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Our Reef is still Great, but the research isn't

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 8 January 2018


For 50 years I've been worrying about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

First it was mining and drilling, then the Crown of Thorns Starfish, agricultural run-off, coral bleaching, dredging and lately ocean acidification and Adani.

This week an infestation of starfish on Swain Reefs heralds the return of more "reef in crisis" stories, as predictable as summer thunderstorms.

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As time has progressed I've become less sensitive to each new claim because the reef is manifestly, and gloriously, still there.

A new paper by Dr Piers Larcombe and Professor Peter Ridd, published in the Marine Pollution Journal this month, suggests that perhaps not only is there no need to worry, but that much of the science underpinning what we think we know about the GBR is wrong.

And not only the GBR.

In 2005 John Ioannidis wrote a paper titled "Why Most Published Research Findings are False". Since then there has been a flood of papers demonstrating that 50% or more of research papers are wrong in most scientific fields.

According to the editor of the world's second most influential medical journal The Lancet this is because of "small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance…"

Science relies on peer review as a form of quality control, but to anyone who has been involved in this process it has problems.

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This is because peer review can be "biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily ï¬xed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong," again according to the Lancet editor.

In the commercial field this doesn't matter so much. No one is going to spend $2.5B (the average in 2014) developing a new prescription drug based on science that hasn't been put to the test.

Companies do their own due-diligence ensuring studies have been properly set-up, results are significant and can be replicated.

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This article was first published by the Courier Mail.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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