Yet another test of ‘really existing’ academic freedom

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.

Join the discussion 51 Comments

  • Mike Burston says:

    Not much is heard of Eugenics these days. It was a discipline respected scientific academies pursued before it was discredited. Open review is much preferred to peer review because it’s the first cousin of pal review is where politics and science intersect.

    • BB says:

      Quite some time ago now Michael Crichton in his book “climate of fear” I think showed the close parallels between eugenics and the climate change passion. The death camps of Germany ended eugenics almost entirely so what will be the death camp for climate change?

  • dlb says:

    Don, I was hoping you would bring up the subject of the GBR and the Ridd controversy. Seems like a smaller version of the climate debate to me. Will comment more after I read some of the links. By the way, the link “again last year” takes me to the Jennifer Marohasy article 10 years ago.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks dlb. I’ve corrected the link, but that has disappeared behind the Courier Mail’s paywall. o matter, just find ‘Peter Ridd’ in your search engine, and it will take you to the same piece, and without the paywall.

  • David says:

    You post this article on censorship at JCU and yet censor Ross and I because our “snipes” made you cross. I cant believe I am going to say this, but I agree with Bryan Roberts.

    “When you lose the ability to appreciate and enjoy mockery, you are indeed getting old.”

    One person’s “mockery” is another person’s “snipe” and then its OK to censor, apparently.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      In the past day and a bit you have written seven comments, all of them in moderation save this one. For the benefit of Margaret and others, David has written more than 1350 comments, and I analysed them in an earlier post

      In my judgment, only about 10 per cent of them contribute usefully to any discussion. Most are cheap shots of one kind or another, or attempts to drag the discussion down an avenue he likes, or references to other posts or URLs, or lofty dismissals as from the pulpit. He was described by other commenters as a ‘serial pest’.

      The rule that applies to him is that he must post a serious contribution of one kind or another for every two one-liners or other snipes, and (like everyone else) not more than three posts a day. He finds it difficult to do so, and believes that he has been unfairly treated. That is not my view. I have suggested, several times, that he establish his own website…

      I monitor the site at least once a day, except when I am travelling, which is the case at the moment. ‘Ross’, as anyone will see when they read the essay cited above, accepted that these rules were not acceptable to him, and left.

      • margaret says:

        Thanks David for any disallowed comments that may have given some relief from those made by the Delcons. 🙂

      • JimboR says:

        “He was described by other commenters as a ‘serial pest’.”

        There are plenty of them around (and for the record I’ve always found David’s comments quite insightful… even the one-liners) but regardless of one’s position on who’s a pest and who isn’t, pests don’t bother me at all as I simply skip their comments. I realise you don’t have that luxury Don as you no doubt need to read everything posted here, but if other commenters don’t like David’s comments, why do they read them?

        “and (like everyone else) not more than three posts a day”

        Don, are you sure that feature is working? I can see five posts in less than two hours from the one contributor at the bottom of this essay:

        • Don Aitkin says:


          Some will get though the net, since I’m not on duty all the time and there are no other moderators. I have asked one other commenter to restrict himself, and will do the same when I see another.

          If you have read the comments regularly, you will see that some readers stopped reading the Comments altogether because of what they saw as hijacking or troll-like activity. I was vexed that I had to do what I did.

        • spangled drongo says:

          Maybe if you answered my question, jimmy love…..

          But that’s OK. I can understand why you don’t.

    • JMO says:

      Oh for goodness sake David! Can’t you see the difference between JCU accusing Prof Ridd of “failing to act in a collegial way” and Don censoring your cheap snipes. If you cannot fathom this difference then please follow Ross’s example, Make like a tree and leave.

      • David says:

        JMO, yes I can see differences between the censorship at JCU and Don’s censorship of me. One is a university and the other a blog. There may be other difference as well. But they are still both examples of political censorship all the same. Someone in power is arbitrarily preventing another person from expressing their opinion.

        I express opinions which is different to most people who read this site. What you call a cheap snipe from I see as pithy and direct. Collectively, there are many, many, many more cheap snipes from the “right” than from the “left” on this site. Look at Neville. Look at Spang. There are many others. There is one rule for people who engage in mockery and who are on message and another for those who are not.

        My posts don’t break any laws. I am simply being censored because the majority of people on this site don’t like what I say.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          David, your incapacity to read or think is extraordinary! What do/did you do for a living?

          Examples: ‘Someone in power is arbitrarily preventing another person from expressing their opinion.’ Rubbish! No one is doing that to you. You are at perfect liberty to establish your own website, and say whatever you want to say. But if you come to this website, there are rules. You don’t think they ought to be there? Fine! Establish your own website and have your own rules. There is nothing arbitrary about the rules, for they apply to everyone who writes large numbers of comments, and indeed I’ve let you through the net a couple of times when you failed to wrote anything that could be seen as a contribution to the discussion

          ‘My posts don’t break any laws.’ That is really silly, and irrelevant.

