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How can we usefully make judgements about science? Part 2

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 22 August 2014


In the previous post I used some personal history to set out how judgments about science are made, when the point of the judgment is the spending of public money. When a big proposal comes up, for example, the possibility of a gravitational wave observatory, a multi-million dollar venture, you would expect an excellent and clear exposition, support from all the principal likely users, and a lot of encouragement from people overseas.

That proposal will be scrutinised by panel after panel, but the decision may finally be made on other grounds entirely. I first saw just such a proposal in 1989, I think, and it was finally knocked on the head in 2011. Reason? Australia couldn't afford it. Nothing wrong with the science. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, and the proposal I saw in 1989 was a classic device to test a hypothesis. Captain Cook discovered eastern Australia while returning from a trip to Tahiti to undertake a comparable scientific task, observing the transit of Venus across the Sun.

It is quite pointless to suggest that only astronomers, to take an example, should sit in final judgment on astronomy proposals. They will have contributions to make, but at the end of the day, they will all be in favour of more money being devoted to astronomy. That rule applies to every research field, including, and perhaps especially, climate science. There has to be a group whose members more or less cover the bases, and have some sense of the whole research enterprise - and its social and economic context.

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On one occasion a rather acerbic researcher, irritated by what he thought were simplistic or innocent questions from me, the chairman of the interviewing panel, wondered aloud why there wasn't someone on the panel who really knew what he was talking about (there was one, as it happened, but he was enjoying the interchange, and stayed quiet).

My reply was that the Minister wouldn't understand what his work was about either, but if I couldn't provide a convincing explanation to the Minister, there was no way the researcher would be funded. He cooled down quickly.

It seems to me that 'climate science' has largely escaped the need for this kind of scrutiny. I can remember Ministers telling me of someone they met on a plane who had this brilliant idea… had we done anything like it? Another Minister told me that the system we provided might have its flaws, but it saved him from having to adjudicate. Joh Bjelke-Petersen famously met someone who told him that he had invented an engine that ran on water. He never lived that one down.

These judgment systems exist because they work. There is an almost infinite number of brilliant ideas that need public money to show their true value, and governments need a filtering system. What would ASTEC have done with a remit from the Prime Minister to look at this global warming thing (that's how many of ASTEC's inquiries started)? We would have set up a panel, asked for public comment, and written a report. Many of our reports required hours and hours of discussion, letters, and quiet chats before they reached finality. There was always disagreement and debate.

I was in ASTEC from 1986 to 1992, and I don't recall the global warming issue ever being discussed. After the Rio Conference in 1992 the damage had been done, and Australia's government, like the governments of most other countries, was convinced that the planet had to be saved, and that carbon dioxide was the villain. Before long buckets of public money were being used to send people to conferences about global warming, hold conferences here, set up journals to publicise the research that came from more public money, establish government departments to provide oversight, pay the Australian Academy of Science to add some academic muscle, and so on.

The same things happened in other developed countries. Prime Minister Howard didn't fall for the frenzy, but even he set up in 1998 the Australian Greenhouse Office, after a little nudging from the Australian Democrats, to provide data on and standards for such emissions. I think that those in the public service who had their doubts eventually shut up: AGW became official doctrine. As I've explained in other posts, government departments and agencies tend become colonised by those who think that what they are doing is a great thing that everyone else should support, and it is hard to change their culture. And they choose as new staff people with the same set of values.

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Nonetheless, my hunch is that in Treasury and Finance there are senior people who, given their druthers, would abolish tomorrow all subsidies to alternative energy, all RET targets, all research on anthropogenic climate change, and anything else they could find that seemed related to it. The problem is that these payments are set in a form of political concrete. Not only that, there are a lot of people out there who absolutely believe that the planet is threatened, and until their number diminishes, and their support from the mass media wanes, no elected government will want to antagonise them any more than it can help.

The truth is that 'climate change' and climate science have not ever been exposed to the kind of due diligence that is customary in every other form of science, let alone in the world outside. And we all suffer as a consequence.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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