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Speaker: Science and Democracy

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  • Euan Mason,

    This is a thought provoking post, and a much needed one. New Zealand is approaching the status of a one party state, much as it did after the 2002 election, and the “critic and conscience” role of academics is therefore more important than usual.

    I was deeply disturbed when in response to Mike Joy’s clearly articulated and well-supported statements about water quality the Hon. John Key said that he could always provide another academic to give a counterview. The implication is that for John Key, “evidence-based policy” means finding a source of evidence that apparently supports what you have already decided to do.

    Canterbury • Since Jul 2008 • 258 posts Report Reply

  • Kumara Republic,

    It seems to be a wider problem of what happens when scientific evidence is seen to be on a collision course with the picket-fence lifestyle. If a Big Lie is so huge that no one would believe it was fake, then the Big Truth is so huge that no one would believe it, period, in spite of rock-solid evidence.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5416 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Willmott,

    Thanks Nicola, couple of things.

    How universal is the application of the RSNZ Code at the moment? It's not compulsory to be a RSNZ member, is it a requirement for all funding sources? For scientists embedded in industry?

    Industry funded/led projects (increasingly encouraged by govt) generate the most direct contradictions which have to be 'juggled'. Eg the act of protecting intellectual property (in whatever form) inherently involves some lack of openness.

    It's worth recognising the Code of Ethics has grey areas (e.g. what's 'possible' in 6.1(1)), and won't always provide hard and fast answers.

    Fundamentally agree that it's a cultural issue for scientists and the challenge is to maintain and propagate high standards of integrity. If real estate agents (let alone doctors, lawyers, engineers) have their own self-regulating body in NZ, then perhaps scientists could do the same?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 15 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace,

    Thanks, Nicola. Been bothering me too. I touched on the vilification of Mike Joy in a Speaker post a few weeks ago.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3196 posts Report Reply

  • Felix_felix, in reply to Geoff Willmott,

    RSNZ members, obviously, but also a lot of those receiving funding through them. Marsden for example has/had this in their contracts as a duty of the contractor:

    "Comply with the Royal Society's Code of Professional Standards and Ethics and with other relevant recognised codes relating to the type of research being undertaken"

    Don't know about HRC or MBIE/CI funding, but I'd guess not universal at all.

    Welly • Since Nov 2012 • 10 posts Report Reply

  • Felix_felix,

    BTW: should have said this above. Great post, Nicola. Thanks.

    Welly • Since Nov 2012 • 10 posts Report Reply

  • Nicola Gaston, in reply to Geoff Willmott,

    Hi Geoff - no, it isn't universal at all (as Felix says) which is where the suggestion that CRI boards could sign up to support the Code came from. I also agree that it isn't a panacea or a substitute for thinking about those grey areas. I do think that more awareness of the existence of the Code - even more criticism of it, where justified - can only be a good thing.

    New Zealand • Since Sep 2014 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • Humph Applebey,

    A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine got in touch with Key's 'science' advisor (I'll explain why I've put that in quotes later) about the beneficial medicine that is cannabis. His email was replied to by an assistant who said he was out of the country and couldn't be contacted (in this age of almost total connectivity everywhere.....). End of story.

    The science on cannabis is beyond clear, and peer reviewed up the wazoo, to at least say it is medicinal (- the US govt holds the only patent, "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants" -http://www.google.com/patents/US6630507) and less harmful than tobacco and alcohol - reports from the NZMA, Law Soc, MoJ, MoH, MSD, NZ Drug, NZHIS, NZ Drug Statistics all say so, but are continually ignored.

    Science isn't science when it's muzzled by political agendas that need keep the status quo, in this instance to keep the judicial and corrections systems at full stretch. Who are the real criminals?

    Lastly, National's media attack dogs in Slater, Farrar etc are just that, they attack the person with any fact based point of view that disagrees with National's policies - the evidence for this is almost a daily occurence. Dr Lisa Te Morenga and Jarrod Gilbert are just two in the last couple of days.

    Also, calling Gluckman a 'scientist' is not something that meets the definition of 'Scientist', when anything he says is filtered by the National machine. Nothing transparent, evidence based or peer reviewed about that. If I was Gluckman, I'd be ashamed of myself for getting involved with National and exacerbating the status quo - not only that, I'd be disgusted at Key for being so dismissive of the proffession and evidence based decision making as a whole.

