Lindsay Mitchell and Paul Moon: What were they thinking?

[Another potential title for this post: That Mitchell and Moon Thought]

I’ve been running (blog) silent for almost a month now. As I am in the endgame of the thesis I find it difficult-qua-impossible to contemplate, let alone actually engage in, other writing work when the thesis (seemingly) is going so well and so strongly. I can’t actually see or understand how anyone who is getting through a PhD could also blog regularly (although I am sure it is possible1).

I also had a massive database crash (not my fault) and lost a rather long and lengthy post about Wikileaks, which really did quite annoy me. That lead to me renaming the blog (now under the lovely title of “EPISTO!”) and trying to move it to proper (rather than hosted in the “all-embracing” sub-domain) but that doesn’t seem to be working (various plugin issues; I’ll resolve it at some point and move the blog properly early next year).

Anyway, as this is the last post of the year, I want to talk about Lindsay Mitchell and Dr. Paul Moon, both of whom have said some remarkably stupid things in the last few days. Moon really has no excuse for his ill-considered comments; Mitchell probably just doesn’t know better. Let’s start with her.

In the category of “People Who Give Opinion Columnists a Bad Name…”

Lindsay Mitchell, former ACT candidate and a “welfare commentator”2 wrote this wonderfully stupid column for Monday the 27th of December’s New Zealand Herald. In it, she commits the “Correlation is always causation” fallacy when, amongst other things, she writes:

While by no stretch of the imagination wholly explaining the incidence of abuse, the more that ‘poor’ families are paid to look after their children, the more abuse has occurred or, at least, has been notified and substantiated. More money certainly isn’t curing the problem. So perhaps it is time to ask if more money is exacerbating it?

Now, since the development (and partial subsequent dismemberment) of the Welfare State in the Western World a lot of things have happened; software piracy has risen dramatically, the prevalence of autism is now much higher, the Cold War started and ended… The list goes on. All of these things are correlates; they happened about the same time. Correlates are not necessarily causes of effects, although they might be, and there are a whole host of tests we can apply to test whether a correlate pair is either a cause-effect pair or a set of two effects that share a common cause, and so forth.

Now, Mitchell is claiming that the Welfare State might be the cause of an increase in the incidence of child abuse but she does admit that all we might be seeing is an increase in the reporting of child abuse. Now, an increase in the reporting of child abuse is precisely what we should hope will happen under a welfare state; if child abuse rates remain steady the oversight the welfare state brings should bring more of these cases to light3.

Now, what we aren’t told by this increased reporting of child abuse (which is the measure we have) is whether the increased reporting indicates an increase in child abusing. Mitchell doesn’t tell us that child abuse is on the increase, just that we have more reporting of it. You can’t, then, infer that putting more money into the system is making the problem worse. Indeed, you might be excused for thinking that more reporting of child abuse is good; the more attention that is drawn towards it, the more likely something is going to be done about it.

Mitchell does marshall another fact to give her argument some credence. She says:

The incidence of abuse amongst non-working families is around four times higher than among working families.

Now, this is another example of correlation which may or may not be an example of causation. It might be the case that being on a benefit leads to child abuse, which would be straight causation. It might be the case that both child abuse and being on a benefit are the effects of some prior cause (say, a failure of the welfare state at an early stage, the failure of the education system to prepare the parents, et cetera) or it might be the case that there is an additional cause of this incidence of reporting, which is that families on benefits typically get more oversight from the welfare state. You would expect there to be a higher incidence of reported child abuse from families on benefits because they are more likely to have contact with social workers and the like. This, on its own, doesn’t tell you that child abuse is more rife in families which are receiving benefits. It simply tells you that child abuse is more likely to be reported in such situations (and, if we believe the rate of child abuse is roughly equal across the board, it indicates that child abuse is under-reported in working families, which is a disturbing thought).

Mitchell is, in essence, using this talk of child abuse to engage in that beloved past-time of the Far Right, the attacking of beneficiaries. Her argument is the usual canard that ACT likes to bring out to play, which is that decent, middle-class Pākehā are having pay their precious tax dollars to support the dirty poor. It says a lot about our society that such stories are both popular with and not widely ridiculed by the media. Still, given the company Mitchell keeps, I don’t think she knows much better4.

In the category of “People Who Should Know Better…”

Dr. Paul Moon of AUT University5 wins a special place in my heart for saying this to the New Zealand Herald:

“If Maori reached New Zealand waters just 300 years before the first Europeans, some people might also start to reconsider the idea of Maori being indigenous. It could be interpreted as a different type of ‘indigenous’ from the sort that applies to peoples who inhabited countries exclusively for thousands of years. This would be an unfortunate conclusion to draw, but is something that might have to be faced.”

I don’t actually know if Moon is simply ignorant of what indigeneity is for Māori or whether he is simply being disingenuous. What is is doing is using the wrong kind of metric for measuring what makes a people indigenous, which is time.

