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The ABC broadcast bullying and science hooliganism problem

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 15 May 2008


If it happened in a school yard or in a cyber chat room, and the protagonists were two 15-year-old school girls, it might have hit the front pages of a tabloid.

Bullying.

In a world where we're all supposed to be nice to each other, it's the ultimate crime.

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Except, apparently, when those involved are two middle-aged prominent Australians and the venue is the living rooms of the nation as the event is beamed live by our national broadcaster.

For bullying is what ABC Science Broadcaster Robyn Williams does to respected academic and former Vice-Chancellor of Canberra University, Don Aitkin, in his introduction to Aitkin’s Ockham’s Razor broadcast on April 27. There ought to be widespread outrage, particularly as Williams is a journalist with ethical and professional obligations who works for a publicly-funded broadcaster with duties of impartiality.

Let’s look at the bullying. Aitkin is a “global warming agnostic” and came out in a speech (PDF 203KB) to the Planning Institute of Australia on April 2 as being sceptical of the IPCC story on global warming. The opening sentences of his concluding paragraph are predictive:

“I finish on what to me is a sad note. I have been urged not to write or present such an address, mostly because I am likely to be attacked and demonised. I cannot accept such advice, however well meant it is. I am proud to live in a well-educated democracy, and it is central virtue of our kind of society that informed public debate occurs and should occur on all questions of importance.”

As Williams’ demonstrates, they are also accurate.

He introduces Aitkin with these words:

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“It is one of the disappointments of my life as a broadcaster that I've never managed to interview Nigella Lawson. How would she fit into a science program you may wonder, but that's mere detail.

“I have, on the other hand, had her father Nigel Lawson on the 'Science Show', talking about innovation or some such, with his usual flair and penetrating intelligence. Not a science-trained man, but economics is near enough, isn't it, and he was Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer (or Treasurer).

“Now Lord Lawson has brought out a book on climate called 'An Appeal to Reason'. Here's the first paragraph of a review in this week's 'Spectator' magazine:

“'When there is so much data suggesting the world's climate is heating up', goes the review, 'some may find it presumptuous of Nigel Lawson, who is not a scientist and has undertaken no original research, to hope to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Would we take seriously an appraisal of his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer written by someone whose only expertise was in oceanography?'

“Well the same could apply to Professor Don Aitkin, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, a political scientist and like Lawson, a journalist. Professor Aitkin gave a lecture on climate to the Planning Institute of Australia, 'A Cool Look at Global Warming'. That was a couple of weeks ago, and I thought you might like to hear some of his thoughts, recast for 'Ockham's Razor'. Though nine out of 10 Australians are said to be alarmed at climate change, 10 per cent think differently, and Professor Aitkin is one of them.”

So, his first proposition is that he will put anyone on radio, as long as they are a celebrity and he can contrive a link. Then by word association he pirouettes to the proposition that it is “presumptuous” of someone who is not a “scientist” or researcher, and who has no “expertise” in an area to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. He puts that orthodoxy at 90 per cent of the population. Thus framed as just a bit of entertainment, he sets Aitkin off to run.

This is fairly vicious stuff, not the least because it is delivered against someone who has earned the right to intellectual respect over a long and fruitful career. Of course, the point of the put-down isn’t to intimidate Aitkin - too late for that, he’s about to do a two-part broadcast on the issue - it is to intimidate anyone of lesser stature and guts who might want to hold a public opinion on the issue.

However, it is also in breach of what is required of Williams as a broadcaster and journalist, and of Williams’ employer, the ABC. As a result Williams and the ABC owe Aitkin an apology and Australia an explanation. After all, a public intellectual ought to be able to go to work without suffering workplace harassment from a colleague.

Let’s look at the breaches.

A journalist is required to quote accurately, and not to misrepresent sources. The quote from The Spectator is a put-up job. The paragraph that Williams quotes is a straw case which The Spectator reviewer goes on to rebut, concluding with a paragraph starting with these words:

“In truth, pugilists on both side of the argument need to recognise that while expertise is always paramount, it is not out of place for other leading public figures to pose intelligent questions.”

Furthermore Ockham’s Razor would be classed by the ABC either as “opinion content” or “topical and factual content”. The ABC is required to be impartial at the platform level “This means that while individual items of content can take a particular perspective on an issue, the ABC must be able to demonstrate at the platform level that it has provided … a range of different perspectives …” (PDF 1.65MB). It also requires impartiality at the program level, where the four key values of honesty, fairness, independence and respect should still apply.

So chafed is Williams at the requirement of the ABC to produce balanced programming that he undercuts it at the program level with an introduction that might be independent, but is not honest, fair or respectful.

It is also not high quality.

I’ve already noted Williams’ dishonesty or incompetence in misleadingly quoting from The Spectator, but the argument from authority should never have been advanced by Williams in the first instance. Not only is it logically fallacious - bad facts are not made good because they are advanced by a person with a reputation - but Williams himself fails the test he sets Aitkin.

He isn’t a climate scientist, he’s a science broadcaster with an honours degree in biology. The chances are that he has no formal training in physics, the key to understanding climate science. So, on his own bad reasoning, he is precluded from commenting on the area.

