Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is in some serious trouble, with the latest research in the journal Nature showing the number of new corals has dropped by 89 percent.
In 2016 and 2017, the reef was smashed by back-to-back mass bleaching events and heat stress caused by global warming that killed about half the corals.
“Dead corals don’t make babies,” said James Cook University’s Professor Terry Hughes, the paper’s lead author.
“We used to think that the Great Barrier Reef was too big to fail — until now,” added colleague Professor Morgan Pratchett.
The paper was just the latest in a steady and, many would agree, depressing parade of findings for the World Heritage icon. And if the scientific papers don’t do it for you, then there are always the pictures.
But the release of the study served as a remarkable contrast to the way the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky News, furnished with material from climate science denial think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, has been “reporting” on reef science in the past week.
On at least five occasions the channel has interviewed the IPA’s policy director Gideon Rozner, who has been updating the channel on the case of Dr. Peter Ridd, a marine scientist specializing in sediments who was fired in March 2018 from James Cook University.
According to the various interviews, the reef is in great shape, the science is probably wrong, and Ridd is a “world renowned” reef expert in a historic fight for freedom. None of this is true, yet the claims have been allowed to stand unchecked.
The Saga of Peter Ridd
Ridd’s saga is a long one, but here’s the short version (and while we're here, in the interests of full disclosure, in the time since I first started writing about Ridd's case, I've taken a part-time job at an Australian marine conservation charity as a media adviser).
Ridd does not think that human-caused climate change is a problem, and he thinks the reef is in fabulous health. This has been his public position for at least a decade.
But in 2017, Ridd started to publicly accuse his scientific colleagues, some of which were based at his own university in Townsville, Australia, of being untrustworthy. This went against the university’s code of conduct. The university censured him. Ridd refused to back down and made more statements. He published “private” university correspondence on his website. He was further disciplined, so he sued his employer. Then they fired him.
Last week, Ridd’s case was finally heard in court, with three days of hearings. A judgment is expected in the coming months.
Now, the IPA has gone all out to create a narrative around Ridd’s case. Before the court case, Rozner traveled from Melbourne to Townsville (that’s a three-hour flight, folks) to make an 11-minute movie with Ridd.
Rozner delivered daily video “reports” from outside the Brisbane courthouse and gave multiple interviews to Sky News shows where presenters including Alan Jones, Peta Credlin, Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, and Rowan Dean, gushed in their admiration for Ridd.
Collectively, they have painted an alternate reality, where Ridd is a whistleblowing hero who refuses to be beaten down by a tyrannical and powerful employer.
His case is not about whether or not he broke the university’s code of conduct and leveled a serious accusation at his colleagues, but has instead been blown up into what Rozner describes as “the most significant case about academic freedom and free speech in Australian legal history.”
Whether or not the judge decides if James Cook University was right to discipline and then fire Ridd, or whether he breached his employment agreement, has become lost in a manufactured scandal.
Sky News pundits have made some remarkable, and wrong, claims about the case, and about Ridd.
A researcher accesses the damage at Day Reef on the Great Barrier Reef following the March 2016 mass coral bleaching event. Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Gergely Torda, CC BY-ND 2.0
Let’s take a few of these claims in turn, starting with the most egregious example of cherry-picking and selective skepticism.
Over and over again, presenters have accepted a claim that Ridd has shown the mainstream science to be shoddy. Yet none of his supporters have mentioned what happened when Ridd did outline his concerns in detail in a November 2017 “viewpoint” article in a journal.
Ridd and a former colleague Piers Larcombe claimed they had found flaws in nine scientific papers published between 2003 and 2013, mostly by scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).
What’s more important though, is that the paper added: “Given their sincere call to improve quality control processes in science, it is interesting that nowhere in their Viewpoint article do Larcombe and Ridd make it clear to readers that many of their criticisms of the nine [Great Barrier Reef] papers have been raised previously and have been thoroughly addressed by the original authors.”
Neither Ridd, nor Rozner, nor any of the Sky News presenters, have mentioned this, because to do so would undermine Ridd’s hero status.
