National Party loves ‘helpful’ science, but turns nasty if findings irk its mates

By God, I'm glad to see that rabble-rousing Steffan Browning being demoted over his promotion of the belief that homeopathic remedies might help to cure the scourge of Ebola.

I know John Key is an exceptionally busy man, but it was good to see him take the opportunity to pile on the opposition party back-bencher, the very last man on the Green Party list, and give him a serve for being "barking mad".

He was followed by ex-Auckland Grammar prefect Dr Jonathan Coleman, now Minister of Health, who chipped in that Mr Browning's ideas were "wacko".

You see, it is important that we follow the National Party's lead, and respect science at all times.


That is to say, all times except for the times when scientists come out with stuff that makes us feel uncomfortable and make our friends in industry unhappy. Then we should see fit to dump on it from a great height. We may turn it into an equation, thus: Science = good (very good, if supporting it = political point-scoring). Annoying Science with Expensive Ramifications = bad.

Take for example this week's release of a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which looked at over 30,000 studies on the subject and concluded that almost certainly, global warming was an unwelcome, man-made reality - not to say catastrophic for the planet and more immediately, the food supply for populations around the globe.

Many of us believe that if hundreds of the world's top scientists say we've got an enormous problem we should do something about, we should get on and do it immediately.

But that's not how our Climate Change Minister Tim Groser rolls. He reckons, with some humour, that many party supporters believe climate change is a UN conspiracy. He thinks we're doing enough already (even though our emissions are rising, and we have the fifth highest per capita rate of emissions in the world). He grants that UN reports on the subject are a "useful contribution" - but doesn't seem to be in any rush to adopt their findings. From this we can conclude climate change science = annoying + expensive.

Findings can be a thorn in the side, certainly. When New Zealand's foremost environmental scientist, Dr Mike Joy, proved our rivers were polluted and our native species under threat - not to mention our "100 per cent pure" slogan increasingly a fiction - he was declared unhelpful, traitorous and worse besides by the Government and its extensive network of mouthpieces.

John Key dismissed the science and Dr Joy on international television, telling the BBC: "Well, he's one academic, and like lawyers I can give you another one that will give a counterview."

Producing a counterview that will tell you what you want to hear doesn't sound like "good" science, but it's a welcome development when one wants "helpful" science.

The studies used by the Government around class sizes, say, fit this category. Another way of ensuring science doesn't get too annoying is to tacitly approve of efforts to hobble scientists and academics by undermining their work.


If, say, Dr Lisa Te Morenga from the University of Otago links sugar to heart disease, be immensely grateful that someone is there to give her a walloping and, at the same time, rubbish the idea of a tax on sugar.

A new and novel way to keep "good" science flowing is a newly proposed "code for public engagement" which scientists are being asked to consider.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, supports new rules governing what scientists can say in public because Governments are concerned scientists are straying into advocacy (i.e. saying things they don't like) rather than sticking with their area of expertise.

One proposal that might ordinarily cause alarm is that scientists be gagged from speaking on controversial topics two months before an election, and at all other times, get permission from PR teams before doing so.

In other words, let politicians make wild claims of any sort in the lead-up to an election, which journalists will not be able to have fact-checked by government-funded scientists (i.e. most of them) in order that "helpful" science gets a better run.

Let us seek to shut down pesky truths when they threaten multimillion dollar businesses. But by all means, let's clobber a minor player on the political stage, and claim we are taking a stand for "science" in doing so.

Debate on this article is now closed.