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[1], which models its approach closely on that of rightwing thinktanks in the US[2]. 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[3], 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[4].

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.

86 thoughts on “Science vs the right: Part 2 (Australia)

  1. PK, I don’t assert that because the majority believes something it’s necessarily true. Indeed, even if everyone believes something it may not be true. At this stage, I’m merely establishing the factual proposition that, in the case of global warming, hardly anyone qualified to make a judgement supports the sceptical position.

    On (b), I agree that many non-sceptics are in the same boat. I don’t normally put a lot of weight on the views of, say, scientists who work for Greenpeace. But that still leaves a very large number of people with no axe to grind on either side, and of these, all but a handful favor some form of the global warming hypothesis.

    On (c), as I’ve already pointed out, many of the crucial issues concern things like time-series analysis, price responses and so on. In studying these things, I’ve familiarised myself with the scientific literature on a number of related points. So, while no-one can be an expert on every aspect of the problem, I am substantially better qualified than Milloy or the vast majority of signatories of the Oregon petition. (you’re welcome to compare our CVs if you want). To see the relevance of the kind of time-series analysis I’m talking about, visit Tim Lambert’s blog.

    Finally, while it’s true that the majority of the economics profession holds views more free-market than my own, the division on issues like privatisation is nothing like as overwhelming as you imply. To get a comparable degree of consensus as exists wrt global warming you’d need to look at something like a proposal to institute Soviet-style central planning. And, if such a proposal were put forward, I think it would be relevant to observe that economists were (almost) unanimous in their opposition. That said, the economists might still turn out to be wrong.

  2. John Quiggin writes, “To Mark Bahner: As I’ve never cited, or even heard of, Michael Oppenheimer, I don’t know why you keep going on about him.”

    Bgah?!! Aaiiyeeeee!

    Well then, don’t you think, to use your own pseudo-civil phrase, “…you might want to bring yourself up to speed with the debate before proceeding further”?!

    Aaiiyeeeee!

    1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10

    No, this simply isn’t worthwhile, and not worth continuing.

    Maybe I should have even done this before even posting, but it seemed…well, self-centered.

    I’m an environmental engineer. I have a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering (Air Pollution Option).

    For the last 15 years, I’ve been doing environmental analyses. Mostly it’s been conventional pollutants (particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides) and so called “hazardous air pollutants” (e.g. mercury), but I’ve done stuff related to global warming (modeling the reductions in CO2 expected to be achieved by advanced automotive technologies).

    Due to my interests (my absolute favorite courses as an undergraduate were Advanced Energy Systems and Solar Energy Engineering) and my education and experience, I would absolutely *****LOVE***** for global warming to be the biggest problem ever to face humanity. If it was, I would be set for life.

    But…I have actually ***looked*** at global warming. And in my experienced, informed, and considered (but not necessarily correct!!!!) opinion:

    The projections in the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) for methane concentrations, CO2 emissions, CO2 concentrations, and most importantly temperatures, constitute the greatest fraud in the history of environmental “science.”

    I am *****PISSED!**** Discussing it and thinking about it have made me sooooooooooo angry I think may have literally made me sick.

    This may seem inconceivable to everyone who reads this. But think about it. I imagine most of the people on this blog are professionals, and many are either social or physical scientists. Suppose some people in YOUR profession engaged in the biggest fraud in the history of your profession.

    Environmental engineering and environmental science are very honorable professions. But right now, environmental science has cancer. And the worst part about it is that many, many people–even within the profession–don’t know it.

    I came to this weblog because–well, I don’t know where exactly I came from–because I read somewhere that twisted, or slanted, or whatever you want to call it, “science” was being discussed. I put “science” in quotations, because there is no twisted or slanted TRUE science.

    I apologize once again to you, Dr. Quiggin, for not first checking out who you were. But knowing what I know (that the IPCC TAR’s projections are the greatest fraud in the history of environmental “science”) and reading the ignorant* things you’ve written about global warming, I got carried away.

