Plain English Lost on the High Court of Australia

Originally appeared in Jennifer

Coral reefs can be messy, and so can court cases. And so it is with the case of Peter Ridd, sacked by James Cook University because he exercised his intellectual freedom. The only thing that is neatly settled from this case is apparently ‘the science’, never mind that this is only because anyone who publicly disagrees with it is censored or sacked. In the case of Peter Ridd, even after he managed to raise over A$1.4 million to appeal his sacking by James Cook University all the way to the High Court of Australia, he lost.

In a unanimous decision handed down this morning, the Court concluded that Dr Ridd’s right to intellectual freedom is constrained by the procedural requirements of James Cook University’s Code of Conduct. The High Court found his freedom of speech is limited only to his area of expertise. Those freedoms do not extend to issues about how the University is run, or whether the pronouncements made by its research institutions are trustworthy.

These matters are apparently internal; the University’s academics are obliged to follow procedure over these and, in particular, must be mindful when disciplinary matters are deemed confidential.

This sends a very strong message to all politically astute academics: if they are likely to make findings that do not accord with the consensus, these findings should be hidden within phrases that are unintelligible gobbledygook. In other words, their findings should be communicated in language that is meaningless, or is made unintelligible by the excessive use of technical jargon. They should certainly not translate their findings into plain English, or, worse, air them on national television, because that way the average Australian would have some understanding of what they are actually funding with their hard-earned taxes.

The climate science literature is replete with hidden meaning and technical jargon. The extent of the gobbledygook is such that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently concluded that humans are the main cause of global warming and the role of the sun is inconsequential, never mind that there is an extensive prestigious scientific literature that arguably comes to the opposite conclusion – which is that much of the global warming we have been experiencing can be explained in terms of solar variability. This extensive literature was recently reviewed by Ronan Connolly, Willie Soon and 20 of their colleagues from 14 countries and published in the international journal Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics (Volume 21). However, it appears that tenured academics are not allowed to argue, at least not publicly.

There was a sense of irony this morning that made me smile. As I waited for the High Court judgement, I looked through a paper by Peter Ridd’s former colleagues – Emma Ryan, Scott Smithers and others – entitled ‘Chronostratigraphy of Bramston Reef reveals a long-term record of fringing reef growth under muddy conditions in the central Great Barrier Reef’ published in the very respectable journal Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology (Volume 441).

It would be difficult for the non-specialist to decipher this jargon-filled technical analysis that essentially supports what Peter Ridd has been saying for some years – and which earned him his first censure by the University, but, in short, it says there is still healthy coral reef in Bowen Harbour. It’s cold comfort, by the way, for the High Court to find in passing that the 2016 censure was unlawful, especially when it led directly to the 2018 censure, which, in turn, resulted in Peter’s employment being terminated. Anyway, I’m told Scott Smithers is a very competent scientist and an all-round good guy. He never replies to my emails. Perhaps this is because I could translate his gobbledygook into plain English. His potentially subversive publications would then be understood by the intelligent layperson for what they are – which is that they back up what Peter Ridd is saying in plain English and provide a very detailed explanation of how many inshore reefs of the Great Barrier Reef have been in decline for more than 1,000 years because of falling (yes, falling) sea levels.

The deceleration of reef growth occurred long before European settlement of the Queensland coast and was driven by natural constraints, probably associated with limited accommodation space due to late-Holocene sea-level fall. Our results demonstrate that mainland-attached reef initiation and accretion can occur in muddy inshore environments over long timeframes (centuries to millennia).

Because academics are not allowed to speak freely about controversial subjects most people have no understanding of the cyclical nature of sea levels. The general public are under the misconception that the most important global trend is one of sea-level rise. There are cycles within cycles and the most significant cycle has been one of sea-level fall, by some 1.5 metres over the last 2,000 or so years, notwithstanding that there has been sea-level rise of some 40 centimetres since the industrial revolution, which coincides with the end of the Little Ice Age (circa AD 1303 to AD 1835).

To put all of this in some context, along the Great Barrier Reef there is a large and variable daily tidal range. For example, at Hay Point the tide varies by as much as 7.14 metres; at Mackay by 6.58 metres; and at Gladstone by 4.83 metres. Sea levels have changed even more dramatically over geological time frames. For example, just 19,500 years ago, during the depths of the last major ice age, sea levels were 120 metres lower (yes, lower) than they are today. And the Great Barrier Reef did not exist. This very long record shows changes in temperature precede their parallel changes in carbon dioxide by 800 to 2000 years. This vital point establishes that carbon dioxide cannot be the primary forcing agent for temperature change at the glacial-interglacial scale, but this reality is mostly hidden by the modern astute geologist and ice-core expert who arguably cares more for his career than the truth. If this were not the case, they would be marching on Glasgow.

