The Great Barrier Reef is nearly always in the news, and from time to time I wonder if out there there isn’t a spinmeister who checks the media reports to make sure that the GBR never drops out of public gaze. It is of course an icon (the term comes from the Greek word for a religious image — I say no more). We tremble lest the UN decide that we aren’t looking after it properly and take it away from us, amid the righteous scorn of the rest of the world. Richard Branson tells us that it has become an industrial dump. President Obama wants it saved, though he hasn’t been there. Bill Shorten has promised to take $380 more million from the Money Tree to protect the reef from climate change (I kid you not).
There is a current brouhaha about whether a third of the reef is dead, or only unconscious. Coral bleaching is the villain, and of course all progressive people know it is caused by climate change. Anyone who looks ‘coral bleaching’ up, however, will find it is a recurring phenomenon. Wikipedia offers thirteen different causes. Warmer water is one, so is colder water; so is a decline in sea-level. Wikipedia sees the sinister hand of human activity in most of the causes, but such explanations could only apply to the very recent instances.
I’ve written about the reef before, and it is not the real subject of this essay. But without the fuss about the reef there would be no story. And this is it. James Cook University has a Professor of Physics called Peter Ridd, who has, among other things, written sensibly about peer review and about quality assurance in science. He is a marine geophysicist who think that stories about the imminent death of the reef are fanciful. In May this year he pooh-poohed claims by two other JCU staff about the state of the reef. Let the Cairns Post tell the story (in part).
In a scientific paper released this week, JCU’s Dr Jon Brodie and Professor Richard Pearson warned the natural wonder would be in a terminal condition within five years without a $10 billion commitment during the federal election campaign to improve water quality. They said many parts of the Reef were in bad shape from pollution, climate change, and overfishing, and they were continuing to decline. The researchers predicted a wave of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks in 2025 triggered by poor water quality.
But JCU marine geophysicist Professor Peter Ridd said his colleagues’ claims were “laughable”.
“I think the threats to the Barrier Reef are greatly exaggerated and mostly based upon science that is very poorly quality assured,’’ he said.
It is not the first time he has spoken out in this fashion, having done so ten years ago, and again last year when he complained about scientists’ ‘overhyping the death of the reef’. Then a few days ago he complained that photos put out by the GBR Marine Park Authority to demonstrate the awful effects of climate change on the reef could not be taken seriously. The Australian has told that story.
When marine scientist Peter Ridd suspected something was wrong with photographs being used to highlight the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef, he did what good scientists are supposed to do: he sent a team to check the facts.
After attempting to blow the whistle on what he found — healthy corals — Professor Ridd was censured by James Cook University and threatened with the sack. After a formal investigation, Professor Ridd — a renowned campaigner for quality assurance over coral research from JCU’s Marine Geophysics Laboratory — was found guilty of “failing to act in a collegial way and in the academic spirit of the institution”.
His crime was to encourage questioning of two of the nation’s leading reef institutions, the Centre of Excellence for Coral Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, on whether they knew that photographs they had published and claimed to show long-term collapse of reef health could be misleading and wrong.
“These photographs are a big deal as they are plastered right across the internet and used very widely to claim damage,” Professor Ridd told The Weekend Australian…
Professor Ridd said it was only possible to guess within a kilometre or two where the original photograph was taken and it would not be unusual to find great coral in one spot and nothing a kilometre away, colleagues”. He has been told that if he does it again he may be found guilty of serious misconduct.
A JCU spokesman said it was university policy not to comment on individual staff, but that the university’s marine science was subject to “the same quality assurance processes that govern the conduct of, and delivery of, science internationally”.
The former chairman of the GBR Marine Park Authority, and the current chairman, Russell Reichfelt, have both at separate times argued that too many scientists exaggerate bad news about oceans and the reef, and play down doubt and uncertainty. The reef goes on and on, both as a natural wonder and a political issue.
What gets me about this present event is the attitude of James Cook University. It has form in this area, having ended Professor Bob Carter’s status as an adjunct professor on the ground that what he was doing was not consistent with the research interests of the University (or something like that). It seems to me that, apart from the issue of the photographs, JCU has taken the side of the researchers who want $10 billion spent on water quality so that the reef ceases to be ‘terminal’.
If I am right, or at least partly right, then my sympathies are with Professor Ridd, not the university. It seems to me (I’m sorry to keep using this verb, but JCU won’t talk and I don’t have the facts), that Professor Ridd was getting in the way of two guys who might attract some money to JCU. That is the collegial sin. But surely that is politics, not science. All in all, what is happening to Professor Ridd is grubby, unless there is something more that JCU won’t talk about.
Professor Judith Currie, in far away Atlanta, was moved to write a piece about it, whose tenor is that all researchers and their institutions have a responsibility to science, not to money, and that Ridd’s whistle-blowing is proper. She asks:
As a researcher, what kinds of responsibilities do you have to
* your conscience (micro)
* your colleagues (micro)
* institutions (micro/macro)
* the public (macro)
* the environment (macro).
These are important questions, and they are not answered much in the world of climate science, save by the sceptics.
End note: If anyone wants to find a more dispassionate account of the reef and its history as an awesome icon, they might do worse than reading a piece by Walter Starck, who does know about the reef, though, of course, he is another of those old sceptical scientists. You can read it here.
And since writing the essay, another excellent review, both of the science and of the politics, has been published here.
‘really existing’ Anyone interested in that phrase in the title will find an explanation in this essay.