WHAT A SHAME. To hear the news media tell it, the story of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s report to the Prime Minister was one of disinterested science versus ill-informed populism.
In a world dominated by sound-bites and focus-groups, John Key’s hand-picked scientific adviser was heroically making the case for evidence-based policies.
“Social investment in New Zealand should take more account of the growing evidence that prevention and intervention strategies applied early in life are more effective in altering outcomes and reap more economic returns over the life course than do strategies applied later.”
So says Professor Gluckman and his team – adding for good measure that: “This will require long-term commitment to appropriate policies and programmes.”
For those in the policy-making community this must have been an “Alleluia Moment”. Could it be, that after years of denigration and marginalisation at the hands of the political class, experts and expertise were about to make a come-back?
Well, I for one hope not. At least not these “experts” or this “expertise”.
Because, reading through Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidly During Adolescence, it quickly becomes clear that this “science” is very “interested” indeed – and not in a good way.
THE HISTORY of scientific involvement in the formation of social policy is not a happy one. From the pernicious social theories of the 19th Century eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, to the authoritarian social-engineering offered up in the Trilateral Commission’s 1976 report Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies, the interventions of “disinterested science” have almost always ended up arguing for an intensification of social controls and the consequent curtailment of individual liberty.
The essence of Professor Gluckman’s argument is that, over the course of the last half-century, the human developmental phase known as “adolescence” has grown longer, and that the discoveries of biological science should be applied to the task of reducing the social and psychological “morbidity” of the “at least 20 % of young New Zealanders” who are failing to navigate this extended period of sub-adulthood successfully.
OH DEAR, oh dear, oh dear: there is just so much wrong with Professor Gluckman’s approach – it’s hard to know where to begin.
For a start, his thesis is utterly ahistorical – a deficiency which renders most of the report redundant. It neglects to acknowledge that “adolescence” itself is much more of a social than a scientific construct. An ex post facto justification for the very political decision to keep children out of the industrial labour force.
Prior to the rise of industrial capitalism, women and children had participated fully in the processes of production, and the family formation process was usually underway by the late teens.
And even after the social reformers of the 19th Century had put an end to child labour, no legal impediment was raised to employing 12 to 15-year-olds on farms and in factories.
Those of us over 50 will have little difficulty in remembering people who left high-school at 15, married at 19 or 20 and were parents long before they were 25. No one back then questioned their “social and psychological” fitness for these roles; they were adult citizens in good-standing; holding down jobs, paying off homes and raising families.
It’s this historical data that Professor Gluckman and his team quite simply refused to confront.
If there is social and psychological morbidly in New Zealand society, the explanation is not to be found in our genes, or the development of our brains, but in the political and economic decisions that have made the unnatural extension of “adolescence” inevitable.
Reintroduce full employment and free tertiary education, Professor Gluckman, and watch the morbidity of “at least 20% of young New Zealanders” plummet. Restore State Advances housing loans and the universal Family Benefit, and be astounded at how much earlier those young New Zealanders take on the responsibilities of adulthood.
To paraphrase Marx: The Scientists have only investigated the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 June 2011.