L'affaire Peter Ridd

34800536_897070693822585_6668015775913082880_n Peter Ridd is an Evil Colonial who has continually broken a code of conduct that [one] would expect all... staff to stick to, to create a safe, respectful and professional workplace. Or alternatively, a Good Colonial whose academic freedom has been trampled on. I find it hard to tell which. Telling against him is the company he keeps and signing up to drivel from Cato. Oddly, the Smoggies aren't keen on him. But enough irrelevance, what of the current situation?

[Update 2019/04: James Cook University professor Peter Ridd's sacking ruled unlawful.]

There's an Orwellian article in the Graun wherein the "University" that sacked him denies doing so for "his fringe views on climate change or for his rejection of the scientific evidence linking human activity to degradation of the Great Barrier Reef" and staunchly defends his "right to make statements in his area of academic expertise" (my bold). I'm sure the bit I bolded was just a slip of the tongue, after all this isn't a subject that they've thought out carefully, so you can expect rough and off-the-cuff comments: they didn't mean to imply that his academic-freedom-protection was so narrow, oh goodness me no indeed not.

So he has academic freedom, except - of course - that academic freedom is subject to "a code of conduct that we would expect all our staff to stick to, to create a safe, respectful and professional workplace". Which is another way of saying no, he does not have academic freedom, if he says something the bureaucrats don't like. That's not the end of the Orwellianity though, because after he was first censured, "Against the university’s instructions, Ridd later spoke about the disciplinary proceedings". Good heavens! The very idea that information about secret tribunals should be leaked is abhorrent. But, because he is a "bad" person the Graun toes the party line.

But what about the Great Barrier Reef and coral bleaching in general?

The context for the fuss is PR's views about the GBR and coral bleaching. This is a subject about which I know nothing, so if you want informed commentary on the issue I suggest you go elsewhere.

Consider Great Barrier Reef's five near-death experiences revealed in new paper. Sounds scary? Perhaps not. Anything that can have five "near death" experiences and not die is unlikely to be quite as close to death as you thought. PR's viewpoint is expounded at length in The Extraordinary Resilience of Great Barrier Reef Corals, and Problems with Policy Science. Or there's his "background" to the case. That contains (twice) the statement that "Science is in the midst of a “Replication Crisis” in which high powered replication studies are finding flaws in around 50% of recently published important research". I'm dubious about that, and he doesn't seem to feel any obligation to provide any reference for it - perhaps it goes unquestioned at the dinner parties he goes to.

Update: the Graun has managed to publish Peter Ridd's sacking pushes the limit of academic freedomby Gay Alcorn. It is hedged, and the headline is bastardised, but it covers their backs: if things get bad later they can point to this and say they did stand up for academic freedom after all. Unlike my commentators.


* FFS: an interesting article by la Curry. What is the world coming to? Though to be fair the interesting words are not hers, they are by Pielke Jr and Nordhaus.
The passionate state of mind is often indic-ative of a lack of skill, talent or power.
* PC Hipsta on fracking.
Can Universities Lawfully Bully Academics into Silence? by Jennifer Marohasy. Not usually my favourite source, I'd love to link to someone from the Light Side reporting this, but they all seem to be unaccountably silent. Isn't that odd?



Quadrant's parent institute is a locus classicus of the decline of a once ornery & interesting think-tank after a patronage takeover by P-R oriented corporate sponsors. In the land of mateship and Murdoch, it is not hard to cultivate, underpaid academics into becoming Coal Coast culture heroes and professional witnesses at some cost in scientific objectivity.

It seems they've created a replacement for Bob Carter.

KiwiGriff said...

Sounds scary? Perhaps not. Anything that can have five "near death" experiences and not die is unlikely to be quite as close to death as you thought"

The reef as an organism operates on time spans of thousands of years.
It may outlast us.
The ecological instability as the reef responds to the challengers operates on a more human time span.During the transition to a new state we lose the biomass that relies on the reef for parts of life cycles. The stability of coastlines depend on the reef rebuilding faster than it erodes. We lose the protection it affords coastal community's from stronger storms.

