Doomed Planet

The Ridd Case: Much More Than Just One Man’s Victory

A vicious and prolonged attempt by James Cook University’s administration to silence Professor Peter Ridd’s criticism of dubious and misleading research claims concerning the Great Barrier Reef has culminated in a resounding legal decision by Judge Vasta of the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane. Handed down on April 16, the decision found that all of the seventeen findings, two censures, eight directions, and final employment termination made by JCU  against Professor Ridd were illegal. The court’s decision can be downloaded here.

This is a major victory, not just for Peter Ridd, but also for science, academic freedom, the legal system and the public. It also presents a clear need, as well as an obligation, for the JCU Council to intervene and take steps necessary to stop the rot and repair the damage.  The panel should see that Professor Ridd is re-employed, issued an apologisy, and compensated for all he has been subjected to in this sordid episode. Doing so without delay, with full acceptance of the court decision and the sacking of those most culpable is fully demanded, in my opinion, by the court decision. To do this would go a long way to salvaging the university’s reputation. To allow the perpetrators of this farce to continue to spend further millions of dollars on lengthy appeals can only inflict further damage on both Ridd and the university. The council is empowered to do this; it is their clear duty to do so.

The ongoing saga of questionable claims by James Cook University researchers entails much more than just an academic spat. It involves the credibility of millions of dollars annually in taxpayer funded research on which important national policies are being implemented. In the case of JCU, they are a preeminent institution involved in research on the Great Barrier Reef and the policies affected include major impacts on tourism, fishing, mining and the agricultural sector for the whole region.

Over recent decades, research grants have become an important source of funding for universities and the careers of academics. JCU receives half of the funding from research grants as a charge for the “overhead” of the hosting and administration of such grants, with the remaining half then being used for the actual research activity. This amounts to tens of millions of dollars annually directly to the university itself. Obtaining such funding is a major factor in advancing the career status of academics who bring in significant grant money.

In research concerning the natural environment, researchers have found that studies having some relevance to environmental threats have a much better chance of funding approval than those aimed at learning more about the natural world. This started innocently enough by simply suggesting some possible environmental importance to desired funding. However, this has proven to be a slippery slope leading to a need to find more evidence and defend claims. Dramatic claims of threats to the GBR attract mainstream news attention and recognition far beyond anything coming from even the most significant new scientific understanding of the Reef. The result has been the abandonment of basic research in favour of finding, promoting and investigating environmental “threats”.

Also, coral reefs are very dynamic communities, with large differences from reef to reef as well as changes over time and between locations on the same reef. In addition, effects of storms, floods, temperature extremes and large population fluctuations resulting from random variables of larval settlement often compound this variability.  At any time, a bit of searching is likely to find evidence of such variability.

Academics are basically office workers. Very few spend more than a few weeks in a year actually on the reef and usually then for only a few hours at a time and on differing reefs. Vanishingly few have the extended experience of a given reef over the seasons and years needed to recognize the degree of natural variability involved. In addition, there is now a whole generation of researchers whose entire experience of the Reef has been in the context of investigating environmental “threats” and they tend to see every fluctuation of nature as evidence of some “impact” caused by humans. Adding to this is the fact that on the Great Barrier Reef the most readily accessible nearshore reefs live in a fringe environment for reef growth where natural devastation is most frequent.

In addition to the biases of training, experience, funding and recognition there is still another important influence at play. A key factor in the success of science has been the subjection of any important new claims to scepticism and verification. To a large extent in environmental research, such testing has been replaced by claims of authority and consensus. This decidedly anti-scientific perspective has been greatly facilitated by a prevailing acceptance in academia of a postmodern philosophical view which denies the existence of any objective truth.  In its place is the notion of a political correctness deemed self-obvious to all right- thinking persons and which it is “unethical” even to question. From this perspective it is not too difficult to excuse a lie if it supports what is perceived to be a higher truth. To dissent with any of this makes one a “denier” which is seen as intellectually equivalent to believing in a flat Earth and morally equivalent to denying the Holocaust. Anyone who questions anything can be dismissed as a ratbag who doesn’t care about the Reef, and so can be ignored, with no need to address the substance of any of their concerns. If an employee transgresses, he or she can be sacked for “uncollegial” attitudes and/or bringing discredit on the institution, two of the slurs directed against Peter Ridd. As for protection for whistle-blowers, there isn’t any.

Meanwhile, the Reef itself remains safely out there, over the horizon and beneath the ocean where anything can be claimed with little risk of the reality being exposed.  Although many reef areas around the world are indeed suffering from human impacts, the actual condition of the GBR is near pristine. All but a few of the nearly 3000 reefs which make up the GBR are rarely or never fished or even visited. Pollution from the distant and lightly populated land is undetectable.

