Author Archives: bernardbeckett

Is science racist?

 A few weeks ago a group of Auckland academics had a letter published in The Listener expressing misgivings about proposed changes to the New Zealand science curriculum. They were particularly worried about the weight given to Mātauranga Māori. The intention of the new curriculum appears to be to give due consideration to a couple of key ideas: first that there are a number of ways of gathering and synthesising knowledge of the natural world, and within a New Zealand context it is important to acknowledge, understand and learn from our traditional ways of thinking. And secondly, adherents to ‘Scientific Thinking’ have often times abused their position of privilege to usher in a range of dangerous and very much non-scientific prejudices and belief systems under the guise of ‘science’. Understanding that within the context of colonialism is important given our history. Both of these seem to be fairly non-controversial ideas. There are indeed many ways of constructing systems of knowledge and understanding, and some right old tosh has been called scientific, and this is hardly a problem confined to the past.

 Nevertheless, the academics, in their upset, were probably trying to draw our attention to something about the very nature of science: what it is, and how we ought to think about it. Specifically, the case they were making, or at least the most generous interpretation of it, is that there is indeed a thing called science, a very specific and constrained way of constructing predictive models of the measurable world, that can be claimed both to transcend culture and do a better job of building such models than any other available method. Although much of the philosophical and practical machinery of this endeavour was formalised in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it is probably a little unreasonable  to call the core elements of scientific practice European, and more unreasonable too to think of the promotion of this method itself as colonialism. Actually it’s just a bunch of people trying to work out some fairly technical things about the world about us using whatever methods seem to work best. Whether you are working in India, China, Japan, Peru or Switzerland, if you are working in this area of core scientific research you are indeed engaged in a truly universal project of discovery, with a shared set of processes, conventions, terminologies and aspirations. Anyone who has been involved in an international scientific project will recognise something truly beautiful in this endeavour, and by looking at the massive efforts being made by climate scientists to better understand the changes taking place on our planet, or the mad, scrambling real-time attempts to get a handle on the way covid spreads, mutates, interacts with our immune systems and can ultimately be thwarted, we can get a sense of the power of such international co-operation. So whatever we do, we don’t want to lose sight of that aspect of science.

 The fear of the academics, perhaps, was that in teaching both the value of Mātauranga Māori and the way scientific knowledge has been used as a mechanism of colonialism and control, we might accidentally throw the baby out with the bath water and lose sight of the special and distinctive nature of scientific inquiry. 

 In terms of public reaction, the response to the academics was swift, uniform and unforgiving. Their views were variously described as arrogant, racist and ignorant. All of this was entirely predictable, given the political climate in which we operate. We’re not particularly good at taking a deep breath and then slowly, painstakingly dealing with nuance and complexity. And that’s understandable. It’s hard work. We’re particularly work-shy when there is the danger of our views being misrepresented. No surprises there.

 So, what should we make of this issue? I think one thing to note is that both sides are probably wrong about the same key element of the argument. For me, the central worry of the academics, that this will lead to us misunderstanding what science is all about, is misplaced. Importantly, I don’t think the baby was ever in the bath in the first place. It’s not an exaggeration to say we do almost nothing to educate budding young minds on the way scientific knowledge is constructed. How many students in secondary schools ever come across the problem of induction for instance, which is philosophically central to the intellectual edifice of science? How many of them are taught about the attempts of Popper to address this conundrum, and more importantly, why he is generally considered to have failed? How many could speak with any confidence about the criteria by which scientific theories become accepted or rejected, or could explain the philosophical implications of favouring fecundity, explanatory power, predictive power, simplicity or coherence? The thing is, we’re not currently teaching what science is in schools. In general, most people with science degrees never learn this either. They learn the how of scientific method, but rarely the why. The philosophy of science should be a compulsory element of science education, but it isn’t. So, if the academics are genuinely worried about preserving our understanding of the special nature of science, then what they ought to do is start teaching it. And, to be frank, prior to that, some of them would do well to start learning it themselves first, because an outdated nod  to Popper and falsifiability, or the reflexive pivoting to Kuhn, ain’t going to get the job done here. What science is, how it works, and how misunderstanding this frequently leads to abuse of power, is an important and fascinating subject.