The modern Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system to have ever existed on planet Earth, according to Peter J. Davies writing in the Encyclopedia of Modern Coral Reefs. It is but a thin veneer growing on top of at least five previous extensive reef systems, each destroyed by dramatic falls in sea level in the past. The modern reef has grown up on top of extinct reefs, the last of which existed 120,000 years ago. In some places the depth of the coral growth since the last ice age, which had begun by 100,000 years ago, is 28 metres – layer upon layer. This growth is now constrained by sea level.

Filming far offshore with Clint Hempsall at one of the Ribbon Reefs on 21st January 2020. Many of the Ribbon reefs have dead reef crests. What Peter J. Davies describes as flat-topped platforms with live coral growth only around the perimeter. The evolution of these barrier reefs, found a long way off shore, is explained in my short documentary film, ‘Clowns on the Ribbon’s Edge’.

Many of the nearly 3,000 reefs that make up the modern Great Barrier Reef have a crest that is flat-topped because the most recent 1.5 metre drop in sea level has sliced this much off their tops. So, the crests of these reefs are dead coral that is thousands of years old, sometimes capped with coralline algae. These reef crests were dead long before European settlement. Yet it is surveys that include exactly this reef habitat, taken from the window of a plane by Peter Ridd’s nemesis Terry Hughes flying at an altitude of 150 metres, which have made media headlines around the world, and which suggest that the Great Barrier Reef is more than half dead.

Worse, they were used in a recent Australian Academy of Sciences report (March 2021) to claim the imminent demise of the Great Barrier Reef due to carbon dioxide emissions and thus the need for a commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions in Glasgow. It is all nonsense, and politics. But beware the academic who explains as much in plain English, especially following this morning’s ruling by the High Court of Australia.

Jennifer Marohasy at the mudflat to the west of Bramston Reef on 29th August 2019. Professor Hughes showed a photograph of this mud flat to 2,500 marine scientists who attended a conference in Cairns on 9th July 2012 and told them that the mud now covers what was once healthy coral reef, and that this reef is an example of the ‘sad decline’ of the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, Bramston reef is prograding to the seaward side beyond this mudflat as shown in the feature photograph with Peter Ridd at the very top of this blog post. Both photographs were taken on 29th August 2019, on the very lowest day tide for that year at Bowen.
Beyond the mudflat is Bramston Reef, and beyond Bramston Reef is Beige Reef. I took this photograph at Beige Reef on 25th August 2019. Corals at most reefs across the world are beige in colour.

On 2 May 2018, Peter Ridd was sacked by James Cook University for serious misconduct. It all started when he called-out Terry Hughes, whom he believed was falsely claiming that the inshore coral reefs at Bowen, specifically Bramston Reef, were dead because of climate change and the deteriorating water quality. It is the case that Professor Hughes was showing photographs of the mud flat as though it had replaced the coral reef that still exists to the seaward side.

Professor Ridd had been complaining quietly for years. He had already published peer-reviewed papers explaining in detail some of the serious issues with the official science. It was nevertheless a tough decision to go public, which he made in full knowledge that there could be consequences. At the same time there was a feeling of optimism; eventually, the truth would win out and the University would acknowledge the importance of implementing some form of quality assurance over the various pronouncements made by one or two high-profile academics. These academics, whom he believed were speaking beyond their area of expertise and hammering the theme of the reef being dead in order to progress their own personal political agenda and, at the same time, their careers.

Former Chairman of the Institute of Public Affairs, Janet Albrechtsen, wrote in The Australian on 25 July 2020:

Remember that Ridd wasn’t querying the interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was raising questions, in one particular area of his expertise, about the quality of climate change science. One of the fundamental challenges of our generation is to get the science right so we can settle on the right climate change policies. JCU told Ridd to keep quiet, then it sacked him.

Peter Ridd did win the first round in the Federal Circuit Court back in April 2019. Judge Salvatore Vasta found in his favour and order that the 17 findings made by the University, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction and the censure and the final censure given by the University and the termination of employment of Professor Ridd by the University were all unlawful.

