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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