Now, let’s not be silly; the length of time a people have inhabited and lived in a place is an important aspect of what it is to be indigenous to that place. If a people who have been in a place for two weeks say they are indigenous to that place, then I think we can quite happily say there is something wrong with their reasoning. Give these people a generation of being in that place and then it becomes more tricky.

Time is not a particularly useful metric on its own because as a measure of what makes a people indigenous to a place it suffers from the Sorites Paradox.

Imagine a heap of sand. Now, imagine removing one grain of sand from that heap. Is it still a heap? Most people will say yes. Yet, if we continue to remove single grains and ask that question, we are going to get to a point where the heap will be only a few grains of sand, and many punters will begin to quibble as to whether a set of five grains of sand is or is not a heap. “Heaps,” as a concept, lacks sharp boundary conditions6.

Indigeneity, if it is measured by time, is like a heap of sand; does a people become indigenous when they have been here for one generation? Is it two? Is it three, plus five years? No, a better marker of indigeneity is a peoples relationship the land and the culture they have developed. I’m fairly sure Moon knows this; if he doesn’t then maybe he should look it up. It shouldn’t matter, if Moon is right, that Māori where here only a mere three hundred years before the Pākehā because time isn’t important when considering whether Māori are indigenous to Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu.

Moon goes on to say:

“Ironically, the mid-fourteenth century date for the first arrival of Maori in New Zealand was widely accepted up until the 1950s, when academics challenged it on the basis of Maori whakapapa, and shunted back the date by hundreds of years. Now, it looks like it will have to be dragged forward again”.

Now, the question is, where did this mysterious “Māori arrived about 800ACE” date that Moon is talking about come from; the standard view both in academia and in history is that the Māori arrived about seven hundred years ago, possibly slightly earlier7.

Most of Moon’s arguments seems to hinge on this:

Maori oral histories which recall lists of ancestors have been used to date the first arrival in New Zealand as early as 800 AD, Dr Moon said.

“If these Maori whakapapa [genealogies] are out by over five hundred years, then this must raise questions about their reliability.

Moon’s adherence to the notion there is an orthodoxy that says Māori arrived and settled here around 800ACE might be an example of the curious tension between History and Archaeology, which is not quite the happy little co-operative those of us outside of History and (here in Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu at least) Anthropology departments might want to believe. Archaeologists (and I’m using the term broadly to encompass, for example, biologists who are interested in the pre-historic faunal and floral record) seem to be in agreement as to when we can say that there was a settled, permanent human population here in Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu, which is somewhere about the mid-thirteenth century ACE. Sometimes historians tend to distrust the archaeological record when it doesn’t fit the historical accounts to hand.

Historians, of some stripes, also distrust oral histories, believing them to be more prone to distortion than their written counterparts. I do not have the time to finesse this particular argument in much depth, but I come from a school that thinks that oral histories are just as unreliable as written histories.

Now, I still can’t fathom where it is Moon gets the idea that we have an orthodoxy that says that Māori arrived here eight hundred years ago. It seems he is appealing to the process of Treaty claims:

Dr Moon said the study could also impact on the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has accepted evidence of a much earlier settlement date.

Now, as mentioned earlier, the date at which the Māori arrived is not particularly important with respect to claims of their indigenous status to Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu; even if it turns out that the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal has accepted an earlier date for the arrival of the Māori than, say, archaeologists and historians, that doesn’t matter. Treaty claims are not about how long Māori have been here; they are about what happened after the arrival of the P&#257ke&#257a.

So, is Moon just being stupid or disingenuous. Probably the former, although, really, you would think he should know better.

A Special award to Daniel Pipes…

Pipes who, despite his reptilian politics, wrote half a good book on conspiracy theories, gets an award for not only linking his fear of Muslim anchor babies to Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu’s (New Zealand’) entry visa card but also has the grace (or the foolishness) to link to a Wikipedia article on anchor babies that basically shows up and rubbishes the very phenomena he is trying to make us all afraid of. Well done, sir; I would expect nothing less from a man who tends to only cite himself in articles he writes for his website.

Right, so, let’s get one thing straight, my few remaining readers; don’t expect any real updates on this blog for the foreseeable future. I have a thesis to finish and I’m just not going to have the time nor the inclination to write posts of any particular quality. I may post on matters becoming my interest or I might not.

Still, good news; I should have an exciting announcement to make at some point early next year which will be directly linked to quality blogging.


Happy New Years et al.