Then the University appealed, and the Federal Court of Australia overturned the decision of the Federal Circuit Court. That decision, according to Dr Albrechtsen, has sent intellectual inquiry down the gurgler in the 21st century at an institution fundamental to Western civilisation:

Is that to be the legacy of JCU’s vice-chancellor Sandra Harding? And what oversight has JCU’s governing council provided to this reputational damage, not to mention the waste of taxpayer dollars, in pursuing a distinguished scientist who was admired by his students?

Following this decision, no academic can assume that an Australian university will allow the kind of robust debate held at Oxford University in 1860 between the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist and proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Historical Journal records how this legendary encounter unfolded: ‘The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution: rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons have always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words … He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Not for nothing, Ridd’s lawyers submitted this example of intellectual freedom during the first trial. In sacking Ridd, and to win in court, JCU had to argue against the means that seeks the truth – intellectual freedom.

In deciding whether to grant special leave for the appeal, the High Court considered whether the case involved ‘a question of law that is of public importance’. It was the first time the High Court had been called upon to consider the meaning of ‘academic and intellectual freedom’, a term that is used in enterprise agreements covering staff at almost all Australian universities.

We now have a judgement. For the High Court, it seems that intellectual freedom is like a delicate flower that does not survive being plucked. It can be contemplated from afar but cannot be held or given as a gift. Intellectual freedom survives in academia only if limited to gobbledygook that alludes to the truth in such a way that no member of the pubic could understand how deeply that truth contradicts the official scientific consensus. Perhaps I already knew that.

Some argue there are other legal avenues – not through the courts – that could, perhaps, have been pursued and may have achieved a different outcome, but which may or may not have provided some vindication. But as for the courts: if you have to raise A$1.4 million and put in a further A$300,000 of your own money, as Peter Ridd has done, just to run one argument all the way to the High Court, how much would you need to fight on the substance of each issue? For sure the lawyers did well out of this case.

The alternative strategy might have been to try and get the matter raised under the Queensland whistle-blower legislation. Peter Ridd would at least have been, theoretically, protected while an investigation was conducted. The focus would have been on science rather than a narrow construction of employment law and the procedures laid out in the University’s Code of Conduct. But given the determination of James Cook University to silence its critics, and the need for this to have included testimony from colleagues desperate to avoid controversy – lest they are admonished by their family and communities for failing to be respectable, thereby jeopardising their own careers – it is unclear this would have been any more fruitful.

And so to this day there has never been any consideration given by the courts or any other independent body to the actual state of the corals in Bowen Harbour, including at Bramston Reef, even though this was the reason for the first censure that the High Court has ruled should not have been issued in the first place. Yes, the ruling this morning clearly states, in agreement with Judge Vasta, that Professor Ridd’s initial comments about his colleague Terry Hughes and the state of the corals in Bowen Harbour were reasonable and that the censure should not have been issued. Yet that is where all the other allegations subsequently came from as Peter Ridd tried to defend himself in the public domain.

There is more than one coral reef in Bowen Harbour. I like to refer to Bramston reef as the one the other side of the mudflat, it is the muddiest. There is a much prettier reef the other side of the channel and in the northeast facing bay of Stone Island at the entrance to Bowen Harbour, a reef that I have named Beige Reef. I produced a short documentary film about the extent of the scientific misrepresentation of these corals, to watch it scroll down at this link. The film, Beige Reef, was funded by the B.Macfie Family Foundation through the Institute of Public Affairs. In the film, I let people see for themselves rather than engage in gobbledygook. But sadly that’s a freedom no longer available to any serving academic at an Australian University.

Following today’s decision, Peter Ridd has accepted an invitation to join the Institute of Public Affairs as a Research Fellow, without salary, to lead a newly established project for ‘Real Science’. The Project’s aims are to improve science quality assurance and to support academics speaking out for integrity in science and research. You can support this project by way of a tax deductable donation to the IPA. It is the case that long ago scientific inquiry was mostly privately funded, now is your opportunity to be a part of this new initiative for open and honest inquiry.

Peter Ridd and Jennifer Marohasy in front of the mud flats which are to the west of Bramston Reef just to the south of Bowen. While at James Cook University, Peter Ridd studied suspended sediments in the coastal zone as an important natural limiting factor for the growth and health of inshore coral reefs.

Peter released the following statement today, immediately following the decision by the High Court:

It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that we have lost the appeal in the High Court. We lost, in my opinion, because JCU’s work contract, under which I was employed, effectively kills academic freedom of speech – and the contract is effectively the law.

So, JCU actions were technically legal. But it was, in my opinion, never right, proper, decent, moral or in line with public expectations of how a university should behave.