Ridd has repeatedly attacked the honesty and integrity of the Reef science community. The place to dispute differences of scientific opinion is in the literature not in the popular press with unfounded accusations of dishonesty.

Why should the scientific and academic community's give a platform to misinformation and denial?

We can reasonably expect the frequncy of bleaching events to increase alongside the frequncy of extreme global temperatures. Temperatures are rising at about 0.18C a decade. In about two decades the extreme events of an El Nino will become the norm.
As long as the keeling curve goes up the reef as we know it is dying.


William M. Connolley said...

> a replacement for Bob Carter

Who, whatever his flaws and they were many, was not sacked for what he said?

> Ridd has repeatedly attacked... in the popular press... Why should the scientific and academic community's give a platform to misinformation and denial?

Since the "attacks" occurred in the pop press, the sci comm wasn't giving him a platform.

> https://xkcd.com/1357/

Yeees, but, you're saying that "academic freedom" is limited by "whatever your university allows"? It's entirely acceptable to sack anyone for any speech they disagree with? Notice that cartoon deals with free speech, which is not the same thing as academic freedom.

Kiwi Griff said...

Statement by Professor Iain Gordon, Deputy Vice Chancellor,
"These matters reflect a senior member of the University's repeated disregard for the same terms and conditions that apply to all staff. This includes deliberately publishing comments that were untrue, failing to manage his conflict of interest obligations and failing to comply with directions."

Deliberately publishing comments that were untrue is a strong statement.Conflict of interest terminated Soon's affiliation with Harvard Smithsonian center.Failing to comply means you have already been warned.
I dont know about AU but here such a statement would be vetted by HR and law if it was part of a very public employment dispute that has escalated over a number of years.

A university trades on the respect of the scientific and academic community. Going around "Deliberately publishing comments that were untrue" about the honesty,integrity and competence of groups attached to that university is attacking its value.
I dont see why a university should employ someone who is pissing on their reputation by telling lies to the press. Academic freedom means you are free to dispute the science it doesn't give you a license to lie about the honesty and motivation of your peers in the popular press.

Gentleman and ladies who reject the implication of global warming seem to find enough employment outside of the academic community.
Lizdern Soon Lomberg et al dont seem to be unemployed.
There still seems plenty of funding for contrarian research.
It is fitting that the weird fusion of right wing ideology and science that drives denial, finds its platform in the private sector... after all thats what the free market decrees.I dont think ideological denial is a discipline that stands up to the rigors of academic scientific pursuit and dont see why academy should give it a platform.


Pardon the tu quoque, William, but outfits like Heartland , CEI , Cato and the Murdoch media can be as censorious of scientific dissent as any PC university.

Singer sued dissident grad student into submission in l'affaire Revelle, and Soon ran his climateball grift under false colors, playing down his somewhat swampy Smithsonian soft money appointment while pointing to the Harvard in Harvard -Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - It's hard for a university to fire folks who've never had faculty appointments in the first place.

William M. Connolley said...

> Heartland , CEI , Cato and the Murdoch media can be as censorious

Why is that relevant: "bad people do bad things so good people should do bad things too" is a rather poor argument.

> Academic freedom means you are free to dispute the science it doesn't give you a license to

This amounts to "academic freedom is limited to whatever the university says it is"; which is to say, it isn't freedom. Pfft, OK, we disagree on this; but I'm disappointed that you find the university entirely blameless and value freedom so lightly.


I agree that the university may be using Ridd's commercialization of its reputation as an excuse for his dismissal, but I haven't seen any evidence of an effort to stop him from submitting anything for peer-reviewed publication.
Producing more polemic deliverables than scholarship can put even disinterested deans on the war path.
In short, he's free to put his own tenure track at risk as he pleases.


