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catallaxy in technical exile

Department of Disingenuousness

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While I – as Catallaxy readers will need no reminding – do not like the views of the Australia Institute or its boss Clive Hamilton, I think that they are shrewd political operators. Two of their favourite tactics are on display in today’s Age.

They have a new report on childcare, which as regularly occurs they have released to the media before they have made it more generally available. This makes it much harder for their critics to point out flaws in their research or reasoning and gives them days or even weeks to establish their views before challenge occurs. The worst single example of this occurred in 2001, when the Sydney Morning Herald (it is usually one of the Fairfax papers) ran a front-page story on an Australia Institute survey which, it said, showed how university standards were being dumbed down for fee-paying students. It attracted considerable national and international attention. When the survey finally came out weeks later, it turned out that a grand total of 4 academics claimed that they had experienced pressure to pass full-fee paying students. It wasn’t even clear whether the pressure came from the students themselves (and what academic hasn’t had a student complain about their marks?) or the university.

The other tactic is false reasonableness. For example, a casual reader of Hamilton’s latest book, Affluenza, could easily assume that he was just another social commentator targeting fashionable concerns such as work-life balance and depression. As I argued in my review (pdf) this is in fact part of a comprehensive attack on the modern world – most of which Affluenza‘s readers would find infinitely preferable to the alternatives. In the childcare research, they have found that one-in-five workers at corporate childcare centres would not send their own kids to one of their centres compared to 6% at small private centres and 4% at non-profits. If correct, this is worth knowing (though of course it means that 80% would send their kids there). But here is the disengenuous bit:

The Australia Institute’s director, Clive Hamilton, said the study did not set out to compare corporate child care – where the parent company is listed on the stock exchange – with the other types, but to probe the views of child-care workers generally.

“But as the responses came in the differences were striking and could not be ignored,” he said.

And how much did you say you wanted for the Sydney Harbour Bridge? If The Australia Institute did not set out to compare corporate with other forms of childcare, why did it even ask about ownership? In fact the standard anti-capitalist idea that market values such as proft-making corrupt spheres that ought to be free of market influences appears regularly through Hamilton’s work (some examples are in the review). They have already carried out work on the sinister effects of corporate healthcare. In a more honest account of the reason for doing the childcare research published in the Australia Institute’s December 2005 newsletter (pdf) Emma Rush notes the potential conflict between quality care and profit maximisation as one of the research gaps their study would help fill. But Age readers could be left thinking that the concerns of corporate childcare workers were just something they happened to come across, rather than something they were actively trying to find. Hamilton as disinterested researcher telling us the surprising facts is just a pose to make his work more credible.

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Written by Admin

April 1, 2006 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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