I often ask myself, if I knew what was going to happen, would I have handled that fateful interview with Alan Jones and Peta Credlin in 2017 differently. Would I still say that, due to systemic quality assurance problems, work from a couple of Great Barrier Reef science institutions was “untrustworthy”?

It has cost me my job, my career, over $300K in legal fees, and more than a few grey hairs.

All I can say is that I hope I would do it again – because overall it was worth the battle, and having the battle is, in this case, more important than the result.

This is just a small battle in a much bigger war. It was a battle which we had to have and, in retrospect, lose. JCU’s and almost every other university in Australia and the western world are behaving badly. We have shown how badly.

Decent people and governments can see the immense problem we have. The universities are not our friends. Only when the problem is recognised will public pressure force a solution.

The failure of our legal action, and JCU’s determination to effectively destroy academic freedom of speech, demonstrates that further legislation is required to force universities to behave properly – especially if they are to receive any public funding. The Commonwealth government introduced excellent legislation in parliament early this year, partly in response to our legal case, to bolster academic freedom of speech. It is an excellent step in the right direction. If my case had been fought under this legislation, I would have had a better chance of winning. But it would still have been far from certain. There would still have been a clash between the new legislation and the work agreement.

There needs to be major punishment against universities for infringement of academic freedom of speech, such as fines or losing their accreditation. There needs to be active policing and investigations of the universities to make sure they comply and do not threaten academics with expensive legal action to stop the university’s behaviour becoming public. Universities must be told that they cannot spy on academic’s email communications (this should only be done by the police) or use secrecy directives to silence and intimidate staff. And all this protection for academics MUST be written into the work contracts to put the matter beyond legal doubt.

I am very mindful that I asked for, and received, donations of about $1,500,000 (in two GoFundMe campaigns of around $750k#) for the legal battle – from over 10,000 people. And I lost. Some of those donations were from people who have very slender financial resources. All I can say is that it weighs heavily on my conscience, but I hope they agree that it was still worth the battle.

A last thank you

I would like to express, one last time, my thanks to Stuart Wood AM QC, Ben Jellis, Ben Kidston, Colette Mintz, Mitchell Downes, Amelia Hasson and the rest of the team. They were fabulous. They did everything that was possible.

Thanks also to John Roskam, Gideon Rozner, Evan Mulholland, Morgan Begg and the Institute of Public Affairs. They backed me when things got tough. They are one of the few institutions in the country that will fight on issues of freedom of speech. I’d like to make a special mention of the IPA’s Jennifer Marohasy. She has been a great support over many years and played a crucial role in the critical early days of this fight.

Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union. They supported the cause in court, even though my views on the Reef may well be opposed to the views of many of their members.

There are many politicians who have gone into bat on my behalf such as Matt Canavan, George Christensen, Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, Gerard Rennick, Malcolm Roberts, Dan Tehan, and Alan Tudge (in alphabetical order). They obviously could not interfere with the legal proceedings, but were instrumental in bringing in the new academic freedom legislation. There are many journalists and bloggers who helped spread the word, but I would particularly like to thanks Graham Lloyd from The Australian, Jo Nova, and Anthony Watts (WUWT).

There are also many other people, far too many to list, that I am thankful to. They will know who they are.

And finally, thanks to my family, and especially Cheryl.

On 29th August 2019 a few of us gathered in the pub at Bowen with Peter to yarn about Bramston reef, and how you need to walk the other side of that mudflat to find the corals. Beige Reef is the other side of Bramston Reef, across the channel and around the headland. Skipper Rob McCullough (sitting between Peter and me) gave freely of his time for the filming of Beige Reef, and sadly passed away earlier this year. Vale to Rob McCullough, and thank you for your enthusiasm. You would have said about today: it is but one battle lost, we will keep fighting for the truth.

Your donation to Peter Ridd’s ‘Project for Real Science’ will contribute to the production of more short documentary films. Thank you for reading this far, and don’t forget:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Beyond Bramston Reef, still in Bowen Harbour, is the very pretty Beige Reef. This photograph was taken at Beige Reef on 25th August 2019. You can watch a film about this reef on YouTube,

If public policy is to be based on evidence, as opposed to myth, then there is a need for all of us to fearlessly seek out the truth. Beyond this there is a need for expertise to be recognised, and valued, and the claims of activists to be always tested against the evidence. If we turn the other way, and choose to ignore these facts, on the basis they offend or are unkind to those we hold in high esteem, we cannot honestly consider ourselves, or our community, to be very civilised or educated. And finally, I have explained the four myths behind Peter Ridd’s sacking in a short report, that can be downloaded here.