Dennis Jensen, Tony Abbott and science in the new government

Tony Abbott’s new government has no dedicated science minister – the first time Australia’s been without one since 1931. Instead, some areas of science, including the CSIRO, will become the responsibility of the Minister for Industry, Ian MacFarlane. While top scientists are reserving judgement on the decision until its effects become clear, the move does imply that the new government sees science as no more than a blunt tool for building things and making profit – a worrying trend that’s certainly not limited to Australia.

But by having no science minister at all, we may have dodged a much bigger bullet. One of the main candidates for the position of Science Minister was MP Dennis Jensen, a PhD-holding climate change denier from Western Australia. He’s been vocally on the warpath against any kind of climate action, citing the ‘entirely reasonable’ arguments of Lord Monckton as examples of why he holds these beliefs.

In an interview with Fairfax Media earlier this month, Dr Jensen accused everyone concerned about the climate – including 97% of climate scientists themselves – of being unscientific. ‘In the climate area there is appeal to authority and appeal to consensus, neither of which is scientific at all,’ he said. ‘Scientific reality doesn’t give a damn who said it and it doesn’t give a damn how many say it. […] The argument of consensus . . . is a flawed argument.’

He’s right, of course. Scientific truth neither relies on consensus nor authority. But the main arguments for global warming aren’t based on the fact there’s a consensus of opinion. They’re based on verification by experiment – the ultimate arbiter of scientific truth. The fact that a consensus then arises amongst qualified scientists who have examined that data is then a legitimate reason for the public to listen.

Dr Jensen could have included another fact about science in his list: that it’s an open endeavour. Anyone can examine the evidence. And if you’re interested in doing that yourself, and want to check up on the validity of statements made by climate deniers like Monckton, Tony Abbott or, yes, Dennis Jensen, head over to the excellent site Skeptical Science, where John Cook provides point-by-point rebuttals of statements by many main offenders together with the scientific evidence that contradicts each one.

Unfortunately, Dr Jensen isn’t as outspoken about the importance of openness in science as he is about the nature of consensus and authority. He didn’t speak out when, on its very first day in power, his incoming government closed down the Climate Commission – which existed to inform the public about climate science in an unbiased way.

Dr Jensen has reminded us that science doesn’t rely on authority for its truth. Now he needs to remember that having a PhD in science doesn’t confer respect from other scientists, or the public. To get that, he needs to act based on facts.

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Hey, Australian Academy of Science: your survey showing Aussies are dumb shames you, not us

‘More than 40 per cent of Australians do not know how long it takes the Earth to travel around the sun, according to a new survey.’

This was how ABC news opened its story last month on the Australian Academy of Science’s findings about science literacy in Australia – the results of an online survey of 1515 people. Other news outlets ran the story too, giving column space to how people failed to identify how much of the earth’s surface was ocean (only 39% got it right), or whether humans coexisted with dinosaurs (73% passed). Only Gizmodo framed their headline to mirror exactly what most of us were thinking: ‘The Five Dumbest Science ‘Facts’ Believed by Australians.

‘How can people be so stupid?’ we asked each other over coffee or on Twitter the next day. ‘I blame the parents!‘ commented one person on the ABC site; another wrote that ‘I would put it down to the dilution of education … Excursions for films, way to much sport and so on’. ‘It’s the dumbest people having the most children,’ wrote another. The Academy’s Professor Les Field himself pointed the finger at Google and the school curriculum. ‘I would hope that a survey like ours is a wake-up call that says there is an issue, an underlying issue that we need to address,’ he said.

The problem is, this survey actually tells us very little. Its questions ask the wrong things, its method is severely flawed, and what data it does provide is used to leap to invalid conclusions, not just by the media and the public, but by the academics at the Academy themselves. In fact, when compared to proper scientific studies on science education outcomes, this study paints a completely wrong picture of the state of Australia’s science literacy – a reprehensible outcome for a prestigious organisation that’s influencing science policy.

In fact, the whole project uses such bad science from start to finish that it’s a great teaching tool about science – but only by demonstrating what not to do. Let’s take a look at where it goes wrong, why it’s giving the wrong message to policymakers and a detrimental message to the public, and how things could be done better next time. Because science literacy is vital enough that it’s worth getting right.

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Obeid and Macdonald: corrupt while in control of 5% of global carbon budget

2013-08-01_Obeid_sYesterday, Australia’s independent corruption watchdog found that former Labor party figures Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald had acted corruptly. Obeid, a former New South Wales Labor party powerbroker, and Macdonald, the former state energy minister, are now being referred to prosecutors to consider criminal charges. The men, together with several others, had misused inside knowledge from Macdonald’s position in office to make tens of millions of dollars by buying land before it was rezoned for coal mining.

The case has naturally received a lot of media coverage, not only due to the raw facts of the abuse of power, but also because of the show the Obeids put on along the way: son Moses Obeid claiming it could have been Jesus Christ who pencilled confidential zoning information onto a map; Eddie Obeid’s diary giving an entertaining glimpse into the enema schedules of the rich and powerful; and Mr Obeid’s ever-righteous harrassment of journalists: “[Kate] McClymont has been mixing with scum for so long that she no longer knows who is good and who is bad, what is real and what is made up.” The involvement of a prostitute called Tiffanie came as less a surprise than an inevitable trope. Many of us enjoyed sharing the jubilation (schadenfreude?) of the Sydney Morning Herald journalists yesterday as they wrote and tweeted about the ICAC findings that vindicated their work.

One important aspect of the case, though, hasn’t had much attention. It’s the fact that these politicians weren’t just abusing a position of power, but they were acting corruptly while having oversight of of vast coal reserves – fossil fuel resources whose future use will have huge global environmental significance. In fact, the Economic Demonstrated Reserves of black coal in NSW alone (those we currently know about and deem profitable to extract) make up over 5% of the total global carbon budget.*

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Richard Feynman vs wayward national science priorities

From my recent review of The Meaning of It All:

In this month alone, Britain’s new chief scientist Sir Mark Walpole said his top priority was ‘ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth’, the president of Canada’s National Research Council said it will now focus only on research that is ‘commercially viable’, and the US Government just appointed a climate change skeptic to chair the House Science Committee who’s going to change the rules so only ‘groundbreaking’ research is funded. Back here in Australia, CSIRO has entered into a research agreement with BP, the company responsible for the worst accidental marine oil spill in history, to help them survey the pristine Bight ecosystem for oil reserves, and in certain divisions staff are being told to suspend nearly all communication of their work to the public and redirect the efforts toward building industry partnerships.

Public science in these countries seems to be in the hands of people who, at best, misunderstand the nature of science, or at worst are actively trying to undermine it. For clarity in these troubled times – to seek confirmation you’re not the one who’s going mad – there’s one person you turn to. The wonderful, incomparable, Richard P. Feynman.

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