  1. I am beginning to sound like an old supervisor of mine, who thought it was impossible to both work and do a thesis at the same time, despite the fact that lots of people not only do just that, but produce excellent theses all the same.
  2. Whatever that is. Can I be a “Welfare Commentator Commentator?” I am commenting on a Welfare Commentator, after all.
  3. And, although this is pure conjecture on my part, if child abuse rates decrease, then the oversight the welfare state brings might well make such stories all the more newsworthy because such stories will be surprising.
  4. My favourite part of Mitchell’s diatribe is this:

    Unlike the Old Age Pension, Maori were easily able to access the Family Benefit which, with their typically large families, accrued a tidy sum by the 1940s.

    What she isn’t saying is that the reason why Māori weren’t able to access the Old Age Pension is that most of them didn’t live long enough to ever benefit from it; the health system failed Māori, leading to Māori, particularly Māori men, dying much earlier than the national average and well before they could apply for a pension. Unfortunately, this horrible statistic isn’t much better today.

  5. What, pray tell, does the U in AUT now stand for?
  6. It’s also quite useful to imagine the process in reverse; start with a single grain of sand and start adding additional grains. At what point do you get a heap?
  7. There are two things we need to keep in mind in re the arrival of the Māori. The first is that before the Māori arrived en masse there would have been some to-ing and for-ing between Aotearoa/Te Wai Pounamu and (most likely) the Cook Islands, so it’s likely small groups were here, possibly not as permanent settlements, earlier. The second point we must keep in mind is that a lot of the sites where Māori would have first settled were coastal sites which have subsequently been claimed by erosion and the sea (take, for example, Te Namu pa in the Taranaki; it has lost two thirds of its mass to the ocean in the last one hundred years and may not be with us at all in another fifty; most of the archaeological evidence for that site is disappearing and we have fairly good reason to suspect that this has a) happened to a great many coastal sites and b) some of those sites were first settlement sites.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.


  1. In defense of Paul Moon, he isn’t actually saying Maori might not be indigenous any more, he’s saying that that’s what this research might lead people to say. He’s probably right – some people probably will say, ‘oh well, Maori were only here 300 years before we arrived so we’re all the same really and they should stop complaining’. For all we know, Moon went on to say that there’s all sorts of problems with that, but that wasn’t included in the published quote. From what I know of him, he’s not a redneck, so that part of it is just unfortunate, rather than as stupid/bigoted as you make out.

    Now get back to your thesis.

    1. Hmm. It seems that Moon, when interviewed on National Radio about this, seems to be saying exactly what the Herald has him saying, which is that this new study questions the indigeneity of M#257;ori. Haven’t seen the Te Kaea interview yet, though, which might be more illuminating as to what he really means by all of this,

  2. I just don’t get the maths in this. Not just 14th C= 1300 which has alway confounded me btw, but the sudden ability to put numerical value on occupation. Because “we suddenly discovered” [reinterpreted] “evidence” [again something that is always interpreted as evident] that Maaori had not been around as long as we thought, suddenly right of occupation is quantifiable to a set number of years (coincidentally a number settled on that deems length of Maaori occupation as “not enough”)?

    While they’re at it can they calculate precisely how many people should die before something is no longer for the greater good? that on’e been bugging me for years.

  3. Thanks for saving me the trouble and writing about Dr Moon’s latest foray into the media. I am not sure where he is getting his shoddy information from, but as an archaeologist I am of the opinion he must be a pretty poor historian to think that 1) the consensus is that Polynesians settled NZ 800CE; and 2) that a 13th century date of settlement is somehow new or controversial; or 3) that the so-called (but actually not) ‘controverisal’ date of 13th century can call into question the indigenous status of Maori. It is interesting that you point out the tensions which sometimes arise between archaeologists and historians, as, to be honest, it is statements ignorant of the wealth of evidence outside of history such as Paul Moon’s which can be a cause of this tension. Perhaps the history department at AUT needs to lift its game? Perhaps a good place to start for Dr Moon would be a first year archaeology text book? I would be happier if this were merely a case of media hype, but I am doubtful.

  4. by the by, it is more a case of the colonisation date being shortened post-1950 rather than extended back to this oral evidence-derived date of 800CE. Janet Davidson was the primary author of the most widely accepted colonisation dates of less than 1000 years ago in the early 1980’s, and Roger Green before this had mentioned the consensus being well after 800CE. As for C14 dates, I am surprised that a historian who wanted to make comment would not be aware of the work Anderson and McGovern-Wilson did in 1990/91 where all archaeological C14 dates were re-examined and none of the reliable date ranges fell below the 12th century. Even before all of this the ‘orthodox dates’ were around 1000 years ago at the earliest. Dr Moon’s ‘got some ‘splaining to do’.

  5. Happy new year, Matthew!

    I’m really curious to know what you wrote regarding Wikileaks. Maybe you can give a brief summary? 🙂

    And incidentally, the Praetorian Prefect blog (written by computer security professionals) has some interesting tidbits about this cyber-vigilante known as The Jester who had been going after and Anonymous.

