19 July 2011

Australian Scientists Threatened, as Quality of Debate Slumps

It is not hard, sometimes, to be ashamed of one’s country.  We have no doubt that this is a common experience the world over for all but the most blinkered and jingoistic of citizens.  Of course this is grossly unfair to the many individuals who are thoughtful, intelligent, and engaged in the important issues facing the nation and the world.  But often these are not the people who garner the attention of an increasingly populist and simple-minded media.

Today we received an email which engenders feelings only of disgust and despair.  In the 18 July 2011 issue of the Cooperative Research Centre Association (CRCA) newsletter, CEO Tony Peacock writes:

Climate change scientists at the ANU [Australian National University] have had to be given a higher level of security following email threats that are apparently extraordinarily vicious. Colleagues of mine have been receiving wishes from animal welfarists that they die a long and painful death - presumably because we are involved in restoring some native animals to a sanctuary which involves culling other animals.

And now Greenpeace Australia have decided it is OK to attack CSIRO experimental sites because they don't agree with what CSIRO is doing. Last week in Canberra, Greenpeace "activists" decided to break into a CSIRO site and whipper-snipper a crop of genetically-modified wheat.

Scientific researchers are, for the most part, ordinary people like the rest of us.  They go to work each day, do the best job they can, and then go home in the evening to personal lives of family, friends, and everything else that we all hold dear.  In fact, in Australia at least, many of those who have chosen careers in science are especially talented and skilled individuals who have forgone higher salaries and more privileged lifestyles to pursue careers advancing human knowledge.  And for this, it seems some are subjected to acts of destruction and intimidation which in another context (i.e. one in which the antagonists belong to a different race or religion) we would probably label ‘terrorism’.

You can read more about the threats to ANU scientists on ABC News, and about the ‘whipper-snipper’ attack on the CSIRO’s GM wheat crops on ‘The Conversation’.  If you are minded to read other views on these topics, just Google keywords such as ‘ANU climate scientists threats’ and ‘CSIRO wheat activists’.  You will find opinions on the web to reinforce the entire spectrum of views and prejudices.

In the same vein, we noted the following comments in a recent late submission to the Senate Committee inquiring into the Patent Amendment (Human Genes and Biological Materials) Bill 2010:

There is an organised campaign underway from a few fringe organisations which oppose the development and growing of GM crops with the hope of convincing the Committee that a groundswell of support for the amendment exists.  It does not.  The fringe groups referred to (Genethics, Madge et al) like the followers of Lord Monckton, deny the validity of established and much-tested science . They also preach a gospel of return to a small farming. ‘earth- friendly’ approach to agriculture and oppose and denigrate the achievements of agricultural science in conventional plant breeding, use of modern fertilisers etc.  They deny the vital role played by post-war agricultural technologies in averting famine despite the huge growth in the earth's population. 

Support for the amendment by certain politicians reflects both a lack of understanding and a desire to pander to uninformed populism.  (Ms Wilma Western, submission no. 119.)

While this might seem a little out of left-field, it actually goes some way towards explaining certain other late comments submitted by individual private citizens, of which the following quotations are a sample:

If you understand what GM in the farming industry has done in the USA and is trying to do in Australia, then don’t let the same mistakes occur in the medical area. Stop it now by amending the Patent laws.  (Mr John Wood, submission no. 115.)

Please be aware that I believe this bill is essential to the health and welfare of the Australian Community in total.
This may help to keep our agricultural and health industries honest (or encourage a little more honesty at least?!)  (Ms Joanne Mulcahy, submission no. 116.)

There is something ethically, morally and constitutionally wrong about anyone attempting to control these items via patents.
I would go one step further to [sic] – any one who messing with what is that belongs to all of humanity should be held financially and environmentally accountable for undoing any damage they do to the original genetic strains.
Genetic modification, is tantamount to genetic warfare and terrorism.  (‘Name withheld’, submission no. 120.)

While genetic modification and gene patents have caused a minor stir – important to this blog, but of only peripheral interest in the community at-large – the real hot-button issue at the moment is climate change and, more specifically, the Australian government’s carbon ‘tax’.  Unfortunately, too many Australians are obtaining their ‘information’ from populist rags and talkback radio.  Anyone who doubts that this is ‘unfortunate’ need look no further than this week’s episode (2001, ep. 23) of the ABC’s weekly media watchdog program Media Watch.  When those whose genuinely informed views are at odds with the beliefs of some of Australia’s most popular talkback radio hosts and their loyal listeners, they are labelled ‘menopausal monster’, ‘lying bitch’, ‘fool’, ‘idiot’, ‘brain-dead’, ‘dope’, ‘off her tree’ or just consigned to a ‘chaff bag’ and dropped in the ocean.

The bottom line is this – if we may, for once, be brutally blunt: most scientists are hard-working, intelligent, and knowledgeable about their subjects; media ‘personalities’ and radio shock-jocks are big-mouthed idiots concerned only with their ratings and the corresponding size of their pay cheques.  Other media outlets (and, right now, News Limited publications in particular) are, quite rightly, viewed as being of questionable credibility, good for keeping up with the latest Hollywood gossip, but not to be trusted as a source of reliable news and information.

