Letters – Issue 20

Letters, Issue 20, October 1995

The black box

Andrew Ladley misrepresents the notion of black box in his review of Elizabeth McLeay’s The Cabinet and Political Power in New Zealand (August 1995). Since he may not be alone in his misunderstandings, an explanation is called for.

In scientific investigation a black box is a system whose inputs and outputs are known, but whose inner workings are not. By observing the response of the outputs to inputs the scientist may be able to model the processes inside the box and so to make predictions. To do this well requires that the processes are relatively simple (mathematically linear) and that repeated experiments are possible. Neither condition holds for most social systems. Typically a direct investigation of the inside of the system is required.

The point then of McLeay’s orthodox use of the image is that until her study, the cabinet has been treated as a black box in which political scientists and others have looked at the inputs and outputs, but have not looked inside. Her study admirably does this.

Ladley also describes the cabinet as a “black hole”. Scientifically a black hole is a black box with inputs but no outputs. Since decisions, among other things, come out of cabinet, the image is inappropriate.

Brian Easton, Wellington

Out to lunch

That must indeed have been an elegant lunch which Elizabeth Smither recalled (June 1995) if afterwards between the University Club and government house I was in command, as never before, of melodious Middle French with or without translation, who has never known a bit of it since. Were we translated, or pixillated? Bird imitations I may admit to; K Sinclair’s demonstration of how to attract a fantail and mine of the Californian quail behaving questionably amazed other audiences of talent and taste. But Middle French, no. I have to draw the line at that.

Kendrick Smithyman, Auckland

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