"> Heartland , CEI , Cato and the Murdoch media can be as censorious

Why is that relevant: "bad people do bad things so good people should do bad things too" is a rather poor argument.

> Academic freedom means you are free to dispute the science it doesn't give you a license to"

It's hard to sympathize with scientists who elect to work for organizations that make obedience to their client's legal & PR agendas. I personally have seen the CEO of CEI adduce disbelief in global warming as a condition of employment. The organizations named do not hesitate to invert the meaning of published science in order to prevail in disputation, and deny their employees any meaningful scientific freedom.

The trouble is that neither side brooks debate.

Anonymous said...

In Australia you can’t sack somebody without cause. The “rules” are defined in the code of conduct which you agree to abide by when you start. Academic freedom does not exclude you from following those rules. Then there is also a disciplinary process. You have also agreed to that process in advance. It’s in the terms and conditions of your employment agreement. His responsibilities (in this case confidentiality) were reiterated to him at the time. Academic freedom does not exclude you from following the defined disciplinary process.

JCU sacking Ridd was unusual, perhaps harsh and possibly clinical for somebody in his position. But ultimately he did it to himself. He allegedly breached and the university is entitled to enforce its rules. This is why the matter will be decided on whether his criticism of the university/collegues breached the code of conduct and whether he met is procedural obligations. These are not academic matters so academic freedom does not provide a get out of jail free card in this instance. If he didn’t like the terms of his employment, he shouldn’t have signed the agreement or collected the cheques.

Nathan said...

He accuses scientists of fraud etc, without reference to literature...
He's a tosser.
If he had published rebuttal or whatever, he'd probably still be there. But he chose to not use academic means to adress his concerns, he used the media.


Freedom of speech does not include freedom from consequences of your speech.

Nathan said...

"This amounts to "academic freedom is limited to whatever the university says it is"; which is to say, it isn't freedom. Pfft, OK, we disagree on this; but I'm disappointed that you find the university entirely blameless and value freedom so lightly."

Well, to be honest I doubt there is some definition of Academic Freedom that wouldn't in some way require defining itself - that would then limit that freedom. The act of defining things limits freedom.

And this call to "Freedom" is so hollow. He is still free to what he wants (he'll get employed by the IPA), and the University should be free to do what it wants. Where's the freedom for the University?

Frank Rosser said...

Are people arguing that Peter Ridd shouldn't have been dismissed for violating the university's Code of Conduct? To me it seems a straightforward thing to do.

William M. Connolley said...

> But he chose to not use academic means to a[d]dress his concerns, he used the media.

Ahh, that brings up something I meant to mention: that expecting him to stick to "academic" means, i.e. the scientific literature, when the material he is discussing is all over the media is unreasonable. The people he was criticising were speaking to the media; somehow restricting him to just papers would violate natural justice.

> He accuses scientists of fraud...
> https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/07/academic-peter-ridd-not-sacked-for-his-climate-views-university-says

But that article doesn't once contain the word "fraud". Nor, indeed, does it contain any of PR's own words, unless I missed them. It contains only his opponents speaking about him. Did you make up the word "fraud", or just get the wrong ref?

andrewt said...

Yep I'd argue Ridd should not have been dismissed - and I don't agree with Ridd's views on the reef.

If universities scoured the emails of everyone who behaved uncollegially, and sacked people if they found petty offences - universities would be empty places.

If you read the details this doesn't reflect well on JCU.

I thought Gay Alcorn piece was excellent.

Victor Venema said...

"I dont see why a university should employ someone who is pissing on their reputation by telling lies to the press. Academic freedom means you are free to dispute the science it doesn't give you a license to lie about the honesty and motivation of your peers in the popular press."

If we had evidence PR (great acronym) knew he was lying, I would say he was not acting as a scientist and then academic rules do not apply.

