James Cook University has sacked academic Professor Peter Ridd, he claims because he “dared to fight the university and speak the truth about science and the Great Barrier Reef”. He rejects the scientific evidence linking human activity to degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, and takes the view that the Reef is doing fine.
“We defend Peter’s right to make statements in his area of academic expertise and would continue to do that until we are blue in the face,” Gordon says.
“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.”
Peter Ridd is a physicist with expertise in marine sediments. However, he presumed to know better than his colleagues the marine biologists what was happening with the reef. Moreover, he accused them of knowingly using misleading information, hence acting fraudulently and dishonestly. He impugned their ethics and integrity and suggested that “we can no longer trust the scientific organisations” such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University. He kept saying so, bluntly, forthrightly and defiantly when his university instructed him to desist.
By November last year Ridd had begun legal action in the federal court, seeking a ruling that the disciplinary action being taken by JCU be dropped.
- On 21 November, he received a “final censure” after a finding of “serious misconduct” for “deliberately breaching confidentiality and denigrating the university, its employees and stakeholders” contrary to the code of conduct.
Perhaps unwisely, the university had insisted that he keep the disciplinary action confidential. On the contrary, Ridd told everyone, seeking crowd funding with the call:
Support Peter Ridd, academic freedom, and scientific integrity
First responder was IPA’s executive director John Roskam, who pledged $500. In a little over four months he raised $260,000, and thanked some of his more notable benefactors:
- As mentioned before, thanks to Anthony Watts, Jo Nova, Jennifer Marohasy, Benny Peiser (GWPF), John Roskam and Matthew Lesh, James Delingpole and Breitbart, Rowan Dean, Andrew Bolt and many others who got the word out.
From that you may get a picture of the company he keeps. This post at Quora says:
He’s also a science adviser to the climate change denialist group, the Galileo Movement. Oops. And he’s also the science coordinator for the Australia Environment Foundation, which sounds nice, but is a spin-off climate change denial group of the right-wing advocacy group the Institute for Public Affairs. That sounds nice too, but it’s the Australian equivalent of the Heritage Foundation and in fact got a bunch of its funding from it. Basically part of the dark money climate denial network funded by the Koch brothers and similar people.
So he’s the science guy for a couple of climate change denial organisations. But apparently he’s not a climate change denier, just a sceptic.
Ridd said in an email to Guardian Australia that he’s not a climate change denier but is “yet to be convinced” about human-caused global warming, which is perhaps splitting hairs.
Not splitting hairs, I think, because as such he doesn’t need to scientifically prove the position he takes, but can freely spread doubt.
It’s not clear to me that he has subscribes to the common trope that the climate change scientific fraternity are involved in a conspiracy, and are just in it to keep the money flowing. However he has said:
“There is now an industry that employs thousands of people whose job it is to ‘save the Great Barrier Reef’. As a scientist, to question the proposition that the reef is damaged is a potentially career-ending move.”
I suspect Ridd is right to suggest that too much has been made of damage to the reef from the runoff from agricultural pursuits. For over a decade until the 2016 bleaching event, greenies almost exclusively complained of runoff, overlooking warming and acidification. I simply don’t know whether reef scientists have over-egged this issue. It’s not for me to say. His comments about methodology and the lack of replication of studies are worth considering. However, he goes against overwhelming scientific opinion with this:
- In 2017, Ridd published an essay in an IPA book on climate change, in which he again challenged the science indicating the reef was in serious danger. The massive coral bleaching in recent years was no cause for concern, because coral grew back, he claimed. A rise in temperature on the reef wasn’t a big issue, either, because coral did well in hot weather.
That’s his view, and he is welcome to it. However, he perhaps crossed a line when he impugned the integrity of his colleagues by saying:
- the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies – based at James Cook University –“should check their facts before they spin their story … my guess is that they will both wiggle and squirm because they actually know that these pictures are likely to be telling a misleading story – and they will smell a trap.”
JCU obviously felt they had to discipline one party or the other. That’s where it started in 2016 and escalated from there.
Gay Alcorn linked above concludes:
- For all the university’s sensitivity about its brand and reputation, you have to wonder if it has damaged its own standing with its strident calls for “collegiality” and its repeated insistence that Ridd stay mute.
The other way would be for academics not to complain about Ridd’s impolite turn of phrase, but to reject his arguments, loudly and with evidence. For Australia’s premier reef research institutions to keep doing good work, and keep explaining it to the public, and to treat Ridd as little more than a thorn in their side. And for the university to put up with their troublesome academic and to not be obsessed with process and its own self importance.
As this has dragged on, that was the way that was lost.
The Murdoch press has had a field day. Support has come from Andrew Bolt, Tony Abbott and Bob Katter among others. However, support has also importantly come from the National Tertiary Education Union who say:
It is ironic in the extreme that JCU management appear to have been trying to protect the reputation of the University and bodies like the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Given the nature of the (entirely predictable) extensive media coverage, all management have done is to feed a right-wing media narrative that universities are conformist and actively suppress heterodox views on topics such as climate change.
A university, even a relatively young one such as JCU should have the courage of its convictions and commitment to its mission so as to allow its staff to engage in robust scientific, political and academic debates, regardless of any perceived reputational damage that critical positions might generate.
The simple fact of the matter is that defence of the core value of genuine academic freedom is not well served by the corporate, top-down, anti-collegial and managerialist structure and culture in today’s universities, and is incompatible with managerial preoccupations with “brand” and “image”. This might explain why so many university managements (including JCU) sought to remove Academic/Intellectual Freedom clauses from our Enterprise Agreements in the current round of bargaining.