Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t Dr. Willie Soon – the opportunity for James Cook University to salvage what is left of its academic reputation is closing fast.
Peter Ridd’s academic union is backing him, senior Australian politicians have spoken out against James Cook’s heavy handed actions, and now The Guardian is concerned about what Peter Ridd’s dismissal means for academic freedom.
Peter Ridd’s sacking pushes the limit of academic freedom
James Cook University may have damaged its reputation with a heavy-handed approach to the academic with minority views on climate change and the reef.
Tue 5 Jun 2018 11.59 AEST
I hate to say it, but the sacking of professor Peter Ridd by James Cook University does raise issues of academic freedom. Not simple issues, and ones that can be refuted as the university is doing, but ones that matter nonetheless.
His trouble started in April 2016 when he received a “formal censure” for “misconduct”. It was a curious incident: the university had got hold of an email that Ridd sent to a news.com.au journalist a few months before. In it, he urged the journalist to look into work Ridd had had done suggesting that photographs released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority indicating a big decline in reef health over time were misleading.
Ridd couldn’t help a dig: The photographs are “a dramatic example of how scientific organisations are quite happy to spin a story for their own purposes”. The authority, and 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.”
This was enough for the university to censure Ridd on the grounds that he breached the code of conduct by “going to the media in your professional capacity in a way that was not collegial and did not respect the rights of others or uphold professional standards”. It was a warning. Ridd could make public comments but they “must be in a collegial manner that upholds the university and individuals’ respect”.
As a journalist, I find this uncomfortable. He had strong opinions, strongly put, in an area which he had professional interest and expertise. Foolishly, the journalist forwarded the entire email to an unnamed professor, who complained to the university.
James Cook University, for all its worries about its reputation, seems to have diminished its own. As the national tertiary education union’s Queensland secretary, Michael McNally put it a few days ago: “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.”
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.
James Cook University IS feeding a narrative that universities actively suppress non-conformist views on climate change. The mistreatment of Peter Ridd adds evidence to concerns that other scientists have also been punished for politically inconvenient views.
Frightening scientists into silence by threatening their livelihood every time they say something inconvenient is an attack on science.
I can think of countless advances which only occurred because courageous scientists stood against mainstream thought.
Lives have been saved because of academic courage – one of my heroes Aussie medical scientist Barry Marshall risked his own life to overturn decades of misdiagnosis and misery, by deliberately infecting himself with Helicobacter Pylori to prove ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection.
Peter Ridd’s contribution is no less important.
Farmers in Queensland are threatened with increasingly costly draconian restrictions on farming practices, which are justified as vital to protect the endangered Great Barrier Reef. It is likely some farm businesses won’t survive if those restrictions are tightened further. It is also likely that some farmers in this predicament won’t survive the stress of seeing their businesses destroyed.
If Peter Ridd is right, if the problems with the reef have been exaggerated, then some or even most of these draconian restrictions on farming practices are unnecessary. There is no doubt in my mind that if Peter Ridd is right, his courage will save lives, will contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of countless rural families.
Peter Ridd deserves a fair hearing, not abuse, threat and censure.