 It’s unfortunate that it was the mention of Māori indigenous knowledge that got the academics exercised about a problem we’ve had in our curriculum for decades, because it does make it far too easy to critique their point of view as stemming from a discomfort with a more culturally progressive society. There is absolutely no problem at all with teaching an understanding of the value of Mātauranga Māori, and an historical understanding of the way the forces of colonialism have so often co-opted suspect scientific understandings for their own dismal purposes, alongside a solid understanding of what the universal scientific project is all about and what makes it so special. Indeed, the two topics would complement each other perfectly. For, when we try to get our heads around what science actually is, we can get a far better understanding of why a lot of the nonsense pedalled in the name of science is no such thing, and some of the fundamental misunderstandings underpinning many of  our racist views would make a most excellent case study. What’s more, looking at the way power elites subvert the stories surrounding  scientific understanding for their own purposes is the perfect springboard for understanding the difference between core scientific knowledge, essentially the tightly predictive models we build that might tell us, for example, how the load will be distributed across a particular bridge design, and our personal, prejudiced interpretation of science: see the way many modern atheists attempt to use science to show their chosen belief system as the correct one as an excellent example. Understanding this difference is key to appreciating scientific knowledge, and wielding it with appropriate levels of caution and humility.

 And, to be balanced here, the critics who went straight onto the attack very rarely acknowledged properly that this thing called science, as a unique human project, does indeed exist. They too made the exact same error of conflating science with its cultural context and interpretation, and were their voice to be given too much weight in this debate we would indeed be in danger of selling our ākonga short by depriving them of access to these beautiful and subtle distinctions. Too often the critiques have implied that scientific knowledge is irreducibly laden with value positions and statements, and that’s not entirely fair. It is something more than our collective beliefs and prejudices that led us to developing mRNA vaccines. The equations of quantum mechanics didn’t just emerge from a set of biases and a particular world view, and the way that in turn has enabled semi-conductors and the digital revolution (for all that is good and bad about that) is absolutely testament to the power of a very specific way of interacting with the physical world. It’s not the only way of interacting with the physical world, and frequently it’s not the smartest way of interacting with it, but it is unique, it is universal and is a part of our intellectual birthright. Again, it is quite possible to highlight this within the context suggested by the new science curriculum. Mātauranga Māori is not the problem here; it would make an excellent addition to the programme, as would a little philosophy of science. This is not an either or situation, rather the two areas are perfect complements.

 To finish on something more concrete, let me outline two ways in which science enthusiasts frequently overplay their hand, because I think both illustrate the way a little understanding of the philosophy of science can help disarm debates like this. The first takes me back to the topic of my previous post, and the idea of levels of analysis. A cultural prejudice that has sat at the heart of much of the western scientific narrative is the idea that by reducing a phenomenon to its  component parts, we get to the truth, or reality of its nature. Think of the over-eager science teacher who tells a class ‘while this door looks solid, it is in fact mostly empty space. The atoms making up the door are themselves mostly empty space, and the illusion of solidity is a function interacting forces. In fact the door is an illusion, constructed by the human mind to help it deal with the world.’ The kid looks at the door and thinks, no, looks pretty real to me. Then they knock on it for good measure, to prove their point. What’s actually going on here is two different models of the same phenomenon, and both privilege particular types of information, specifically the information the user is interested in. Seeing the door as a solid and continuous mass is perfectly useful for our day to day interactions with said door. Seeing it as mostly empty space may be  useful for particular arcane scientific  interactions with that door (can’t think of one offhand) and is very useful for delighting in the unifying features of the physical world at one lower level of analysis. We can see these not as competing perspectives, as there’s no need to declare a winner or name the most ‘true.’ Because as soon as you start making assumptions that the real nature of a thing is to be found at the lower order of analysis, you make a fundamental philosophical error, and one with profound real life implications. If people are really just biological machines, and these machines  are themselves just made up of cells, and these cells are just made up of atoms, and the universe is really just an impartial playing out of mathematically constrained relationships… then we, in trying to understand our human existence, throw out all the things that make that existence worthy of consideration (not least our capacity to ask the question in the first place.) At its most insistent, this entirely non-scientific cultural programme implies a sort of materialistic nihilism, which, while a perfectly valid philosophical choice if that is your bent, is not one required by, or even especially consistent with, scientific method. And yet Western thought has moved more and more towards this world view, and science has frequently been used in defence of it, so yes, colonialism and ignorance both. Funny how often those two things go hand in hand.