    If you're wondering, this account is a nom de plume, it's kept that way because I've personally been on the receiving end of Slater/Farrars attacks and presume it's on the orders of higher up to silence anyone who pulls National and Key up when they lie - which is more often than not.

    To conclude, cannabis is but one subject where the lies are propagated and evidence is ignored by this government, and any dissent is personally attacked by their media attack dogs.

    Since Sep 2014 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • tussock,

    The most valuable thing I see scientists do in the media is to point out when various voices are talking a load of bollocks. On account of the preponderance of evidence which contradicts whatever it is.

    Especially if it's me someone's correcting. That's an absolute privilege, even if I do tend to dig my heels in a bit. Though it's probably far more important if it's the Prime Minister or any other high profile media personality.

    I find it quite cute when such folk say they could always get a different opinion, and then can't actually dig one up at all on account of that wasn't true. That's something else people might point out as being contradicted by the preponderance of evidence, perhaps a political scientist. Or me, here. Because he didn't, you know.

    Since Nov 2006 • 607 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    People talk, mistakenly I think, about evidence-based policy, when really we should discuss evidence-informed policy.

    Typically, research doesn't produce a black and white answer, it produces something like a consensus that if we do X, then there is a Y% probability of Z happening.

    For instance, research could tell us: "if we continue to use current farming methods, it's likely that many rivers will have various measurable measures of poor water quality, and there'll be a chance that if you swim in one, you'll get a waterborne illness"

    It's then down to (voter) attitudes whether this is acceptable. You might believe that we should work towards all rivers being swimmable with negligible risk of infection.

    Alternatively, and this seems to be the majority view, you might believe that it doesn't matter if the rivers are so polluted they catch fire, because when we want to swim, we'll use our pool, or fly to Hawaii.

    The alternative is that you close your ears to the science and pretend that sure, the cows can poop in the creeks, the water will stay clean and we won't catch anything.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    What to do about off-shore quasi-scientific organisations and their spokespeople?
    Such as the alleged Institute of Cetacean Research and their sell-mouth in NZ, Glenn Inwood?

    Inwood worked as a press secretary for Lianne Dalziel, Immigration Minister in the New Zealand Labour Party government. He also worked simultaneously for Morris Communications on the account of the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission. In November 2000, the Commission hosted the 3rd Annual General Assembly of the World Council of Whalers in Nelson. After Inwood's dual role as a Ministerial press adviser and speaker at a pro-whaling conference was raised in parliament, Prime Minister Helen Clark found his "connections with whaling distasteful" and directed Inwood not to attend. On September 28, 2000 Inwood resigned his position as Dalziel's press adviser.

    ...not to mention the tobacco work as well...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7887 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Geoff Willmott,

    How universal is the application of the RSNZ Code at the moment?

    Those rules are simply a statement of what a good scientist will do anyway. They are nothing more or less than common sense for scientists. So while I'm not a member there is nothing in the rules that I wouldn't naturally follow.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Humph Applebey,

    Gluckman a ‘scientist’ is not something that meets the definition of ‘Scientist’, when anything he says is filtered by the National machine.

    While like any person Professor Sir Peter Gluckman may have faults this is an extremely unfair characterisation of him.

    He is a very good scientist in his own field and as science adviser he has tried to advise without burning the delicate bridge between the adviser position and the office of the PM. I fervently hope that his position will be retain through future governments.

    I suspect that what you see as a lens of National ideology over Gluckman's advice is instead Gluckman trying to retain connection and have some influence.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    People talk, mistakenly I think, about evidence-based policy, when really we should discuss evidence-informed policy.

    Typically, research doesn’t produce a black and white answer, it produces something like a consensus that if we do X, then there is a Y% probability of Z happening.

    You are right. But there are also times when a fact is simply a fact, no equivocation, no stats needed.

    Out of habit most scientists are reluctant to state absolutes because we have enough experience with artifacts to know that we can be made to look like complete dicks.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    What I do believe, is that any privilege we have as scientists is a privilege based on public trust in scientific activities.

    I tend to use the word responsibility rather than privilege.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    He is a very good scientist in his own field and as science adviser he has tried to advise without burning the delicate bridge between the adviser position and the office of the PM.

    Agreed. I think he walks that line consciously and generally very well.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22749 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Out of habit most scientists are reluctant to state absolutes because we have enough experience with artifacts to know that we can be made to look like complete dicks.

