I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that.
- Wonko the Sane,
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The Sydney Opera House started life as a boondoggle: that is, a waste of both time and money as construction continued due to extraneous policy and political motivations. Finished years late, 1400 per cent over budget, and the source of endless cultural wrangling, it’s nonetheless difficult to imagine the city without it.
Most boondoggles, however, do not produce happy outcomes, leaving dusty and ugly reminders of the sunk costs fallacy dotting the landscape. Googling “bridge to nowhere” provides confirmation of just how many bridges unconnected to either highways or population centres there are all over the world. The phenomenon has become notorious in certain industries – think of the public transport boondoggle currently afflicting Sydney, emblematic of a global problem with constructing light rail.
And lest anyone think only governments generate boondoggles, the private sector is just as capable of throwing good money after bad. In 1964, RCA Corporation began pouring resources into its ‘SelectaVision’ video-disc system, which was designed so video and audio could be played back on a television using a special needle and high-density groove design in much the same way as phonograph records. The project continued for 20 years, long after cheaper and better alternatives had come to market. RCA spent about $750 million in 1985 dollars (roughly $1.8 billion in today’s money) on this commercially nonviable product, one of the factors leading to its sale to General Electric and eventual breakup in 1986.
It’s common to blame boondoggles on carelessness with taxpayer and investor moneys, or to assume the people responsible for big projects going tits-up have bad motives (not actively evil, but thoughtless and profligate). Sometimes this is true, especially in the “bridge to nowhere” cases. The construction of bridges in and roads to the oddest places goes back to Roman times, and happened for exactly the same reason then as it does now: some politician or local worthy wanted to benefit his constituency or province.
However, “bridges to nowhere” occlude the fact that, in many boondoggles, the situation is allowed to continue for unreasonably long periods in large part because senior management are reluctant to admit that they let a failed project go on for so long. Often this happens because authorities have founded their project’s successful outcome on a premise that, for want of a better word, is pseudoscience. It’s important in this context to remember the people running the show – to a man and woman – mean well. People with the power to produce boondoggles are not malicious. I cannot stress this enough.
The land on which the Sydney Opera House was to be built had simply not been surveyed properly at the time of the design competition, for example, meaning architects developed plans on the basis of incorrect information. They assumed Bennelong Point comprised Hawkesbury sandstone mass, like the surrounding land. In reality, it was made of loose alluvial deposits permeated with seawater, and so, completely unsuitable for bearing the weight of the intended structure.
Which brings me to Australia’s “National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children
Any project or policy – whether public or private sector – depends on the assumptions underlying it to be accurate in order to have any chance of success. Of course, lots of things can still go wrong and often do. But even to make a start, governments and corporations need to know the lie of the land, the essential factuality of the problem they want to address or the outcome they wish to achieve.
Which brings me to Australia’s “National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children”. Much of this program focuses on educating people about gender equality and respectful attitudes. Everyone reading this piece has likely seen its telly or social media adverts. The program’s focus on gender issues is derived from modern feminist “scholarship” (scare quotes are necessary) positing that sexist attitudes are the crucial factor when it comes to domestic abuse.
There’s a problem with this. It isn’t true. It’s as untrue as the belief that Bennelong Point was solid rock and therefore suitable for holding up what my father used to call “the biggest concrete woolshed in the world”. However, at time of the Sydney Opera House design competition, at least the powers that be had the excuse that they didn’t actually know the geological composition of Bennelong Point. When it comes to domestic abuse, both state and federal governments – not to mention ordinary members of the public – have accurate information at their fingertips and have had for some time.
In September 2019, the Australian Institute of Criminology published an evidence review examining 39 quantitative studies of domestic violence over the past decade, entitled simply “Domestic violence offenders, prior offending and reoffending in Australia”. It found a third of offenders had been drinking or were drunk, and alcohol significantly increased the severity of violence. The study also notes violence was concentrated among a relatively small group of repeat offenders, and in more disadvantaged areas, especially remote Aboriginal areas. Perpetrators were more likely to be unemployed, and while recidivism among DV perpetrators was common, it was much, much worse in poor communities. In the Northern Territory in 2016, for example, two per cent of repeat offenders were responsible for 50 per cent of all domestic violence harms. Make sure you grasp the salience of that statistic: we’re talking two per cent of an already small number of repeat offenders.
The AIC’s September 2019 study dealt with domestic abuse in the broadest sense, rather than including its most serious manifestation – intimate partner homicide. This is significant because sometimes, disaggregating homicide from other crime statistics produces a different picture because homicide is always thoroughly investigated. Any study that takes in everything from minor assaults to grievous bodily harm while ignoring homicide is going to depend a fair bit on self-reporting to researchers – or leave a lot out if based solely on recorded convictions – because loads of people of both sexes don’t report minor assaults to the police.
