Wednesday 23 December 2020

Annus Horribilis.

Covid Crushers: In this horrible year of 2020, we have learned some important lessons about the importance of leadership and the power of science.

THE BOYS would have heard them coming. The roar of dozens of powerful motorcycles telling them everything they needed to know. Bandits in the pay of Boko Haram. A raid. 

Of the more than 800 pupils at the Government Science Secondary School, in Kankara, North-West Nigeria, 500 managed to flee. The rest, more than 300 teenage boys, were taken prisoner and marched at gunpoint into the forest, where military helicopters could not track them. They would be ransomed by the Nigerian Government and released, mostly unharmed, a few days later – for an undisclosed sum.

After an earlier raid, in which 100-plus teenage girls were taken, ransomed, and returned to their distraught parents, Boko Haram – Islamist terrorists with a deep hatred for everything associated with Western science and education – had a chilling message for the local population: “Don’t you ever send your daughters to school again.”

Over the past twelve months, in the Northern states of Nigeria, more than a thousand people, many of them children, have been killed by Boko Haram and their proxies. More than 100,000 have been displaced: refugees in their own country.

Worse afflictions than Covid-19 have beset the peoples of the world in 2020.

Boko Haram’s terrorists do, however, have more than a little in common with at least some of the citizens of the world’s wealthiest nations – especially when it comes to science. In the United States, especially, there are many equally fanatical religious believers who, like Boko Haram, see science as a deadly threat to their faith. More than that, they see it as a threat to their whole conception of the world, and to their roles within it.

Multiple reports from the United States describe evangelical Christians, only hours away from succumbing to the Covid-19 virus, still breathlessly insisting to their professional carers that the whole pandemic is a hoax: part of a grand political conspiracy to rob them of their faith and their freedom.

New Zealand had these people, too. Billy Te Kahika and his Public Party courted them on social media and brought them to their feet at indoor and outdoor rallies across New Zealand. Alongside the former National MP, Jami-Lee Ross, and his Advance NZ Party, Te Kahika sought parliamentary representation in the October general election. When all the votes had been counted, however, it was clear that, in this country at least, the political market for anti-science is extremely small. Fewer than 30,000 New Zealanders cast their votes for Billy TK and his outlandish conspiracy theories.

The scale of Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern’s electoral victory attests to the considerable faith New Zealanders are still willing to invest in the twin pillars of modern society: science and democracy. From the moment it became clear that the world was facing a pandemic of huge potential destructiveness, the country’s political leadership made the crucial decision to be guided by their scientific advisers – rather than business lobbyists.

That this was a decision made in their interests, to keep them safe, very soon became clear to the New Zealand electorate. The voters had only to look at the Covid-19-related death and havoc unleashed in the countries whose politicians refused to be guided by the scientists, to grasp how fortunate they were in their Prime Minister and her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.

Most of those delinquent countries were located in the West. That New Zealand followed a different path is, therefore, unusual. As one of the key scientific voices in New Zealanders’ ears throughout the pandemic, Professor Michael Baker, observed to Jim Mora on his last Sunday Morning show for the year: New Zealand, throughout its history, has taken its cue from Europe and North America; but in relation to Covid19, we allowed ourselves to be guided by Asian nations. Is it possible that New Zealanders, looking back on their country’s handling of the pandemic, will see it as the moment we finally and irrevocably relocated our imaginations from the North to the South?

What became indisputably clear to New Zealanders, as the pandemic raged across the planet, was that their political leaders and their scientific advisers had reclaimed the state for the people. From the mid-1980s onwards, as the veteran political journalist Colin James has observed on many occasions, New Zealanders ceased to look upon the state as their friend – as their parents had done since the days of “King Dick” Seddon and Mickey Savage – and began, instead, to see it as an inhumanly programmed apparatus for the advancement of “market forces” and the businesses who benefited from them.

In the daily performances of the “Jacinda and Ashley Show”, however, it was made very clear that the business voices decrying the Government’s decision to lock down the economy, and demanding a less rigorous and costly approach to managing the pandemic, were not being heeded. Business journalist Bernard Hickey’s angry imprecations notwithstanding, the Government’s Covid response was very far from being a gift to our biggest capitalists. On the contrary, the full resources of the state were being rolled out on behalf of its citizens: a frankly socialist gift to the New Zealand people, for which, on 17 October, they showed themselves to be extremely grateful.

