Hard talk about fresh water

While in London for the royal nuptials, John Key took the spotlight on BBC's hardtalk. With a stuffed kiwi on the shelf in the background, a well prepared Stephen Sackur kept coming back to ask questions that the Prime Minister seemed reluctant to answer. During the interview, the conversation turned to fresh water quality, with the "100% pure New Zealand" brand being held up for John Key to consider. A transcript of the section is on the Listener's website, and it is interesting to see how science and scientists are portrayed.

Stephen Sackur: One of the country’s unique selling points, and your advertising slogan was all about this, was “100% Pure New Zealand”, the idea that you’re a greener nation than any other in the developed world – that already isn’t true, as your population does slowly rise, and it’s going to get worse. Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, a leading environmental scientist in your country, said just the other day, “We are delusional about how clean and green we are.”

John Key: Well that might be Mike Joy’s view, but I don’t share that view.

Sackur: But he is very well qualified, isn’t he? He’s looked, for example, at the number of species threatened with extinction in New Zealand, he’s looked at the fact that half your lakes, 90% of your lowland rivers, are now classed as polluted.

Key: Look, I’d hate to get into a flaming row with one of our academics, but he’s offering his view. I think any person that goes down to New Zealand …

Sackur: Yeah but he’s a scientist, it’s based on research, it’s not an opinion he’s plucked from the air.

Key: He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview. Anybody who goes down to New Zealand and looks at our environmental credentials, and looks at New Zealand, then I think for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure – in other words, our air quality is very high, our water quality is very high

Sackur: But 100% is 100%, and clearly you’re not 100% …

It may be tempting to trivialise science as being about offering views, but the point of science is that underneath all the discussion there is a reality. Data on New Zealand river quality have been collected by NIWA, and a report on the data is available from the Ministry for the Environment. The Ministry summarizes the recent trends as showing that "between 1998 and 2007 national water quality deteriorated for clarity, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, oxidised nitrogen and conductivity in rivers with catchments dominated by pastoral land cover." Stephen Sackur gets to the point - it's based on research.

The hard talk interview on youtube

Scientific consensus

Good article and point, but there is a worrying truth behind the lawyer comparison. Science is sadly not heeded in urgent matters like ecological degradation because its proponents behave badly elsewhere. We are not in a world were all scientists agree on everything. Research in many fields cause many to be behind the latest research outside their core specialisation. Publication bias is a distorting factor. Sadly it is sometimes those scientists who are not up to date on research who claim that there is consensus. Recent local examples hereof include the fluoride and GMO debates. Many reputable journals and institutes like Harvard School of Public health have published detailed meta studies confirming credibility of the research suggesting a link between artificial water fluoridation and harmful side effects. Most OECD countries do not use the practice for those reasons. Still local some scientists claim there is no research proving harm and much proof of harmlessness. Likewise the expected benefits of GMO have been studied in great detail by the union of Concerned Scientists and their network of nearly 20 000 scientists and proven to be minimal compared to the risks. Some New Zealand scientists still claim there is scientific consensus on the benefits and general harmlessness of GMO. Europeans have woken up to the facts that scientists do not all have the final answers for everything yet and their opinions need to be compared. The New Zealand practice of regarding one scientist's opinion as the infallible truth and representative of the entire scientific community is very dangerous. We have great scientists in NZ, can need to read their research rather than try to worship them