Science, Political Correctness and the Great Barrier Reef

A recent Australian court case highlights the intrusion of political correctness into science to bolster the climate change narrative. On April 16, a federal judge ruled that Australian coral scientist Dr. Peter Ridd had been unlawfully fired from his position at North Queensland’s James Cook University, for questioning his colleagues’ research on the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. In his ruling, the judge criticized the university for not respecting Ridd’s academic freedom.

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The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system, 1,400 miles long and visible from outer space. Labeled by CNN as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the reef is a constant delight to tourists, who can view the colorful corals from a glass-bottomed boat or by snorkeling or scuba diving.

Rising temperatures, especially during the prolonged El Niño of 2016-17, have severely damaged portions of the Great Barrier Reef – so much so that the reef has become the poster child for global warming. Corals are susceptible to overheating and undergo bleaching when the water gets too hot, losing their vibrant colors. But exactly how much of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected, and how quickly it’s likely to recover, are controversial issues among reef researchers.

Ridd’s downfall came after he authored a chapter on the resilience of Great Barrier Reef corals in the book, Climate Change: The Facts 2017. In his chapter and subsequent TV interviews, Ridd bucked the politically correct view that the reef is doomed to an imminent death by climate change, and criticized the work of colleagues at the university’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. He maintained that his colleagues’ findings on the health of the reef in a warming climate were flawed, and that scientific organizations such as the Centre of Excellence could no longer be trusted.  

Ridd had previously been censured by the university for going public with a dispute over a different aspect of reef health. This time, his employer accused Ridd of “uncollegial” academic misconduct and warned him to remain silent about the charge. When he didn’t, the university fired him after a successful career of more than 40 years.

At the crux of the issue of bleaching is whether or not it’s a new phenomenon. The politically correct view of many of Ridd’s fellow reef scientists is that bleaching didn’t start until the 1980s as global warming surged, so is an entirely man-made spectacle. But Ridd points to scientific records that reveal multiple coral bleaching events around the globe throughout the 20th century.

The fired scientist also disagrees with his colleagues over the extent of bleaching from the massive 2016-17 El Niño. Ridd estimates that just 8% of Great Barrier Reef coral actually died; much of the southern end of the reef didn’t suffer at all. But his politically correct peers maintain that the die-off was anywhere from 30% to 95%.

Such high estimates, however, are for very shallow water coral – less than 2 meters (7 feet) below the surface, which is only a small fraction of all the coral in the reef. A recent independent study found that deep water coral – down to depths of more than 40 meters (130 feet) – saw far less bleaching. And while Ridd’s critics claim that warming has reduced the growth rate of new coral by 15%, he finds that the growth rate has increased slightly over the past 100 years.

Ridd explains the adaptability of corals to heating as a survival mechanism, in which the multitude of polyps that constitute a coral exchange the microscopic algae that normally live inside the polyps and give coral its striking colors. Hotter than normal water causes the algae to poison the coral that then expels them, turning the polyps white. But to survive, the coral needs resident algae which supply it with energy by photosynthesis of sunlight. So from the surrounding water, the coral selects a different species of algae better suited to hot conditions, a process that enables the coral to recover within a few years, says Ridd.

Ridd attributes what he believes are the erroneous conclusions of his reef scientist colleagues to a failure of the peer review process in scrutinizing their work. To support his argument, he cites the so-called reproducibility crisis in contemporary science – the vast number of peer-reviewed studies that can’t be replicated in subsequent investigations and whose findings turn out to be false. Although it’s not known how severe irreproducibility is in climate science, it’s a serious problem in the biomedical sciences, where as many as 89% of published results in certain fields can’t be reproduced.

In Ridd’s opinion, as well as mine, studies predicting that the Great Barrier Reef is in imminent peril are based more on political correctness than good science.

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