That socialist response would not have been possible without the ideology-defeating power of science. For nearly 40 years now, the makers of the “free market revolution” have done everything within their power to convince people that their economic nostrums are, in fact, scientific truths. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the perceived interests of business, and the facts of epidemiological science, began to diverge.

In other Western nations, the UK and the USA in particular, the political leadership responded to this divergence by side-lining the scientists in favour of re-starting the economy. In New Zealand, however, that did not happen. Prime Minister Ardern and her key Cabinet colleagues, in accordance with the best scientific advice, opted to “go hard and go early”.

New Zealand’s lockdown, one of the most draconian on the planet, was predicted to produce dire economic consequences. Treasury warned the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, to expect an unemployment rate of around 14 percent – Depression Era stuff. But, as Ardern consistently argued: getting on top of the pandemic is the only sure way of getting the economy back on its feet. She was right. New Zealand’s GDP fell sharply, but then it roared back, as New Zealand’s “Team of Five Million”, in marked contrast to the citizens of other Western nations, succeeded in eliminating community transmission of the virus – thereby freeing themselves to resume living something pretty close to a normal life.

What the people of Northern Nigeria would give for a normal life. For a country in which science, far from being denounced as the work of Satan, was the guarantor of the people’s health and safety. Where girls could not only be educated in perfect safety, but go on to lead their people to a better future.

In this annus horribilis – 2020 – we have discovered two things about the power of science. The first is that science, rationally applied, can preserve and enhance our lives, and keep us safe. The second is that who controls the power of science is a matter of the utmost importance.

Because, behind Covid-19 there still lurks the much vaster threat of runaway climate change. In combatting this truly existential danger, will our leaders be guided by the science – as they were in this country over Covid-19? Or, will the bandits of business kidnap science and extract from us all a ransom the planet cannot afford to pay?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 21 December 2020.


Trev1 said...

There has been much to admire about Taiwan's response to COVID and I hope our authorities are learning from Taiwan's approach in order to plan for the pandemics that will come again in the future, perhaps more frequently than before.

Science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a process of observation and experiment. Here I find the "climate change" dogma disturbing. It appears no debate is permitted. "The science is settled" proponents say. Science is never "settled", it is impelled by enduring skepticism. The spurious statistic that "97 percent of scientists agree" (on man-made climate change) is trotted out to prove there is a "scientific consensus". Consensus is a political term that belongs in places like the UN, not a scientific idea. Frankly there is more than a whiff of totalitarianism about the man-made climate change movement. There are serious logical problems, let alone scientific ones, about their approach. For example at the core of the UN Paris Agreement is a commitment to restrain temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over "pre-industrial" levels. And what is, or when was this pre-industrial baseline observed? 1720, 1066 or 410 AD perhaps? There is no definition in the Agreement because there is no "consensus" among proponents of climate change theory, many of them political ngos. So just how long is a piece of string then?

Chris Morris said...

There are real problems in science that is undermining its authority - lack of replication, cherrypicking, a broken peer review system and activist scientists are just some of the problems. There are too many academics and not enough places or stuff for them to do. So they aim for sensational headlines that aren't supported by even their own research. Publish or perish is their mantra. And this has fed out to the public. A lot of people trust science but only if it confirms their previously held beliefs. People say "trust the science" but only if it supports their opinion. Think anthropogenic global warming, vaccinations, GE, 1080, Roundup - many people believe the majority opinion science in only a few of these. And that aphorism that anything with science or studies in the title isn't generally holds true.
As Trev writes, consensus isn't science. It is sound theories that match all the evidence. Feynman put it succinctly “It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.” I wonder how well he would do in the hallowed halls of academia today - not very well I propose.

Anonymous said...

