Research and Destroy

Studies of race relations are sometimes used to bolster prejudice, not reveal the truth. 


Listener: 10 February, 2007.  


Keywords: Health; Maori; Social Policy; 


Don Brash’s January 2004 Orewa speech may have been a key event in New Zealand race relations. The earlier foreshore and seabed decisions had stirred a restlessness about Maori claims as well as a Maori concern that the Crown was too willing to override their rights. The Brash speech articulated the irritation of those who thought Maori were privileged in public policy and rhetoric. 


Not only were Brash and his speechwriter, Peter Keenan, economists, so was the writer of the research said to underpin the Orewa speech. Simon Chapple is an economist with a number of interesting research papers on socio-economic differences between Maori and non-Maori, which challenge a lot of lazy thinking by both the right and left, Maori sympathisers and rednecks. 


Often the implicit assumption in public debate – including in some Brash speeches – is that Maori are a “race”. That is a descent notion, as in the tiresome question of how many “full Maori” there are. Most of our statistics are based on self-assigned ethnicity. Those who report being Maori (often in conjunction with another ethnicity, such as Pakeha) are saying something about how they see themselves in cultural terms, not necessarily who their ancestors were. (The main statistical exception is that a descent notion applies to enrolment on the Maori electoral roll. Law requires a fact – have you a Maori ancestor? – not a feeling – do you think yourself as Maori?) 


Chapple’s “Maori socio-economic disparity” examines the extent of socio-economic differences between Maori and others. Unquestionably, unemployment is proportionally higher among Maori than non-Maori. But if we confine the comparison to those with the same gender, age, literacy and location, the differences largely disappear. The issue is why those who call themselves Maori are inclined to be younger, less literate and in inferior employment locations. It seems unlikely that Maori are generally discriminated against by employers, although we may know of anecdotal instances. 


Chapple’s paper is available on the web and in hard copy. There is enough in it to conclude that he is making thoughtful, sober, subtle arguments. But that is not what much of public debate is about – certainly not Brash’s 2004 Orewa speech. Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men suggests that no one involved could be described as expert in the complicated social science of race relations. Instead, Chapple’s work was used the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than to shed light. 


Moreover, only the Chapple lamppost was used. Too often we seize one study that supports our prejudices, and don’t look for ones that contradict them or enrich our thinking. Testing my assumption that unemployment damages health, I looked at more than 100 studies before I was confident it was empirically true. 


This column is not intended to be solely a criticism of Brash and his allies. Those opposing him can be equally casual. The “Closing of the Gaps” work, which Chapple was criticising, was sloppy, as I said in the Listener of November 25, 2000. 


Consider the research into health disparities by a team led by epidemiologist Tony Blakely. After allowing for differences in age, gender and socio-economic status, it still found that those who said they were Maori had higher mortality than their non-Maori counterparts. It is not helpful to explain such health differences by “colonisation”. 


Even after adjusting for age, socio-economic status and ethnicity, male mortality is higher than female mortality. But nobody explains the difference by saying women “colonise” men. We need to investigate the empirical linkages rather than apply a label and stop thinking. 


(Incidentally, Blakely’s work convincingly contradicts my earlier research suggesting that smoking has a greater impact on Maori smokers than non-Maori smokers, although of course there is a significant mortality difference between smokers and non-smokers, and relatively more Maori smoke. This mea culpa goes to prove that relying on a single paper can be misleading: progress is about accumulating studies that test earlier ones.) 


Contrast the fine work by researchers such as Chapple and Blakely with its casual use in public debate. We don’t mean to be racist, but ignoring and misrepresenting research gives the proverbial Woman from Mars the impression that we are.