His statistic that 90 per cent of Australians are alarmed at climate change is also suspect. It derives from polling carried out by The Climate Institute of Australia, apparently the offspring of Clive Hamilton’s Australia Institute (what SourceWatch would call an “Astroturf/industry front group” if it was from the right).

The poll was apparently of 1,005 people conducted online between March 7-11 and the actual question is not available in the report (PDF 493KB). While according to the report the data was “weighted by age, sex and location to ensure representativeness” it is in fact impossible to do this using an online survey - you can weight, but you can’t ensure. All online surveying carries a bias towards the “left” of politics, and judged on other Australian online polling samples this is somewhere in the order of 10 per cent.

Furthermore, while the poll used a five-point scale it did not give the “neutral” option of “neither concerned nor unconcerned”. So while 39 per cent were “extremely” or “very concerned” and 12 per cent (not the 10 per cent claimed by Williams) were “not very” or “not at all concerned”, 40 per cent were in the midway spot of “concerned”. In a properly structured survey I would suspect that a large proportion of these respondents would have chosen “neither concerned nor unconcerned” but they weren’t given that option.

As you would expect, Williams has form. When it comes to climate science he is no respecter of the facts, having claimed once that sea waters will rise 100m. The IPCC puts the maximum increase at 68m if all the ice caps and glaciers melt.

He regularly indulges in queen bee behaviour. Only a few weeks before the Aitkin broadcast he described this piece by Charlie Veron, predicting the demise of the Great Barrier Reef because of anthropogenic global warming as “… one of the most important talks we've broadcast”. Yet as this piece by Walter Starck demonstrates, Veron makes significant factual errors.

You have to go to On Line Opinion to find the corrections to Veron, but just in case Aitkin has made errors, Williams has scheduled Stephen Schneider to provide a rebuttal in a week’s time. Seems his quality control only works in one direction, and if your one of teacher's pets you'll get a pat on the head.

Williams appears to have picked-up the campaigning bug early in life. His father was a public servant and Marxist who sold socialist newspapers on the street. He remembers the excitement of going on anti-nuclear marches. Fascinated by prestige and fame, he also recalls with relish that Bertrand Russell used to phone friends of his.

Obviously the fascination with prestige intrudes into and distorts his journalism. It also appears to distort his CV. Among other achievements he claims to be a professor at the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales. In fact he is an adjunct professor at one, and visiting professor at the other - these are courtesy titles, not to be confused with the real thing, which is undoubtedly why he isn’t listed in the online staff directory at either institution.

Williams isn’t the only global warming bully, and unfortunately universities are used to give some of the others added credibility as well. John Quiggin, an economist who specialises in modeling, at the University of Queensland, and Tim Lambert, a computer scientist specialising in virtual realities, at the University of New South Wales, are web activists who practice brown-shirt tactics on any who question what they define as the global warming orthodoxy. Neither would pass Williams’ test of being qualified in the area.

Quiggin freely and frequently abuses any who challenge his orthodoxy using smear. He is a frequent editor of Wikipedia on the issue where along with the notorious William Connelly, he ensures that global warming sceptics are presented in the worst light. Take a look at the history of changes to the entry for Theodor Landscheit where Quiggin is determined that Landscheit must be an “amateur” climatologist, even though his wiki entry shows that he published at least two peer reviewed articles in the area. Landscheit was also interested in astrology.

He also has a fascination with Fred Singer, an eminent scientist, first director of the US National Weather Satellite Service, who once did a review of epidemiological studies and came to the conclusion that there is no demonstrated harm from side-stream tobacco smoke. Quiggin is keen that this fact gets into Singer’s biography.

Why do I cite these two entries? Because Quiggin frequently dismisses global warming sceptics as being aligned with the tobacco industry and astrology (this despite the fact that the greatest hysteric of them all Al Gore was a tobacco industry advocate himself). It helps to have a Wikipedia entry which partly justifies your position!

Lambert, through his blog Deltoid promulgates whatever the current orthodoxy happens to be, but he does not restrict himself to his blog, frequently diving into comment threads on other online publications. And once you have Lambert on your thread, he sticks closer than a tick, hoping to suck the lifeblood out of the argument until you give up.

I could go on, but I think this demonstrates that the problem is widespread and that the ABC is not the only quality organisation compromised by it.

What should happen? When you have bullies in the school or the workplace you deal with them, generally by isolating the worst instance, and making an example of them. Williams might not be the worst, but in this case he has stuck his head up a lot higher than any of the others. The ABC must do something about him. And it must be more than a half-hearted apology.

He has smeared a respected academic using doctored quotes and shoddy research, and he puffs his curriculum vitae with imagined qualifications. It’s about time that ABC science broadcasting was opened up. After more than 30 years monopolising the field, it’s time Williams did something else.

Apart from opening up his world view it might encourage others to do something about other broadcasters and academics who, while paid to give us an accurate view of the world, in fact abuse their positions to promote a slanted version of reality.

I’ll be writing to the ABC. Time to get this ball rolling.

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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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