Academic Freedom Down Under, Therefore …

Is there a major piece of litigation brewing in Australia that gives hope to the Discovery Institute? Judge for yourself, as we present to you a new post at the Discoveroids’ creationist blog. It’s titled In Australia, Academic Freedom Case Will Have Far-Reaching Consequences. Ooooooooooooh! Far reaching consequences!

It was written by Sarah Chaffee, whom we call “Savvy Sarah.” This is her bio page at the Discoveroids’ website. Here are some excerpts from her post, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

Until Covid came along, evolution and climate change were at the top of the heap as controversial issues at the intersection of science and culture. Despite the newcomer, they remain as charged with potential for battle as ever.

Wowie! Evolution remains charged with potential for battle! Savvy Sarah says:

That’s, of course, not only in the United States but internationally. In Australia, as I’ve written here before, a prominent professor who critiqued climate change research has been in the spotlight for the past two years. The case, however it turns out, will have profound consequences.

What’s going on here? The Discoveroids don’t write about climate change — at least not very often — and neither do we. So why are they worked up over this? Savvy Sarah tells us:

So, can academics voice controversial viewpoints on scientific topics, or not? [Sure, they do it all the time — but not wacky viewpoints like flat Earth and creationism.] Peter Ridd, head of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University, published a chapter in the book Climate Change: The Facts 2017. He doubted that the Great Barrier Reef was almost dead due to global warming, and argued as much. Then, he talked about the chapter on TV and his university got wind of it. He was hit with charges of academic misconduct.

Interesting — to climatologists — but we don’t see any possible connection to the hopeless situation of some drooling professor who wants to teach creationism. But let’s not judge too quickly. Maybe Savvy Sarah has something here. We’ll soon see. She continues:

After very tense interactions with the university and demands he was unwilling to meet, he raised funds to pursue the matter in court. Ridd ended up [Link to a Discoveroid post omitted.] winning $1.2 million (Australian). Judge Salvatore Vasta [apparently a trial court judge] offered this endorsement of academic freedom:

[Savvy Sarah quotes the judge:] That is why intellectual freedom is so important. [Ooooooooooooh! Intellectual freedom!] It allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. It allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth. And that, at its core, is what higher learning is about. To suggest otherwise is to ignore why universities were created and why critically focused academics remain central to all that university teaching claims to offer.

Grand sounding language! But does it let un-tenured university professors say literally anything in class? That’s what would be required for a professor to teach creationism. Let’s read on:

Following that decision, the Federal Education Minister requested [Link to a Discoveroid post omitted.] a model academic freedom and freedom of speech code, which ended up being drafted by a former member of the High Court. [Sounds lovely.]

Then everything started falling apart:

But this July, the court’s decision was overturned by the Federal Court, 2-1. [Oh the horror!] Ridd decided to appeal the case to the High Court — Australia’s highest judicial body. I hope the High Court takes the case.

We shall see. And now we come to the end:

A decision in favor of academic freedom would have far-reaching implications for Australian universities, and in particular the scientific establishment. It would echo in other countries, too, including ours.

Do the Discoveroids seriously think that even if Ridd wins his climatology case in Australia, it will reverberate in the US courts? Not only for climate science, but all other sciences too. Then — at last! — creationism will become a protected topic in public schools. Who knows? Maybe they think it’ll work that way. What do you think, dear reader?

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11 responses to “Academic Freedom Down Under, Therefore …

  1. Dave Luckett

    I would be interested to know your own views on this matter, Michael Fugate. I have no idea, myself, as to whether Prof Ridd is right on the facts or not. Lacking sufficient knowledge, I incline to the view that he is not, on the weight of professional and scientific opinion against him. But I could be wrong, and my opinion on the health of the Great Barrier Reef is not worth uttering.

    But I see The Guardian quotes the Dep VC of James Cook University as saying:

    “The issue has never been about Peter’s right to make statements – it’s about how he has continually broken a code of conduct that we would expect all our staff to stick to, to create a safe, respectful and professional workplace.”


    Of course, in the disciplinary hearing, these grave charges must have been supported with evidence. I would be interested to know how Prof Ridd has made JCU a less safe workplace, what gestures of respect a working scientist should make towards views or persons he considers wrong, and what exactly the University thinks “professional” means. In this case, “unprofessional” seems to mean going public with dissent, and publishing material it thinks should be kept under wraps.

    As to the interminable legal processes, the point at issue does not seem to be whether the University acted ethically, justifiably, or in the interests of academic rigour or discourse in this matter, but simply whether it had the power. Perhaps it did. In that case, I believe closer definition of its lawful powers is in order.

  2. Michael Fugate

    Ridd is AGW denier funded by the denial industry. By my reckoning, he is part of a media campaign to cast doubt on climate change so nothing will happen. If sources are correct he failed to disclose conflicts of interest from climate change denier funding. The university appears to have let him publish skeptical articles, but were upset that he called other university researchers frauds.

  3. “evolution and climate change were at the top of the heap as controversial issues”
    The only place were evolution is controversial is on creacrap blogs.
    The controversial aspect of climate change is governments doing nothing about it (given that short term benefits is the most important goal for multinationals we cannot expect anything constructive from them).

    “but not wacky viewpoints”
    Au contraire – academic creacrappers can promote their wacky views as much as they like; it’s just that nobody takes them seriously. And they won’t teach any class.