Peter Ridd appearing on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky News. Credit: Institute of Public Affairs YouTube
Excerpts from Rozner’s film have been used at least twice by Sky News. Among footage of Ridd tending to his garden pond and standing on a beach gazing wistfully out at the ocean, Ridd says: “The reef is in fantastic shape.”
Clearly, it is not.
Ridd said what had sparked the whole episode was an email to a journalist in 2016 claiming that pictures of reef at Stone Island were being misused by authorities to show how corals were degrading over time. His claims were eventually published uncritically by Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper.
But if The Australian had checked Ridd’s story to see if the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were guilty of a lack of skepticism, they would have found something different. Essentially, they would have found a strawman.
In another Sky News interview, Rozner told political commentator and climate science denialist Andrew Bolt: “Peter Ridd estimates as much as 50 percent of the so called peer-reviewed science on the Great Barrier Reef might not be completely accurate. According to Peter Ridd, these are a natural sign that the corals are adjusting to warmer temperatures.”
Or to put it another way, the corals naturally adjust to warmer temperatures by dying, after which, they remain dead. Naturally.
The “50 percent” claim was made by Ridd in his Viewpoint article, but it actually referred to a study about replication of results in biomedical science.
Rozner’s movie is, admittedly, slick. But here’s why.
In late 2018, Rozner and IPA colleague Daniel Wild traveled to Los Angeles for a four-day video workshop put on by the Atlas Network — a coordinating group of more than 400 conservative think tanks around the world.
Once Ridd decided to sue James Cook Univeristy, he started a crowdfunding campaign, which, thanks to promotions from the IPA and climate science denialists around the world, raised more than AU$250,000.
Ridd then hired a team of lawyers including Stuart Wood QC — described as one of the country’s leading industrial relations barristers. He won’t be cheap — sources say he usually charges upwards of AU$10,000 a day.
“The IPA have been the source of this,” Ridd told Rozner. “Not just for the financial support, but also the moral support that helped me go on. John Roskam (the IPA’s executive director) gave me a call and said he would get some lawyers to look at it and it was not until that happened that we thought we were in with a fight.”
In a segment on another Sky News show, Peta Credlin, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said Peter Ridd was “world renowned” as a reef scientist, and that in Australia “you can’t find a better expert on the Great Barrier Reef.”
One way of measuring what scientists think of each other’s work, is to look at how many times scientists cite the studies of other people.
Ridd does not have a Google Scholar profile (the easiest place to check citations), but his ResearchGate page shows his work has been cited 3,113 times. For comparison, according to ResearchGate Terry Hughes has been cited 41,600 times. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland, and a pioneer of coral bleaching research, has also been cited 41,600 times.
To deny climate change at this point is to deny reality. Surely this plus the huge impacts of 2016 should compel us to rapidly decarbonise! https://t.co/1rPzBFvSpt— Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (@oveHG) January 18, 2017
I mention Hoegh-Guldberg, because during one of the Rozner interviews, Andrew Bolt claimed the Queensland scientist had been forced to back-peddle on his claims over the years.
Hoegh-Guldberg told me: “My 1999 paper predicted back to back bleaching and loss of corals by mid-century. But that’s happening right now. The impacts we predicted are actually unfolding much quicker than we thought.”
So, is Ridd a world-renowned expert on the reef? “No,” said Hoegh-Guldberg. “If he was, it would be reflected in his citations. He’s not heavily cited.”
Alan Jones, a Sydney shock jock who thinks climate science is “witchcraft,” has also tried to pain Ridd as the plucky underdog going up against a big institution.
“Here is a bloke who is challenging the groupthink on climate change,” he said, “but it’s unequal wherever you turn.”
Unequal? Unequal, except for the fact that it was Ridd who chose to take his employer to court, not the other way around
Unequal, except for the support of an entire news channel and a quarter of a million dollars to hire a top legal team.
And unequal, except for the support of a think tank that has accepted at least AU$4.5 million in funding since 2016 from Australia’s richest person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
Main image: A YouTube screenshot from the IPA's film with Peter Ridd.