OPINION: Though we live in a largely democratic society, it can still be difficult to be a dissenter. It used to be worse.
In the 1970s, trade unionists, intellectuals, student radicals were demonised by prime minister Robert Muldoon. Some of Sir Robert's "traitors" were pretty subversive. One was so Left-wing he went on to edit Cuisine magazine ("workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your pomegranate molasses!").
The latest dissenting head to be raised above the parapet belongs to freshwater ecologist Mike Joy. He had the audacity to say that New Zealand's "picture perfect" image as a clean and green nation was pure fiction. The Greens have been saying this for years, but Dr Joy's war crime was that his comments were published in the New York Times. In our insecure nation, criticising New Zealand in an overseas newspaper is akin to a married couple having an argument in front of other people - it's simply not done.
Dr Joy has been dubbed a "traitor" on radio. So infuriated was lobbyist Mark Unsworth that he sent a late-night email that made up for its lack of commas with extra vitriol, branding Dr Joy and his ilk "the foot and mouth of the tourism industry".
I have sympathy for the larrikin lobbyist. Scientists can be highly irritating creatures. I have worked with a few of the species, trying to convert their tortuous turns of phrase and highly technical Latin terms into plain English. Getting scientists to say something definitive can be like getting dihydrogen oxide out of calcium carbonate. Ask some scientists to put something in black and white and they say "it appears that way". Ask some to say an event is definitely going to happen and they'll say it is "highly likely"; run a tourism campaign saying our country is "100% Pure" and they may reply that it "does not appear to be so".
But that is exactly what is wonderful about a good scientist, which I believe Dr Joy is. A scientist's agenda is not to destroy or support one side of an argument, but to find out the truth by hypothesis, observation and experiment. Do some scientists have political agendas? Definitely - visit a tobacco or oil company. But though lobbyists, talkback hosts, newspaper editorials and politicians have attacked Dr Joy, I'm yet to hear of a scientist who has disproved anything he has said. So far, Dr Joy's argument appears to be 100 per cent accurate.
I'm no expert on ecology but even I know how polluted the Manawatu River is. I know that thanks to run-off from farms, Lake Rotoiti is an environmental basket case. I know there are more lobbyists at Parliament than Maui's dolphins in our waters. I know that whitebait now costs 25 bucks a punnet because of bad riparian management. I know that I'd never heard of a disease called giardia until the 1990s.
The late scientist Sir Paul Callaghan is rightly revered by this Government. But did it listen to any of his lectures before naming an institution after him? Sir Paul described tourism as a low-wage industry with finite capacity. Dairy farming is profitable but more farms would put further stress on an already overloaded environment.
But our genial tourism minister isn't worried. Mr Key reckons "100% Pure" is just a slogan and doesn't have to be 100 per cent true. It's more like McDonald's "I'm loving it". I wonder if Mr Key thinks "towards a brighter future" falls into the same category.
I'm all for more pesky scientists to continue to irritate us. If only, two years ago, a "traitorous" chemist had done some methane testing and told us that Pike River Coal's claim that its mine was safe was pure fiction. We could have sent him abusive, late-night emails saying he was ruining the coal industry.
Though Dr Joy is an expert on water ecology, I assume he knows enough botany to realise that in our little ecosystem, the most vulnerable plant is an educated and accurate tall poppy.
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