Science the victim of dishonest attacks
That’s the title of my Fin column for Thursday 11 March 2010, which naturally picked out The Australian newspaper as a prime vehicle for these attacks. The Oz replied next day, with characteristic mendacity, pointing out that, on the same day they
ran an opinion piece by climatologist James Hansen, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies chief who also happens to be known rather snappily as the “father of global warming”.
Only problem was, they weren’t running Hansen to defend science against their attacks, but because his policy views (he opposes an ETS and supports nuclear power) could be used in their continuing wedge campaign. The piece (can’t find it to link ran under the headline “”Only carbon tax and nuclear power can save us”
Anyway, here’s my piece
Science the victim of dishonest attacks
It is a commonplace to observe that Australia’s scientific institutions and organizations, have played a central role in promoting Australia’s prosperity and in maintaining our country’s place as a leading contributor to the growth of knowledge.
In city and country alike, we rely on the predictions and analysis of the Bureau of Meteorology, predictions that have grown steadily more accurate over time. The prosperity of our rural sector has been built to a substantial extent, on the work of the CSIRO and other organizations devoted to agricultural science and natural resource management.
Universities have also played a crucial role. My own University of Queensland includes among its alumni such great scientists as Peter Doherty, whose work on immunology won him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996.
In recent years, science and scientific institutions have come under increasingly vociferous attack, with accusations of fraud, incompetence and even aspirations to world domination becoming commonplace. These attacks have mostly focused on environmental and public health issues, but they are gradually coalescing into an attack on science itself
A few examples
* In November 2003, Quadrant magazine published an article by Ted Lapkin blaming environmentals scientists for a supposed ban on DDT that had, he claimed cost millions of lives. DDT was never banned in anti-malarial use, and the claim Lapkin repeated had been cooked up by a tobacco lobbyist, who sought to put pressure on the World Health Organization, then campaigning against smoking in the Third World.
* On March 5 2006, Miranda Devine wrote that ‘Environmentalism is the powerful new secular religion and politically correct scientists are its high priests … It used to be men in purple robes who controlled us. Soon it will be men in white lab coats. The geeks shall inherit the earth.’
* On March 26th 2009, Jennifer Marohasy, then a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, accused the Bureau of Meteorology of tampering with weather data to fake evidence of global warming
* Andrew Bolt of the Sun-Herald has repeatedly asserted that climate scientists are conscious frauds, motivated by a desire for government grant money, most recently a few days ago in a blog post entitled ‘That buys a lot of Baas’.
* The Australian newspaper has campaigned against science and scientists so consistently that picking a single example would be misleading. Blogger Tim Lambert, who maintains a running series on The Australian’s War on Science is now up to instalment 46
All of this has reached a crescendo in the wake of the so-called Climategate affair in which a group of ‘sceptics’ harassed climate scientists at the University of East Anglia with a campaign of deliberately vexatious form-letter Freedom of Information demands, hacked the University’s email system to obtain the email files generated in response and then published distorted versions of those supposedly proving that global temperature records had been fudged in a ‘trick’ to ‘hide the decline’. Subsequent inquiries showed that the selectively quoted phrases referred to perfectly legitimate methods of data analysis, but the enemies of science had a win in the media.
Scientists have been constrained in fighting back by the fact that they are ethically constrained to be honest, whereas their opponents lie without any compunction. A striking example was the response of Phil Jones, the main target of the Climategate hack, when presented with deliberately loaded question about the statistical significance of global warming trends over short periods.
Jones answered honestly, and proceeded to explain the problem with this kind of analysis. The Daily Mail promptly ran a headline stating ‘Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995’
As the Economist observed, this was a flat-out lie, noting that ‘anyone who has even a passing high-school familiarity with statistics should understand the difference’ That did not stop dozens of anti-science commentators from passing it on.
Now, however, science is pushing back, at least in Australia. Along with other scientific institutions, Universities Australia is organizing a national policy forum on climate change to be held in Parliament House next week which will not only restate the findings of science on this issue but respond to the stream of attacks on science.
Australia can, if need be, do very well without Quadrant, the Institute of Public Affairs and The Australian. We cannot do without science and scientists. The time has come to make a choice.