    (*”Ignorant” only regarding global warming! And I do NOT consider that a character flaw. You are “rationally ignorant” as I understand the term…economics NOT being my field.)

    Dr. Quiggin continues, “More generally, having had the chance to read several of your contributions, I don’t think a continued exchange would be very constructive at present.”

    Well, I can think of something you could get out of continued exchange. You wrote, in the Australian Financial Review:

    “Under ‘business as usual’ projections, average temperatures are likely to rise by 3 to 5 degrees this century,…”

    I don’t know your profession, so I’m just guessing. But your statement in the Australian Financial Review is probably something like:

    “Under ‘business as usual’ projections, wheat is likely to exceed the price of copper by 2030, and exceed the price of silver by 2100…”

    Now, would you ever write that in a public place (except making it clear you were joking)?

    I understand that you were just passing on something said by experts. But suppose even some experts had told given you the projections about wheat, copper, and silver…would you ever pass on such projections, in effect “endorsing” them to the readers? Of course not! Because you actually KNOW something about the validity of the projections!

    Dr. Quiggin–I will take you up on your kind offer, and call you John from now on–concludes with, “Readers who want to follow up the issues Mark has raised might do well to visit his website.”

    http://markbahner.50g.com

    Thank you. Readers, keep in mind that “Mark’s Global Warming Website” was voted “Best website on global warming on the Internet!” (by the family and friends of Mark Bahner). ๐Ÿ™‚ (“Needs some editing work and finishing” was voted by Mark Bahner’s dad.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

    My website was an attempt to address everyone from the least informed layperson up to people who, like me, actually do environmental analyses for a living.

    I think it’s possible for essentially any intelligent and interested lay reader to understand exactly why the IPCC TAR’s projections are garbage.

    (I think!!!!)

    Mark Bahner (environmental engineer)

    P.S. I’m very busy writing proposals right now. So I don’t know whether I’ll be able to comment for the next few days or even a week or more. But if I DID comment, this is the sort of thing I’d comment:

    John Quiggin writes, “PK, I don’t assert that because the majority believes something it’s necessarily true. Indeed, even if everyone believes something it may not be true. At this stage, I’m merely establishing the factual proposition that, in the case of global warming, hardly anyone qualified to make a judgement supports the sceptical position.”

    My comment would be: “That’s completely irrelevant, John. The IPCC TAR’s projections are garbage. Read my website. Think for yourself. You, as an interested layperson, CAN see that the projections are garbage.”

    THAT’S the sort of comment I’d have… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. John Quiggin writes, “To Mark Bahner: As I’ve never cited, or even heard of, Michael Oppenheimer, I don’t know why you keep going on about him.”

    Bgah?!! Aaiiyeeeee!

    Well then, don’t you think, to use your own pseudo-civil phrase, “…you might want to bring yourself up to speed with the debate before proceeding further”?!

    Aaiiyeeeee!

    1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10

    No, this simply isn’t worthwhile, and not worth continuing.

    Maybe I should have even done this before even posting, but it seemed…well, self-centered.

    I’m an environmental engineer. I have a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering (Air Pollution Option).

    For the last 15 years, I’ve been doing environmental analyses. Mostly it’s been conventional pollutants (particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides) and so called “hazardous air pollutants” (e.g. mercury), but I’ve done stuff related to global warming (modeling the reductions in CO2 expected to be achieved by advanced automotive technologies).

    Due to my interests (my absolute favorite courses as an undergraduate were Advanced Energy Systems and Solar Energy Engineering) and my education and experience, I would absolutely *****LOVE***** for global warming to be the biggest problem ever to face humanity. If it was, I would be set for life.

    But…I have actually ***looked*** at global warming. And in my experienced, informed, and considered (but not necessarily correct!!!!) opinion:

    The projections in the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) for methane concentrations, CO2 emissions, CO2 concentrations, and most importantly temperatures, constitute the greatest fraud in the history of environmental “science.”

