Speaker by Various Artists


Talking past each other: Ideological silos and research

by Rebecca Gray

Last week I went to two evening launch events that had some subject matter in common. 

The New Zealand Initiative hosted a panel debate relating to its new report, The Health of the State, which sets out to examine the evidence for “lifestyle regulations”. The panel featured report author Jenesa Jeram, Treasury Chief Economist Dr Girol Karacaoglu, Maori Party Co-leader Marama Fox, and former ACT party leader Jamie Whyte.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an industry-sponsored think-tank with a libertarian bent, the New Zealand Initiative’s report comes to the conclusion that taxes and restrictions on products that cause health problems (sugar being an example) are a bad idea or not justified by a strong enough evidence base.

The following evening, Unity Books hosted a launch for Dr Robyn Toomath’s new book, Fat Science.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for an endocrinologist, diabetes specialist and longtime advocate for action to stem New Zealand’s increasing obesity rate, Dr Toomath comes to the conclusion that a lot of the factors leading to obesity are genetic. The modifiable factor, in her view, is that the current environment promotes obesity so it is very hard now for those predisposed to it to avoid weight gain and related problems, and therefore there should be changes to the physical and market environment.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the findings (or about the implicit assumption that being fat = a problem. I totally agree that shaming people for being overweight is awful and counterproductive - but I don’t think that was happening in either of these cases). The thing I am interested in is the framing: both sets of authors and publishers talk about choice and personal responsibility, but go off in completely opposite directions. They both talk about economic theories about choice and market regulations, but come to different conclusions.

Robyn Toomath says that “making weight an issue of personal responsibility is not only ineffective but harmful to overweight people and has allowed industry to get off the hook”. The New Zealand Initiative are of the view that any “paternalistic” regulations or “policies to protect people from themselves” should be questioned as threats to liberty. The foreword states: “until recently the assumption still remained that in principle, at least, consumers should be free to choose for themselves. This general principle now seems under threat by increasing attempts to regulate lifestyle choices”.

The threat, according to the New Zealand Initiative, is the government intervening too much (spurred on by pesky “interventionist” public health lobbyists using dubious science to justify their claims?). The threat, according to Robyn Toomath, is the rampant marketing of unhealthy products which the government is doing far too little about (held back by their ties to business-funded lobby groups?). These two are never going to agree. I know whose analysis I have more faith in. But I think it is worth considering both points of view.

I haven’t seen a huge amount of reaction to Robyn Toomath’s book yet, apart from some Radio NZ interviews and an opinion piece by National Party pollster David Farrar disagreeing and saying that personal choice was the point. But the reaction to the New Zealand Initiative report was quite predictable.

They got support from people like alleged Dirty Politics proponent Carrick Graham and pro-smoking/ anti-regulation writer Christopher Snowdon. Meanwhile Radio NZ presented the report’s claims within an article showing both sides of the debate, and attracted a bunch of comments along the lines of “of course they’d say that, they are a corporate lobby group, why are you even giving them airtime”.

This was the general vibe among left more left-wing politicians such as Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague too. Some commentators did address the report’s assertions as well as the organisation’s assumed inherent bias: Geoff Simmons from the Morgan Foundation promptly provided a succinct rebuttal of the main claims

There was not a lot of overlap in terms of the attendees at both events, which I thought was a bit of a shame. The sad thing, I think, is that people on each side of these kinds of debates are so ideologically opposed to each other that they can’t respect each other as people let alone as intellectuals.

Maybe that’s why I believe that the person whose ideals I relate to did a better job of presenting the relevant evidence? My tribal bias kicking in? I hope not, but I’m sure my experience at each launch event influenced my willingness to engage with the writing.

The New Zealand Initiative event certainly achieved the stated aim of provoking debate. I was appalled by pretty much everything Jamie Whyte said (possibly more appalled by the smug, “Richard Dawkins minus the science”, way he said it). I found the debate interesting but trending towards a debating club-style “let’s make clever arguments” vibe rather than addressing the actual health issues.

Some hostile undercurrents seemed to come through whenever a libertarian-aligned audience member addressed Marama Fox and her efforts to use personal reflection from her community to explain her position on health policies.

Robyn Toomath’s impassioned concern and Andrew Dickson’s personal and professional endorsement of her work the following evening came across as more genuine - but then, I was more relaxed at that event, standing in my favourite book shop surrounded by friends and colleagues.

The New Zealand Initiative ran their report by a number of academics and industry people before finalising it, but none that I could see were public health specialists - and certainly none of the 70 professors who recently called for a sugary drinks tax  were consulted. But I wonder whether those professors would even have agreed to be involved if they were asked?

The New Zealand Initiative do state that they are keen to talk to anyone who wants to discuss their findings, and to develop more networks in new (for them) topic areas such as health. I applaud this aim, but I wonder whether they will be able to overcome the suspicion of their motives that many experts and commentators outside their network hold.

I don’t think that anyone who produces research for a business-aligned organisation goes to work rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of sacrificing the proletariat’s well-being on the altar of big business. Neither do I believe that the “interventionists” among the public health workforce live for opportunities to impose their puritan morals onto the populace by curtailing their choices.

It’s a shame when we reduce each other to caricatures. Those of us on the public health side risk falling into self-parody if we keep blaming everything on “neoliberalism and corporate cronyism!!" just as those on the other side may fall into self-parody by overusing complaints about “nanny state” and “political correctness gone mad!!”. We do usually have a bit of common ground, but we're not going to find it by standing on opposite sides of an ideological divide throwing buzzwords at each other.

Rebecca Gray blogs at Choose Your Story.

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