Censure Of Professor Peter Ridd Over Comments Of Scientific Integrity A Troubling Development

Written by:
15 February 2018
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Academic freedom is one of the core values of our ­society, which is why the case of Professor Peter Ridd is so troubling.

The attack on Professor Peter Ridd’s academic freedom to discuss scientific integrity may very well mark the end of the Enlightenment at one of Australia’s universities.

Ridd has been issued a “Final Censure” by James Cook University for expressing an opinion within his field of scientific expertise. He was also ordered to keep silent about concerns related to quality assurance in Great Barrier Reef policy science.

The censure was in response to comments by Ridd on Sky News in an interview with Alan Jones to promote an Institute of Public Affairs book, Climate Change: The Facts 2017.

In the interview, Ridd questioned the quality of science from “organisations like the Australian ­Institute of Marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies”.

“The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated and this is a great shame because we really need to be able to trust our scientific institutions, and the fact is I do not think we can anymore,” Ridd said.

Ridd has worked at James Cook University, where he completed his PhD, since 1989.

He is a lecturer and researcher in physics and marine geophysics with more than 100 peer- ­reviewed articles to his name, and has undertaken extensive research on coral reefs.

“I just don’t think they’re very ­objective about the science they do, I think they’re emotionally attached to their subject and, you know, you can’t blame them — the reef is a beautiful thing,” Ridd said on Sky News.

James Cook University has claimed Ridd’s remarks denigrated the university. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing more essential to a functioning ­university than scientific debate.

This is the very purpose of the university. James Cook University’s code of conduct explicitly states staff must “value academic freedom, and ­inquire, examine, criticise and challenge in the collegial and academic spirit of the search for knowledge, understanding and truth”.

James Cook’s actions have a serious chilling effect on scientific debate by discouraging academics and ­students from discussing controversial topics.

In a David and Goliath battle, Ridd has chosen to not lay down in the face of threats. Ridd has lodged Federal Court action to assert his academic freedom to discuss scientific integrity.

It is only through debate, claim and counterclaim that we can hope to find truth.

The fundamental role of the university is to encourage debate, not to stifle it with preposterous claims and disciplinary action.

This is the essence of the Socratic method, the process of argumentative dialogue between opposing perspectives, on which the Enlightenment and our universities are built.

The only way to discover the truth is to stimulate critical thinking through debate. This freedom also is explicitly protected in Ridd’s enterprise agreement, which guarantees his right “to participate in public ­debate and express opinions about ­issues” within his field of competence.

If our university professors are ­incapable of questioning and debating science we are bound to enter a new Dark Age. The restriction of scientific debate, the claim that certain hypothesises can no longer be tested and ­retested, marks the end of progress.

The fundamental role of the university is to encourage debate, not to stifle it with preposterous claims and disciplinary action.

From the UK to North America to Australia, however, universities have become hotbeds of censorship and are lacking essential viewpoint diversity.

Last year a recording emerged of Canadian university tutor Lindsay Shepherd being aggressively reprimanded by senior academics for ­simply playing a debate in a communications class featuring psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Meanwhile, protests against guest speakers, such as Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos, on American college campuses have turned violent. The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 found that eight in 10 Australian universities have policies or have taken action that limit free intellectual inquiry.

In the past, QUT students were dragged through Federal Court for questioning the existence of a separate computer lab for indigenous students. Meanwhile, last September a protest turned violent against a “No to same-sex marriage” stall at the University of Sydney.

Australia’s universities are public institutions, established under state and federal law, and receive most of their funding through government grants and state-subsidised loans. Their role is to serve the public interest through teaching and research, which can only be undertaken by encouraging dynamic debate about issues of public concern.

James Cook University is failing in this task by preventing the expression of an expert opinion. The university must withdraw all sanctions against Professor Peter Ridd.

Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

James Cook University academic Professor Peter Ridd has been censured. Picture: Cameron Laird

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