The 15 researchers involved in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study have done a statement explaining why they have asked the questions they did for the TVNZ study. The key part is:
It is important to scientifically measure and track change in racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice over time. This is the only way to know how many people hold such beliefs, and to see if racism is going up or down over time.
The typical way that researchers measure racism is by presenting people with a set of statements of opinion and asking them to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with each statement. This is known as a Likert scale. A lot goes on behind the scenes in developing the Likert scales used in the New Zealand Attitudes and Value Study (NZAVS).
The key to attitude measurement is to have a good set of statements that measure the underlying attitude. There are a number of things to consider here. For a start you need statements that are worded in each direction, for example, “People from group X cannot be trusted” and “People from group X are trustworthy.” This is to control for something called agreement bias, where people may tend to agree with things a bit more than they disagree. Some people may read the statements in the negatively worded direction “People from group X cannot be trusted” and argue that the statement itself is offensive and hence the survey itself is racist.
If we want to do the science well, and measure attitudes validly and reliably, then we need to include statements like these in our surveys. A good metaphor for this is that a set of statements is like a ruler that measures an attitude. You need to get your ruler straight. If we can’t get our ruler straight then we can’t measure levels of racism scientifically, and in that case we can’t know whether we have a problem with prejudice in our country, or whether it is going up or down over time.
Those politicians and activists attacking the study are basically anti-science. It is part of the culture of offence where they think their right not to be offended by a question is more important than finding out if people agree with it.
Some of the critics don’t even seem to know the difference between “treatment” and “outcomes”, such as Oscar Kightley who wrote:
I can’t believe there’s a survey question that asks whether Kiwis think Maori get special treatment – of course they do.
Everyone’s at their wits’ end over all the special treatment they get.
Maori comprise around 15 per cent of the population; one in seven citizens, about 700,000 people.
And yet just look at our institutions, which are overwhelmed by the multitudes of Maori doctors, lawyers, professors, bankers, directors, politicians, and high-ranking businessmen and women.
They’re clearly all fed with a silver spoon and clothed in nappies of woven gold thread as soon as they begin their lives of privilege.
Look at our prisons, where there are absolutely no Maori people at all. Mind you, one of the big drivers of crime is poverty, so it’s no wonder there are no Maori in jail.
Everything Kightley mentions (which is correct) is about outcomes. That is very different to receiving special treatment (and it is beyond dispute that Maori do – such as Maori seats).
The political issue is whether the special treatment is justified by the fact Maori have less favourable outcomes. That is a debatable issue.
UPDATE: I’m told this study is different to the TVNZ one, but the arguments are the same.