    I am *****PISSED!**** Discussing it and thinking about it have made me sooooooooooo angry I think may have literally made me sick.

    This may seem inconceivable to everyone who reads this. But think about it. I imagine most of the people on this blog are professionals, and many are either social or physical scientists. Suppose some people in YOUR profession engaged in the biggest fraud in the history of your profession.

    Environmental engineering and environmental science are very honorable professions. But right now, environmental science has cancer. And the worst part about it is that many, many people–even within the profession–don’t know it.

    I came to this weblog because–well, I don’t know where exactly I came from–because I read somewhere that twisted, or slanted, or whatever you want to call it, “science” was being discussed. I put “science” in quotations, because there is no twisted or slanted TRUE science.

    I apologize once again to you, Dr. Quiggin, for not first checking out who you were. But knowing what I know (that the IPCC TAR’s projections are the greatest fraud in the history of environmental “science”) and reading the ignorant* things you’ve written about global warming, I got carried away.

    (*”Ignorant” only regarding global warming! And I do NOT consider that a character flaw. You are “rationally ignorant” as I understand the term…economics NOT being my field.)

    Dr. Quiggin continues, “More generally, having had the chance to read several of your contributions, I don’t think a continued exchange would be very constructive at present.”

    Well, I can think of something you could get out of continued exchange. You wrote, in the Australian Financial Review:

    “Under ‘business as usual’ projections, average temperatures are likely to rise by 3 to 5 degrees this century,…”

    I don’t know your profession, so I’m just guessing. But your statement in the Australian Financial Review is probably something like:

    “Under ‘business as usual’ projections, wheat is likely to exceed the price of copper by 2030, and exceed the price of silver by 2100…”

    Now, would you ever write that in a public place (except making it clear you were joking)?

    I understand that you were just passing on something said by experts. But suppose even some experts had told given you the projections about wheat, copper, and silver…would you ever pass on such projections, in effect “endorsing” them to the readers? Of course not! Because you actually KNOW something about the validity of the projections!

    Dr. Quiggin–I will take you up on your kind offer, and call you John from now on–concludes with, “Readers who want to follow up the issues Mark has raised might do well to visit his website.”

    http://markbahner.50g.com

    Thank you. Readers, keep in mind that “Mark’s Global Warming Website” was voted “Best website on global warming on the Internet!” (by the family and friends of Mark Bahner). ๐Ÿ™‚ (“Needs some editing work and finishing” was voted by Mark Bahner’s dad.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

    My website was an attempt to address everyone from the least informed layperson up to people who, like me, actually do environmental analyses for a living.

    I think it’s possible for essentially any intelligent and interested lay reader to understand exactly why the IPCC TAR’s projections are garbage.

    (I think!!!!)

    Mark Bahner (environmental engineer)

    P.S. I’m very busy writing proposals right now. So I don’t know whether I’ll be able to comment for the next few days or even a week or more. But if I DID comment, this is the sort of thing I’d comment:

    John Quiggin writes, “PK, I don’t assert that because the majority believes something it’s necessarily true. Indeed, even if everyone believes something it may not be true. At this stage, I’m merely establishing the factual proposition that, in the case of global warming, hardly anyone qualified to make a judgement supports the sceptical position.”

    My comment would be: “That’s completely irrelevant, John. The IPCC TAR’s projections are garbage. Read my website. Think for yourself. You, as an interested layperson, CAN see that the projections are garbage.”

    THAT’S the sort of comment I’d have… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. If Mark Bahner wishes to retain credibility with the interested lay-people who read this blog he would do well to avoid making comments that make him look foolish

    To respond in such an hysterical manner to some (pardonably) tetchy responses does not auger well for the strength of the argument he may be able to present.

    I find it difficult to believe that he obtained a masters while being unable to respond to criticism without the typewritten equivalent of hyperventilation.

    I’ll go back in my box and keep reading now.

