Tapu Misa on current affairs
Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Gluckman's report shows the way

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"There is always a solution to every human problem - neat, plausible and wrong," wrote the American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken.

I'm not sure about neat and plausible but there was plenty of the wrong from the anti-PC, common-sense folk who commented on Deborah Coddington's column in last week's Herald on Sunday ("Stop paying abusers to breed").

They were heavily in favour of forced sterilisation as a solution to our appallingly high rate of child abuse. I'm not sure why they didn't add public flogging as well, and to hell with all that PC human rights rubbish.

(How is it that people who dislike the state legislating their lightbulbs have so few qualms about legislating other people's reproductive systems?)

Perhaps it's human nature to look for simple solutions to complex problems, and ignore any inconvenient facts that get in the way. It's certainly the political way.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, is trying a more novel approach. He seems to think that people who want to solve complex problems should go to the trouble of understanding said problem, and prefer robust scientific evidence to intuition, common sense and "the evidence of our own eyes".

As he told Breakfast last week, New Zealanders have a tendency "to think we know how to solve the problem without understanding what the problem is", and so we end up with a bunch of expensive programmes "that don't work but we don't know they don't work", while failing to start the kinds of programmes that do work because "we've never assessed the evidence".

Gluckman was commenting on the release of a landmark 307-page report on the teenage years that his office and a team of ("unpaid and entirely voluntary") academic experts have toiled over for the past 18 months, at the Prime Minister's request.

Their task was to find out why so many of our children do badly on so many measures, despite living in a "a temperate, peaceful, ethical and developed nation in which children should flourish".

As well as high rates of child abuse and domestic violence, we have the highest rate among OECD countries of youth suicide, the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate, and one of the highest death rates from car crashes.

In a departure from "the more traditional New Zealand route of setting up a committee with multiple vested interests in it which inevitably produce a report reflecting political, ideological or self-interests", Gluckman's team reviewed the large body of peer-reviewed scientific literature and "interrogated" the evidence.

They have been at pains to avoid political rhetoric, to emphasise science ahead of ideology, and to be concerned with "the facts, and not with the biases".

It's tempting to wonder what the welfare working group's report would have looked like if it had taken the same "honest broker" approach and been as scrupulous about separating science from ideology.

Yet Gluckman's report is more likely to achieve the same ends; a lightening of the welfare load, with less pain and blame.

As Gluckman points out, there is no magic bullet, nor quick fix.

"These are complex issues, they are not easy, they are not those of partisan politics, they are those of accepting that it is our collective responsibility to understand and help young people through a phase of life within a context that most of us never faced and is essentially novel in our history as a species."

The data point to high rates of depression among teens, and the impact of economic disadvantage.

There are tough choices to be made on alcohol, with the evidence pointing to the benefits of increasing price and drinking age over education and public service advertisements.

There are implications for the way we parent, the way we teach our children.

What is clear is the need for "a holistic approach, taking a life course investment approach". Real change will require prolonged effort over many years. And most importantly, investment must be weighted in the early years.

The evidence is overwhelming; if we're serious about making a difference, about raising and educating resilient, independent, healthy children, we have to start early.

Gluckman: "The theme that comes through the report repeatedly is a lot of evidence that improving the quality of early childhood years experiences will make an enormous difference to young people.

"Let's get beyond the political rhetoric and let's have an informed discussion between the policy-makers and the public based on the knowledge base so that decisions can be made on how we structure our preventative approaches to make a healthy society - and make a difference over a decade or two."

Will Gluckman's faith in the power of evidence to create social change be rewarded?

We should all hope so, for our children's sakes.

- NZ Herald

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