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Science Applied to Politics

(Open Letter to Prime Minister John Key on his Science Advisory Committee's Interim Report) (slightly edited)

© Peter Zohrab 2010

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Dear Mr. Key,

I am worried, based on the Interim Report, that your Science Advisory Committee's project Improving the transition: reducing social and psychological morbidity during adolescence may well end up being a waste of time and money.  I notice that the Interim Report is not linked to from your main page on this issue Improving the transition from child to adult (accessible from your Issues page), but is only available from your News and Events page (under "July"), so maybe someone has noticed its very severe deficiencies.

There are clear political undercurrents involved in the issues under investigation by the project.  This is highlighted by the fact that it has both a male and a female co-chair.  Why would that be necessary, if not in order to give the appearance of impartiality as between Feminism and its opponents?  Since the issues are so politically fraught, one has to worry that a scientist such as Professor Sir Peter Gluckman -- despite his eminence -- will be out of his depth here.  I note with pleasure the presence of Professor David Fergusson among the contributors, and -- with even greater pleasure -- the apparent absence of hard-line Feminists from their ranks, but these factors are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee meaningful outputs.

 

Basic Concepts

I am principally concerned that not enough basic thinking has been done about the terms of reference of this project.  The Computer Science term GIGO (Garbage in, garbage out) comes to mind here.  Unless the project is clear about what it is doing, it is going to be at least as confused at the end of its work as it was at the beginning. 

The title of the project does refer to the term "social and psychological morbidity", but that is a vague term which requires considerable fleshing-out.

The Interim Report states:

New Zealand has an unacceptably high rate of poor outcomes in adolescence – among OECD countries, we have the highest rate of teenage suicide and perform badly (24/30) in measures of teenage risk-taking (including smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy). The long-term consequences of such activities to young people are particularly significant in terms of health, earning capacity and social integration. These consequences are reflected in significant emotional costs to families and individuals and in major costs for many components of government including social welfare, justice, education, police and corrections. They also create or reinforce cycles of intergenerational disadvantage. Ultimately, these factors affect between 10 and 20% of young people in New Zealand.

The primary underlying question is why do adolescents engage in risky and antisocial behaviour?...

 

The key terms I wish to isolate here are:

  1. poor outcomes

  2. risk-taking

  3. antisocial behaviour

There seems to be an assumption that these three terms are identical in meaning, which is clearly not the case.  We can no doubt all agree that we are worried about "poor outcomes", but the question is what counts as a poor outcome.  The only ones mentioned are teenage suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy. 

So we are led to ask the following questions:

  1. Is the purpose of this project to find the causes of and/or ways of reducing teenage suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy?

  2. Is the purpose of this project to reduce only deliberate risk-taking by teenagers, or any behaviour by teenagers which involves a certain level of risk?

  3. Are teenage suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy examples of risk-taking, and is the purpose of this project to find the causes of and/or ways of reducing teenage risk-taking?

  4. Are teenage suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy examples of antisocial behaviour, and is the purpose of this project to find the causes of and/or ways of reducing teenage antisocial behaviour?

I think it is clear that the answer to question 1 is probably "yes", but the answers to the other questions are not so clear.  Someone has seemingly attempted to find a term which covers all the teenage behaviours which they want to reduce, and they have come up with the term "risk-taking."  However, that was not the term they were looking for. 

I personally think that skydiving, bungy-jumping and rock-climbing are risk-taking activities that should be avoided -- or even banned -- but it is clear that you, being the Minister of Tourism, probably do not agree with me, since many tourists apparently come to New Zealand in order to carry out these and/or similar activities.  Many otherwise responsible, adult New Zealanders also enjoy such activities.   These are activities where the risk-taking is deliberate and part of their attraction.   

Apart from the distinction between "good" risk-taking and "bad" risk-taking, there is also a distinction to be made between activities that are undertaken for the thrill of risk-taking and activities which involve risk as an unintended consequence of the main aim in undertaking those activities.  Suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy are not really examples of activities that are undertaken for the thrill of risk-taking.  Someone who commits suicide knows exactly what they want, and is not taking a "risk" of dying.  Smoking and drinking alcohol involve risks to one's health, but they are not usually carried out (as far as I know) for the thrill of the risks that are involved.  Of course, drinking alcohol increases the probability of risk-taking behaviour (I understand), so maybe all potential skydivers, bungy-jumpers and rock-climbers should be breathalysed before participating in their chosen activities!  Pregnancy is also not an example of risk-taking, although it is sometimes the result of risk-taking, which may have been caused by drunkenness. 

Similarly, suicide, drunkenness and pregnancy are not necessarily anti-social, since they can occur in private and do not necessarily inflict any harm on other people.  However, smoking is indeed anti-social, because of the passive smoking and asociated health risks that it inflicts on other people. 