 The second frequent error is the failure to understand that the very strength of the scientific project is simultaneously its greatest weakness. Science is immensely useful for understanding some aspects of our physical existence, but completely useless when it comes to understanding most of them. Our lives, it turns out, are gloriously complex and messy affairs, while science revels in the controllable and the repeatable. Today I watched the quite fabulous Emma Raducanu win the US tennis open. Her talent, her tenacity, her intuition and her carefully honed skill set were a joy to watch, as were those of her opponent. And, despite the fact that the game itself, collision of racket with ball and trajectory of ball through the air, is pure physics, you can bet of all the people she’ll be thanking for her win right now, a physicist for helping her understand the essential nature of the game she plays will not be amongst them. The contribution physics can make here is all but inert, because the variables are too multitudinous to make real analysis practical or helpful (interestingly mathematical analysis has made more inroads in sport, but that’s another tale). Even things that seem at  first glance to be mostly scientific, like your GP listening to your symptoms and offering a diagnosis, are absolutely soaked in intuition, listening skills, experience, emotional response and guesswork. Not because your GP is slack, but because they are time constrained, you are an individual case, communication is imperfect, key information is missing, medical responses are necessarily value laden, and they are human. In so many areas of life our ever evolving intuitive and cultural knowledge outperforms scientific knowledge, because it is a much more practical way of dealing with complex situations (consider a person who attempts to take a ‘scientific approach’ to raising a child for instance – it’s simply laughable, albeit in a sad way). In education we see this almost on a daily basis, some expert who considers themselves scientific in their approach telling us what we are doing wrong in the classroom. And we as teachers sit there and think, ‘yeah, okay, you’ve never actually been in a classroom have you?’ Now, so long as science has the humility to know its limitations, that’s fine, but frequently it doesn’t. Let’s put that in the curriculum. 

 I think being aware of these two standard errors alone would do a huge amount to help people understand both the special value of science and its peculiar limitations. If the new curriculum turns out to be an opportunity for having these sorts of discussions in the classroom, then that will be wonderful. My entirely unscientific bet, however, is that it won’t. Because the problem isn’t new, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the valuing of Mātauranga Māori within a scientific context.

The curious case of energy

 In an uncharacteristic burst of good timing, I just managed to finish a school season of the play Fracture before we were plunged into the latest lockdown, and I’ve been reflecting a little on some of the language I instinctively fall back on when directing a cast for performance. One term that becomes utterly indispensable is energy, which like time or art makes complete intuitive sense up until the point that you try to explain what it is: you know it when you see it, or in the case of theatre, feel it. 

Characters bring a certain energy with them onto the stage, and ensembles magnify, stretch, combine, pause, direct and twist that energy. The actors’ bodies and voices are merely the instruments by which the show comes to life, the energy they create is its music. Audiences understand energy. It is this which brings to them to the edge of their seats, knots their insides or releases a bellyful of laughter. The energy they absorb wells up as sadness, rises as ambition, falls as regret. And actors feel energy as they carry it. It fizzes through them. It is the director’s job to bring that energy out, harness it and, well, direct it. That, more than anything, is our job.

  So what then is this mysterious force called energy? It’s not volume, for an actor can be both silent and full of energy, or loud and lacking it. Nor is it movement, for energy compounds in moments of stillness on stage, when the stillness is real and meaningful. One could, undoubtedly, break this energy down to component parts, seek out the smallest changes in gaze, breath patterns, posture and so forth which speak to the internal state of the actors, and the audience, when they have committed to the act of believing in the characters and unfolding story before them, might read these subtle cues and react accordingly, feeling fear, hope or delighted surprise. It is entirely possible that there is nothing more to energy than these small biological facts in space and time. And, for a great many of my years, I would have left it at that. Stage energy is a simple metaphor used to convey efficiently a far more complex reality. It would have allowed me to work effectively in the theatre space without yielding to belief in these fantastical confections of the mind. I mean, what would be next, reading auras? But in this stubborn determination to leave the imagination unengaged, I failed to take that simplest of intellectual steps, comparing this particular logical move to all the others I so happily make every day. I failed to interrogate my consistency.

 You see, we might well say this kind of human energy isn’t a real thing, but rather a handy proxy for the true complexities of perception taking place, but how would this be any different in kind than saying people don’t really exist, and that the metaphor of a person is just a handy way of dealing with the complexity of the myriad chemical reactions taking place in this loose conglomeration of the ‘body’? Really it’s just molecules (and hey, molecules don’t really exist, they’re actually just abstractions, describing interactions between forces which themselves…) 

 The, ‘yes but it’s really just…’ move is an instinctive one, particularly for those who possess a readily recognisable personality type, and is grounded in a strange assumption, based on nothing more than raw belief, that if we dig deep enough we get to this thing called reality. And it misses something both obvious and crucial. As soon as we move down a level of analysis, we change the thing we are talking about. Molecules do not have histories, desires, fears or ambitions. Molecules do not make plans, tell jokes or dream of a world in which they are more impressive at parties. Humans do. The reason we do not think of humans as just a collection of molecules is that the very definition of being human involves a great deal of qualities that molecules simply do not possess. No amount of analysing of molecules will ever get you to ‘Cassandra is upset because she was hoping for more likes on her Instagram post.’ Hence, humans are not just molecules. Humans possess qualities that can be understood and appreciated only by speaking of them as humans. The only level at which we can meaningfully speak of humans is at the level of their humanity. Break it down further and we end up speaking of something else entirely. So, to say humans don’t really exist is, well, insane.

