Dr Peter Ridd, the former physics professor who has just been sacked by James Cook University in Townsville, does not sound at all like the Anglo-Irish satirist Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Rather, Ridd resembles the old-style academic. He is calm, considered and careful with his works.
Yet one of the charges levelled against Ridd is that “he trivialised, satirised or parodied” JCU’s disciplinary process. How come? Well, he sent a private email to an old friend, dealing with his dispute with JCU, which carried the header “For your amusement”. According to the powers-that-be at the taxpayer-funded university, this amounts to satire. JCU must be an awesomely boring and humourless place.
Last Sunday Professor Iain Gordon, JCU’s deputy vice-chancellor, put out a statement concerning the university’s decision to terminate Ridd’s employment. It did not mention its former employee’s teaching ability or comment on his research capacity.
Rather, Gordon’s media release focused on process and discipline. He said that Ridd had failed to comply with JCU’s code of conduct and referred to the “disrespect he showed for the university as a senior employee”. Gordon also made references to Ridd’s “manner”. This is the old line for disguising intolerance of someone’s position – namely, it’s not what someone said but the way they said it.
Ridd and Dr Jennifer Marohasy addressed The Sydney Institute last November, on the occasion of the publication of the latter’s edited collection Climate Change: The Facts 2017 (IPA, 2017). The paper which Ridd delivered has been published, his talk is on the institute’s website and the event was filmed by what is now termed Sky News Extra.
Anyone who followed Ridd’s appearance at this function would know that he was highly complimentary of the JCU, where he was a student before becoming an academic. Ridd’s criticism of the state of scientific research was directed at universities in general.
Ridd’s paper in Marohasy’s collection is titled “The extraordinary resilience of Great Barrier Reef corals, and the problems with policy science”. He concluded his paper with the comment that “we can be sceptical of claims that the Great Barrier Reef is in peril”.
This view runs counter to the conventional wisdom that the Great Barrier Reef is in imminent danger due to climate change. Four decades ago, I worked for Kevin Newman the minister for environment, housing and community development in Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government. As I recall, Newman was constantly being advised that the Great Barrier Reef was in a terminal state. That’s close to half a century ago.
In his chapter in Climate Change, Ridd puts it this way: “There is now an industry that employs thousands of people whose job it is to ‘save’ the Great Barrier Reef; as a scientist, to question the proposition that the reef is damaged is a potentially career-ending move.” And so it came to pass with Ridd, less than a year after writing this comment.
Ridd had a deep commitment to the Great Barrier Reef in general and to those who live near it in particular. But he is also concerned about the future of the coal, cane and cattle industries, which are heavily regulated due to the Great Barrier Reef, along with employees in local tourism which suffers when potential visitors to the area are told that its major attraction is in extremis.
Ridd is taking an unfair dismissal claim against JCU to the Federal Court. Whatever the outcome of the case, JCU has done a great disservice to what’s left of the view that universities are centres of free expression and genuine debate.
What’s significant about the Ridd case is that it suggests that the group-think which is so prevalent in the social sciences areas of universities has now spread to the hard sciences. Today Ridd is the embodiment of campus intolerance to non-fashionable ideas. Half a century ago it was Frank Knopfelmacher.
The story is told in James Franklin’s Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia (Macleay Press, 2003) and in issues of the journals Twentieth Century and Minerva in 1965. The Vienna-born Jew Knopfelmacher fled Czechoslovakia before it was occupied by Nazi Germany. After enlisting in the British Army and spending time in Britain, he arrived in Australia in 1955.
In 1965 Knopfelmacher was a lecturer in psychology at Melbourne University. He applied for, and was appointed to, a senior lectureship in political philosophy at Sydney University. But the appointment was overturned by the professional board and the job eventually went to a leftist academic.
What was the reason for this unparalled intervention by the professional board into an appointment by the philosophy department? Especially since the principal supporter of the appointment was the leading philosopher Professor David Armstrong (1926-2014). Armstrong is one of the few Australians whose work is cited in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
Well, Knopfelmacher was an articulate and knowledgeable anti-communist who opposed the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, China and South East Asia (North Vietnam). What’s more, he had a devastating wit which he readily used in political debate.
He would probably not be allowed on to the JCU campus today in view of its “no-sarcasm” and “no disrespect” rules.
I did not study psychology at Melbourne University in the second half of the 1960s. But I did attend many of Knopfelmacher’s occasional lunch-time and evening lectures. He was a brilliant communicator, whose humour was used to demonstrate historical truths.
Knopfelmacher was denied a job at Sydney University primarily because of an article which he wrote in the autumn 1964 issue of Twentieth Century about the left-wing ethos which prevailed in many of Melbourne University’s social sciences departments. In particular, he claimed that leftist academics exercised “significant veto powers in matters of academic preferments and sinecures”.
This statement was accurate. But truth is no defence when it conflicts with the intellectual fashions which prevail in many universities – in the past and now. Today’s campuses practise the very same intolerance experienced by Swift when he clashed with the leaders in church and state all those centuries ago.