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Peter Ridd’s heretical manifesto

David Mason-Jones, Quadrant

I found Peter Ridd’s book about the Great Barrier Reef, and the poor state of quality control in science, to be both refreshing and complimentary.

Refreshing because here is a scientist who actually talks about ‘The Science’. Complimentary because here is a scientist who treats the average person of general education as someone who just might be able to follow some scientific reasoning. This contrasts sharply with the way the public is treated by certain other scientists.

As an example of the faulty way that some science mandarins attempt to communicate with the public I will cite Tim Flannery’s latest book in a compare-and-contrast exercise. You will see, if you accept my view of Flannery, that his style is neither refreshing nor complimentary. He treats the reader with disdain. The information in Ridd’s book, and his style in presenting it, is far more engaging than either the information or style that Flannery presents. In reading Peter Ridd’s Reef Heresy? … Science, Research and the Great Barrier Reef one is let in on some of ‘The Science’.

This is quite the opposite to what one finds in the writing or television presentations of professional warmists. A common form of communication for others writing about the Reef is simply to assert things about ‘The Science’. They don’t actually delve into the reasons or scientific logic/analysis that support their assertions. Importantly, they make a point of not expanding on any area where the results of a favoured piece of research can be shown to be doubtful. Peter Ridd does the opposite, and he does it with direct speech and in a clear manner.

The oft-used term, ‘The Science’ is problematic because people who use it appear do so from a position of a self-assured sense of ‘knowing’. They use it as a putdown to those who, unlike them, do not understand (and cannot be expected to understand) their special, almost mystical knowledge of what they call ‘The Science’. What’s worse, the media often adopts and repeats this self-assured tone without criticism. Again, this is not the case with Ridd’s book.

Aimed at what I would describe as an educated, but not specifically science-educated, popular audience, Ridd does not just make assertions about the science but leads us through a process of reasoned analysis of published papers, identifying the journals and the authors. He then describes the conclusions of each, discusses their apparent deficiencies, asks us to weigh his analysis and endorse it on its merits. It is difficult not to come to the same conclusions he does.

In this way I feel complimented – the writer is recognising that I just might have a glimmer of intelligence and an attention span that can just possibly cope with some level of complexity.  Again, this makes a pleasant change from what might be called the Flannerian alarums of the end-is-nigh brigade, whose method is to baldly assert that we’ll all be baked to a crisp by Wednesday, ignore any criticism of their position and its dubious underpinnings, and then go straight to the ways in which they propose to reorganise society, the economy and liberty. Want an example? Take a close look at the Green New Deal.

Because of the anonymity generally surrounding the peer review process, Ridd is unable to identify the reviewers of the published Reef papers. As he makes clear, this is a major flaw in the credibility of the whole science of the Reef because peer review is not a proof of anything. It is not even meant to be a final arbiter of the truth or otherwise of a paper.

Anonymity of the peer reviewers means there can be no accountability and no back-checking of the reviewer. It’s all done in the shadows.  

Speaking for myself, someone whose degree major was in politics (political philosophy and political sociology), I appreciate that Ridd does not treat me as some kind of sponge who must obediently soak up the dispensed wisdom of an authority figure with a PhD and prestigious title. No, he asks me to look at the logic of it all with my own intellect.

There is also another aspect to his credibility – his Reef research has led to practical technologies which have generated millions of dollars in revenue to James Cook University – a university from which he was sacked for going public with his qualms about the standard of Reef science. Ridd is to be admired for both standing true to the principles of the scientific method his readiness and his willingness to blow the whistle on those, in his view, who transgress  them

In Reef Heresy Ridd outlines his severe doubts about the standard of research on the Reef, providing specific examples of how certain widely cited papers are so flawed that they should never be taken seriously, and certainly not as the basis of environmental action. He focuses particularly on two of these papers,  and I encourage readers get their own copy of Ridd’s book and read his devastating criticisms of each.

Taking it further, Ridd expands his doubts about the standard of Reef research to the scientific mainstream by linking the problem with the wider issue of the ‘replication crisis’ in science generally. It is beyond doubt that an awareness exists at the elite levels of the scientific community that there is, indeed, a plethora of studies and papers whose claimed results no other researchers are able to reproduce. Ridd bemoans the fact that, at this stage, the awareness of this issue remains somewhat cloistered and has not yet made it into the general media in Australia. Further proof of this ignorance a recent Senate enquiry, which saw the CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) deny even being aware of a replication crisis. I found this absolutely mind-boggling.  

Full book review