In short, we do not trust our politicians, and we do not trust the media, whose job it has traditionally been to hold the politicians to account, and keep them honest.

Until, and unless, the standards of reporting and political discussion in this country improve, our democracy is under threat, because uninformed – and misinformed – people cannot make informed choices.  If any proof of this thesis is required, one need only look to the ANU and CSIRO scientists whose security has been threatened, and whose work has been vandalised.  In what kind of a country do these things happen?  Surely not in a vibrant, functional, advanced western democracy?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is hardly the most popular person in the country right now, but she deserves credit for her answer at the National Press Club on, 14 July 2011, to a question from Channel Seven’s Mark Riley:

Riley: ... how do you see our responsibility and the way that we should be reporting this matter?

PM Gillard: I think we will have a long debate about media ethics in this country, but if I could put it as clearly as I can, I'd say to you: don't write crap. Can't be that hard.

If only it were that simple.


Tufty said...

It is important to recognise the fundamental difference between those who oppose GM and those who express disbelief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW). In the former case, there is absolutely no basis in reality for opposition, as it has not been shown by anybody that there is anything fundamentally wrong or dangerous with genetic modification. The opposition to GM is based purely on beliefs that have a lot in common with religion. In the latter case, there is plenty of evidence to show that the current establishment view on CAGW is simply wrong.  The two issues have been lumped together by those who wish to deride and suppress perfectly justified scepticism by associating it with other views (opposition to MMR is another one) that are clearly fringe and unsupported.  The mention of Christopher Monckton reminds me of a recent televised 'debate' in which he features, which is well worth viewing in full.  The man is a very persuasive speaker, and has plenty of facts that bring into serious doubt the whole edifice of CAGW. It can be viewed here: http://youtu.be/ma6cnPLcrtA

Patentology (Mark Summerfield) said...

Thanks for your comment, Tufty, although it is not really my desire to host a climate change debate on this blog when there are countless more appropriate places for it (I am sure you would feel likewise about the TuftyTheCat blog).

I am sure that you are correct about the hazards of associating unrelated issues, whatever side of the debate you are on, and whatever is deemed to qualify as either 'mainstream' or 'fringe'.

Part of my point, however, is that we are too much under the influence of a media that lacks the capacity, or perhaps merely the desire, for genuine critical commentary and leadership.  As a populace, we have never been better educated, and yet our willingness to engage genuinely with complex ideas and debates is declining alarmingly.  Most people seem to lack the necessary critical thinking and analytical skills that would enable them to assess the relative merit of different viewpoints (or maybe they just cannot be bothered), and the media has little interest in assisting.

The vision you have linked to is a case in point.  What on Earth possesses the National Press Club to stage a 'debate' between an internationally famous sceptic (and Peer of the Realm), and an economist, on a scientific subject to which numerous dedicated scientists have devoted years of their working lives, and would therefore be much better qualified to inform and engage with the real issues?  The only answer can be that it makes for better viewing.  It polarises opinion.  It allows people to pick 'sides', and for there to be a 'winner' and a 'loser'.  I have seen the term 'smackdown' used -- if E.M. Forster were still alive, I wonder if he would still be able to muster two whole cheers for democracy?

I believe that it is this culture that is leading some elements in society to believe that physical threats and attacks against science, and against scientists, are acceptable and valid modes of opposition.

The scientific method has proven pretty effective, over time, at differentiating between models that reflect reality, and those that do not.  All of the technology that we take for granted today is made possible by scientific theories that 'work', in the sense that they allow us accurately to predict the behaviour of physical things, and thus engineer them to perform designed functions.  But you do not get to pick and choose.  Science is not 'great' when it gives you something you want, but 'crap' when it confuses you, challenges your perceptions, fails to provide a definitive answer (yet), or tells you something you do not want to hear.  It is all the same 'science', and violence and abuse will not change it.


Tufty said...

Thank you Mark for your thoughtful comment.  As I understand it, the problem with the debate being so one-sided (I think it is fairly obvious that Monckton wiped the floor with the hapless economist, whose name I unfortunately fail to recall) is that nobody with any proper scientific expertise or opinion (such as Tim Flannery, perhaps?) was willing to stand up and properly debate the issues.  This, at least as far as CAGW goes, is the fundamental problem at the moment.  The debate is polarised simply because the side that is in favour of the established view is unwilling to even admit that there is anything to be debated ("the science is settled"?). This leaves many people with very strong and well thought through arguments mostly shouting in the wilderness because they are almost completely ignored by the mainstream media, and when they are not ignored they are being ridiculed and smeared in blatant ad hominem attacks (attack the man rather than the argument).  The real failure in the media at the moment is, as you suggest, a general lack of critical thinking.  As the Royal Society's motto goes, "nullius in verba", the meaning of which seems to have completely passed most people by when it comes to reporting anything to do with science. 

Tufty said...

By the way, it looks like those 'death threats' are actually nothing of the sort.  See here: http://joannenova.com.au/2011/06/to-a-climate-scientist-swearing-equals-a-death-threat-no-wonder-these-guys-cant-predict-the-weather/ 

Tufty said...

I totally agree that this kind of behaviour is not defensible, but are any of these actually 'death threats' as has been claimed? I think not.  If they were, they would (and should) be taken very seriously by the police. To my knowledge they have not been. 

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