  5. “If Mark Bahner wishes to retain credibility with the interested lay-people who read this blog he would do well to avoid making comments that make him look foolish…”

    Do you have an example?

    “To respond in such an hysterical manner to some (pardonably) tetchy responses does not auger well for the strength of the argument he may be able to present.”

    Presumably, this is direct to my response to John Quiggin’s suggestion to me that “”…you might want to bring yourself up to speed with the debate before proceeding further.”

    That was more than mildly offensive to me, as I’ve spent literally hundreds (if not more than a thousand) hours of my own time studying global warming. That is in addition to the hundreds (if not more than a thousand) hours I’ve spent working on projects that deal with global warming.

    I’m “up to speed” on global warming, and don’t take kindly to suggestions that I’m not (unless directed towards something specific where I agree that I lack knowledge).

    By the way, I fail to see the logic in using a person’s level of emotion as a criterion for determining whether a person is correct. A person can be passionately right or wrong.

    “I’ll go back in my box and keep reading now.”

    If it’s reading about global warming, this is a good place to start:

    http://markbahner.50g.com

    ๐Ÿ™‚

    If it’s about economic growth in the 21st century, Google ranks this location as #1:

    http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2003/12/economic_growth_1.html

    ๐Ÿ™‚

    D-oh! I see I got busted to #2! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. OMG WTF LOL! Has the cutesy-wutesy language of MSN chat invaded the world of science now? Does the site have cute moving gifs on it? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Emoticons R Us! ๐Ÿ˜›

  7. Q
    Just when I thought this thread was dead, the ever reliable Philip Adams kicks it back to life. As we all know, Adams is the protypical Right winger, and in today’s Australian weekend magazine he goes on about the evils of GM crops and the science behind them. In the article, Adam’s seems to say Barry Commoner’s Harpers magazine commentary on how modern science has got the role of DNA all wrong is actually top notch intelligent comment. It seems Adams hasn’t read either Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey or Tech Central’s 2002 criticisms of Commoner. (Those are easily found by a Google search).Commoner’s misguided ideas on GM crops are very similar to those of Greenpeace who also seem to be regarded as wise eco-gurus by Adams.
    Ooops I made a mistake, Adams isnt a right winger, he’s actually another lefty who spouts scientic nonsense.
    Ooops – another mistake, TCS publish only nonsense according to Prof. Q. I wonder where they got it wrong in pulling Commoner up – its not easy to see though because Commoner is quite clearly in error.

  8. d, as I said in the post, with specific reference to Tech Central Station as a model.

    “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”

    TCS are happy to tell the truth whenever it suits their case, and equally happy to lie when the truth is inconvenient.

    But all this reminds me that I’ve been planning a post on Greenpeace and GM and will have to get round to it before long.

  9. Note to John and d.

    Can you please check out Dr David Murray who recently appeared on Ockham’s Razor on Aunty here and here.

    Murray says that he sees a valid use for GM in crops, but raises seemingly important issues of concern and thinks some of the early releases were not considered with sufficient care.

    I also heard a story on the ABC from a Canadian farm leader who said that canola could not be successfully separated, that they had found that the GM yields were not greater than non-GM and that financial returns from GM were less than for non-GM. I looked but couldn’t find the story on “Bush Telegraph” for that day although all the other stories were there.

    Shortly after I heard a comment from the relevant British Minister who said all GM proposals need to be looked at separately and with care in each jurisdiction. I think this is what Murray is saying although there can be argument about procedure and what constitutes due care.

    Finally, there was an exceedingly interesting interview by Terry Lane with Dr Richard Jefferson, Founder and Chief Executive of CAMBIA, the Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture in Canberra on ‘Open source genetics’, a scheme which would limit the monopolistic commercial exploitation of the intellectual property involved.

    Go to it guys, I’ll be interested in the results!

  10. Iain Murray, at it again

    John Quiggin has another
    post on the right wing attack on science, this time describing the
    Australian front. Chris Mooney has

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