          ‘I am simply being censored because the majority of people on this site don’t like what I say.’ Again, wrong and silly. There are rules, and you don’t want to abide by them. I have no idea what the majority of people on this site like. I haven’t asked them, and I doubt that anyone else has done so, either. I established the rules because you and Ross had begun to take over the Comments section. It is there for the general benefit of readers, not for one or two.

          I am tired of having to respond to what you write. I tried, but it seems no real use pointing anything out to you. You don’t seem to read what is there, or if you do, it seems to make no difference. As others have pointed out, you never tell us why, for example, you think global warming is significant other than by sending us to a link that does not do the job.

          You can have one comment per essay, just one.

          • NameGlenM says:

            Maybe that egregious hot whopper site is more suitable for David.It is impossible to impress any reason there.Same applies to “the Conversation”a supposedly academic site.Anything sensible – or relating to pursuit of empirical based science is routinely rejected by moderators.In short it’s frequented by new age types and their subversive ideology.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Davey, stop trying to compare yourself with an honest Peter Ridd when it’s the bed wetters at Cape Ferg you align with.

      Thinks: are they really bed wetters [as in honestly nervous] or just plain avaricious bull artists.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Don, may I point out that I appreciated spangled drongo’s parody of Australian society. It may not have been a comedic gem, but would probably have raised a smile on many people’s faces. I suggested that an appreciation of the mockery of social ‘reformers’ was once considered a trait characteristic of Australians: margaret chose to view it as an insult; her prerogative. What I object to, and what prompted this reply, was David’s assumption that my acceptance of ‘mockery’ was equivalent to endorsement of ‘sniping’, which is absolutely not the case. The two are not comparable in any way.

      • margaret says:

        You know what Bryan? I was not insulted – there was not one anthropomorphised creature that I could identify with in jangled bongo’s diatribe so why would I take it as an affront. Rhetorical question only. I’ve been open enough to say I’m a 67 year old grandmother and a bit of a cynic, for after all that’s what disillusioned idealists become. You, on the other hand are a far more tricky guy, (it seems to me). As for the revelation from Don that many of his readers simply read the essays now that the comments section has been ‘spoiled’ by non like-minded Delcons, I say boo hoo. Start your own boy’s club.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          “why would I take it as an affront”

          I don’t know, but you’re certainly free enough with your accusations.

          To wit: “but Bryan Roberts … a bit of a nasty side”
          “You (Bryan Roberts), on the other hand are a far more tricky guy”

          Being 67 doesn’t give you a franchise on spite.

          • margaret says:

            You’re right, I’ll try and be kinder and gentler and not play the man. Surrounded by them as I am.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don, for an extremely relevant post, not only on the GBR but the modern world WRT science.

    Even though these situations have been around for a long time. As Upton Sinclair said:

    ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’

    It, of course, now goes far beyond this.

  • Colin Davidson says:

    Don, Thanks for this post, which addresses the problem of active encouragement of falsehoods by university administrators.
    There should be no doubt that there is a problem with quality control in science, particularly in the soft sciences [ecology, etc] and any areas where money is involved [medical, climate]. In that case the problem is “pal review”, and I agree with Mike Burston above that open review would at least improve the quality, while not necessarily exposing the Piltdowns.
    But your piece is more about the university administrators, the real guardians of quality. James Cook University has gone for the money and is not interested in quality. It should have all its grants terminated. It is no longer a place of learning, but an institution which seeks funding for misrepresentations. Falsehoods which have been published by its academics. Untruths which were exposed by one brave professor. Who was then kicked in the teeth by the very people who should be applauding his courage and his diligence.
    Academia is about questioning and examining and testing. James Cook University has decided that questioning the status quo is blasphemous. The University has clearly shown that it is no longer an academic institution. It joins the University of Western Australia, and Flinders University in South Australia. All three should have all their grants terminated. Pour encourager les autres.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      But the rot has spread much farther than James Cook. How else to explain the uncritical support for John Cook, his nonsense ‘consensus’ and ‘denial’ psycho-babble, by the supposedly far more prestigious University of Queensland?

      • JMO says:

        ..and what about John Church “Mr sea level rises” who wrote average global sea level rises of 20cm and it is worse for Eastern Australia (notice in these environment/climate/ sea levels etc it is always worse for Australia particularly south east – also in other countries where a climate/sea level rise report is published).

        If it is the case we could safely add, say, 20-25%; which makes sea level rise 25cm ie 10 inchesfor SE Australia – yet no one has noticed! Photos of Sydney beaches from early 20th century look much the same as today, Fort Denison tidal measurement since 1850 are very similar to today’s (OK a odd centimetre perhaps),

        Of course in the AGW science he is an expert and jets off to climate conferences in exotic location spewing CO2 emissions in his wake. The hypocrisy is unbelievable.

