We note sadly that as the authorities attempt to shut down open discussion on climate just when it’s most needed, so also the Australian High Court ruled unanimously that James Cook University was not wrong to fire Peter Ridd under its “code of conduct” for exercising his academic freedom by criticizing his colleagues’ alarmist claims on the state of the Great Barrier Reef. The ruling will doubtless have a chilling effect on the publications, and statements, of any young, financially insecure academic aspiring not to perish in this world of Newspeak. But it is liable to prove a Pyrrhic victory, because of its equally negative impact on public confidence in the competence and even sincerity of the universities’ search for truth that is their whole reason for existing.
This outcome even scared politicians. It prompted Australia’s federal Education Minister to express concern and seek “further advice about the implications” because “There are few things more important for the advancement of truth and knowledge than having open, robust debate at our universities. We need a culture in our universities of accepting and welcoming open robust debate, even if some feel offended in the process … I am concerned that, in some places, there is a culture of closing down perceived ‘unwelcome thoughts’ rather than debating them.” In some places. Yeah. You could say that.
Certainly the implications for young academics who, unlike Ridd, were not already financially secure with a body of impressive work on the record, are as clear as can be. Jennifer Marohasy, a climate scientist and senior fellow with the IPA, wrote bluntly that Ridd was sacked by James Cook University because he exercised his intellectual freedom. “The only thing that is neatly settled from this case is apparently ‘the science’, never mind that this is only because anyone who publicly disagrees with it is censored or sacked.”
She pointed out that “This sends a very strong message to all politically astute academics: if they are likely to make findings that do not accord with the consensus, these findings should be hidden within phrases that are unintelligible gobbledygook…. They should certainly not translate their findings into plain English, or, worse, air them on national television, because that way the average Australian would have some understanding of what they are actually funding with their hard-earned taxes.” Ironically, she adds, some of Ridd’s former colleagues have recently produced “jargon-filled technical analysis that essentially supports what Peter Ridd has been saying for some years – and which earned him his first censure by the University”.
If academics can see it, so can the public. The emperor has no clothes. And possibly no robes either. The High Court had the gall to affirm Ridd’s “intellectual freedom” to question the research findings of others, and to do so bluntly, even rudely… as well as the freedom of JCU to fire him for doing it. But in Marohasy’s unexpectedly poetic phrase, “For the High Court, it seems that intellectual freedom is like a delicate flower that does not survive being plucked. It can be contemplated from afar but cannot be held or given as a gift.” Is it really who judges and university administrators want to be? Yet when a peer-reviewed journal will re-review a piece that challenges orthodoxy, select guardians of orthodoxy for the second review, and when they predictably denounce it will remove it, we are as Kenneth Richard says in precisely the world Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia seemed to have in mind when he sent a “HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL” email to Michael Mann back in 2004 saying he and other guardians of orthodoxy would exclude dissenting views “even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is”.
Then there’s the school in Australia that invited a leading mining entrepreneur and alumna to address their assembly then cut the part of her video presentation that contested climate orthodoxy on the grounds that “The School encourages our students to think critically and analyse all facts presented to them, particularly in this age of the internet. The School does not endorse the personal views shared in the full video.”
Suppressing truth is tricky. And we are delighted to report that Ridd has said he will continue to work with Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs, which helped fundraise for his court challenge, as well as with other groups devoted to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Moreover he will do so without pay, which underlines how unusual his situation is. Most of us don’t have that luxury… and the dean knows it.
So too may the public. Eric Worrall in a piece entitled “Peter Ridd Case: Academic Freedom Just Died in Australia”, notes that the federal government there has brought in a bill called the “Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020” specifically in response to Ridd’s case. But JCU went ahead anyway, raising serious doubts whether “the government response to the Peter Ridd case is enough to repair Australia’s reputation and academic environment.” If it is not, firing him will be a Pyrrhic victory for educators determined to destroy that reputation and environment. But even if it is, the attempt was shabby.