    I think it's more that politics is all about convincing people to act more strongly than the evidence supports (a balanced budget is important! Why? Because... I dunno, it just seems obvious). But science is about probabilities and being wrong. There's a huge gap between political truths like "Saddam has nuclear weapons, that's a fact" and scientific truth like "the law of gravity seems to work, at least as far as we're aware, but we haven't been able to test it in all situations". I mean, the current New Scientist reports someone saying that black holes don't exist. So much for the "law" of gravity... some tweaking may be in order. Or maybe not. We don't know yet.

    I struggle with this a lot, I'm yet another STEM bloke who can't just say what I need to say without (usually) putting in caveats and exclusions (worse than lawyers, we are). There's got to be a joke somewhere about asking different professions whether the sun will come up in the morning... the astonomer says "the sun doesn't come up, the earth rotates", the physicist says "it's likely to, we think", the statistician says "historically it has done so, p>.9", the engineer says "I think we could fix that"...

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • Humph Applebey, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I suspect that what you see as a lens of National ideology over Gluckman's advice is instead Gluckman trying to retain connection and have some influence.

    I understand your point and agree entirely - which is the issue. No doubt his past work is admirable, but playing politics and ignoring evidence - and/or not even engaging by ignoring serious questions from the public who expected at least some sort of reply, is not being a scientist - it's being a politician, who by continuing the status quo, criminalises people.

    It's not just hypocrisy, or morally wrong, it's passively exacerbating a corrupt political machine by staying quiet when he has the knowledge and experience - and as you say - a respected voice which should be shouting that the evidence is clear.

    Since Sep 2014 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • Humph Applebey, in reply to Russell Brown,

    When you say ‘generally’, does that leave a gap for willfully staying out of the cannabis policy disaster?

    His voice should be heard, telling NZ – and Key – that the evidence is clear and to stop criminalising people. The costs to society are shocking.

    Since Sep 2014 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    trying to retain connection and have some influence.

    but that is exactly the foundation of 'access journalism' as revealed by #dirtypolitics. Trading off the truth of a matter now in exchange for future opportunities.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19683 posts Report Reply

  • Nicola Gaston, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I certainly think of privilege as a responsibility, but think it is important to acknowledge the privilege we have.

    Thanks for your points above - they are all very good.

    New Zealand • Since Sep 2014 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • JC Carter,

    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)
    ---

    wouldn't that mean that the chief scientist would have to zip up about an enormous range of topics that he currently opines on?

    Space • Since Sep 2014 • 12 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    trying to retain connection and have some influence.

    but that is exactly the foundation of 'access journalism' as revealed by #dirtypolitics. Trading off the truth of a matter now in exchange for future opportunities.

    I really don't think they are the same at all Sasha. I think dirty politics has revealed that some journalists are entirely comfortable with spreading lies in order to retain favour.

    Professor Sir Peter doesn't trade off truth - at least as far as I have seen. What he does clearly do is choose where he is willing to put effort.

    So for the cannabis debate there is simply nothing he could say that already has not been said - the PMs office knows all the arguments and evidence and they have decided their policy based on ideology not evidence IMO.

    By contrast the science funding debate is arguably as hard to sell to National yet he has expended huge effort (an likely political capital) providing mounting evidence that the current policy is wrong. That likely hasn't made him popular with many cabinet members but the benefit (he and I believe) is so broad spectrum that it is worth the risk of damaging the relationship.

    BTW it is precisely being able to manage that balancing act that makes me certain I could never fill that role - I am far too likely to simply tell them they are full of crap :).

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Humph Applebey,

    When you say ‘generally’, does that leave a gap for willfully staying out of the cannabis policy disaster?

    His voice should be heard, telling NZ – and Key – that the evidence is clear and to stop criminalising people. The costs to society are shocking.

    Gluckman was responsible for a report that recommended the government stop criminalising young cannabis users. It was ignored, just as the Law Commission's thoughtful review of the Misuse of Drugs Act was ignored.

    I honestly don't think Gluckman would have any luck trying again. These clowns aren't making drug policy on the basis of evidence or expert advice.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22749 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to JC Carter,

    wouldn’t that mean that the chief scientist would have to zip up about an enormous range of topics that he currently opines on?

    No because if you read his essays he fully references his data. Where he doesn't know himself he can access scientists who do know and can give you the citations.

    What it does mean is that my opinion on the latest surgical techniques is worth as much as a surgeons opinions on GMOs i.e. not much at all.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

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