The recent coral bleaching events that have been attributed to climate change have in every instance been the result of surface warming during periods of extended calm brought by El Niño events, when normal, wave-driven mixing ceases. There is no evidence for any recent increase in the frequency and severity of these events. This is further attested by the characteristic bleaching scars in the skeletons of GBR corals going back a thousand years; such scars have even been found in fossil corals from millions of years ago.  The real condition of the GBR is as close to pristine as nature permits, the alleged threats no better than hypotheticals.  Over time, all reputed perils have failed to develop, with recovery repeatedly found to be much faster and more complete than predicted by the reef “experts”.

So where does all this leave us regarding the GBR? Dubious and often provably false research claims have played a major role in severely restricting development of the Reef’s economic potential. The fisheries harvest is at less than one per cent of the level found to be sustainable for well managed reef fisheries elsewhere.  While reef tourism contributes importantly to the economy it compares unfavourably to many other competing reef areas which earn more from much lesser reefs. The costs and restrictions imposed by ill-founded environmental management have been a major factor.

Even more irrational, detrimental and unneeded, the economic impact of ill-founded measures to “save the Reef” extends far from any demonstrable harm to virtually all significant productive activity in the region. This is based entirely on far-fetched and hypothetical possibilities of harm from dust, runoff and climate change for which no actual evidence of harm exists, only predictions from computer models which are unverified, unvalidated and unavailable for independent examination. Worse yet, this kind of problem is epidemic across much of academic research, with major effects on government, the economy and the broader society.

All this in no way means there are no serious environmental problems or regulations needed; but it does mean a very real problem has developed with the validity and, indeed, the honesty of much of what purports to be science and soundly based regulations imposed under the banner of environmental protection. 

Unfortunately, this is not just a problem at JCU but is something widely prevailing across universities and government research bodies, and the inflicted cost on the entire economy is huge and growing. For a start, it has corrupted the integrity of science and fostered the development of a huge taxpayer-funded parasitic industry devoted to what amounts to the manufacture of hypothetical solutions to imaginary problems.  Ill-conceived unnecessary environmental demands and restrictions stemming from this have played a major part in driving two-thirds of our small primary producers out of businesses over recent decades, chiefly low-overhead family-operated enterprises. This has in turn been a major influence in Australia going from having some of the best quality, abundant, low cost food, housing and energy in the world to now becoming at or near the most expensive, along with some of the world’s highest levels of personal debt. In addition to the immediate effects of corrupting the integrity of research and policy making there is also the longer term intellectual corruption of the broader society through the educational indoctrination of the future leaders of business, education, law, politics and the media, nearly all of whom are now university educated.

It is past time for this situation to begin to be recognised and addressed it.  JCU would be a good place to start.  There is now a well -documented body of repeated and ongoing research misconduct which has been brought to the attention of the JCU administration, with no attempt to address their substance. Ignore, deny and dismiss has been the reaction.

What has been revealed thus far is only the unsavoury tip of this research “fatberg”. An parliamentary inquiry is warranted and, from my own direct experience, I feel certain this would be fruitful.  If nothing else, it would have a beneficial and long overdue sobering effect across the whole of the research community, especially if the penalty for such misconduct were to be disqualification from any further public research funding for those involved.

Beyond this, some permanent mechanism to critically examine and evaluate all research that is to be relied upon for government policy is badly needed.  Simply accepting, “Believe me, I’m an expert”, has never been good enough for science, nor should it be as a basis for government policy.

A marine biologist, Walter Starck has spent much of his career studying coral reef and marine fishery ecosystems. His full professional biography can be read here

9 comments
  • ianl

    Literate, coherent and precise from Walter Starck, as is usual.

    Peter Ridd’s courage and integrity combined with crowd funding for his legal survival have delivered the current situation. Perhaps the most poignant time of the 3-day hearing was at the end of day 2 followed by the start of day 3, when the Court Judge requested JCU Counsel to appear the next morning with a comprehensive comment on JCU data quality control (a very specific request) which was then completely ignored by the JCU (We Will Never Debate in Public).

    Instead, the JCU VC is now circulating an email to uni staff insisting the judge “got it wrong”. Disenlightenment writ monstrous.

    Despite Walter’s optimism here that this judgement could be the start of improvement, I suspect that JCU will pay whatever penalties are imposed (probably appealing only the quantum), reinstate Peter with no change to his freezeout and then completely ignore the toxicity they have generated, concentrating instead on convincing the MSM to ignore him while simultaneously convincing the Govt through public shock/horror to increase grants to save the GBR.

    In short, business as usual. Appealing to the full Federal Court or subsequently to the High Court will only prolong JCU’s sordid global embarrassment – Peter cannot now be starved out and crowd funding will ensure he has the ability to continue to appear in a Court – so some nasty, malignant variation of Coventry could be implemented.