Otherwise Academic Freedom is supposed to be the stronger version of Freedom of Speech. In Germany you are not allowed to deny the holocaust or show Nazi symbols, except in an academic context. Then the constitutional Freedom of Science and Research is seen as overriding the hate speech laws.

The code of conduct should not try to limit scientific speech on scientific matters. It does not protect harassment. So it is limited to scientific speech. Thus I do feel that the addition "in his area of academic expertise" makes some sense. Had the GBR been his core expertise, I would have clearly been against sacking PR. Had his statements been in the scientific literature I would have clearly been against it. Now it is in a grey zone and the decision makes me uncomfortable.

Do remember that the leadership of universities is often deeply conservative. Especially in America where their main job is schmoozing with millionaire alumni. There may come a day when this leadership thinks claiming global warming is a problem is not respectful.

Freedom of speech is mostly there for speech we do not like. So try to put yourself into a reverse scenario where the guy says something you totally agree with would you then still think what PR did is totally unacceptable and the actions of the university are reasonable?

(This is a powerful general heuristic to help you think straight. If America does A, imagine what you would say when Russia, China, Iran or the pariah of the day Canada would do A.)


I 'd like to see America repay a long-standing cultural debt to Australia.

In exchange for the Australian Ballot, they deserve the First Amendment.

Nathan said...

He says to the media “The basic problem is that we can no longer trust the scientific ­organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.”

I paraphrased this as claiming fraud.

Scroll down to : JCU Trying to Gag Debate over GBR Science
Where again he claims ""The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame because we really need to be able to trust our scientific institutions and the fact is I do not think that we can any more.""

I paraphrased this as claiming fraud.

Lots of details of his claimsin here:


The Uni are protecting their staff from his claims.

Nathan said...

Long discussions about his various claims here (from 2016)

He undermines his colleagues for self-promotion.

Nathan said...

Also I think we need to consider that his 'Freedom of Speech' has NEVER been impinged.
He is constantly making claims and appearing on talk shows; in fact his voice has never been louder.

What this is about is an employers right to sack and employee who is not following rules they agreed to when the signed their contract.

He will go on saying these things into the future. And he is 'free' to do so.

Anonymous said...

I noticed a recent debate where protesting NFL footballers will be now made to stand during the national anthem. Those players have the famous American first amendment right to free speech but presumably this directive is covered by their employment contract? It is the same situation here.

I actually think he has a chance, Australian law seems to favour the employee in these cases, but not if he wants to argue free speech. From a legal standpoint, this case will have to be 100% about what is in his contract. Working at a university is not a free for all. There are standards. Just ask Murry Salby.

Nick Barnes said...

I thought you were an at-will employment type of person?

William M. Connolley said...

> I paraphrased this as claiming fraud.

I'm not at all sure that's a reasonable paraphrase. Nor can it be interpreted as a personal attack. It seems well within the boundaries of reasonable criticism; "The Uni are protecting their staff from his claims" really amounts to an excuse for anything.

> https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/science-on-the-verge/

I find VV's comment relevant.

> his 'Freedom of Speech'

Why do you keep saying this? It is irrelevant. It isn't a FoS issue. It is an academic freedom issue.

> NFL footballers

I very much hope the footballers tell Trump and the NFL to fuck off in no uncertain terms, by their actions.

> at-will employment type of person?

I am. In commercial terms, we should get rid of all employment rights. However, as I understand it, this is an academic not commercial issue. I don't propose to put all of the supreme court on sackable-at-the-president's-whim terms; and I think there is virtue in academic freedom. Or, if you prefer, it's a contractual issue; and I utterly loathe the small-print-ful shitty stuff that people like JCU want.

Nathan said...

Russel Seitz above claimed it was a 'First Amendment' Issue

His Academic Freedom hasn't been impinged as he hasn't written any science on it (GBR bleaching). He's gone to the media instead.

" It seems well within the boundaries of reasonable criticism"
Well the Uni disagrees, (and so do others) and his criticisms when investigated are found wanting (the photographs in the GBMR report, for example).
He won't retract claims that are shown to be false.