Chris perhaps some fact checking is deserved:
One leading influence on our decision to shut the border firmly was a group of ‘rich pricks’ who contacted JA and pleaded with her to go for it!
We shut off flights from China on the same day or two many many countries did, inc Trumpland
We had one expert we relied on called Ashley and he fortunately was brilliant at his job. Most countries have many ‘experts’ so are bound to have several conflicting fully valid scientific views to confuse them
Australia is not socialist in the least, has a conservative business focussed government but has done, in their context, even better than us, we being tiny and an island far off …
Key would have done exactly as smiley face did. He said so from the start. As did Bridges etc …
Belgium has the worst figures of larger countries in the world. Sort of socialist place … Socialist Spain is not far behind them with appalling results … . The US & Brazil which the left always points at as having the worst numbers because they hate their leaders, are in fact 12th and 19th worst.
So your thesis has no evidence in support. NZ must be the easiest country in the world to govern, as it is relatively homogenous and small and modern. Europe has the worst figures as it is impossible to shut up and the US like Europe is very diverse and so it is like herding cats.
Nothing to do with the marvels of a socialist bent state.

Anonymous said...

If our government truly believed in science they would promote genetic engineering and nuclear power. Both fully backed by the science.
But being socialists they oppose them because their ideology always trumps their selective view of science.
The brilliant vaccines are mostly GE btw. And the result of massive capitalist effort.
The left's opposition to nuclear power has meant way more fossil fuel has been burnt and continues to be.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Consensus is a political term that belongs in places like the UN, not a scientific idea."

I was going to take a holiday but I just couldn't resist this. The idea that science doesn't work by consensus is unmitigated bullshit. Usually put about by people who don't know anything about science.
And using Feynman to support this bullshit is even more bullshit. For if we take the corollary – it doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, if other people can't replicate it and therefore don't agree with it it's almost certainly wrong. One experiment means nothing. "Consensus."
Now I really, really must be going. :)

oneblokesview said...

The question remains in my mind.
Did NZ recover better than forecast because of the lockdown or in spite of the lockdown.
There is no clear measurable cause and effect.

Of course the Treasury forecast was finger in the air stuff as they had no experience to base their predictions on. After all they did say it was a once in a century event.
Treasury also did say that the effects wont be truly measurable until March 2021.
Something I think they did get right.

Am constantly reminded of the discredited 80,000 dead if "we" didnt do anything. Trigger for lockdown.

Chris Morris said...

As usual, GS makes a lot of noise and provides us with a fact free rant - demonstrating that he knows very little about the history of science, if not science itself. The history is plastered with heretics that did not go along with consensus but found the theory wasn't working. Smallpox vaccinations, evolution, cholera borne by infected water, continental drift and bacteria causing stomach ulcers are prominent ones. And they all started because the original theory did not fit the facts. The results of an experiment are a fact.
Rather than Feynman, I could have used Einstein's comment about German scientists opposing Jewish science -"to defeat relativity one did not need the word of 100 scientists, just one fact". If that isn't going against consensus, I do not know what is.
GS would do better learning about science rather than trying to give us the dubious benefit of his ill-informed opinions.

Kat said...

"Key would have done exactly as smiley face did. He said so from the start. As did Bridges etc …"

Facts are certainly not an important ingredient for the anonymous.......

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dear Chris. I did a thesis on pseudoscience. I think I probably know more about it than you. All those discoveries by "heretics" were eventually confirmed by consensus. If it's not replicable, it's not science.

Nick J said...

It is very interesting that Chris mentions Boko Haram at a juncture where we are discussing our own freedom of speech and defining such concepts as hate speech, and religious expression. This coincides with the report on the Christchurch mosque murders which at no point addresses the nature of the clash between our secularism and a fundamental religion.

I see GS and Brendan warring over fundamentalist faith in secularism and Christianity. It would appear neither are prepared to understand that some differences are reconcilable nor negotiable.

Heres a statement for them to consider from a Paris based Professor of Religious Studies Mohammed Hocine Benkheira "For Muslims, Islamic law has God as its author. Any other legislator is illegitimate. When people live under laws other than this one, not only do they sin if they accept this state of affairs, but they also live under the reign of injustice and oppression. It is therefore that Islam itself that places its laws above the laws of any government."

