that Labour got on September 20th - but I’m sure no-one feels it more personally than you do. It is in your response since that result that I have to disagree with you.

In the last leadership contest, I supported Grant Robertson, and I intend to again this time. However, once you won, I gave you my full support. I was one of the key organisers of the 2013 conference in Christchurch, which was your first big event as leader. I volunteered on the Christchurch East by-election campaign, including a couple of times when I was your driver for the day. I enjoyed talking with you in a personal capacity, away from the spin and the advisors. Through this year’s campaign in Ilam, I appreciated having you here in the electorate, and in wider Christchurch. We had a good walkabout at Bishopdale Mall. I ran interference on Gordon Dickson for you. Good times.

I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign - but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.

I can’t imagine how that feels. I know you’re an ambitious guy, that being Prime Minister is something that you’ve probably dreamed of since you were a kid. I know what that’s like; I’ve entertained those thoughts myself. You’ve been closer than most people will ever get. But you’ve had your shot. The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision - and it doesn’t involve you.

It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.

However, I won't be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water - you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.

So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.

Kind regards and best wishes for the future,

James Macbeth Dann

James Macbeth Dann was the 2014 Labour candidate for the Ilam electorate.


Science and Democracy

by Nicola Gaston

Science has a bad habit of asking – demanding, even – to be placed in a position of power.  To be referred to as an authority on all things.  To be trusted by the public.

Not that this last is a bad thing in itself – indeed, I think it is rather important.  But if science is to be trusted by the public, then we scientists need to take that trust seriously.  What does it mean for us to insist on a place of privilege for scientific knowledge?

In the last few months, several different occurrences have focused my thinking on this topic.

First there were allegations of misconduct by CRI (Crown Research Institute) scientists at NIWA with respect to the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme. When asked to comment, I was at pains to highlight the different circumstances of those scientists employed at our universities, who have the statutory privilege of academic freedom, and that of our CRI scientists, who work in an environment in which commercial and governmental financial pressures have a much more direct impact.  Not that this affects scientific outcomes directly, necessarily – but the uneasy coexistence of public good and commercial research in our CRIs leaves their staff in a situation that is not always straightforwardly navigated. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to the transparency that might assist public understanding, either.

Secondly, the NZ Association of Scientists ran a survey of NZ scientists who were willing to share their experience with the National Science Challenges. The results were far more pointy-ended than I had expected, based on a year of discussions where everyone publicly seemed to agree on the need to make the best of a bad job.  It was a lesson in the power of anonymity in giving people a voice – a lesson reinforced by the emails I then received, in particular from CRI scientists who are, as one correspondent reported, “gagged from talking to the media on topics that might seem critical of government policy from 2 months out from the election”.

A third moment of reflection was prompted by the release of the plan for the Science in Society project: A Nation of Curious Minds. This is a really positive initiative, aimed at “developing stronger connections between science and society” and putting “special emphasis on our young people and science education”: a really laudable initiative that has come out of the process behind the National Science Challenges, and I don’t want to come across as critical in the least.  Except for just one small thing. It may even be nothing.

One of the actions recommended in this report is that the Royal Society of New Zealand develop a new code of practice for public engagement for scientists. In the fine print, we are given additional clarification that this will pertain to the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”.  Again – this sounds fine.  Except – from what I can tell, it seems that we already have this.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has a code of ethics, which has quite a lot to say about the responsibilities of scientists.  This became very clear to me in discussions that followed the original Radio NZ story on NIWA and the Ruataniwha matter – so much so, in fact, that in the NZ Association of Scientists submission on the recent National Statement of Science Investment, we recommended that the government should “amend the CRI Act to require that the boards of CRIs support the RSNZ code of ethics”. This seemed a sensible way to avoid creating new pressures on scientists who have – very fairly – a duty to their employer, while addressing issues of public confidence in science. If the RSNZ code of ethics is to be effective, it needs to be part of the scientific consciousness. The issue may only be that of public perception, but that makes it no less serious an issue: public trust in science matters.

The code of ethics has a few things to say on matters of public engagement and the communication of science.  In fact, it is explicitly based on the need to maintain public support for “work in the areas of science, technology, and the humanities”.  As such, a member is required to:

  • strive to be fair and unbiased in all aspects of their research and in their application of their knowledge in science, technology, or the humanities (Rule 2.1(2)b)
  • not present themselves as experts outside their areas of expertise (Rule 2.1(2)k)
  • only represent themselves as experts in their fields of competence as defined by their formal qualifications or other demonstrable experience (Rule 4.1(2)a)

Our responsibilities to the public who fund our work are made explicit. A member must:

  • endeavour to make the results of their work as widely available to the public as possible and to present those results in an honest, straightforward and unbiased manner (Rule 6.1(1))
  • accept that researchers working on different approaches to a problem may reach different but supportable conclusions within the context of their own research (Rule 6.2(2)d)
  • avoid attempting to influence public policy in situations where the available evidence is contradictory or inconclusive without making the state of that evidence clear (Rule 6.2(2)f)

These rules are there for good reason. They may not be perfect.[i] But do they have failings in their description of the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”? A case may yet be made, but for the moment, I do not think so.

So why might we need a new code of practice? Where might this be coming from? In the background to all this, we have a Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister who warns of the dangers of scientists acting as advocates. While his concerns around the importance of being an honest broker are genuine, they are not without their issues: "we need to confront the tensions between being objective and deploying our judgment."

Perhaps more to the point, the ‘honest broker’ approach does not appear to have made any impact on the PM’s willingness to listen.

In the absence of voices from the CRI community, we may need to look to university academics for examples of where science, engaging with the public and policy makers, might run into problems.  The most obvious example is Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, who was memorably called a traitor to NZ for his comments on our declining water quality. Even more significant were the Prime Minister’s comments to the BBC, where he stated that he could always provide another academic to give a counterview.

