This country is awash with 'experts', many of whom do not display any particular degree of expertise.

That is perhaps most commonly manifested by those who say they know what we should and shouldn't be eating. One day eggs will kill us, the next we can eat them until they come out of our ears. But some 'expert' opinion has much more serious, and expensive, consequences.

Last week the government's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, announced that there was no evidence, anywhere in the world, to suggest that there was any appreciable risk from living in a home were methamphetamine had been consumed. The level of contamination that had long been accepted as dangerous was one-tenth of what it should be.

'Why has it taken all these years for Sir Peter to expose meth contamination as a myth? Where were all those government people who are supposed to be watching over us?'


This after many years of houses being decontaminated, at enormous expense. Word last week was that Housing NZ had spent more than $100 million fixing a problem that Sir Peter now says didn't exist. Goodness knows how many millions more was spent by private landlords.


The immediate response from the Housing Minister was to declare that 240 empty state houses could now be occupied. There might well be hundreds more to come.

So how did this hoax, for want of a better word, continue for so long? Why has it taken all these years for Sir Peter to expose meth contamination as a myth? Where were all those government people who are supposed to be watching over us?

Sir Peter described the response to the meth contamination as moral panic. That might not be quite the right term, but one suspects that we are constantly being led by the nose in all sorts of areas, accepting, as we do, that the experts know what they are talking about.

We are gradually losing our absolute faith in what experts tell us — a couple of generations ago most people would never have questioned their doctor — but we really should be questioning so-called experts in all sorts of fields, rather than blindly accepting what they tell us as gospel.

The degree to which those who profess expertise affect our lives can hardly be over-stated. Some might be resisted more than others — those who didn't buy the argument that banning corporal punishment in schools would lead to a gentler society have been vindicated. Same goes for those who railed against depriving parents of the right to discipline their children with 'reasonable force.' Neither of those examples of social engineering have benefited us at all, and can be argued as having done great harm.

Yet we live with the results.

We are as accepting, albeit reluctantly, of the effects of the view that taxation is the answer to climate change.

The more we pay the less likely it is that we will suffer climatic phenomena like cyclones, floods and droughts.

Some years ago those who supposedly know what they are talking about went to the ridiculous lengths of lowering the target for the global temperature increase from 2.5 degrees Celsius to 2.0, to save Kiribati from being swamped by the Pacific. If they really believe they have that sort of control over our climate, why didn't they vote for the status quo?

Of greater immediate concern, perhaps, are the 'experts' who are devoted to protecting this country from species and diseases that can do us great harm. The overwhelming conclusion is that our borders are alarmingly porous.

Certainly, with one or two exceptions, the eradication of unwanted arrivals has proved to be beyond us. Starting perhaps with the varroa bee mite, the greatest scientific minds this country can produce have consistently failed to counter incursions, or even to prevent them from crossing Cook Strait.

This is hardly surprising. For all the great work that is done to detect bananas at international airports and drugs in the post, the fact that only some of the containers that are shipped here are examined for potential stowaways suggests that it is only a matter of time before new species take hold.

The response to the arrival of Mycoplasma bovis does nothing to instil renewed confidence. We still have no idea how the disease got here, or when, and no real idea of how widespread it has become.

We are told that it is difficult to reliably diagnose, that it does not manifest itself until an infected cow comes under stress, and that no other country in the world has managed to eradicate it.

We also now know that NAIT, the National Animal Identification and Tracing system, which supposedly protects us from just this sort of incursion, isn't worth a tin of fish.

Whether it has been a failure because some farmers simply can't be bothered with it, or because it is so complicated that they can't comply with it, it hasn't worked.

The final upshot this time might not be calamitous; the disease does not make milk or meat hazardous to consume, and given its prevalence around the globe it seems unlikely to have any negative impact on our dairy and meat markets.

What it does mean is that farmers are likely to experience significantly greater mortality rates among their calves, and that some cattle are going to suffer a painful, incurable disease.

Next time it could be worse. Next time it could be foot and mouth, and that would devastate our economy beyond all imagining.

Animal disease can be eradicated. Bovine tuberculosis almost has been, despite the fact that possums and wild pigs are a constant potential threat of infection amongst cattle.

The occasional infected herd is found, most recently in the Awanui area a few years ago, but the response has always been swift and apparently effective.

The best that can realistically be hoped for in terms of Mycoplasma bovis is that it will lead to a new animal tracing system that actually works, but perhaps there is one more tiny silver lining to this awful cloud, in that those who demonise dairy farmers as heartless exploiters of animals will now see the men and women who milk cows for their and our living a little differently.

The couple who vowed to repel the stock trucks that were due to take their herd away for slaughter a week ago on Monday, arguing that it made no sense to destroy them just hours before the government decided whether or not to continue the massive cull that has so far been its only real response, must have softened even the hardest (or greenest) of hearts.

Having accepted that their animals, including calves and heifers almost ready to calve, were to die, they got out of bed at the usual pre-dawn hour on Tuesday last week to feed out one last time. Then they planned to leave the farm; they did not want to be there when the trucks came.

The cows were to be slaughtered that day. They did not need feeding. Doing so was an act of compassion.

This couple, like the great majority of dairy farmers, saw these cattle as animals, not milking machines. They know that cows are sentient beings. They have personalities.

They feel affection, fear and pain. They form friendships. They have a social hierarchy. They are (generally) docile animals that deserve to be cared for to the best of their owner's ability.

The sight of a grizzled old(ish) farmer in tears over the looming fate of his herd should have put paid to a myth or two in urban New Zealand. Hearts are breaking on farms all over this country. Some people would do well to recognise that.