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Australian academics right to resist respected global warming skeptic

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Bjorn Lomborg

The spat over the Government's attempt to find a place in a university for Bjorn Lomborg's Australian Consensus Centre is a story that keeps on giving. Its rejection by academics at the University of Western Australia leading to the university's rescinding of the decision to house it caused widespread controversy.

Now the story is being retold at Flinders University, where the administration is weighing housing the centre, and academics have expressed strong opposition. It seems that it will be a brave university that allows the centre to call Australia home.

The objections have come on two grounds. The first is Lomborg's credentials for leading such a research institute in a university. The second is the propriety of the government offering to pay the university to establish a particular institute there, especially with a reputation for a tendentious line.

The government and its supporters in the media have criticised opponents of the centre of ideological bias, and claim that they have betrayed the responsibility of universities to represent freedom of thought and speech.

Much of the controversy has been fuelled by Lomborg's own profile. His field of teaching was in government politics and statistics. He has no background in science. Most of his energy has been given to promoting his institute, first in Copenhagen and then in the United States.

Lomborg's public profile was built by a book on global warming in which he accepted its reality, but argued that its effects would not be as catastrophic as predicted. He has since published many opinion pieces dealing with ways of addressing climate change. He is a good media performer whose métier is not scholarship but popularisation, and he could at a stretch be called a public intellectual.

To my mind a person with that background is admirably suited to accept private funding to sponsor and run a think tank, as Lomborg has done in the United States.

But universities, which claim that their activities are characterised by depth, not by superficiality, and by the search for truth rather than persuasion, appoint people with higher scholarly credentials and research experience to lead their research centres. And they would need to establish that the published work of the people they appoint meet high academic standards.

But the heat of the controversy about Lomborg derives from the conviction both of his supporters and his critics that their opponents are ideologically driven.

His defenders claim opposition to him reflects the desire to silence his views on climate change. Those opposed to the centre argue he is careless with his use of scientific evidence and allows himself to be used as the mouthpiece for those whose interests are threatened by strong action to lower emissions.

Lomborg has long trailed clouds of ideological controversy. His Copenhagen Centre was first funded by a Danish government skeptical about climate change, and then defunded by a Government with a different attitude.

His book, too, was subject to an inquisitorial enquiry which first found him guilty of falsifying evidence, and later withdrew the judgment. The enquiry was seen by his supporters as an attempt to silence him, and the withdrawal of the judgment by his opponents as capitulation to dark forces.

This witches' brew stirs in all the usual suspects: Galileo and the flat earthers, Galileo and the Inquisition, Socrates and the paid-pen sophists, Lysenko and regime prescribed science.

It seems best to assume that we all have our ideologies, are sometimes driven by them, and that any self-reflective person who says that they are without sin is probably stoned. Why a university would countenance entering this reputational mud bath remains a mystery.

Ideology is also at stake in the final, and perhaps most important, aspect of this affair: the initiative taken by the Australian government to have this particular centre sponsored by a university, and to offer funding for it. Opponents of the scheme believe it is designed to buttress the ideological position on climate change and ways of addressing it adopted by this government. This position seems plausible.

But a broader issue raised by the scheme is the government's proper relationship to institutions designed to debate ideas, do research, adjudicate laws and stimulate culture. Should governments intervene in these institutions to ensure that people who share their views are represented there?

To my mind governments of all stripes are too ready to do this. Partisan appointments and intervention in the ABC, educational committees, immigration tribunals and arts bodies are routine. They reflect an ideology of executive control of public discussion.

Funding these bodies is a legitimate act of government, but appointments should be at hand's length by people expert in their field who enjoy wide support.

On these premises it would be legitimate to offer universities funding for a research centre on climate. But it is illegitimate to offer funding for a particular institute. The establishment and running of the centre is the proper business of the university, not of the government.

In this affair, Bjorn Lomborg has been made a victim by his supporters as well as by his opponents, and perhaps most of all by the government.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is a consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bjorn Lomborg

 

 

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Existing comments

Blomberg is surely the bete noir of ES gaggle of cafeteria neo-encyclicalists adoring LS,[but ever hush hush on Humanae vitae etc] Bjorn even rejects overpopulation dogma in his best-selling book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" . Perhaps said eco-gaggle may care to comment on such climate of blatant discrimination. Frankly I fully assent to both Humanae Vitae and Laudato Si [with its par.188 disclaimer]
Father John George | 01 August 2015


Bjorn Lomborg believes that man-made emissions are causing warming. However he is serious about cost-benefit analysis, and how best to use taxpayer’s money to ensure value. He works with a host of eminent economists, including Nobel Prize winners. He has argued that the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent to reduce the rate of temperature increase by some miniscule amount (zero point zero, zero something by 2100) are being wasted, and could be better spent. This is what really upsets his opponents who are the beneficiaries of a gravy train of taxpayer-funded climate-related programs. That universities are institutions “characterised by depth, not by superficiality, and by the search for truth” is only true of the hard sciences. Arts and social sciences have long been dominated by the Left who deliberately shut out opposing views: climate sceptic scientist Bob Carter hounded from James Cook University; and Professor John McAdams sacked from Jesuit Marquette University for criticizing a philosophy instructor who refused to allow a discussion critical of same-sex marriage, are but two examples. Last year, the philosopher Roger Scruton singled out Sydney’s Catholic Campion College for its Liberal Arts tradition which, he said, “has no competition” in higher education in Australia.
Ross Howard | 02 August 2015


The 'ES gaggle of cafeteria neo-encyclicalists'! Thank you Fr JG, you've made my day.
Ginger Meggs | 03 August 2015


As always, Andrew, a calm, reasoned and elegantly constructed comment. Thank you so much for your always balanced writing on critical issues of our times. Helen Halpin
Helen Halpin | 03 August 2015


The Abbott government which shut down the Climate Commission because its $1.5 million "cost" was judged excessive now wishes to support establishment of Bjorn Lomborg's Australian Consensus Centre to the tune of $4 million. How could any Australian scientist believe this government is serious about science?
Ian Fraser | 03 August 2015


one of the problems of the modern world is that "Free Speech" becomes "propaganda" promoted by powerful interests. Sound learning since the time of the Greek philosophers has been based on observation and analysis.
john ozanne | 03 August 2015


Bravo the University of Western Australia! It seems we have at least one genuine university left in this country!
john frawley | 03 August 2015


"Respected skeptic"? Dear, dear me, Andrew, I'm sure it must have been a sub-editor titling your piece, not you. Quite a contradictory phrase. Skeptics by definition command no respect owing to their sneeringly turning their collective backs on what has been accepted science for (three) years.
Chris | 11 August 2015


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