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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.


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


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:


“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.

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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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