 And yet, this argument applies not just to humans. The same argument can be applied to stage energy, because it is only through speaking in terms of energy that the actor and director can access the experience of that energy. This type of energy is real, or at least is as real as humanity, sunshine or sudoku. (And yes, they are all in some sense just metaphors, but so’s an electron. That’s the point). 

 Gloriously, let in energy, and human, and there’s no earthly reason why you shouldn’t let in spirit, or soul, or any other metaphor that unlocks for you an experience of the world that is otherwise inaccessible. This is the great gift of pragmatism. Reality and usefulness become interchangeable. Those concepts that allow us to be in and of our world, to live fully, on terms of our own choosing, are those with the force of ‘reality.’ This usefulness is constrained, of course, by the way we experience the world; our conception of stage energy is no more malleable than  our conception of gravity. Both must answer to the experiences that face us, and yield to the patterns we there discover. And yes, it’s not the sense of reality we intuitively carry with us. Indeed, it’s a radical departure. But it does unlock a particular kind of consistency, and a particular kind of joy. For my part, at least, it energises me.

Little Palaces

 The school I work in is, quite literally, falling apart. Our roofs leak and will cost many millions to repair. Timber is rotting and various types of mould spread their spores through the air. Recently we have had to close ten teaching spaces because they are considered unsafe for human habitation. Next term we’ll have to roster home senior students because we no longer have adequate spaces in which to keep them dry and warm, let alone focused on their learning. Last year we spent close to one and a half million dollars maintaining the government-owned buildings we inhabit. Our maintenance budget, provided by this same landlord, was $200,000. Our school is not unusual. The national stock of school buildings is ageing and inadequately maintained, and what money is available for new builds is diverted always to the latest crisis. Those responsible for prioritising the spend are, just like individual schools, constrained by laughable budgets. As a result, they are forced to concentrate not on long-term planning and investment, but rather on the triage that funding shortfalls demand. People with serious needs feels overlooked and undervalued. Good people become frustrated with one another. They wonder why on earth money isn’t being spent on prevention, and instead we are forced to concentrate on the far more expensive option of crisis mitigation. And although I write this about schools, those working at the frontline of our health system would doubtless recognise the tale, as would those working in justice, or local government infrastructure, or social welfare. We are underfunding the provision of the collective social services that allow us to consider ourselves a civilised nation, and we have been for some time.

 I remember years ago cycle-touring through Europe and being delighted at the way small towns and cities would appear on the horizon, first would come the spire of an ancient church or cathedral, speaking eloquently of the values of a time long gone. Today the modern city is dominated by the vertical builds of banks and insurance companies; only the sports stadia compete when it comes to grandeur. This too speaks of its  time. There is a wonderful line in The West Wing (one of very many) when Sam Seaborn says: 

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence.

 For the record, I’d be okay without palaces, but dry and safe would be nice. We do something awfully special with education in New Zealand. We provide quality and mostly free education to whoever walks in the door. You don’t need to go to a private school in this country to get a good education, our state schools can more than match our laissez faire counterparts. We offer places of safety, where kids can count on being noticed and attended to, where they can feel liked and believed in. We do our damndest to undo the tangled damage of social inequity and miraculously, we sometimes succeed. We give our kids a place to stand in the world, a sense of who they are, where they’re from and where we’re going together. We reinforce the values upon which our communities rely for their coherence. But somewhere along the way, our governments decided it was desirable to do this on the cheap.

 We’ve been governed by frightened politicians for decades now, terrified that significant public investment would earn them the ire of the powerful and the wealthy. We have, as a society, become more individualist and mean-spirited and have voted accordingly. Underinvestment doesn’t show its evils all at once. It’s a slow burning process of undermining, hidden sometimes for decades by heroic efforts to patch and seal. But we’re starting now to see what happens when we do not plan for our future, when we do not possess the collective courage and generosity to accept that the values we hold most dear will be the dearest to maintain.

 Until we do, I’ll be teaching some of my students remotely. We should all be ashamed it’s come to this.

The question I want our politicians to be asked.

We’re deep in election season, with politicians of all stripes being asked to explain and justify their policies to a curious electorate. Journalists, moderators and members of the public ask them about Covid, about crime, about poverty, housing and the environment. But there’s one question they never ask, and I really really want to know the answer. It’s this:

“By way of the Reserve Bank, the Government is effectively borrowing from itself to finance much of the Covid-19 response. Is it your intention to ever pay this debt back, and if it is, why?”