When we refuse to debate cultural and religious issues with regard to how they impact our polity and society we really do ourselves a huge disservice. Id contend that we refuse to confront the contradictions in our own world views, probably because the reality can make us feel confronted by conflicting emotions. For example if I accept the Professor's explanation of Islam I'm left with sympathy for the Christchurch mosque victims but also with a suspicion of Islamic intolerance of my polity. To state this overtly in a "woke" climate pushes me up against another puritanical intolerance.

My new years resolution is to keep stating it as it is honestly even if it hurts. Merry Christmas.

sumsuch said...

Business is behind everything the last 270 years. The motor. To cut it off ...?

Reason was the fuel but as it always was from the start of the species, a device of immediate utility.

Hence this cliff.

War govt is the model to address this bill due.

greywarbler said...

It seems to me from reading the early comments that these people consider that applying their own 'commonsense' and prejudices outbids rational analysis every time. The wisdom of the half-educated who resist revision of their thinking is paramount amongst the people.

So: In this annus horribilis – 2020 – we have discovered two things about the power of science. The first is that science, rationally applied, can preserve and enhance our lives, and keep us safe. The second is that who controls the power of science is a matter of the utmost importance.

And: To the first sentence, apply the tag both rational, and human-kindly. And to the second sentence, apply that there needs to be a demand for people who have done a paper in the power of thinking widely in decision-making, in both directions. Firstly in planning a pathway to the required outcome, then looking at that outcome and how people will be affected by it, and will have been affected while it is being implemented. And asking the question - If the outcome is good to meet all requirements, how best can it be achieved, and what changes will have to be made, and how can we explain this to the populace?

We then might have learned something useful in the more than half a century since the end of WW2 and the end of other wars which have scarred us all; some totally, some slightly dented, but all affected by the lack of deeper thinking and self-control of leaders, and the wild amoral behaviour in times of trauma, encouraged then. Jung's 'shadow' theory may have value for understanding what happens in peoples' minds, as even our own can be unknowns to ourselves. I think philosophy and psychological study are essentials for good leadership, societally and individually for guiding us to our own better decisions. I think this link is helpful as a step on the way -

Ian said...

The report on the Christchurch mosque murders didn't address "the nature of the clash between our secularism and a fundamental religion", is not that surprising. The clash was between a bigot who used religion to excuse his intolerance for people who were different from him. It is not that Kiwi Christians want to murder Kiwi Muslims. Or that secular Kiwis want to murder Kiwi Muslims.

100 years ago he might have targeted Chinese or Jews, but over the last 50 years, Muslims have become the group of people that it is OK to hate. The holocaust and our response to it have made hating Jews unacceptable, so Muslims have taken their place as the people to hate. Given increased anti-Chinese rhetoric in the last 4 years, Kiwi Chinese people may find themselves back on the hate list again.

Deeply religious people will tend to believe that religious law is more important than human laws. This isn't unique to Islam and this isn't a problem that is relevant in any way to the Christchurch mosque murders.

One problem New Zealand has is that our intelligence services are obsessed with spying on the political left, despite our history of terrorism from the political right (against trade unionists, Green Peace and now Muslims).

If you think different cultures sharing a country lead to bloodshed, then the New Zealand Wars is a much better example than the Christchurch mosque murders.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you say " was clear that, in this country at least, the political market for anti-science is extremely small." I wish that was true, but, unfortunately, it isn't. The "GE Free" movement and legislation are anti-science, and this may now be at least a hindrance, if not a roadblock, to ending the covid pandemic.

A vaccine Q&A in the Herald (16 Jan) asks the Q "will any have to be approved as genetically modified organisms?" It then gives the A that "Auckland University's Immunisation Advisory Centre says the two viral vector vaccines, Janssen and AstraZeneca, will require approval as GMO vaccines from the Environmental Protection Authority. But the authority says it has recieved no application yet."

There's a fine bureaucratic and political pickle! Anti-science legislation potentially blocking the exit from the pandemic! What to do?

I hope Labour can use it's majority to speed the approval, however exactly it does that. If there are problems with science-deniers in the Labour caucus, ACT and National will both support amending or removing the "GE Free" legislation.

There might be a silver lining to the covid cloud. The "GE Free" laws could be amended to allow the possibilities of the 21st century, not reflect the fears more appropriate to the 19th.