  • David Palmer

    I wonder though about the possibility of an appeal?

    I agree with iani questioning Walter’s optimism, though I do think “the GBR is under imminent threat” meme has taken a heavy knock, which would be reinforced by Ridd’s reinstatement.

    Thank you Walter for an excellent, factual post.

  • en passant

    The comment by the VC is intellectually vapid, but then again, what else can we expect from a senior academic? It does not provide any grounds for argument by explaining why, how, when or where Justice Vasta was wrong – it is simply an statement of faith that the JCU academic alchemist believe he must be. 97% of them would agree … or else.

  • Doubting Thomas

    The JCU administration needs to be sacked from the top down, but it won’t happen. If Professor Ridd is reinstated, the true-believing academics will send him to Coventry and muster the student body to force his departure by any means conceivable.
    The only action likely to work would be for the Federal Government to totally defund the University unless and until the culprits are sacked. If the Queensland Government acts to replace Federal funding, then their share of COAG funding should be reduced commensurately.

  • en passant

    DT,
    You are so right. To the war cry of “Remember BREXIT (which the Deep State has eviscerated and messed up so that it still has not happened after three years). Following that playbook ‘they’ will appeal, fight back and make Peter’s life misery – until he follows the well-worn path of a previous outspoken JCU academic, Bill Leak and Climate Skeptic, John Daly (about whom Professor Phil Jones said “It is hard not to take some comfort in his death”).
    These days academia is evil personified, but then there have always been the Lysenko’s, the phrenologists, the alchemists, the eugenicists and the Climate Cultists Orc Priests lurking in the shadows of the Dark Side, destroying the truth and replacing it with an amoral anti-human, anti-Popper hate-based Fabian views. Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ sets out their dream of how society should be.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    Gideon Rozner
    Director of Policy, IPA
    18 April 2019

    “This case has also highlighted our increasingly polarised media landscape. Whatever your views on Peter’s case, it was a significant dispute with far-reaching implications. While the case was covered extensively, for example, in The Australian, The Spectator Australia and on Sky News – on which I appeared a number of times before, during and after Peter’s hearing – it was effectively ignored by outlets such as the Nine (formerly Fairfax) mastheads.

    Meanwhile the ABC, with its countless number of television and radio stations and substantial online reach, has only two reports about the outcome of the case on its website: One online, and one on radio. We should be concerned about the ABC in particular for its apparent neglect of this case, given its lofty claims about being Australia’s ‘most trusted’ and ‘independent’ news service.”

  • Peter Sandery

    I have just finished reading an article entitled ” The need for a formalised system of Quality Control for environmental policy-science.” by Piers Larcombe and Peter Ridd, published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin 126 (2018) 449-461 which suggests:-

    “…the need for a new organisation to undertake quality reviews and audits of important scientific results that underpin government spending decisions on the environment.. such a body could also examine policy science in other key areas such as education, health and criminology.”.

    I suggest all readers of this magazine read this article and then onforward a link to it to all their MP’s and would be MP’s and Senators.

    As an aside, I thought that such investigations used to come within the purview of both the earlier forms of parliamentary Public Accounts and Works Committees, both of which have been largely emasculated by various governments and, in the case of poor old Queensland are now non-existent.

  • Keith Kennelly

    ‘An parliamentary inquiry is warranted and, from my own direct experience, I feel certain this would be fruitful. ‘

    haha what a joke, when read in context with the following statement

    ‘In addition to the immediate effects of corrupting the integrity of research and policy making there is also the longer term intellectual corruption of the broader society through the educational indoctrination of the future leaders of business, education, law, politics and the media, nearly all of whom are now university educated.’
    That logically implies many of those with Uni education are already corrupted.

    So the uni educated politicians charged with carrying out the Parliamentary enquiry are all from the same ‘educated elites’ class as are the already corrupted ‘educated elite’, whose behaviour they are investigating.

    Nahhh. just stop all funding for any and all university research until universities return to their traditional basis.
    First return the ‘meal ticket’ degree courses like Sports, Media, Meteorology, Physio, Feminism etc to the TAFE system and limit funding for research to any Uni that engages in the real degree courses in Engineering, Medicine, Law, traditional Science (Maths, Physics, Chemistry etc) and traditional Arts, (Traditional ie. excluding especially the psychobabble ‘degrees’, and ‘degrees’ in environmental ‘science’ and journalism.)

    Simple really.

    And if you think an enquiry by ‘educated elites’ would agree with this truth, you would be be regarded by the us uneducated deplorable as truely stupid.

    Vote 1 Clive for PM.
    Look out Clive’s coming!
    I’ve got my MAGA hat, too.

  • wstarck

    Keith,
    I remain hopeful; but unfortunately, you may be the more realistic.

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