This week has provided several reminders of all these events.  In fact, all in one day, I came across evidence that the work of Dr Joy is still attracting attention, this blog post by Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury, and the online attacks on University of Otago health researcher Dr Lisa Te Morenga, by Jordan Williams and Carrick Graham of Dirty Politics fame.

What does this all add up to? I’m not sure that I know.  Is it a coordinated anti-science campaign, or do we scientists take for granted a public faith in science that is simply not there?

What I do believe, is that any privilege we have as scientists is a privilege based on public trust in scientific activities.  Such trust should not be based on myths about scientific objectivity, nor on nonsense about us being best placed to make policy decisions: it should be based on a culture of honesty and integrity, and of open criticism and discussion of the facts without fear nor favour.  These are the values that make science work, and we (scientists) need to stick up for them.  And we (the public) need to stick up for them too.

A lot has been said recently about the importance of evidence-based policy. Science has an important role to play in informing – but not dictating – policy that is responsive to the needs of the real world. But as the dust settles in the aftermath of our most recent election, I am left thinking of the importance of evidence-based policy making – the open discussion of data, with due acknowledgement (as required by the Royal Society of NZ’s Code of Ethics) of the different values that may impinge on a research problem, and that ways in which researchers may reach different but supportable conclusions on the basis of a different research approach. 

Is this, after all, what democracy might look like between elections?

[i] I am particularly intrigued by rule 5, under which members are required to be unbiased in their evaluation of colleagues work – which rings a little hollow in the context of studies that demonstrate the pernicious nature of (unconsicious) gender bias in the scientific community. A requirement that members take account of the latest offerings in unconsious bias training might well be in order.


Nicola Gaston is Senior Lecturer in chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, Principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.


Compulsory voting and election turnout

by Alex Mackenzie

Rarely is there harmony on anything around election time. But everyone seems to agree that not enough New Zealanders are voting (see here, here, and here). That this election saw a rise in turnout since the last one is hardly worth celebrating when you consider both that the 2011 election was the worst turnout since women were enfranchised, and that nearly one million eligible voters stayed at home. The trend for the past three decades has been a dramatic decline.

One solution which is empirically guaranteed to increase turnout has been ignored by almost everyone: compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is a system whereby citizens are legally compelled to attend the polls, with the failure to attend attracting a small fine (in Australia, which has had compulsory voting for nearly a century, the fine -- strictly enforced -- is $20).

The term "compulsory voting", therefore, is a misnomer because the compulsion relates to turning up rather than to voting. Proper compulsory voting systems provide for conscientious objections prior to the election and a "none of the above" option on the ballot paper. Given the secret ballot, there is also the option of handing in a spoiled or blank paper.

There are two basic reasons to favour compulsory voting. First, there is near universal consensus that it is guaranteed to increase turnout immediately. Birch’s extensive review of the empirical literature concluded that turnout levels increase by an average of 15 % at the election following the implementation of compulsory voting. This is desirable because low turnout is, in nearly every case, unequal turnout.

In the 2011 election, non-voters were much more likely to be young, unemployed, and poor. And unequal turnout spells unequal influence. As Lijphart observes in his often-cited article, the existing studies on the relationship between voter turnout and policy outcomes “all find compelling evidence that unequal voting participation is associated with policies that favour privileged voters over underprivileged voters”. In other words, it really does matter who shows up and who doesn't.

The second reason is that compulsory voting is a logical extension of the right to vote. This is because the value of the vote stems from its exercise. Voting is important for theoretical reasons, but it is first and foremost valued because it makes a difference. And in contrast to other sources of power, when it comes to voting, we are all worth the same (as the Electoral Commission's advertisements stressed).

Insofar as compulsory voting results in greater participation, it promotes the right to vote. The first goal of democracy may have been universal suffrage. But we should not be content with this if certain groups consistently fail to exercise their rights and suffer as a result. As Lijphart emphasises, we should aim for "universal or near-universal turnout".

The major arguments against compulsory voting can all be answered. First is the claim that compulsion is undemocratic, such as the "forced consent to government" objection made in this post on No Right Turn.

But as noted above, a well-designed system will allow for legitimate abstentions both before and during an election - there is no compulsion to actually cast a ballot. A variant of this argument is that we have a right not to vote, and compulsory voting violates it. Not only is there no right not to vote, but even if there were, a compulsory system that provides for abstentions would not violate it. Again, the right to vote is about participation; if it implied legal protection for its converse, it would be self-defeating.

Second, it might be said that increasing turnout doesn't solve the underlying problems associated with why people aren't showing up. But the attractiveness of compulsory voting doesn't depend on it being able to address voter apathy. And it is incorrect to think non-voters are apathetic - the vast majority stay at home for reasons other than political disaffection. In any case, compulsory systems are better at tracking people's reasons for abstaining, meaning the system at least helps us identify the underlying problems.

A particularly dangerous and related objection is that society should not compel the disinterested to vote. But, as Bart Engelen notes, the point of democracy is to reflect the views of all citizens, whether engaged or not. Requiring a sufficient level of interest or intelligence as a precondition for voting goes against everything the right to vote is meant to achieve and protect. In Engelen's words, "democracy is everybody's business".

Compulsory voting immediately raises turnout and in so doing goes some way to remedying the ills of unequal turnout. It promotes and enhances rather than diminishes the right to vote, which is not a right to be left alone but a right to participate. Arguments against the institution either exaggerate the degree of compulsion involved or rely on questionable premises about who should vote. A discussion of the merits or otherwise of compulsory voting has, lamentably, been almost completely absent from New Zealand politics thus far. It's time to have that debate.

Alex Mackenzie is a University of Auckland law graduate working at Russell McVeagh