Understandably, this can skew the data. It’s why lawyers and criminologists often treat homicide as the gold standard when it comes to assessing both demographic and geographical characteristics among offenders and their victims. This may provide some (although not all) of the explanation for lack of public engagement with the AIC’s findings since September.
However, the reason the AIC didn’t cover homicide in its 2019 report was simplicity itself: it (and by extension, we) already knew that domestic violence leading to murder or manslaughter shares the same characteristics as less serious forms of domestic violence: chronic recidivism, geographic concentration in poor and indigenous areas, presence of alcohol. Why do we know this? Because in June 2017, the AIC published a detailed monitoring report on homicide across the country with a dedicated section on intimate partner homicide. Rather touchingly, the abstract includes the line “ongoing monitoring of homicide locates short-term changes within a longer timeframe and allows policymakers and law enforcement personnel to identify changes in risk markers associated with incidents, victims and offenders”.
Chance would be a fine thing.
The correspondence theory of truth holds that objective truth exists and we can learn something about it through evidence and reason. That is, there are knowable objective truths, and we gain reliable information about them when our beliefs align with reality. It’s termed “the correspondence theory of truth” because a statement is considered true when it corresponds with reality and false when it does not. Reality, of course, is the thing that does not go away regardless of what you believe about it. While advanced civilisations going back to classical antiquity applied this type of reasoning to both projects and policy in selected areas (Ancient Rome to civil engineering and law, for example, or Medieval China to public administration), it’s only since the Enlightenment that it’s been applied consistently to nearly everything, at least in developed countries. It is fair to say it forms the foundation of modern scientific and administrative progress and accounts in large part for the safety and material comfort people now enjoy.
Unfortunately, many feminists no longer adhere to the correspondence theory of truth, in large part because they refuse to commit to the understanding that there are better and worse ways to learn about an objectively knowable world. Hence the endless diatribes about things that don’t matter and often don’t exist (“toxic masculinity” or “rape culture”) while ignoring poverty, alcohol and sometimes, tragically, even race.
In 2013-14 – the most recent year for which we have national data – the overall indigenous homicide rate was 4.9 per 100,000 or five times the non-indigenous rate (0.9 per 100,000). The victimisation rate for indigenous males was 5.6 per 100,000 compared with 1.1 for non-indigenous males. The rate of indigenous female victimisation was 4.2 per 100,000 compared with 0.7 for non-indigenous females in 2013-14. In almost all cases, both victim and perpetrator were indigenous. This points to a vast disparity between Indigenous Australians and everyone else.
We may as well start sacrificing captive prisoners-of-war on mountaintops a-la the Aztecs to fix the problem for all the good we’re currently doing to address domestic violence.
Both AIC publications are also relevant to the fact that reported incidents of family violence have increased in the nine years since the national plan was launched. Both sets of findings highlight fundamental flaws in current government policy, which pays little attention to alcohol, mental illness or poverty. Former NSW Liberal minister Pru Goward has said she despairs at the ineffectiveness of current strategies to promote “respectful attitudes”. Jess Hill, in her book See What You Made Me Do, described such policies as “horribly inadequate”. Whatever else, we don’t need another TV ad about gender equality.
“Policy wonks” (that is, people like me) have names for this sort of foul-up: we call it the “moralistic fallacy” or “policy-based evidence” or the glorious “Woozle Effect” (after the imaginary creature in Winnie-the-Pooh). All these labels describe forming a view (society has a problem with “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture” and these lead to domestic violence, for example) and then cherry-picking evidence to support the conclusion pre-emptively reached (highlighting the relatively few intimate partner homicides where, say, patriarchal religious values or misogyny were present).
While not as common as the “naturalistic fallacy” – where scientists discover a true thing and then expect politicians to enact laws on the back of it without considering moral implications – the moralistic fallacy is far more serious, because at least in the case of the naturalistic fallacy there’s some actual objective truth underneath all the crud. By contrast, enacting legislation and developing (expensive) national strategies on the basis of an unproven claim is literally the policy equivalent of theology. We may as well start sacrificing captive prisoners-of-war on mountaintops à-la the Aztecs to fix the problem for all the good we’re currently doing to address domestic violence.
Of course, part of the problem is that alcohol, mental health and poverty are all fairly intractable and expensive/tricky to address. If you want to look like you’re doing a good job then you need to appeal to other things. Slick adverts help. “Talking a big game,” my mother used to call it. “Pissing in a wetsuit policy,” my father used to call it. “It feels good, but doesn’t show”.
Australia’s national domestic abuse policy is a boondoggle, one where people are dying rather than merely having their pockets picked.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize. She lives in London.