One of the most important contributions a scientist can make is to successfully question opinions that seem self-evident and obvious to the public. Once it was commonly accepted in the West that the world was flat and that the heart was the residence of the soul.
By the same token one of the biggest dangers for a scientist is to get sucked into simply stating things that go along with what is commonly believed but are not really self-evident at all. It's very easy to make statements that go with the grain without applying the same amount of thought given to statements that go against the grain.
To do this is to reinforce potentially false beliefs and give them a veneer of scientific credibility. The danger seems most obvious for social science, where hardly anything can be proven beyond doubt. One needs to make clear the level of certainty that applies to whatever statements are made.
Consider ethnic diversity (commonly seen as a good thing) and Aboriginal welfare (widely regarded as having grown worse).
Last month The Australian ran an article ("The downside of difference", January 31 and republished in On Line Opinion on February 19, 2007) by the Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh, based on his research into ethnic diversity. In his first paragraph he offers various platitudes about the advantages of diversity. He states, for example, that "our restaurants would be bland imitations of themselves without the flavours brought by successive waves of Italian, Thai and Vietnamese immigrants".
That diversity has transformed the way we eat seems a sensible statement, but is this based on anything more than gut feeling?
Whose culinary diversity are we talking about? A century ago in England there might well have been 100 intricate ways to cook a parsnip; today you can't buy one in most shops.
Nor is it obvious that we have a happier relationship with food. Obesity rates suggest that our average eating experience has worsened: many choose fleeting gratification at the cost of long-term wellness. As for the pleasure of novelty - in food as in anything else - that diminishes with familiarity. But the point is that Leigh feels the need for an introduction where he is seen to value diversity. And when it comes to these positive statements, he feels no need to apply critical standards.
Having asserted without evidence that diversity is good for society, he proceeds to his controversial argument: that an impressive array of findings - his own and those of overseas studies - put a negative complexion on diversity. He argues plausibly that diversity is related to low levels of trust, low levels of community involvement, high levels of crime, and a weak welfare state.
In doing so he takes pains to cite several researchers and their data sets, and he is careful to note the niceties of the findings. Apparently this is how you need to write when you say something outside the prevailing cultural norm. The contrast with his introductory remarks - well within the norm - is striking. There is a double standard at work.
The debate surrounding Sorry Day and Aboriginal welfare appears to suffer from similar double standards. For example, news articles often report the claim by academics that the life expectancy of Aborigines is almost 20 years below the national average.
As social science researchers, we lack a data set of all those with some Aboriginal ancestry. What we rely on is the group that self-identifies as Aboriginal, so we cannot say with certainty what Aboriginal life expectancy is. The number of people reporting their Aboriginality has risen sharply in the past 20 years - the population registered in this way has almost doubled - so the official figures captured over time may not be representative.
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