        David – are you reading this? Does all this make you think, question and initiate some skerrick of scepticism (gosh scepticism in climate “science” such a revolutionary thought – heresy to the collegiate group think, pal reviews, and money grabs by constant stoking fear and doom ) .

        Anyway, one day we might meet up in Brissie at the Breakfast Ck Hotel for a XXXX beer and I can tell you something else about this guy which I will not divulge publically on this site orto anyone through email.

        Oh, I could also explain how I spat out the sinker (after swallowing the hook and line) about CAGW.

        • Colin Davidson says:

          Brian and JMO,
          I agree with you that the psycho-babble of Cook and the sea-level tilt by Church are low-quality university-rubbish, but these instances would not necessarily attract funding withdrawal from me. Universities are founts of mountains of garbage.

          The case cited by Don is one where the Quality Control process [publication of rubbish, refutation of rubbish] is being broken by the guardians of the system. I am happy for rubbish to be published, so long as the Quality Control process is strong and supported. But where the University has broken its trust with the rest of academia by censoring discussion, and is actively shutting down the quality process, I think its funding should be withdrawn.

          It may be as effective to withdraw funding from the subject areas where quality process failure has occurred. Might save us some money from the budget as well.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Lovely quote from Upton Sinclair, but it is a gloomy picture you provide us, Don, the University as Politburo. Good on Prof Ridd for his steady nerve, and you for yours.

  • dlb says:

    Yes, it is intriguing to know what is happening at JCU, obviously GBR research money is lucrative and Ridd’s comments and scientific critique are not helping in this regard. I also wonder if the hostility towards him is also because he’s not following the progressive, green, UN endorsed script about the Reef.

    If you search on the net for “Peter Ridd” it is clear he has been a thorn in the side of the GBR scientific establishment for years. Apparently he is also a scientific adviser to “The Australian Environment Foundation” a group set up by the late Bob Carter and others to counter “unscientific” environmentalism. From what I can see he has attacked the GBR consensus by both scientific critique in journals and going to the media including the Andrew Bolt Show, Gasp!

    Up till now not too many have heard of him, part of the reason is that the ABC has not given him any oxygen, unlike alarmist researchers such as Hoegh-Guldberg that appear regularly. Though there is this one article and related interview in a regional studio. I thought the interviewer had rather an aggressive tone, almost saying – how dare you as a scientist dispute the consensus.

    As I said earlier the controversy about the GBR has many parallels with the larger climate change scare. But I think the alarmism about the Reef is reaching a tipping point, even the general public are getting cynical and the Chairman of the Marine Park Authority, once a critic of Ridd, thinks the doom sayers are now going too far. Also if things are that bad the tourist operators would be clammering for the Government to something about it, which they are not.

  • Neville says:

    Don, thanks for this essay on the GBR and thanks to Peter Ridd for pointing out the stupidity and their fraud over many decades. Andrew Bolt has also pointed out the exaggerations by the likes of Flannery over a very long period. When will their ABC and Fairfax etc call out this nonsense?
    Instead they repeatedly reengage him to give us another serve and the fairy tales get bigger and more ludicrous.

  • spangled drongo says:

    It’s interesting that only one side is trying to shut down the “debate”.

    But the other side are learning:

  • JAC says:

    Don I think you are right- the real story here is not the reef but the decline in the quality of governance in universities generally. As noted the treatment Bob Carter received from JCU was also appalling and begs the question what does constitute “the academic spirit of the institution”. But they are not alone in being uncertain of that. Both UWA and Flinders refused to support the establishment of Bjorn Lomborg’s Aust. Consensus Centre in the face of objections from some academic staff and a gaggle of undergraduates. The only reason appeared to be he was a climate sceptic. So his opinions were unsound, not his academic capability. The opinions of Martin Hirst were considered unsound enough for Latrobe to suspend him , only to unsuspend him in the face of complaints by some staff and their student acolytes. Elsewhere, Sydney I think, The Student Union could not tolerate a Max Brenner Chocolate franchise on the campus, so it went. While the VC at another campus could tolerate a talk on the situation in the Middle East by a retired senior British Army officer being noisily disrupted by some academic members who thought they might disapprove of his opinions if he were allowed to express them.
    The thread I see running through this , from the triviality of hot chocolate franchises to the apparently venal actions of JCU is the quality of governance. And it appears that nobody is actually making these decisions. There is no clear statement of purpose by the VC, only a spokesperson handing out media releases which have been written in the modern unctuous style. The political stuff is not new. What is new is the willingness to lower academic standards to gain funding. And it seems to be not limited to research grants. Some time ago the University of Wollongong was caught up in claims that overseas students were being favourably treated in exams to maintain the level of full fee paying students. Recently I had a conversation with a retired CEO who was asked to run a supplementary unit of study at the University of Technology Sydney. He had a group of eighteen, the majority being overseas students. All were supposed to be fluent in English with advanced levels of maths and science. They weren’t. To compound the problem, the course structure was based on team work. Most students would not contribute to the team meetings, or if they did submit work, it was a page and a half of Wikipedia. When the time came to submit their project for assessment, they opted for a verbal presentation by the English speaking student to avoid making a written submission. The Department head would not contemplate any failures because they were full fee paying students. In that, he had the backing of the administration.
    Two things are at stake here. One is the scientific process and the other is the integrity of the collegiate system of academic enquiry. Both systems have evolved over a long time. One from the beginning of the Enlightenment and the other from the principles first invoked in the Magna Carta. It would be shameful if he actions of people charged with overseeing our Universities have so little awareness of the responsibilities of the position that their stewardship results in the institutions becoming collateral damage in the political wars of attrition.

