Friday 10 June 2011

The Gluckman Report: Acknowledging The Symptoms, Ignoring The Causes

The Morbid Relationship of Politics and Science: Professor Sir Peter Gluckman's report to the Prime Minister addresses the biological and psychological aspects of human maturation but fails to locate these in their socio-economic and political contexts. Twenty-percent of Kiwi adolescents aren't making the transition to adulthood easily, says the Professor. Did anyone ask if they were raised in the 15-20 percent of families whose incomes fall below the poverty line?

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.


Anonymous said...

I found myself agreeing with these points. To hopefully add something, the State now expects 18 year olds to take out loan contracts and get into debt, and the career choices are supposedly determined at a young age. Of course, many will have to undertake more courses and assume more debt if the initial study does not lead to work, like most Arts graduates find. I don't think that removing interest from the loans makes much difference. It also ensures that these so-called adolescents strongly affect which courses and subjects are actually taught, rather than this being research-led. Presumably this also affects the future of 'pure' form of science that Professor Gluckman thinks he engages in, when not lending his authority to the personal views of his patron, the Prime Minister.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Well what do you expect from a 'scientific adviser' who ignores all the empirical evidence to the contrary and bleats on about the importance of global warming?

I have yet to receive one taker for my offer of a bottle of the best Barossa Shiraz to anyone who can show me where the 'scientific community' has altered just one piece of raw climate data downward instead of upward.

queenstfarmer said...

Hi Chris, what do you mean "Reintroduce full employment"? Do you think a youth wage should be reintroduced?

Unknown said...


I thought your readers might enjoy Mark Steyn's thoughts on the Western phenomena of 'Extended Adolescence' which complements the sentiments expressed in your article.

Ross said...

Have suicides increased since the days of 14- 15 year olds in factories? Who knows. Suicides were euphemistically called "sudden" for yonks and hidden from the stats. Why not do a Gluckman and look at the data. Have opportunities to extend your education improved since 1800? Why not do a Gluckman on that. You may be right Chris, but what Gluckman is pleading for is evidence to support government policy development rather than take the ad hoc, queasy "feelings", "I think", "Do it my way" kinds of policy we are now burdened with.

A classic is the discussion on Pharmac with the intense lobbying being carried out over the last month - and confirmed by Wikileaks - that is trying to roll the Govt. I suspect the evidence - after all that is what Pharmac is designed to assess - was working too well for the Drug Dealers.

Another is the death ads that try and prevent road deaths. Where is the evidence that it works? I think I could find some evidence that supports driver education in EVERY school might be better.

Another is ACC. I have an OIA request demonstrating that ACC pays shit loads for quacks. Acupuncture and Chiropractics included. And yet, the Govt is insisting that ACC should privatise. Evidence based treatments would be a good start to save money.

Show me the evidence is all Gluckman is pleading.

ann wilson said...

Chris your comments sound like commonsense to me. There is a large shortage of it in the world.

Michael said...

Hi Chris. I have resorted to your blog because the government disturbs me, and there is no effective opposition party. And I am enjoying your posts. The Gluckman report - what exactly is teenage morbidity? So far as I can understand, this is about teenagers drinking, smoking, getting pregnant (without wanting too), and killing themselves. Because they have not grown up. Chris, your blog is subtitled, 'ruminations of and Old New Zealander'. Do we have a New Zealand today that will provide anyone with a basis, or inspiration, for the ruminations of tomorrow? The grown up blogs of today's teenagers, tomorrow? New Zealand today is about bland materialism, and subscribes to global celebrity culture (Gluckman picked up on the latter point). Message: you have everything you need for a mediocre life, just indulge so far as you can; a life of significance is the domain of pop gods and criminals. Mainstream New Zealand, epitomized by the National Party, has no soul. Too many young people see nothing they want to grow up for, except the delusion of unreachable idol status. Perhaps in their hearts they know that too is worthless. For past generations, ordinary life glowed with beauty and promise against the backdrop of the horrors of war, in which they had personally participated. My generation had the idealism of anti-tour activism etc. but it still fell short. Now the water is muddied - what is really to fight for, and who represents it? Who should we rebel against, to show who we are? Perhaps our young people are not failing to grow up, but old before their time - or trying to avoid being so.

Anonymous said...

Actually family formation assuming you mean marriage always varied a lot in pre industrial times, and formation in the late teens as you assume was quite rare. Early to late 20s depending on the economy was more common in western societies.