Anonymous said...

I suspect one of the people who PR felt could not be trusted lodged a complaint. The university would then be policy-bound to investigate (in a small-print-ful shitty duty of care kind of way). Then code of conduct etc.

Nick Barnes said...

So you don't think he should have any employment rights, because you don't believe in employment rights, so his employers should be free to fire him because they don't like what he says (for instance, because they think it brings them into disrepute). By extension you think they should also be free to fire him if they don't like his age, his gender, his ethnicity, or the way he ties his shoes (because ruling out these sort of things would be small-print-ful).
But at the same time you think there is virtue in academic freedom. I guess he's free to go ahead and be an academic, if he can find an academy that wants him.
Squaring this circle, you would like a system in which institutions and their employees are free to negotiate any employment contracts they like, and in such a system you would prefer institutions which negotiate contracts granting "academic freedom" in some broader sense than this. Presumably you think that in such a system, such institutions will prevail in the marketplace because these contracts make their product superior?

Marco said...

"He won't retract claims that are shown to be false"


Anyone else here agree that not referencing responses to your critical papers and creating an impression your criticisms are ignored is tantamount to scientific misconduct?


" Nathan said...
Russel Seitz above claimed it was a 'First Amendment' Issue"

False, but you are at liberty to rave distastefully on, which is rather the point of the amendment in question.

No American law prohibits shouting fire in a crowded echo chamber

William M. Connolley said...

> you don't think he should have any employment rights

I'm not happy with the word rights. I should write down why clearly sometime, since it is a Topic For Discussion; in the meantime this response to a comment (and this) will have to do.

In the case in play at the moment, the guiding principle has to be the actual law, with "law" interpreted in the correct sense. I'm not proposing that the case be judged, in the courts, according to my pet principles.

> you would like a system in which

Largely, yes, though I haven't thought it through carefully. There's a useful analogy perhaps with the US law that makes any US govt product non-copyright. That's not in anyone's contract and doesn't need to be, but is a wonderful thing. So I think there could be a case for, as you suggest I suggest, no-employment-rights, but university "employees" getting "academic freedom" (words in quotes need more careful defn, obvs).

In case you've missed it, its a commonplace that people may, to their own advantage, accept mutual restrictions. For example, everyone might well agree to a framework with tax. This is entirely compatible with L ideas.

Nathan said...

Russel, well fine if you don't think it. I thought you did.

Nathan said...

I flew back from Learmonth this afternoon with two JCU marine ecologists. Small world. They had heard of Peter Ridd, but no details.
The story they told of coral off Western Australia was pretty grim. Around 30% mortality from bleaching in 2013.
They said the reef would take 20 to 30 years to recover. They doubted it would they as they expect more bleaching before it can recover.
Also stressing the reef is crown of thorns, which is not affected by warmer water.
Apparently under RCP4.5 only 15% of Indian Ocean coral remains at the end of next century. Due to bleaching and the reefs "drowning" from sea level rise.

angech said...

Very sad. The whole issue is not that he breached University rules.
He complained publicly that there were two versions of what was happening to the reef and that one version was being pushed too hard.
The university then decided to discipline him under strict secrecy and access his e mails which, given the nature of his complaint was not really necessary, needed or fair.
They then sacked him for breaching the rules they unfairly and heavy handedly inflicted on him, not for his previous actions.
Nathan can parrot the University line on the reefs and damage as much as he wants.
It is

Nicolas Nierenberg said...

Hi William, it has been a long time. There seems to be a thread here that Peter Ridd hasn't published on this topic and is just commenting in the media. As you point out that is a poor argument for firing him. But, in fact, google scholar shows that he has numerous publications on the subject of corals. And I was able to quickly find this published article that is on the subject of the need for quality control in environmental science. The idea that he should be fired from an academic institution because he is being mean, or he is wrong, is strange.