    • dlb says:

      Lenient treatment to full fee paying international students is a big issue. I was listening to an ABC radio program on this subject earlier this the year, where many students, parents and faculty staff phoned in with firsthand accounts of this problem. Some of the Australian students were getting stressed out with group assignments where they ended up having to carry the workload for the international students.

  • margaret says:

    I found point 7. What we Know About the Great Barrier Reef interesting :
    ‘From a longer perspective, it pays to remember that the reef has survived unrelenting storms, huge variations of weather and climate, naval battles, flood-born sedimentation and the myriad insults from invasive species, changing biotas and everything else Nature has thrown at it during its long history.’
    I liked reference to Pete Seeger’s song about Newspapermen (I don’t think he wrote it but he sang it) – “it’s a mess, meets the test”. I learnedfrom the piece about science advocacy and took from it that certain powerful advocacy, supported by the newspapermen enables the adage that “a lie travels halfway round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes indeed. Lies are there for all time, once they’re printed. The withdrawal is usually on a much later page, and the mud sticks. One has to be very careful in what one says about others, and to have done the homework first, not afterwards.

    • dlb says:

      Another common misconception about the GBR is that it has been off the east coast of Australia for a long time. It has only been there since the last ice age, a blink in geological and evolutionary history. It is even young in terms of human history, as its current position would have been high and dry land for more than half the time of the aboriginal occupation of Australia.

      • spangled drongo says:

        And half of Brisbane was built from dead coral dredged and processed by Darra Cement Co. that grew in Moreton Bay, now too cool to produce coral in the same abundance.

    • Peter WARWICK says:

      Margaret, I can cope with a big fat lie – they stand out like the proverbial dogs things. It is MYTHS that worry me, they can live on for centuries, and become part of folklore, ever so slowly changing colour, shape and form, but live on nevertheless, becoming more embellished as time goes on. Told over campfires and public bars, they continue to cement their place in cultural history.

      Some lies transmogrify into MYTHS over time, but eventually they can be seen for what they are – a big fat LIE.

      Then there are STORIES, passed down through the centuries on scraps of paper, and become part of life’s rich tapestry. Some are true, but some are a cross breed between MYTHS and LIES – a LYTH (Don would be proud of me for that one !)

      • margaret says:

        Yes, Peter I add Fairy Tales and some nursery rhymes as they have transmogrified from cautionary tales for adults to something adults and film corporations like Disney now perpetuate onto children in less than positive ways.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Funnily enough, I read all the Grimms and the HC Andersens when I was a boy, but the only one I remember is ‘The Black Stone’. Most of the Grimm stories are indeed grim. I don’t think i’ve seen any of the Disney films except Snow White, which is really old, and I saw as a boy.

          • dasher says:

            Margaret and David instead of the constant whining, how about stating your views honestly on the subject and join the discussion…what do you think about this censorship of scientific thought? is it healthy or should we encourage the contest of ideas. For me it is an inditement against the university for even thinking about such censorship and also a blot of the scientific community for not coming out strongly against it whatever their views may be.

          • dasher says:

            Sorry “endictment”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, a summary of the hype over the GBR incl Ridd’s censure in today’s Australian by Graham Lloyd:

  • spangled drongo says:

    No wonder it’s the prime target of our professional bed-wetters.

    Australia’s Great Barrier Reef just named the best place in the world to visit:

  • […] of other colleagues’. Do it again, he was told, and we’ll try you for ‘serious misconduct’. I’ve written about this before, and indeed the above is an introduction to the news that JCU indeed decided to discipline Professor […]

  • […] Sceptical of the two points above? Well you must be one of those “climate denier”. Burning at the stake is no longer permitted, but being marginalized, ostracized and harassed is perfectly okay. […]

  • […] have written a couple of times about Peter Ridd, here and here. Professor Ridd, a well-published academic whose fields of research include coastal oceanography, […]

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