Free speech, respect, and honorary status

Anyone interested in the AGW issue will know of Professor Bob Carter. He is probably Australia’s leading sceptic, and held that status before I became interested in the matter six years ago. Until very recently he held an honorary position at James Cook University, where he spent the greater part of his academic career, serving as Professor of Geology there for 17 years and as Head of the School of Earth Sciences for a long period.

He is an immensely distinguished research scientist as well, having been an ARC Special Investigator for a decade or more, having published well over one hundred scientific papers, and having had a great deal to do with a major international scientific exploration project — the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). Along the way he has served science, geology and the university world very well through his being a member of, or chairing, a number of national and disciplinary committees, all of them important.

I first met him in the mid 1980s, when I learned that he was going to be a member of the Australian Research Grants Committee, of which I was the Chairman (the Minister, then Barry Jones, made the appointments). He proved to be a pleasant, confident, well-read and hard-working member of the ARGC, and I then had to learn a lot about the ODP, of which he was also the Australian spokesman, because for Australia to take part in that endeavour the ARGC had to provide a good deal of money, and I might have to persuade the Minister. I was persuaded, and so was he.

Bob Carter and I were not always on the same side in arguments about the best direction for research in Australia. My sense was that if we could not show that some things were arguably more important than others, then it would be hard for us to persuade the government, and especially Departments like Finance and Treasury, that research was worth investing more money in. His view was that ultimately the best outcomes would come from the funding the best people to conduct research in areas that they thought were promising.

There is no right or wrong in this debate, which was intense in the 1980s. It has gone on for a hundred years or more, and you can see swings of something like a pendulum in the way in which the debate, and the money, both move. He and I would agree that today the pendulum has swung too far towards  directed research.

When I became interested in global warming I needed advice on what to read, and Bob Carter and Ian Castles (former Australian Statistician), both friends, were the two I went to. Bob’s advice was first to read the most recent Assessment Report of the IPCC (its third, usual referred to as TAR), and then to read a couple of pieces Ian Castles had written with David Henderson. He also suggested a number of other papers, some from the orthodox side, others from the dissenting. One or two of his own were in the list.

I found his published work to be very like the man himself. His papers were reasonable, well-researched, data-based, courteous, and accessible to a wide audience. It was clear to me why he was such a successful speaker, not just in Australia but overseas, where he is  probably more famous than he is at home. To the best of my knowledge, no one from the orthodox side has ever been prepared to engage with him in a public debate over the AGW issue, on which he has written an excellent book, Climate. The Counter Consensus. A new book, Taxing Air, with John Spoonerwill be out in the next few days.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, James Cook University has unilaterally ended Professor Carter’s honorary status. As I understand it, the University sees no real value to it in his continued association with the institution which he served with distinction for a long time. I further understand that staff in the University who are applying for research grants from the Australian Research Council (of whose Geosciences Panel Bob Carter was an early member) feel that the University’s conferring of honorary status on him may jeopardise their chances of success.

Why would that be so? Well, the only conclusion one could come to is that unless James Cook University looks to be squeaky clean (in terms of the AGW orthodoxy) money may not flow. I would hope that this is all a load of codswallop, but in fact universities are not great defenders of free speech.

I would have to say that one of my great fears, when I was a vice-chancellor myself, was the prospect of the appearance on my campus of a wildly unorthodox speaker, who would be shouted down, or generally censored and made miserable by students who disagreed with his views. It never happened, but I knew that my students, especially the politicised ones, mostly did not agree with Voltaire that people had a right to say what they thought, even if you strongly disagreed with what they said. Staff may be a little more courageous, but one rarely sees much sign of it.

What can anyone do about this? Well, I’m writing about it, and I’m sending copies of this piece to the Vice-Chancellor of the University, the ARC, and Universities Australia. Those who have supported universities, research and teaching all their lives deserve proper respect from those who come afterwards, even if you don’t, on the whole agree, with them. As it happens, I agree with this one, and he has my respect in full measure.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • pjb253 says:

    Hear, hear!

  • Robert Gunning says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s very troubling to learn more about what seems to lie behind the decision by James Cook university to unilaterally end Professor Carter’s honorary status. It strikes me that this deserves an online campaign or something similar. Do you know of one, or do you have anything in mind?

  • PeterE says:

    This is a really important issue. In my experience, universities do contain individuals who care nothing for the truth or knowledge but are intensely political and will ruthlessly agitate to effect political outcomes. Such people may use plausible sounding reasons for their actions (much like the statement above that ‘staff … who are applying for research grants … feel that … [recognition of Carter] may jeopardise their chances.’) but the reality is that they have a political goal in mind and any excuse will serve. The great example is the sending to Coventry of Professor Geoffrey Blainey. To argue with such people hoping that they will see reason is a waste of breathe. They need to be exposed as individuals and questioned closely – let’s use one of their favourite phrases ‘interrogated’. But who will have the energy to do this? As someone once said ‘an organised minority will always outwit a disorganised majority.’

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Don,

    No doubt you are aware of Murry Salby’s recent account of the termination of his post with Macquarie University. I can understand why Murry’s research is so unsettling to the settled. As for the move against Bob Carter, it is absolutely petty. Galileo and his like will be spinning in their graves that attempts at censorship are so alive and well. As Peter and Robert are asking, how best to storm this Bastille of ignorance?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I to am troubled by the Salby business, but it seems to me much more complex than what happened to Bob Carter, and for the moment I am collecting information and suspending judgment.

  • donaitkin says:

    Professor Salby is unobtainable at the moment. He seems to have issued a statement, but neither he nor the University is saying anything. I think it would be best to wait until we know rather more than we do now.

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