See, as far as I can tell, Social Credit aside, the political parties are all campaigning as if this is a debt that must be repaid. Now, if they’re true to their word, then they intend to ask future tax payers to forgo any number of essential services – access to mental health services, access to elective surgeries, adequate building programmes in state schools, access to drug rehabilitation programmes, safe roads, preventative health programmes, adequate income for the most vulnerable…. The list is sort of endless and whichever way you cut it, if you’re committed to repaying these billions of dollars of loans, you’re committed to providing less, significantly less, in some or all of these areas.

Now, it takes no genius to see that cutting such programmes, or failing to expand them, is going to cause immense hardship, and without resorting to hyperbole, cost lives. So the question has to be, what would be so terrible about saying, actually, we’re not going to repay that debt at all? It’s a debt by the Government, essentially to the Government. Spending has been funded, in essence, by expanding the money supply, a mechanism that is an economic commonplace around the world. To label it a debt, and speak and of it as if it needs to be repaid, strikes me as strange, unless I’m missing something obvious and there’s something really really bad about simply cancelling it. So I think we need to ask the politicians, why do you think we need to pay this money back?

There are some answers we can reject right off the bat, I think. The old bogeyman in this situation used to be inflation, but if this move is so inflationary, then that’s going to occur now, as the money supply expands, not at some point in the future when we fail to repay the debt. And the evidence at the moment is pretty clear. Inflation remains firmly under control.

Another popular answer is to do with the balance of payments, and the danger of the extra spending fueling an import spending spree, especially at a time when our tourism sector has been so hard hit. But, refer above. The spending’s already happening, necessarily, so any trade hit is inevitable now. Again, the commitment to paying it back at some stage in the future is largely irrelevant with regard to this putative danger.

Finally, some might say that a public commitment to this type of financing will destroy our international credibility and there will be a run against our dollar. But, again, the monetary expansion is already happening. We’re spending up large on the back of Government-created debt, and whatever the mechanism, financiers aren’t so foolish as to only be spooked if the action is named a certain way. And the currency isn’t tumbling (on the trade front, a little fall is never a bad thing anyway), which shouldn’t surprise us when we consider that we’re hardly the only country following this path.

Yet, so entrenched is the orthodoxy on this matter, so reflexively, religiously are the neo-classical views held that when they are breached, and the sky doesn’t fall, the disciples find themselves with no choice but to look away and pretend it isn’t happening. But this is an election, and on this particular issue the stakes couldn’t be higher. So would somebody, somewhere, please ask the politicians the question. I really want to hear their answers. If they give a good one, it’ll change my vote.

Why I’m Voting Green

This election doesn’t look like it’ll be a particularly interesting one in terms of who will lead the government. Labour appear to be locked in, and fair enough. They’ve done a fine job of managing the covid crises, communicating clearly, acting decisively and being open to expert advice. Their economic management in such straitened times has been solid too, and as a leader Jacinda Adern has acted with dignity and compassion throughout her term, the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings being a standout example. She has the ability to bring people together and that’s a remarkable quality, especially in the age of trolls. But, I won’t be voting for her or her party at this election. I’m not unhappy that she’ll be our leader for another three years, but for me it’s vital that the voice of the Greens remains a part of the next government. 

 For me it comes down to the way New Zealand elections are fought and the pressure this puts on Governments to compromise their values. Essentially, this country’s swing vote springs largely from the land of conservative caution we call the middle ground. Voters who like the  idea of lofty aspirations, but less so the thought of actually paying for them. Governments in power tend very quickly toward a ‘don’t scare the horses’ kind of leadership, where all the policy heft sits with the status quo. John Key was a master of it. It was never really clear what he believed in or what he was trying to achieve for the country, but he provided a narrative of relaxed stability and marginal change, and ‘middle New Zealand’, such a dreary term that, lapped it up.

 The current government, while talking a much bigger game: climate change is this generation’s nuclear-free moment – we’ll lift a hundred thousand children out of poverty – we’ll build a hundred thousand new houses – you’ll remember the rhetoric, ran for the shelter of compromise again and again. Farmers escaped emissions targets, the uptake of electric vehicles has stalled, houses didn’t get built, progress on poverty has been marginal at best, new industrial relations systems were put off, alternative tax structures were ruled out, and when it came time to kick start virus-hit economy, they went for roading projects.   Transformation this was not, and the continuity between the Key and Adern governments has been remarkable. Yes, New Zealand First had a part to play in stalling progress, with their back to the future fingerprints all over some of the more public backtracks, but part of it is also the in-built caution of the ruling party, who if left unchallenged will always prioritise holding power over using it.