    — frank

  6. Unlike the Old Age Pension, Maori were easily able to access the Family Benefit which, with their typically large families, accrued a tidy sum by the 1940s.

    Do some reading.

    The reason Maori were frequently unable to access the Old Age Pension or access it at the full rate was because a/ they couldn’t provide proof of age and b/ they couldn’t provide proof that they didn’t own land. The pension was asset tested. When Maori did qualify they frequently received a lesser rate. They were actively discriminated against on the basis that most lived communally and therefore did not have the same living expenses as European elders.

    1. Two things:

      1. I see you don’t actually take any issue with my substantial criticisms of your argument, which is that you take mere correlation to be indicative of causation.

      2. Even if we grant that M?ori were able to easily access the Family Benefit (which, I believe, non-Māori were able to access, and Māori were not the only group in New Zealand society to have large families; thus this is no particular benefit to Māori per se (unlike the pension, which due to the mortality rate for Māori meant they were less than likely to get a pension compared to Pākehā)) and this gave them a, as you say, “tidy sum,” this tidy sum was then spent on looking after said family; it’s not as if people were making money hand over fist. “Tidy sum” is an ambiguous term; a tidy sum is only “tidy” with respect to what (or who) it has to be spent on.

  7. In A Civilised Community Margaret McClure wrote, “The New Zealand Financial Times called social security the ‘chief industry’ of the east Coast and blamed the government for ‘debauching the Maori with easy money’. Police at Ruatoria reported that the position was ‘chaotic’. The child welfare officer noted that parents were no longer urging young adolescents into the workforce and 25 boys were on trial for crimes.” By 1946, at ten shillings per child per week, for a mother of six the payment amounted to the same as a woman’s minimum wage. She also claims that after reviewing the Department of Social Welfare’s files of correspondence that during the 1940s, Family Benefit for Maori was the most controversial aspect of the Department’s work because of the documented impact it was having on Maori communities. This period is also documented by historians Bronwyn Dalley and Bronwyn Labrum.

    I haven’t dealt with your “substantial” criticisms because I didn’t claim that welfare causes child abuse. If that were the case there would be far more of it. My suggestion is that if a price tag is put on children, some will exploit that. And children that are are being exploited for financial gain are more likely to be abused or neglected.

    1. Well, if your argument is merely that putting a price tag on children causes exploitation, then your argument is even weaker than I gave it credit for being. We do not have a welfare system which scales in the right way for looking after and caring for additional children; the financial cost (to say nothing of the time cost or social cost) of rearing each extra child to a parent (or set of parents), working or otherwise, is greater than the so-called benefit granted by the state.

      (Also, it’s a little hard to take seriously your claim that ” I didn’t claim that welfare causes child abuse,” given that you link welfare to abuse in the opinion piece you wrote.)

      Also, can you substantiate the claim:

      Grandparents raising grandchildren will tell of bitter custody battles with their own offspring (frequently drug or alcohol addicted) intent on keeping children in their care merely to advance their chosen lifestyle – receiving a state income with no obligation to do anything for it.

      This seems to be a fairly common canard of right-wing welfare commentators but, a little like the claims that parents are being prosecuted for smacking their children, never seems to elucidated upon. Substantiating this requires more than just a few pieces of anecdotal evidence, mind; you’d need to show, via such a substantiation, that this is common as one or two examples isn’t sufficient to show that this is a very real and prevalent problem. I mean, I presume you mention such grandparents because this is meant to lend your argument weight, which it won’t if such behaviour is uncommon.

    1. That doesn’t tell you anything about the incidence level, though, does it? I.e. before we can say “This is important evidence towards proposition X” we need to say that the incidence level of children being placed in care of their grandparents is significant. We need the base rate to be able to ascertain just how interesting this data is.

  8. While it is nice and erudite to have the sort of argument you are having with Lindsay, and to do so from something of an ivory tower, built on your ‘status’ of a PhD student, it is sometimes revealing to lower oneself to the depths of those subject to one’s opinions. Especially in relation to the hard core of welfare beneficiaries, and especially those in the DPB sphere, it would probably open your elitist eyes to the harsh reality emanating from “qualitative”, rather than “quantitative” analysis of the welfare issue.

    1. I’m sorry; I’ve read your comment several times now and I still can’t work out what it is you are trying to say. Could you try to explain more explicitly what it is you mean?

  9. Matthew, I never knew you had an ivory tower!? Here I was figuring you for merely requiring some critical thought and clear rational for arguments fostered on to the public, but then Bez, who no doubt knows you intimately from her/his claims of your elitism (aren’t we all who hold higher degrees), mentions you are only debating Lindsay for “quantitative” kicks!? Is the fact that I agree with everything you’ve so far said evidence of my own ivory-towerism? If we follow Lindsay’s logic, the correlation between you and I both not being able to understand Bez’s enigmatic comment could indicate such.

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