Wednesday, 28 May 2014

"Recommendation 8": Why Media Coverage of Scientific Denialism Is Really, Really, Very, Really, Very Important

Yesterday, Liberal MP Dennis Jensen spoke out about his government's cuts to science funding - the first, and only Liberal MP to do so:

"There appears to be a lack of understanding of how science works........where is the coherent, co-ordinated approach to science policy? 
Is [funding] to medical research going to be general, or specifically targeted at cancer, Alzheimer's and the like? How are we going to source those researchers?"

Thus spake Dr Jensen in his speech. The news was important for two reasons - the MP was speaking out against his own party, a rare and dramatic move. Secondly, Dr Jensen was speaking out in defence of science - equally rare, and equally dramatic, given the Abbott government's open hostility towards the provision of public funds for scientific research.

Tony Abbott visits a lab and points at science. Via The Australian 

Dennis Jensen openly rejects the science underpinning climate change, and the conclusions that stem from it. Despite every single one of Australia's major scientific institutions (and every single major scientific institution in the world) accepting the science (in addition to ~97% of climate scientists), Jensen holds firm in his beliefs:

"Dr Jensen believes carbon dioxide is contributing somewhat to global temperatures, but not as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is suggesting.
Moreover, Dr Jensen does not think governments should be taking urgent action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 
"In the climate area there is appeal to authority and appeal to consensus, neither of which is scientific at all," Dr Jensen told Fairfax Media on Thursday."
"Most of the stuff [Lord Monckton] says is entirely reasonable," Dr Jensen said. "Some of it I don't agree with but on the whole a lot of what he says is in my view correct."

Here's the interesting thing. I found a total of 8 articles that covered Jensen's speech to parliament, yesterday:

Liberal MP Dennis Jensen fires broadside at his government's medical research fund - SMH
Liberal MP Dennis Jensen blasts ‘foolish’ Coalition science policy - The Australian
Dennis Jensen says funding medical research while cutting money for science research is incoherent -
Scientific research funding: Liberal MP Dennis Jensen questions 'incoherent' budget cuts - ABC News
Liberal MP Jensen attacks ‘incoherent’ Coalition policy - AFR
Govt maintains no mass ads for budget - Sky News
Liberal backbencher says Coalition lacks basic understanding of science - The Guardian
Liberal MP slates ‘incoherent’ science policy, medical research fund - The Conversation

Not one of those eight outlets mention the incredibly important and profoundly relevant fact that Dr Jensen opts to reject an entire field of scientific inquiry, going against a fairly large body of scientists (quite a few of them are Australian) who really have checked to see that their conclusions are right (turns out they really very very probably are), and because they're experts, we can say it's very likely that they're correct.

Curiously, when The Guardian covered Jensen's remarks on scientific issues last year, they included a mention of his beliefs on climate science. Not this time. The closest that any outlet came to mentioning his views was the SMH, who include a quote from his list of 'recommendations', but didn't mention his beliefs:

"Recommendation 8: Remove any research priority on issues that are politically “hot” such as climate change. I know of researchers who are sceptical on the “consensus” position, but still use the “key phrases” to enhance the probability of winning a research grant."

So - why is Jensen's climate change scepticism relevant?

Jensen's motivations ought to have been presented clearly. Though he may sincerely care for the future of Australian science in general, his efforts at helping it along come bundled with an open admission - he rejects climate science, and he wants to de-prioritise climate science research; despite the urgency and significance of its findings.

Worse - he bases it on an off-handed anecdotal claim - "I know researchers". He probably does. Does that constitute good evidence that there's some sort of conspiracy of scientists vying for grants through the misuse of terminology? No, it doesn't.

'Don't you want someone to stand up for science, in a time of scientific political drought? Well, you'll have to ditch your climate scientists friends. My own assessment contradicts their conclusions, so, they've got go. Then, maybe then, you can have someone who'll stick up for the researchers slaving every day behind the microscopes.'

Science isn't just made up of climate research, and the issues surrounding climate science extend perilously far beyond the doors of the lab. No other scientific field has been pushed so deeply and so suddenly into the insane, roiling furnace of political and ideological delirium.

That is why we need strong, brave and comprehensive journalism on this issue.

It's why those media outlets really ought to have mentioned that Dr Dennis Jensen will happily save science; on the condition we shove our climate scientists out the door, and into the cold - where anyone who challenges our beliefs belong.

Any other scientists that dare resurrect the concepts we opt to reject? They better bring a coat.

1 comment:

  1. Aside from the elements of the recommendations which tempt me to ridicule his suggestions, such as having a “governing body” such as the Australian Medical Association oversee the reinstitution of grammar teaching in primary schools (?!), or how he doesn’t appear to have much of an idea how the system works at all, to the point of being self-contradictory, but how vastly inconsistent with his party’s policies are is incredible (although Clarke and Dawe gave a nice take on the Australian use of the English language, and a definition that may well be consistent with both, in their episode the other day- “what do you call it when you say one thing, and do the opposite” “A policy?.. A long overdue policy?” “No- it’s called a lie”.)

    The heavily biased National Commission of Audit Report (aka How to give yourself a mandate) recommends

    “The first is that governments exercise many functions and need to fund research and development (R&D) to discharge those functions effectively. ... The absence of publicly funded support would mean a lack of knowledge and analysis to support…
    The second rationale provided by the Productivity Commission is that the spillovers that result from innovation cannot be captured by the innovator. This can create a market failure where research that would benefit society as a whole is not undertaken by business as each individual business would not receive sufficient return.

    Funding for Australia’s publicly funded research agencies should be directed to those areas which are most important for government policy development and research, or which have the highest expected spillovers.
    Given the significant investment in research there is a need to ensure Strategic Research Priorities are clearly defined and pursued from a national perspective and not through the artificial construct of individual portfolios and programmes.” (Appendix v2; Section 10.2)

    So although the report is recommending only spending in “priority” areas (and we can gather from the cuts to all the “unnecessary” areas- ie anything with Climate Change in the title, what these priorities may not encompass), it does acknowledge that research cannot always lead to directly commercialisable outcomes, and research which may have a lot of social impact may not be implemented or undertaken in the private sector due to the lack of fiscal recovery prospects.

    So Mr Jensen, do you want research to be in politically motivated priority areas, as your party put forth in the NCoA report, and proposed in creating a medical research fund, or do you not want this, as per rec 8? It would appear to be a case of my political motivation is justified (by saying it isn’t a political motivation– thank you Clarke and Dawe for clarifying what we mean), but anyone else’s isn’t.

    Regarding Recommendation 1: Distribution of research funding must be biased more on high risk and high payoff research, rather than “backfill” research, which does not yield a high payoff in research outcomes.

    Applied research, will soon become very limited without basic, or reprodicible, validifying “backfill” research. “Payoff” is a subjective measure- financial? social?- and much research may not have a realisable impact for 15 or 20 years. Marie Curie’s work, for example, as an unknown researcher with no great record that would deem her worthy of supporting under Jensen’s recommendations, conducting work in a field unrelated to those which would be funded under the proposed medical research fund, and which had no immediate or apparent “pay off” either financially or socially has had immeasurable long term gains to society. What other areas of investigation should we preclude due to our short sightedness or lack of ability to know what areas of investigation will benefit the world in the future?

    I could go on for days, but will leave it at this- perhaps the best people to be determining what research is “worth” being undertaken is experts who are working in the field… such as we already have?