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How the message gets embedded

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 28 June 2019

Somewhere in this or a recent thread an alarmist asked me did I think there was some massive conspiracy involving learned societies, universities and governments, all of whom were missing the points I was making. I said No, I don't have much truck with conspiracies, small or massive. The notion that the choice was binary - either you thought there was a conspiracy, or you accepted the alarmist position - stuck in my mind, and this essay is a response to that common orthodox position.

First, there has to be a message, and it has to be of some moment, some significance, to involve players like governments. In my view the message came half a century ago, in the form of the environmental movement, which proclaimed that human beings were destroying the one planet they lived on. The message came at the same time as a steady decline in the proportions of people in the Anglophone societies, and in the Protestant parts of Europe, who took organised Christianity seriously. The message was quickly politicised by a new formation, political parties often called Greens, which used the colour as their symbol, and increasingly as their name. The Greens were not part of the liberal/conservative, left/right, Labor/Coalition divide that is familiar to us, though their tendency, being radical, was to the left. The established parties did their best to ignore the Greens, but when in time they reached ten per cent of the popular vote both traditional sides of politics tried to work out how best to counter this new threat.

Second, the party in government will try to avoid doing anything of substance in a new and contested area like this, but it will do what it sees as wall-papering, as John Howard did in setting up the Australian Greenhouse Office in 1998. As time went on, however, the AGO gained more and more functions. In 2004 it became part of a government department, and after Kevin Rudd's win in 2007 it became part of the new Department of Climate Change. Why did this expansion happen, when Howard tried so hard to downplay 'climate change'? In part because the AGO's funding was built into forward estimates, which meant that unless these were changed by the Department of Finance and by Cabinet, it would be there forever. And all department secretaries try to hang on to what they have. So, all over the wide range of the Australian Government there are bits and pieces of the apparatus of State whose function is to proclaim the message that 'climate change' is important and we have to do something about it. That applies whoever is in power. It would be extremely difficult for Scott Morrison as Prime Minister to change that message quickly, and laborious (though in my judgment necessary) to do it slowly.


Third, these 'climate change' entities in government have money to spend, and they search for allies. Enter the learned academies. In 1990 I was able to persuade my Minister that we should allocate some infrastructure funding to the academies. The Minister though they were a bunch of old guys whose primary purpose was to decide on other old guys to honour. I said while there was some truth in that judgment, the academies provide a more or less neutral source of advice when government needed to get past the legion of urgers who want more money spent on this or that in the world of research, especially in science, social welfare, education and health. Yes, there were other possible sources of more or less neutral advice, but there was no harm in having the academies on side. He agreed, and each of the four received some more core funding. Now, the academies also have their own axes to grind, and they will support any proposal that directs funding to academics who want to do research. It was not long, therefore, before 'climate change' money came on to the scene, and the academies did their best to ensure that it was directed to areas that the government wanted research in: 'human-induced climate change'. I do not think there was any suggestion from any academy that the reach of the funding should be broadened to include sources of natural variation. I stand to be corrected. I am a fellow of one academy and know the others reasonably well. That is my picture.

Fourth, now enter the universities, always hungry for money. Every dean wants to see his or her academic staff busily seeking funding, and all praise to those who are successful. Those who followed the Government and academies line were therefore strongly supported, and the few who criticised it, or pointed out that there were shoddy elements in the research thus funded, were made to become pariahs, and dealt with in a fairly brutal way. What happened to Professors Brady, Carter and Ridd was appalling. Other critics saw the writing on the wall, and shut up. For a young researcher the rule was head down, work on, say nothing. And the shift into work that either supported the CO2 hypothesis or took it for granted, and asked what would happen now, grew steadily stronger.

In time, fifth, other organisations picked up the new theme, some because it made sense financially, some because its board now included people who took the new theme seriously, some because board members were also board members of other organisations where the shift had already occurred. Major international organisations did likewise, so their affiliates in other countries felt some need to follow suit. Little by little the view that the planet was in danger became the theme of the early 21stcentury. Did any of these organisations, anyof them, do the due diligence and go back to square one, examine all the evidence, and come to an informed view? If one did, it has not proclaimed its virtue in this domain. The Royal Society and the Australian Academy of Science set up working parties to prepare the official view, but the official view was already set. The working party had simply to provide the right words. That not all members agreed with the published words is well known. Too bad. They are there, set in what looks to be stone.

None of this required a 'conspiracy'. None was needed. What we have seen, in the account I have given, which I think is substantially accurate, is reliance on another form of argument: the argument from authority, or argumentum ad verecundiam. When questioned as to your knowledge of the matter, you reply that since the Royal Society or the Australian Academy has already said the words there is no need for you to do anything else. They are the authority. You simply refer to them. If we all agree as to the authority that is a different matter, as we might do in the case, say, of a newly discovered asteroid. Where we don't agree, the appeal to authority is inherently fallacious.

Who stood out against the tide? Overwhelmingly, retired scientists, engineers and the like, people who could not be disciplined by their former organisations, and disliked the groupthink they could detect. Scientists like Lindzen, Happer, Curry, Kininmonth and Paltridge in our country, and many others around the world, cannot be dismissed as ignorant, so the orthodoxy simply takes no notice of them, as it does with respect to most inconvenient data.

Alarmists are correct to say that they hold the reins, and that no one of importance listens to the sceptics. That does not mean that the alarmists are correct. My guess is that the rising price of electricity, and the associated lack of capacity to power mainstream grids through solar and wind, will cause a slow rethinking of the orthodox position. I don't think it will happen quickly, because once organisations take up 'positions' they are most reluctant to let go of them, as I pointed out in the case of government instrumentalities.


Time will tell.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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