In summary, then, this project has not managed to explain to the public in any coherent mnner what exactly it is trying to do.  So either the contributors do not know what they are doing, or they are keeping what they are doing a secret from the rest of us.  My best guess is that the project aims to reduce "poor outcomes" for teenagers, although it is not particularly clear who has been given the right to choose the outcomes which are to be considered "poor." 

The Interim Report mentions the following outcomes: poor health, earning capacity and social integration, significant emotional costs to families and individuals and major costs for many components of government including social welfare, justice, education, police and corrections.  It is hard to see how teenage suicide, smoking, drunkenness and pregnancy are to blame for all -- or even most -- of these outcomes.  For a start, teenage suicide clearly does not have a long-term effect on many other people.  Smoking and pregnancy also have relatively limited consequences.  Drunkenness is the only factor mentioned which probably does have consequences for many parts of society/social agencies. 

So, the the very limited extent to which the Interim Report is clear about its goals, they do not hang together or form a coherent whole.  It is also worrying that no bibliography will be released until the final report comes out.  This renders the whole process very untransparent and secretive.

 

 

Forbidden Topics

It may be convenient for some politicians to pretend that New Zealand is a democracy.  However, no institution is less democratic than a university, and peer-reviewed research (which this project relies on exclusively) typically takes place at universities.  The second paragraph of the Interim Report mentions OECD countries, and OECD countries' media and universities are generally Feminist-dominated and determinedly secularist.  Alongside the social deterioration which this project is focused on, and which has been a feature of all OECD countries (as far as I am aware), the following changes have also taken place:

  1. the decline of organised religion;

  2. the rise and increasing dominance of Feminism;

  3. the vast expansion of tertiary education;

  4. the huge rise in influence of the mass media (particularly television); and

  5. the huge increase in divorce, separation and solo-parent and "blended" families.

    I put it to you that there is no way that your project will be able to find (even if it looks for it) much research that investigates the possibility  that some or all of the above trends are to blame for the "poor outcomes" for teenagers that project members may have in mind.  That is because the culture of OECD universities is generally liberal, atheistic, Feminist, pro-university and pro-media.

In addition, I suspect that the project will restrict itself largely to OECD research, which is unwarranted.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I expect that there are now several countries outside the OECD which have similar GDPs to OECD member-countries.  In addition, many OECD countries now have large minority populations which originated outside the OECD.  Moreover, the mix differs from country to country, and no other country has the particular proportions of Polynesian (including Maori), European, and East Asian inhabitants that New Zealand has.  So there appears to me to be no valid reason to concentrate on OECD research -- given that OECD countries are mostly suffering the same sorts of problems (as far as I am aware) and have undergone the same five societal changes mentioned above.  A lot might be learned by studying countries which have not undergone some or all of those changes and are not suffering the same sorts of problems.

 

 

Hobby-Horses

I am also a worried that Sir Peter Gluckman, a Natural Scientist, seems to be promoting a Social Science theory of his own, i.e. the notion that the so-called increased and increasing complexity of society is a relevant factor, as regards teenage outcomes.  I must say that this theory seems somewhat mickey-mouse.  I very much doubt, for example, that anyone has carried out an objective study of the Information Science complexity of the social and environmental interactions of (for example) a 10-year-old boy from the Sepik River area in Papua New Guinea and a 10-year-old boy from Silicon Valley, California, USA.  Car engines are now much more complex than they were when I was young, but that hardly impacts on me, since I take litle notice of such matters.  A 10-year-old boy from the Sepik River might know little about the gadgets and gizmos that adorn the life of a 10-year-old boy from Silicon Valley, but neither would the latter know much about the intricate details of the flora and fauna of the New Guinea forest, which the former might well be an expert on.  Just because complexity exists, one does not have to take any notice of it.

It is not merely harmless for Sir Peter to pursue this particular blind alley -- if that is what it is.  It is positively harmful if it distracts attention from the real issues that need to be investigated.

Naturally, I have a hobby-horse of my own, and that is the impact of fatherlessness.  I refer you to the following website for a list of references:

The Consequences of Fatherlessness
http://www.fathers.com/content/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=391

Within the general theme of the consequences of fatherlessness, I refer to findings that early female puberty may result from the absence of the natural father and/or from the presence of a stepfather or other biologically unrelated adult male in the family.  I do not at present have access to an academic database, so I refer you to the article Without Dad Little girls grow up too fast at (link deleted at request of source website).  The Interim Report refers to increasingly early physical maturation, but I would like to see a focus on discovering whether this is really just an issue for female children, as per the above hypothesis.

 

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