Scientists ‘must be free to question the unquestionable’

Peter Ridd’s victory in unfair dismissal case raises questions about limits of scientific consensus

May 12, 2019
Source: Reuters

An Australian court has delivered a slap in the face for “consensus science”, the notion that some scientific wisdom cannot be questioned, according to the dissident academic at the centre of a high-profile unfair dismissal case.

Peter Ridd, a former James Cook University academic now seeking reinstatement, said “terrible things” tended to befall people with minority views. “That keeps reinforcing the consensus,” he said.

“Our quality systems in science are not working the way they should. Consensuses can build relatively easily on false ideas.”

JCU dismissed Dr Ridd after he repeatedly claimed colleagues had exaggerated damage to the Great Barrier Reef. The university insisted it had sacked him for breaching its code of conduct rather than expressing unpopular views.

In April, Australia’s Federal Court ruled that JCU’s actions had been illegal. Judge Salvatore Vasta stressed that the trial had been about a clause in the university’s enterprise agreement, not freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, Dr Ridd has become a cause célèbre for climate change sceptics. He said his primary concerns involved exaggerated claims that sedimentation was harming the reef. He acknowledged ocean warming but said it could enhance coral growth, although acidification could damage it.

Dr Ridd said the replication crisis in biomedical science – where a significant proportion of research findings have been shown to be unreproducible – demonstrated that peer review was “complete rubbish”. He said research by any organisation using peer review to guarantee its quality “must be regarded as untrustworthy and unreliable”.

“Maybe we need a Peter Ridd to challenge the science,” he added. “You shut down debate at your peril.”

New Zealand’s former chief science adviser, Peter Gluckman, said science relied on “structured constitutionalised scepticism”. Despite this, some ideas were “profoundly clear”.

He said nobody would debate the laws of gravity, and evolution could not be seriously challenged unless somebody found a rabbit skeleton in an “ancient geological layer”. Similarly, the scientific consensus that rapid climate change had anthropogenic causes was “very robust”.

“But we won’t know what the precise temperature of the planet in 2050 is until 2051, because it’s all based on projection and modelling,” said Sir Peter, now president-elect of the International Science Council. “I see much valid debate on many matters.

“The issue is how to have that debate. How do you deal with scientists who disagree with the consensus but have a valid perspective? We have seen maverick scientists do a lot of harm, and we’ve seen maverick scientists do a lot of good.”

Environmental economist Tor Hundloe, an emeritus professor at the University of Queensland, said that all science was subject to question, and contrarians like Dr Ridd should be allowed their say. But he said that in issues like climate change, the precautionary principle should apply.

“If you’ve got three medical specialists all saying you need a heart transplant, they’re probably right. You don’t keep looking around until you find one who says otherwise,” he said.

Marine ecologist Emma Johnston, dean of science at UNSW Sydney, said scientific consensus arose “because many scientists test a theory using many different rigorous methods, and their findings point to the same conclusion”.

“That consensus can only be undone if someone finds a new and rigorous way of testing the theory, and discovers a different explanation,” said Professor Johnston, president of representative group Science and Technology Australia. “It cannot be undone by scientists who cherry-pick the data to suit their ideological position.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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