Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Holes in Gluckman's scatter gun rant

By Janet McAllister

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

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, is rather cross about some things, but when I heard him give a public rant last week at the Mt Eden Maungawhau Village Centre I mostly (though not entirely) disagreed, and felt rather cross with him.

Reiterating the late Sir Paul Callaghan's call to make "New Zealand a place where talent wants to live", Sir Peter said scientists and engineers would be lured to Auckland by the arts and "vibrant culture". But apparently this hasn't yet developed; Auckland is not "a world-class city" yet: "those who've been to Boston or Cambridge know what I'm talking about".

Oooh, my hackles rose. It is true that I am unqualified to comment - having lived in Edinburgh rather than in Boston or Cambridge - but without getting all boringly boosterish and parochial about it, Auckland's artistic scene is thriving in quality, quantity, diversity and international links.

It is not the artists (nor their patrons) who are to be blamed for any lack of immigrant scientists.

However, the arts were perhaps just collateral damage on the way to Sir Peter's actual target. He put it better in his report on the Transit of Venus conference: he feels we don't yet have "an ambience of intellectual adventurism and valuing knowledge". In other words, our scientists (and artists) might be doing a good job, but nobody outside their niches knows or particularly cares what they're doing.

So, Sir Peter writes, the general population does not yet have the scientific literacy necessary to have proper debates about technology "based on knowledge rather than simply gut reaction and rhetoric". It's no coincidence that in science education we have a "long tail".

Back in Mt Eden, he pointed to us media as main culprits for what he sees as the nation's intellectual laziness (and suggested the Herald acquire an "innovation" columnist). "We still think Richie McCaw is the most important person in New Zealand."

I think this challenge to stretch our curiosity is well worth considering.

But it is a pity that Sir Peter - whose report urges us "to get beyond polemic" - didn't lead by example when discussing public discourse. Instead, he quickly dismissed our blogosphere as "pretty trite", and politics-focused (well, we live in a democracy), and the science blogs as mostly too technical. This insults the very readable Sciblogs network, and ignores excellent, useful blogs such as Stats Chat and, in technology, the Auckland Transport Blog.

In schools, "we don't teach philosophy," he said, apparently unaware it is an increasingly popular NCEA subject.

"Where are our public intellectuals?" wailed Sir Peter. Apart from Sir Paul, he could only think of historians Michael King and James Belich, and (ignoring Brian Rudman, Tapu Misa, Rod Oram et al) he declared that the only one we have left is political columnist Colin James.

By only remembering the men, he missed out our current most eminent public intellectual, Dame Anne Salmond, as well as others such as Jane Kelsey, Margaret Mutu and economist Susan St John.

I agree more opportunities to hear from a larger "density" (hee) of public intellectuals would be stupendous. The more provocation the better! Backed up, of course, by precise careful arguments rather than off-the-cuff claims.

- NZ Herald

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