Physicist Peter Ridd was fired by James Cook University, after 30 years in academia, for taking issue with a colleague’s position on climate and corals. If it sounds like bullying, it is. And suppression of academic freedom: The whole idea is for eggheads to argue about their theories and see who gets persuaded. In this case it was a judge; in a stinging ruling in Ridd’s unlawful dismissal suit the Federal Circuit Court of Australia said “the 17 findings made by the University” against Ridd “and the termination of employment of Professor Ridd by the University were all unlawful”. The sad part is the University has apparently dug in and intends to appeal, pitting its millions of public dollars against one lonely truth-teller and the 2500 people who crowd-funded his case.
It is of course important for Ridd personally that he win the appeal and that people continue to fund his case. But it also matters for others, especially younger academics who fear to speak out because even if they win, they will face a witch-hunt atmosphere from their more polemically committed colleagues and their applications for tenure will be rejected though never explicitly for daring question orthodoxy. Heavens no.
It matters to the larger debate in all kinds of ways too. Someone has to call out bad science and not just on corals. And it’s a bit much to have alarmists criticize skeptics who aren’t scientists (even when the alarmists aren’t either) and then try to muzzle any scientists who are skeptics. In fact it’s a lot much.
It also matters because it shows once again who’s David and who’s Goliath here. Alarmists go about whining that oil companies and sinister shadowy foundations and financiers have spent vast sums sowing doubt. In An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore said “The misconception that there’s disagreement about the science has been deliberately created by a relatively small group of people” who he linked to tobacco companies cynically denying that smoking causes cancer. At the London premier of his film Before the Flood Leonard DiCaprio sneered “We cannot afford to waste time having people in power that choose to believe in the 2 percent of the scientific community that is basically bought off by lobbyists and oil companies”. Two decades ago Elizabeth May, now leader of Canada’s Green Party, told the Ottawa Citizen editorial board that “I can count on two hands the number of skeptics that are left in the world… continually hired by the same groups, the fossil fuel industry, the chemical industry, the automotive manufacturers”.
In point of fact the big money is on the side of alarmism, institutionally, in publicly-funded universities around the world that say the governments that fund them need more money and power to save us all from disaster. And they behave very badly when their privileged position is subjected even to the slightest challenge.