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Science or silence? My battle to question doomsayers about the Great Barrier Reef

By Peter Ridd - posted Monday, 12 February 2018


Around the world, people have heard about the impending extinction of the Great Barrier Reef: some 133,000 square miles of magnificent coral stretching for 1,400 miles off the northeast coast of Australia.

The reef is supposedly almost dead from the combined effects of a warming climate, nutrient pollution from Australian farms, and smothering sediment from offshore dredging.

Except that, as I have said publicly as a research scientist who has studied the reef for the past 30 years, all this most likely isn't true.

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And just for saying that – and calling into question the kind of published science that has led to the gloomy predictions – I have been served with a gag order by my university. I am now having to sue for my right to have an ordinary scientific opinion.

My emails have been searched. I was not allowed even to speak to my wife about the issue. I have been harangued by lawyers. And now I'm fighting back to assert my right to academic freedom and bring attention to the crisis of scientific truth.

The problems I am facing are part of a "replication crisis" that is sweeping through science and is now a serious topic in major science journals. In major scientific trials that attempt to reproduce the results of scientific observations and measurements, it seems that around 50 percent of recently published science is wrong, because the results can't be replicated by others.

And if observations and measurements can't be replicated, it isn't really science – it is still, at best, hypothesis, or even just opinion. This is not a controversial topic anymore – science, or at least the system of checking the science we are using, is failing us.

The crisis started in biomedical areas, where pharmaceutical companies in the past decade found that up to 80 percent of university and institutional science results that they tested were wrong. It is now recognized that the problem is much more widespread than the biomedical sciences. And that is where I got into big trouble.

I have published numerous scientific papers showing that much of the "science" claiming damage to the reef is either plain wrong or greatly exaggerated. As just one example, coral growth rates that have supposedly collapsed along the reef have, if anything, increased slightly.

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Reefs that are supposedly smothered by dredging sediment actually contain great coral. And mass bleaching events along the reef that supposedly serve as evidence of permanent human-caused devastation are almost certainly completely natural and even cyclical.

These allegedly major catastrophic effects that recent science says were almost unknown before the 1980s are mainly the result of a simple fact: large-scale marine science did not get started on the reef until the 1970s.

By a decade later, studies of the reef had exploded, along with the number of marine biologists doing them. What all these scientists lacked, however, was historical perspective. There are almost no records of earlier eras to compare with current conditions. Thus, for many scientists studying reef problems, the results are unprecedented, and almost always seen as catastrophic and even world-threatening.

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This article was first published by Fox News.



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About the Author

Peter Ridd is a Reader in Physics at James Cook University specialising in Marine Physics. He is also a scientific adviser to the Australian Environment Foundation.

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