The Academic Martyrdom of Peter Ridd: A Warning to Those Who Love the Truth

An opinion article by ISCAST fellow Ian Hore-Lacy.

In May 2018 Peter Ridd was sacked from his position as Professor of Physics by James Cook University (JCU) after criticising the scientific work of academic colleagues. His sin was to publicly say that the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and JCU were producing results that were untrustworthy due to insufficient quality assurance protocols. Ridd’s dismissal is under legal appeal and is seen as an issue of academic freedom versus an institutional code of conduct.

ISCAST has no view on the legalities involved, nor on Ridd’s actual scientific findings, but the process of science is of concern to us all, and this article will point to why Ridd’s situation over the last two years should concern Christians in science. It raises questions of transparency, honesty and truth, and whether scientific consensus is always healthy—or can even be an oxymoron. 

New ideas, new evidence, and wider scrutiny are all part of the scientific process and need to be welcomed in consolidating the unprecedented health and welfare of most people in the world today. But more than that, reliable understanding of God’s creation is fundamental to knowledge of God’s attributes, as Paul (Rom 1:20) and the second of ISCAST’s core values remind us. So, truth does matter.

I will outline the Ridd story and close with a comment from a Christian perspective.

Peter Ridd has worked on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) since 1984 at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and at James Cook University (JCU), with his research appearing in over 100 publications in international journals, mostly relating to the Great Barrier Reef and marine applications. He points out that the GBR comprises about 3000 coral reefs covering an area the size of Victoria. Most reefs are far offshore. “The GBR is one of the most remote, unpopulated, untouched and unspoiled areas on Earth,” he says. 

Commentator Jennifer Marohasy says it all started when Ridd called-out a colleague for falsely claiming healthy inshore coral reefs were dead from climate change and deteriorating water quality. Following a censure in April 2016, Ridd went on television in August 2017 and explained in an interview with Alan Jones and Peta Credlin why so much said and written about the Great Barrier Reef, including by scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is “untrustworthy.”

According to the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) “the case has identified a culture of censorship when it comes to challenging claims surrounding climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.  JCU to this date has never attempted to disprove claims made by Dr Ridd about the Great Barrier Reef.”

The main contention is between Ridd and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which in a “landmark study” took cores from over 300 corals on the GBR and concluded that for the last 300 years, coral growth was stable, but in 1990 there was an unprecedented and dramatic collapse of 15%. The AIMS data from 2005 onwards is not being made available. Meanwhile, the AIMS data over 1990–2005 was questioned in relation to what appeared to be two mistakes.  AIMS admitted one but not the other one, which related to changed methodology. The disputed work, relating to the 1990–2005 data, is quoted in documents such as the 2019 Reef Outlook Report, which influenced government financial outlays on the GBR as well as activist commentary. Ridd and others contend, from their work, that coral growth rates are not in decline. 

It is incomprehensible, or at least unscientific, that all the data is not on the table and debated by competent scientists.

Peter Ridd is predicting that when the data is finally analysed it will show little change in growth rates,
perhaps some improvement. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), in contrast,
is predicting a significant fall in coral calcification rates.

Ridd says that “The coral challenge is a measurement that will have to be done sooner or later. The longer it is neglected the worse it will look to the public. Farmers who are accused of killing the reef are especially interested.”

In his 36-year-career of work on the GBR, Ridd co-invented the first instruments capable of taking long-term measurements of sediment on the reef. He contends that his group “has done more measurements of sediment (mud) concentrations near reefs than any other group.” He also points out that the massive ocean currents that sweep the reef mean that pollutants from land simply cannot build up on the reef. “As much water flows into the Reef from the Pacific Ocean in eight hours as comes down all the rivers in a whole year.”

In July, Ridd appeared before a public hearing in Brisbane for a Senate Committee inquiry into the regulation of farm practices in Queensland impacting water quality around the Great Barrier Reef. His submission to the inquiryaddresses ten questionable claims about damage to the GBR, including a few related to agriculture. But it has much wider significance in discussing how science is done and how it can be corrupted.

The Queensland Department of Science and Energy had told the inquiry of evidence that adjacent, predominately agricultural areas, had an impact on water quality of the GBR. “Summaries of the thousands of peer-reviewed, published scientific papers that provide this supporting evidence have been periodically undertaken since 2003 with bipartisan support, as the underpinning evidence base for the joint Reef Water Quality Protection Plans, now Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 developed in collaboration between the Australian and Queensland Governments.”

In his submission, Ridd contends that there is serious concern that much of the evidence claiming adverse effects of agriculture on the Great Barrier Reef “is highly questionable” and only one inshore reef, not strictly part of the GBR, is affected. He believes a full audit of the evidence should be carried out by a group of independent scientists not attached to government institutions working on the GBR. Ridd emphasises his independence, stating that while he worked at JCU and AIMS, all of his salary and research funding was directed through those institutions, and he did not receive anything but his regular institutional salary.

Ridd, who is a physicist, said science should be based on a higher standard of quality assurance than currently exists, and he quotes several others who have said the same. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in 2015 wrote that “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”

A 2017 study in Britain suggested science is facing a “replication crisis” where, in some cases, more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s results. The journal Nature has introduced a reproducibility checklist for authors. Then last year Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Alan Finkel lamented that there are a “significant number of papers that are of poor quality, and should never have made it through to publication.”

