Science vs the right: Part 2 (Australia)
Update 30/4As this one still seems to be alive, having veered from the Murray to libertarianism to the appropriate mode of address for yours truly, I thought I’d move it back up to the top of the page
The most important representative of party-line science in Australia is the Institute of Public Affairs, which models its approach closely on that of rightwing thinktanks in the US. It has promoted critics of scientific research on passive smoking , funded by the tobacco industry, (for an IPA defence of this practice, read here), critics of scientific research on global warming (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and has more generally bagged scientists and research organisations whose research produces commercially inconvenient findings. Targets have included the World Health Organization, the National Health and Medical Research Council and of course, the International Panel on Climate Change, as well as many individual scientists.
The mode is identical to that of Milloy and Tech Central Station. Where the general scientific basis is strong (as in arguments about the safety of GM foods) opponents are assailed as anti-scientific irrationalists. Where it is weak (as in the cases of smoking and global warming) the IPA demands equal time for sceptics, even sceptics who have done no original research and have no relevant qualifications. The strategy is one of selective citation of evidence that supports a predetermined outcome, mixed with protestations of support for open inquiry and the scientific method. As far as I know, the IPA has never found a case where the evidence supports more environmental regulation, or even a continuation of existing regulations.
The latest target of the IPA, and one close to home for me, is the sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The IPA scored a short-lived win when they managed to convince the House of Reps committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Committee that “scientists had greatly exaggerated their claims that the Murray River’s health was declining.” The Committee majority (mainly rural Coalition MPs) relied for this finding on the arguments of the IPA’s Jennifer Marohasy and on those of Lee Benson, a consultant employed by Murray Irrigation Limited, dismissing the work of dozens of scientists currently doing research for the Murray-Darling Basin Committee, and many hundreds who have worked on different aspects of the problems of the Basin over several decades.
This triumph didn’t last long. Even though the main arguments (we should do nothing until all the uncertainties are resolved, that is, never) are much the same as in the case of global warming, no-one outside the rural rump was silly enough to buy them this time. Howard quickly announced that the report would be consigned to the dustbin, where it belonged.
I’ve previously responded to the main piece of evidence produced by the IPA, claiming that because management by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (in the form of salinity mitigation works and a cap on diversions) has managed a temporary reversal of the trend towards increasing salinity levels, it’s safe to disregard the recommendations of the very same Commission regarding the need for a return of flows to the system. Those interested in the MDBC’s analysis can read a full report here (PDF file) or look at the projections graphed here
Rather than repeat myself on this, I’ll look at another example showing the way the IPA approach to science works, that of passive smoking. No-one, not even the IPA, denies that smoking causes cancer. And you would have to be quite stupid to believe that the many known carcinogens in tobacco smoke suddenly become harmless because they’re inhaled second-hand rather than first-hand. There’s no-one that stupid at the IPA.
Rather, their approach is that of a defence lawyer faced with overwhelming evidence of her client’s guilt. From this perspective it doesn’t matter that the client is guilty – what matters is whether the prosecution can prove it and convince a jury to convict. The duty of the defence lawyer, on this view, is to make the prosecution’s task as difficult as possible by blackguarding and harassing the witnesses, raising as many doubts as possible, producing spurious ‘expert witnesses’, and making emotional appeals to the jury.
This can be pretty effective in the case of passive smoking. After all, it’s quite difficult to get really solid evidence on how much people have been exposed to second-hand smoke. And if you can invent spurious epidemiological principles, the task becomes even easier (the post refers to Milloy, but Philip Morris also backed the IPA in similar efforts). But in the long run, the truth will out, and you don’t hear so much about passive smoking from the IPA these days.
Once you’ve seen the tactic at work in a clear-cut case like that of passive smoking (or, in retrospect, CFCs and the ozone layer) it’s easier to see through it in other contexts.
fn1. The IPA has repeatedly made personal attacks on me, and I’ve responded as vigorously as you might expect. So readers should be aware that I’m not making a neutral observation here. Still, I’m confident that what I’ve written is an accurate summary, without any intentional distortions or omissions. In particular, I’m not aware of any scientific issue the IPA has approached in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, to the point of publishing conclusions inconsistent with their ideological commitments and the financial interests of their backers. If one is pointed out, I’ll be happy to acknowledge it (OK, I won’t be happy, but I will acknowledge it).
fn2. In fact, the IPA was founded in 1944, well before most of the US thinktanks. But it had a chequered history, starting out as a front group/slush fund for business interests associated with the Liberal Party and going into a long decline over the 1960s and 1970s, before emerging in its present form some time in the 1980s.
fn3. The Federation Fellowship I was awarded last year was for research on this topic. This award, coming from a government I had repeatedly criticised, inflamed the IPA to new fury, especially when I took the award and continued the criticism. The IPA view is that an honest man is one who, once bought, stays bought.
fn4. The Rumpole books, especially The Golden Thread present as good a defence of this view as I’ve seen. I’m doubtful that it’s appropriate in a system of criminal justice, and I’m certain that it has no place in science or science-based policy analysis.