OPINION: It might have made good TV but it was, from my perspective at least, bad science. I’m referring to those pictures of Dr Mike Joy, a fresh water ecologist from Massey University, standing in the dry bed of Selwyn River lamenting about the poor state of New Zealand’s rivers.
Those pictures and his words perpetuate what appears to be his considered opinion that, when it comes to water quantity and quality, all roads lead to any combination of nitrogen, dairying and irrigation – intensification of dairying full stop.
From my reading and understanding of the science of water quality, noting that this is not my specialty, it seems to me that Dr Joy’s opinions on this subject are biased. I know some water quality experts who agree with this assessment.
The Royal Society of New Zealand, the body that sets the tone and standards for the conduct of science in New Zealand, has a Code of Professional Standards and Ethics.
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Section 2.1 deals with “Integrity and Professionalism”. It states that a member must:
endeavour to obtain and present facts and interpretations in an objective and open manner; and
strive to be fair and unbiased in all aspects of their research and in their application of their knowledge in science, technology, or the humanities.
I am not for a moment suggesting that Dr Joy lacks integrity or professionalism. I am raising the more awkward and difficult question: Given his scientific credentials, do the views he has expressed over a number of years in respect to water quality meet the standard set out by the Royal Society of New Zealand?
As I understand these matters, there are four contaminants, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), pathogens and sediments, and that all catchments are different in terms of which of these contaminants is the ‘rate limiting step’ in terms of water quality. Dr Joy speaks only of one, nitrogen.
As I understand these matters, there are sources of these contaminants other than dairying: Natural background sources, urban wastewater, cropping, and dry stock operations.
As I understand these matters, the likely reason for the low water flow in the Selwyn River at present has nothing to do with irrigation. It is due to the drought conditions over the last three years in the headwaters of this type of ephemeral stream.
Thus from this perspective, Dr Joy’s approach to the science of water quality appears biased: One pollutant, one source and one solution.
Yes, Dr Joy has the qualifications of a scientist and is employed in a scientific organisation. He is allowed to wear the ‘cloak of science’. But it occurs to me that his scientific utterances over the past few years cast him in the mould of an ‘Issue Advocate’ pushing a point of view, rather than a scientist who proceeds logically, cognizant of all the data.
There will be some who will argue that he is entitled to his opinions. Others will argue that because he is employed by a university he is protected by the ‘academic freedom’ provisions of the Education Act.
I totally support the principle of free speech – it is one of the cornerstones of democracy. But surely this general freedom comes with the caveat, at least in technical and science matters, that such opinions should be objective and unbiased. This most certainly applies to members of the Royal Society of New Zealand, as expressed in its Code of Conduct.
I would have thought that this caveat would also apply to the principle of academic freedom. Universities, and I think we can be sure of this, are very protective of their scientific standing and reputation. It is not in their interest to uphold academic freedom if this is enabling their staff to bring the organisation into ill repute.
It is ironic in my view that Dr Joy has been, and I suspect will continue to be, supported by the powers-that-be at Massey University under the academic freedom umbrella. It is a double irony that Dr Joy was recently honoured for his work by none other than the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The loser in all this is society. Either the great unwashed get a distorted view of the evidence, which they gleefully gobble up because it supports their own biases, or they remain ill informed and confused. Either way the rural–urban gulf gets wider and more toxic.
I have been writing for over a decade now about the gradual commercialisation and politicisation of science and trying to warn people of the consequences. The importance, value and integrity of science is being eroded. As the 21st century plays out there are many examples to suggest science is under threat of extinction.
In my view, the whole water quality debate is being pervaded and consequently undermined by the same sinister forces. There is so much money and political patronage on offer that no one dares to ruffle the PC feathers of the power brokers. The truth is verboten if it might upset the moneylenders, and speaking out to correct distorted facts and opinions is not something a PC -aware scientist does these days.
Welcome, I am sad to say, to post-normal science. Science is now not about finding the “truth” – the role of science is, once the money is secured, to support the narrative – “Dirty Dairy” – go to it!
Dr Doug Edmeades, MNZM, is an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge. He is happy to hear from readers: firstname.lastname@example.org.