 And that’s where a motivated coalition party can be crucial. Not only does it provide cover for implementing potentially popular policy, but they can keep the government honest, or be its conscience, as Chris Hipkins recently put it. And when it comes to a Government conscience, the Greens tick the two big boxes for me. They’re forward thinking in terms of environmental care and the economic transformation this requires, and they are serious about alleviating poverty. I might not agree with the nuts and bolts of all their policies, but for a small coalition partner, that’s hardly the point. They’re not there to broadly govern. They’re there to keep the pressure on for change, and make the government they work with braver. Because in the end, a government with strong values but little courage is all but indistinguishable from one with no values at all. 

 The Labour government will return to power and, without the NZ First handbrake, they have a significant opportunity to make meaningful and positive change. But on their track record so far, they’re likely to lose their nerve, and that will be sad. We owe it to the potential they have to provide them with the sort of coalition partner that will steer them always back toward their better selves. I trust The Greens to do that, or at least to give it a damned good go. And that’s enough for me. For The Greens to slip below the five percent threshold would be something beyond sad. It would speak of a society that has lost its sense of aspiration and imagination. We’re better than that.

Welcome Home

At the school where I work, Hutt Valley High School, I’ve just put together a documentary celebrating diversity within the school community. Working with a colleague and a couple of senior students, we created a work that constitutes part of our explicit response to the Christchurch mosque massacre of 2019. We’re tremendously lucky in this country to have a state education system populated by schools that are warm, open, unpretentious and effective, places where diversity is allowed to flourish. It’s always felt to me that it’s one of those treasures that we take for granted at our peril. Surely the only true antidote to the idiocy of divisiveness is time spent living side by side, listening to one another, and receiving new perspectives with curiosity and respect. I’m ever so lucky to work where I do, and the video linked above captures a very small part of the reason why.

More free plays

It’s been a fun couple of years creating new plays for the wonderful Hutt Valley High School drama department. It’s such a happy career to have fallen into, getting to put together this sort of vibrant and energetic teen theatre. I’ve just added four new titles from this time onto the page of plays, to be freely downloaded and used in your own youth theatre contexts. As always, you have total licence to alter them in any way. The important thing is to get young people to enjoy the thrill of performance. Thirty eight plays up, by last count. Makes me feel old.

Lessons from a pandemic

This is a good time to be a New Zealander. In terms of the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve got off extremely lightly, the result of a range of happy circumstances. We’re a small nation, as isolated as they come, our land is sparsely populated, we have a relatively functional media and a cultural tradition that tends towards the pragmatic. And it was a wee while before we got our first Covid cases, which gave us time to learn from trajectories elsewhere. All of that belongs in the ‘got lucky’ basket. But it’s also fair to say we made some smart choices too. Our government were decisive and communicated clearly, and they chose wisely their sources of advice. Our national response was, for the most part, coherent and purposeful and we all benefited from that. And that got me thinking, what are the conditions that aid such a cultural response, and what are the conditions that stall it?

 At the same time, being a school teacher, I was watching the online learning experiment unfold, the institutionalised celebration of the google worldview, which holds that young and curious minds, given the right resources and the licence to roam free and follow their enthusiasms, can learn for themselves in an optimal way. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of the invisible hand, some mysterious force both unseen and beyond analysis that leads us towards a happy intellectual equilibrium. It’s all tremendously modern and exciting, particularly for those who like to feel that they are at the cutting edge of this thing we call progress. As you’ll likely know, I’m not yet a convert, and I think the Covid-19 case provides an interesting insight into the flaws of the information free-market.

 Amongst all the other factors required for a co-ordinated public response to a pandemic, one platform that presumably has to be in place is a well-informed and rational public. Most of us knew precious little about virology or epidemiology or public health going in, and yet when push came to shove, we were happy to listen to those who did. And crucially, we were less inclined to subscribe to the belief that the virus was spread via 5G technology, or that it was a beat up being driven by governments who aimed to control our lives, or that it wasn’t much more than another flu, or that social isolation wouldn’t work, or that herd immunity was a better strategy, or inhaling disinfectant could get the job done, or…

 Now, adherents to the digital information revolution might posit that this speaks to our ability as a nation to critically assess information sources, and this in turn will stoke their belief that the most important thing we can teach our young is to be more critical consumers of online information, but I’m not so sure. Whatever it was that allowed an easy public consensus to build in New Zealand, it sure as hell wasn’t a general level of scientific literacy. Early on, before the spread of the virus into Europe, I read a number of articles playing down the risks associated with Covid-19, and truth is I wasn’t qualified to judge them either way. I’m reasonably well informed when it comes to these things – I’ve spent a year working at a  genetic research centre, I enjoy reading popular science books and articles, I’m fairly literate and numerate etc,  but that in itself doesn’t get us over the line when it comes to working out which information we should trust. When it comes to important decisions we rarely have the time or the expertise to evaluate competing viewpoints properly.

