If there is no universal truth, as postmodern philosophy claims, then each social or political group should have the right to that reality that best suits them. What, then, are the consequences of applying postmodernist thinking when it comes to science?”Marcel Kunst – The Postmodern Assault on Science, 2012
Female leaders have been getting very generous coverage in the press in recent months. They have managed the pandemic better (actually, they haven’t) and they are less warlike (actually, evidence suggests not). I do not wish to argue that women make worse leaders merely that they are just as complex and flawed as their male counterparts.
Jacinda Ardern’s name is like ‘catnip’ for progressives in the UK. She can do no wrong in their eyes. The Independent even had a column of ’empowering quotes, by Jacinda Ardern. In that paper, her coverage is remarkably similar to that received by Taylor Swift and that tells you something about the mentality of its journalists. Perhaps this post is more about UK journalists and their reporting of Jacinda Ardern than it is a criticism of Jacinda herself.
I started with an open mind about Jacinda Ardern. She inherited a pretty-good hand’ from her predecessors, New Zealand is one of the most transparent countries in the world with high levels of trust and in most international rankings it is on a par with the Nordic countries. It should have been relatively easy to build upon that legacy. However, there are some worrying signs that NZ may be going backward under her leadership – at least viewed from afar by an admirer of NZ culture.
First came the pandemic and initially she seemed to be doing a great job. New Zealand had succeeded in ‘crushing the curve’ not just slowing the spread of the COVID 19 virus. However, over time New Zealand’s pandemic management started to attract the wrong sort of attention when it was slow to vaccinate its population and it retained draconian and perhaps illiberal restrictions long after other countries had moved forward. One NZ citizen was even forced to seek refuge from the Taliban in Afghanistan when she was unable to return to her home country to give birth (see here). COVID-19 is now raging in NZ and rather than crushing the curve, it might be more accurate to say that the spread was delayed. That said, Jacinda’s COVID management can still be presented as a success story albeit with the uneasy feeling that it was also characterised by authoritarian overreach.
Other much more serious shortcomings of the Ardern administration are beginning to emerge. A recent article in the Spectator highlighted her housing policy (see here). When Jacinda became prime minister she promised to address the house price spiral that has locked all but the most privileged youngsters out of the property market. How successful has she been? Well, under her leadership house construction has stalled and house prices have risen faster than ever. While the average house in the UK costs £260,000 in NZ it is exactly double that amount and house price inflation is even higher than it is in the overheated UK market. What about the much vaunted house construction plan? Jacinda promised to build 100,000 new homes which, in a small country, would have made a significant impact on house price inflation. However, in five years only one percent of that total has been built and it seems unlikely she will even get close to her target.
The most worrying thing of all for New Zealand’s future prosperity is what is happening to education in general and, in particular, science education (for a more detailed review of this subject see here). For a number of years, NZ has been dropping down the international rankings for literacy, maths and science see figure below. There is a good correlation between scores and maths and science and prosperity and while that does not prove a causal effect you might think a decline in maths and science scores would arouse concern. Also noteworthy, looking at the figure below, is that while attainment according to international indices has declined exam scores have improved. That is incontrovertible evidence of grade inflation.
So how is the Ardern administration responding to this deeply worrying trend in the international rankings? The answer is in the most extraordinary and wrong-headed way imaginable; by giving traditional Maori ways of knowing (Mātauranga Māori ) equal billing with science within the science curriculum! Naturally, Maori folklore and customs should be an important part of the curriculum in NZ schools but they do not constitute an alternative way of knowing equal to maths and science. The two systems of thought belong in different domains. To contextualise scientific problems in ways that are appealing to the Maori population is a sound idea, but to debase science by teaching creation myths as equal to the theory of evolution does everyone a disservice. Mātauranga Māori (MM) should be taught alongside history and anthropology.
Had evangelical Christians managed to insert their creation myths into the science curriculum in the USA, media outrage would have followed worldwide. In this case, however, the liberal press who fawn over Jacinda Ardern has been strangely quiet.
Just as worrying as these changes to the science curriculum is the intolerance shown to Kiwi academics who have questioned this decision. When seven professors at the University of Auckland wrote an article in the Listener questioning the decision, they faced an intimidating investigation by the NZ Royal Society that was quickly dubbed an “inquisition” and a philosopher of science was even accused of misunderstanding what science is! A climate of fear has grown in New Zealand where MM is seen as sacred truth and sceptical academics are having to self-censor. All this, on Jacinda Ardern’s watch.
This is where microbiologist Souisxie Wiles, pictured above, comes into the frame. She made allegations against the dissenting University of Auckland Professors that they were intimidating junior researchers with lawyers’ letters and she encouraged a media pile-on. A court of appeal judge examining the case stated –
The council agrees that the statement was inaccurate. It appears plain that none of the named professors were involved in intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters. “[The council] is of the view that this is a most serious allegation to make, striking at the heart of academic freedom by asserting that the Professors were trying to stifle opposing views using lawyers’ threats. It required immediate public correction.
For a full account of this affair see here. Dr. Wiles has an impressive scientific CV and the most charitable interpretation I can place on her actions is that there may have been some form of coercion in operation.
Then again, our expectations of Siousxie Wiles should not be too high. On behalf of the NZ government, she advised the public to remain in strict lockdown (level 4). Subsequently, Siousxie ‘did a bit of a Dominic Cummings’ when she met a girlfriend who had cycled in from another area and they spent time together on the beach -unmasked. See video here. New Zealander of the Year, Siousxie Wiles responded in the time-honoured feminist way by playing the victim. The Guardian was even stupid enough to cover her claims uncritically. By the way, Siousxie was born in the UK so I have no qualms about criticising her.
Back to Jacinda Ardern. It is too soon to say whether hers will be a good or a bad premiership, but there are some worrying signs. The problem with the uncritical reception she gets in parts of the media is that she can not possibly live up to it. In turn, that encourages a backlash. Premierships are best judged years later. Let’s hope wrecking science education in New Zealand isn’t what she is best remembered for. I do not think any of her possible strengths and weaknesses are specifically related to her gender – in contrast to the viewpoint of some journalists.