    “What do you think, dear reader?”
    Savvy Sarah is an IDiot and hence a creacrapper. For the time being I assume she lies. So I’m highly unsurprised by MichaelF’s links.

  4. Dave Luckett

    To call other researchers “frauds” is indeed disrespectful, but it could conceivably be justified. He certainly did trenchantly criticise the findings of colleagues, but I know of no legitimate reason for penalising that, in a scientist. At least some of the research he specifically attacked has been invalidated. See (I take it that “Nature” is an acceptable cite.)

    Here is his own article. He says that the research he complains of was “not trustworthy” and he goes further than that in the specific case of the work of Dr Oona Lonnstedt, which he does call “fraudulent”. Unfortunately, there is substance to that allegation: The Swedish Central Ethical Review Board found that Lonnstedt was guilty of “scientific misconduct”, and subsequently her work at JCU was also called into serious question, citing specific concerns on her data claims. JCU’s reaction was to open an investigation. Three years later, there is nothing further. It was remarkable, by contrast, how swiftly they moved in the case of Prof. Ridd.

    He showed a want of judgement by accepting support from the Canegrowers’ Association for his lecture tour, agreed. That is an interest group, no doubt about it, and the funding is in his interest. That does stand against him, I agree. But is he wrong? And his failure to declare that interest was not mentioned as grounds for dismissal.

    I don’t know whether he’s right. I believe, however, that a University should not dismiss one academic for criticising another, no matter how trenchantly, nor even if he or she criticises the University itself. I also believe that JCU has legitimate questions to answer over the validity of some of its research. But of course they must answer to the scientific academy, certainly not to me.

    As to the court case, the issue turns, as I said, on what lawful powers the University has to dismiss, and on what grounds, not on any question of what is ethical or morally right.

  5. @DaveL: thanks, that’s far more insightful than anything Savvy Sarah wrote.

  6. Michael Fugate

    GWPF is also a front group which will not disclose funding.
    I am not backing the university which seemed more worried about saving face than anything else. I don’t know what else involved. I don’t know if they have procedures in place to question research. If this is all that publicly disagreeing instead of privately then the firing would appear dubious.

    I see this as agenda driven if some AGW researchers are dishonest then they all are. Faking some lion fish data does not invalidate climate change. So far Ridd has no evidence that the work she did at JCU was fraudulent.

  7. Dave Luckett

    Ridd does not appear to me to be saying or implying that all AGW researchers are dishonest. He appears to be saying that some of the research on effects on the Great Barrier Reef is faulty, and that some research is fraudulent. The work Dr Lonnstadt did at Uppsala U on effects of microplastics was found by the University to have used “fabricated data”. Her work on lionfish at JCU on lionfish is at least questionable. Please note that the questions relate not merely to the images of lionfish, but to the claimed numbers that provided data.

    All of which is beside the point. Whatever claims Prof Ridd made about this research, the question is, was it right to dismiss him for making them?

  8. Michael Fugate

    Who knows? The university claims he failed to disclose conflicts of interest.
    Did he?
    He is working for climate change denier groups now. Check out GWPF and IPA both denier non-profits. IPA has fossil fuel funding. GWPF won’t say.

  9. Since they were published independently, what would academic freedom have to do with Darwin or Einstein?

  10. Michael Fugate

    Much of the controversy seems to stem from this set of papers
    Larcombe, Piers; Ridd, Peter (January 2018). “The need for a formalised system of Quality Control for environmental policy-science”. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 126: 449–461.
    Schaffelke, Britta; Fabricius, Katharina; Kroon, Frederieke; Brodie, Jon; De’ath, Glenn; Shaw, Roger; Tarte, Diane; Warne, Michael; Thorburn, Peter (April 2018). “Support for improved quality control but misplaced criticism of GBR science. Reply to viewpoint “The need for a formalised system of Quality Control for environmental policy-science” by P. Larcombe and P. Ridd (Marine Pollution Bulletin 126: 449–461, 2018)”. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 129 (1): 357–363.
    Larcombe, Piers; Ridd, Peter (June 2019). “Viewpoint: The need for a formalised system of Quality Assurance for Environmental Policy-Science and for improved policy advice to Government on the Great Barrier Reef. Reply to – ‘Support for improved quality control but misplaced criticism of GBR science’ by Britta Schaffelke, Katharina Fabricius, Frederieke Kroon, Jon Brodie, Glenn De’ath, Roger Shaw, Diane Tarte, Michael Warne, Peter Thorburn (Marine Pollution Bulletin 129: 357–363, 2018)”. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 143: 50–57.

    I couldn’t find the ruling by the full court that overturned the ruling by Vasta.
    These are the earlier rulings

    Reading through the rulings, the university does seem petty and Ridd does seem uncooperative. I wonder how the whole spat started and why Ridd was at odds with AIMS. The reef is a complex ecosystem and models must be used. The same goes with climate change – one can nitpick these models to death. Seems unlikely to me that agricultural is not affecting the reef, but I am no expert.

    Does being a jerk warrant firing? He seemed to be able to publish what he wanted, but he didn’t get the results he wanted and decided to take it to the media. Whether it was his desire or not, his criticism attracted the polluters and anti-regulation groups and he joined up. Now he seems compromised.