Ridd said the peer review system on its own “is deficient in many ways, not least being that it almost always guarantees groupthink, and can often exclude views from dissenting scientists.” Dissent, scepticism, replication, testing and checking were essential to science, but didn’t happen anywhere near as much as they should, he said. “That is why I am suggesting we need some sort of extra quality assurance mechanism to check the reef science.” Having some sort of quality assurance system just like auditors in financial systems, would make scientists be much more careful about the work they produce and publish. He says,

Major errors in work coming from GBR scientific institutions have been identified and there is a general reluctance of the institutions to rectify problems. They are in denial about their serious deficiency of Quality Assurance protocols. In some cases, they actively cover up problems, and vilify or exclude those who raise concerns. There is thus considerable doubt that our GBR science institutions are providing reliable scientific evidence. This certainly does not imply all their work is wrong, but we cannot conclude that most individual parts of the scientific evidence, or the “consensus” documents, are reliable.

In his submission and at the Brisbane hearing Ridd provided several examples of his concerns with existing scientific consensus on reef science. These include:

Coral cover data: He has raised concerns with AIMS about its claim there has been a halving of GBR coral cover since the 1960s, but AIMS has refused to release the data on which this claim is based so it can be scrutinised. He notes that AIMS has high-quality data since the early 1990s, and shows a record low figure in 2012 and full recovery by 2016. 

Ridd does have some concern about the direct effect of carbon dioxide possibly reducing pH of reef waters, and this needs further research. However, he says that the actual data on coral calcification, shows if anything an increase in coral, and there is no data that suggests the coral cover is consistently reducing. It fluctuates considerably, but it is basically the same as it was when records began.

In relation to claims of extensive coral bleaching, Ridd acknowledged a major 2016–17 bleaching event from a warm summer, though surveys suggesting up to 50% loss were largely done on very shallow corals and ignored the deep coral. Surveys on the deep coral show almost zero loss of coral from bleaching, and therefore aggregating the data suggests about an 8% reduction overall. This is not insignificant but it comes into perspective when considered against a more than two-fold increase from 2011 to 2016, after a major cyclone had wiped out most of the southern area of the reef.

Cyclone impacts: Cyclones kill more coral than anything else and are capable of re-suspending a layer of sediment up to 30 cm deep 100 km across and 50 km wide, creating wide but temporary impact.

Sediment and pesticides from farms on the reef: Ridd says that he can demonstrate that there is no sediment from farms actually on the GBR itself. He contests the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement describing agriculture as the main polluter of the reef, since it is focused on the tiny inshore reefs. He says agricultural pesticides are in very low concentrations on the reef though concentrations of pesticides inshore and in the rivers and wetlands may get to high levels. He says that there have been no measurements on the GBR itself of pesticides that reach anywhere near a harmful level.

Concluding his testimony to the Senate Committee Ridd said “I never accuse scientists of doing things for the wrong reason; I think they genuinely believe. All of the marine scientists that I know who disagree with me, they believe they are not doing it fraudulently or anything like that, but they come to what I believe are often the wrong conclusions, sometimes because they are very emotional about the reef, but essentially because there aren’t the proper quality assurance systems.”

Ridd has conceded that he was wrong on occasions but that within scientific discourse these conclusions were modified and that understanding evolved. However, he does not resile from being in a minority today with respect to the basic question of whether there is enough quality assurance in science and arguing for scientific auditing. If scientific work were audited, there would be “people who understand what happens when the consensus group takes over, and excludes the other group, so great care would have to be taken” to avoid uncritical consensus.

So what does Peter Ridd’s martyrdom have to do with God?

The scientific method properly seeks to know about God’s creation through observation and investigation: a process that inevitably gives rise to disagreements. The question then becomes whether the disagreements are resolved by more investigation and testing of hypotheses or by censure of contrary evidence. Ridd lines up firmly with the first, but is clearly (and regardless of legal proceedings) a victim of the latter.  Perhaps Ridd’s science is wrong. But there is only one proper way to establish that— or alternatively to vindicate it. Healthy and respectful disagreement is essential to resolving questions which advance science. From a Christian perspective, truth must be paramount here as elsewhere, and the implications of establishing any degree of falsehood as “scientific consensus” or populist dogma are hideous and harmful. Christians and scientists must be on the same side; they ought both to be committed to the truth. We need to resist the temptation to fudge things, or the temptation to “believe” what suits us, for one reason or another.

Of course, science does not proceed in a political or economic vacuum, and what is simple in principle will always be affected by considerations of funding and the outworking of vested interests, as Australia’s energy policy demonstrates today in relation to climate change response. Media analysis seldom gets anywhere near the heart of these questions.

But the bottom line is that Christians should care about God’s creation, the integrity of science, and public policies relevant to both. We need to affirm anyone who is attempting to speak the truth about the first two, and unless we do that there is little hope for public policies that will serve the common good. 

Irrespective of whether Ridd is right about the science, Christians ought to support the transparent pursuit of truth and reject the institutional and personal interests that would stifle the discussion.