 Rather, I believe, the key thing when it comes to guiding a populace through the information jungle is a strong and stable sense of trust in institutions, a trust which in turn must be earned. It seems to me that if we are to make informed community wide decisions, as we did with Covid, then we’re going to need some mechanism by which we are encouraged to trust those who know what they’re talking about. It’s not about being smart, of owning the finest minds and the best funded learning institutions. New Zealand could never hope to match the expertise of the UK or the US, both of which have world leading research capacities, yet in this case we had political leadership that communicated better and was, frankly, easier to trust, and that made all the difference.

 The silver bullet in terms of information literacy may well turn out to be social cohesion. The more we find ourselves disenfranchised, the less likely we are to trust those in positions of authority. And the less we are able to rationally trust those with the resources to discover and disseminate reliable information, the more susceptible we become to the misinformation that abounds online. Leave groups out of the social contract and the resulting fragmentation leads, amongst many other things, to ignorance. 

 If this is right, then the educational imperative becomes much less about developing critical faculties (for there are some very smart and intellectually agile conspiracy theorists) and more about developing a sense of belonging and participation and trust. And all of this requires institutions worthy of trust. It requires a well functioning media, an engaged populace and leaders who put the service of their community ahead of the service of their own venal interests. Which, in this day and age, feels like a mighty big ask.

 Values precede knowledge, is my point. In fact, values enable knowledge. Without the politics of integrity, service and inclusion, smartness sits forever out of reach, and teaching students how to evaluate the trustworthiness of information sources becomes little but a farce, albeit a tremendously lucrative one for the providers of our online platforms.

 

The end of a foolish superstition?

There have been any number of things that feel heartening about my country’s response to the challenges presented by Covid-19. We’ve seen a sense of community spirit and a calm, pragmatic approach to the business of politics. People have generally accepted that letting health experts guide public policy on this one, in return for a fair amount of transparency from our leaders, has been a sensible move. Although, like anywhere, we have our fair share of flat earthers and anti-vaxxers, there’s been little room for quirk and superstition in the public discussion, and that’s as it should be.

And now, joy of joy, it seems as if there may even have been a small crack opening up in the superstitious world of economic policy. Maybe it’s too early to get excited, but after thirty five long years of a weird sort of collective puritanism when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy, a little mainstream common sense has arrived by stealth on these lonely islands. Now admittedly it’s a while since I completed my economics degree, but over the ensuing decades the fundamental realities haven’t changed. The basic mechanism by which Governments and central banks operate, while different in detail, remain recognisable in the broader picture. And, as anyone who’s studied economics will tell you, there are options when it comes to  funding public spending. We can raise revenue through forms of taxation, or earnings from government enterprises. We can borrow, in order to finance longer term capital projects where the benefits also accrue long term, or to smooth out economic growth  cycles, spending more in hard times and less when the going gets good. And, whisper it quietly, the government can just create more money. That’s right, the central bank can simply honour the government’s spending commitments by putting more money into the system. Technically this will show as a transfer of 0% interest government bonds, but the effect is funding through money supply.

But what, you cry? That can not be true. Why then raise taxes at all? Why not just enjoy a glorious and endless flow of government largesse? The answer is that in economics, to employ the favoured cliche, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Such policies as monetising government debt, as we now prefer to call it, have flow-on effects, two in particular. One is seared in the public consciousness, the other less so, but both are potentially important. Reckless disregard for economic conditions when you pursue this policy can lead to inflation, in the same way as reckless disregard for physical conditions when eating can lead to obesity. This, note, is not an argument against eating, just a caution to eat well and happily and be aware of the trade-offs. Oh, if only economist commentators possessed some degree of common sense. For a small trading nation like ours, the other danger is to do with our balance of payments. Amp up spending too much and as people’s incomes rise, they spend more on imports. If exports don’t rise at the same time, there can be some ugly  adjustments further on down the line.

So there you go, printing money is a brilliant way of raising funds in some situations, just so long as you’re not in a situation where you’re close to capacity and new demand will be inflationary, or where the tradable sector is going to blow out. And so, all around the world, mainstream economists and political operators have advocated the cautious use of this approach to fund some government spending. As you’ll likely have already spotted, it’s particularly apt in times like ours where a calamity has tanked the economy or destroyed the capital base (like after a war, or a major earthquake). Because you’re attempting to boost lagging demand, there’s no need to fear inflation, quite the opposite, and similarly, because this is a short term measure designed to pull us out of a recession, it will not in and of itself threaten our balance of payments. Tourism has taken a mighty hit and there’ll be a new equilibrium to be found there, but that’s another matter. And, sort of perfectly, this is spending that is not going to be built in to future budget cycles. It’s one-off funding for a variety of support and restart projects, and  if you think back to the genesis of state housing in New Zealand you’ll understand we’ve done that before, and with great success.

