DIY cul­ture part of New Zealand iden­tity

De­spite what the sci­en­tists say, there is al­ways room in New Zealand for No. 8 wire, writes HAY­DEN WALLES.

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It is an un­der­stand­able fea­ture of the hu­man con­di­tion to over­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of your own oc­cu­pa­tion in the wide sweep of so­ci­ety. So it was per­haps un­sur­pris­ing to learn last month that New Zealand’s Crown Re­search In­sti­tutes (CRIs) view them­selves as paramount in the na­tional sci­en­tific fir­ma­ment.

The oc­ca­sion was the launch of Science New Zealand, an or­gan­i­sa­tion formed by the CRIs to teach us, the ig­no­rant pub­lic, of the value of science and tech­nol­ogy. Key to this, ac­cord­ing to the group, is erad­i­ca­tion of the myth of the No. 8 wire and DIY ethic.

You may ex­pect a science en­thu­si­ast such as my­self to be all for such a scheme, and up to a point I am. Sci­en­tific ig­no­rance is a wide­spread, yet gen­er­ally un­ac­knowl­edged prob­lem. Its vic­tims are forced to rely on the voice of author­ity, di­min­ish­ing the power they have over their own lives. They are in­ca­pable of eval­u­at­ing the claims made in the de­bates over sci­en­tific mat­ters, like cli­mate change. And they miss out on the ev­ery­day ben­e­fits of science, from avoid­ing quacks and char­la­tans to get­ting that last bit of sauce out of the bot­tle.

Un­for­tu­nately, Science New Zealand seems to be wor­ried not so much about help­ing us un­der­stand science, but with mak­ing us ac­knowl­edge the con­tri­bu­tion of science to the econ­omy. As Re­search, Science and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Pete Hodg­son put it at the launch, ‘‘I’m hop­ing Ki­wis will be­come more con­scious of how im­por­tant the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is to us all.’’

All right, so the CRIs are mar­ket­ing them­selves with a view to pro­tect­ing their gov­ern­ment fund­ing and drum­ming up busi­ness. That’s un­der­stand­able. It doesn’t li­cense them to say what­ever they like, though, and it’s their dis­dain for Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity that I take most is­sue with.

No. 8 wire so­lu­tions are those that emerge against the odds, when the ideal ma­te­ri­als aren’t avail­able, but the job gets done any­way. This is a nat­u­ral way of do­ing things in a coun­try as iso­lated as ours once was, where ma­chin­ery or ex­per­tise might be weeks or months away, and of­ten the only way to do some­thing was to do it your­self.

As far as I can tell, Science New Zealand’s ob­jec­tion is that the No. 8 wire approach hin­ders the ap­pli­ca­tion of science, be­cause the No. 8 in­no­va­tors don’t con­sult sci­en­tists, who could teach them a thing or two. Un­doubt­edly there are wannabe in­ven­tors out there who com­bine fine crafts­man­ship with sci­en­tific ig­no­rance (ex­treme ex­am­ples are the builders of per­pet­ual mo­tion ma­chines and the like). Suc­cess­ful in­ven­tors, though, are both in­ge­nious and sci­en­tif­i­cally aware. In­ge­nu­ity en­com­passes many things, one of which is the abil­ity to ap­ply ex­ist­ing knowl­edge— in­clud­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge— in new ways. Science is a use­ful in­gre­di­ent for in­ven­tion, but it is not suf­fi­cient, and Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity can play just as big a part. Sure, some in­no­va­tors fail be­cause they aren’t aware of the facts, but there’s no need to blame their ig­no­rance on their in­ge­nu­ity.

Pro­mot­ing the im­por­tance of science to in­no­va­tion is one thing, at­tack­ing the im­por­tance of Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity is quite an­other. One hopes that this dis­taste for the No. 8 wire approach comes from some­thing more than jeal­ousy of those in­ven­tors who do, from time to time, suc­ceed with­out the aid of science.

Con­fused as their ar­gu­ment is, I fear it may have harm­ful ef­fects. Apart from en­cour­ag­ing the view that science is es­sen­tial and in­ge­nu­ity dan­ger­ous in tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, the mis­sion to erad­i­cate the No. 8 wire myth sug­gests that science it­self has no place for Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity, which is far from the truth.

De­vis­ing good ex­per­i­ments, in par­tic­u­lar, re­quires in­ge­nu­ity to get a gen­er­ally un­help­ful uni­verse to be­have as the ex­per­i­menter wishes. And in a world where there are al­ways more ques­tions than there is money to an­swer them, in­ge­nu­ity is an as­set to the sci­en­tist. It was Ernest Ruther­ford who ex­pressed his be­lief in Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity by telling his un­der­lings that ‘‘We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.’’

Fi­nally, by damn­ing the DIY at­ti­tude, the CRIs hint that science can only be done in big or­gan­i­sa­tions. This is a com­mon be­lief, even inside some sci­en­tific cir­cles, but it is not one that I share. Science is one of the things you can do your­self. True, to study some things you need lots of peo­ple and ex­pen­sive equip­ment, but some of the most fa­mous names in science wrought their magic with noth­ing more than pen­cil and pa­per. Some peo­ple pros­per as part of a group, oth­ers shun com­pany. There is room in science for both. It would be sad if any bud­ding young minds were put off science be­cause they thought the best they could hope for was to be a cog in some vast science ma­chine.

Science New Zealand is cer­tainly right when it says that science and sci­en­tists are good for so­ci­ety. Just re­mem­ber that there’s al­ways room for No. 8 wire as well.

Hay­den Walles is a free­lance science writer from Dunedin. He is also com­plet­ing a PhD at the Univer­sity of Otago on cog­ni­tion and lan­guage.

Won­der­ful wire: No. 8 wire so­lu­tions are those that emerge against the odds.

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