And yet, and yet, just wait for either the meek capitulation of government behind the scenes, so that the option doesn’t even appear on the table, or the baying howls of ‘remember Germany before the war?’ from the high priests of market purity who for some reason have a free pass to spout superstition in this country and not get called on it. I know this will happen because after the Christchurch earthquake the Greens suggested exactly the same idea and the backlash was so aggressively orchestrated that they lost their nerve and backed away from a perfectly sensible, middle of the road economic suggestion. I don’t even think it’s self interest on the part of the market worshippers; nothing so venal. I think it’s just deeply embedded ideological superstition, as always aided and abetted by commentators who are terrified of appearing ill informed.

But at least we’re talking about it, and make no mistake, the alternative is  awful, a sustained period of unnecessary austerity that, as always, will disproportionately hit the vulnerable and the marginalised. You know, I don’t mind superstition. Whatever gets you through the night. Until it starts hurting other people. At that point ignorance needed to be named and shamed, and bullies outed. In my perfect world, this would become an election issue. I’m allowed to dream, right?

The Myth of Online Learning

Our schools have been closed for over a fortnight now, and we, like families all over the world, are confined to our homes. It’s been a lovely (mostly) time to watch my three young boys whiling away the hours. As I type one of them is on his iPad, making an animated movie, another on the piano, hammering away something tuneless, and the youngest (four) is putting a load of washing on – we all need an obsession. As the day meanders on they will laugh, draw, explore, fight, eat, hide, sulk, run, bounce back from dark moods, read, ask what’s for dinner (ten or twenty times each), argue passionately over small nothings and watch movies. They are doing what children naturally do, given the time and space and support. They’re learning about their world. It’s sort of glorious.

Next week ‘schools’ are back, only the online version, announced with a certain level of pride from the Minister of Education yesterday. What this means, in essence, is that the older of my two children will be pestered with tasks designed to both make the teaching community feel useful, and interfere with my children’s learning. Tasks that will add friction to what is already a difficult time for parents, and which will add precisely nothing to the learning trajectory of our children. It will demonstrate conclusively, for those still in any doubt, that online learning is kind of a waste of time.

Thing is, all the things I most need schools to do, they can’t do for me in an online environment. The first, and most crucial service a school provides is babysitting. It is the existence of schools that allow parents the space to be adults in the world. To work, to hold grown up conversations, or just to have a few moments of peace in the day.   In other times this would feel like cynicism, but we’re starting to understand it now, right? It’s a key and worthy part of our social fabric, this keeping of children safe in such a cheap and efficient manner. And you can’t do that online.

Next thing you need schools for is the context in which social skills can be developed. The really difficult things to learn like being patient when there are lots of other people who need attending to, or dealing with betrayals and disappointments, or sucking it up and hiding your mood from your peers, developing the discipline to shut up and get on with the task at hand, reading the moods of others, learning to listen, express your opinion respectfully, apologise and make things better when you screw up; all these things are well learned in the school environment – for teachers and students both. None of them can be adequately learned online, and yet can we think of anything more important to learn?

The third reason you’ll have anticipated, for it’s all very well to speak of the richness of learning in the home environment but that’s a very middle class luxury – dear God I’ve already mentioned a piano, an iPad and a front loading washing machine. But, more than that, these are kids not exposed to violence,  overcrowding, drug addiction or instability. This is the third great pillar of state provided education, a small but important contribution in the battle against inequality. Schools, at their best, provide for some of our students the only safe and stable environment they know, the only possibility of their background stress ever getting low enough for meaningful learning to occur. And for that you need the safe space to exist. Online can’t get that done either.

Further down the list, we find the academic virtues. Learning to write essays, or computer code, or manipulate algebraic expressions. Skills that for the great majority are of marginal value at best, but which for a small portion of the population (and for society in general) are absolutely crucial. We need epidemiologists and we need vaccine creators, people with highly advanced abstract thinking skills who will go on to be our leaders, our inventors and our intellectuals. Always will, and when education gets that right, it’s glorious. And this part we can contribute to online, although there will never be a substitute for meeting the mentor who inspires you, fuels your love for the subject. Turns out though, we also really need truck drivers, supermarket shelf stackers and farmers (and don’t really need merchant bankers, corporate lawyers, boards of directors,  market researchers or consultants). Hell, turns out we really need Netflix too. But most of the work that comes through the wifi over the next few weeks is going to be crashingly irrelevant for most of the students receiving it. And an awful lot of it will exist to serve not the needs of the students, but the needs of the teachers and administrators. So, you know, nothing changes.