That’s Not A Controversy, THIS Is A Controversy

So, the president of the Liberal National Party thinks teaching of climate change in schools is “one sided“. He wants both sides taught – scientific evidence and barefaced lies, presumably. Or maybe he’d settle for the counter side involving people hopping round the facts with cherry picked data that gives misleading impressions but isn’t technically false.

Not surprising really; plenty of people in the LNP still haven’t come to terms with schools teaching that new-fangled evolution stuff. As usual, this is based on the risible notion that there is some sort of scientific debate on this issue – by that I don’t mean a debate on how fast climate change will happen, how severe the consequences will be or how we should respond, but debate over whether humans are causing the planet to warm and this will accelerate. Nothing in science is ever totally closed. New evidence could emerge, but we don’t sit around having a debate about whether the orbits of the planets are caused by gravity or angels pushing them around. Similarly on climate change.

It’s interesting to contrast this with a real scientific debate I came up against today, and not for the first time. Hundreds of thousands of years ago Australia hosted gigantic ducks, lizards, and kangaroos, not to mention diprotodons, which were basically three tonne wombats. These were collectively known as the Megafauna. (Quick sidenote: I discovered today that an animal needs to have weighed 44kg or more to be classified as megafauna. Not only does this mean we still have a few species surviving today, thanks to my recent diet I no longer qualify as megafauna times two).

The biggest debate in Australian paleontology, arguably in Australian science, in recent decades has been what happened to the megafauna. One view, championed by Tim Flannery, holds that humans wiped them out through hunting and competition. The other proposes climate change as the cause, with the continent having dried out at about that time. There are variations, such as the theory that humans changed the ecosystem by introducing more frequent fires.

It’s a topic that gets quite nasty. Both sides are convinced they are right, and they prosecute their case aggressively, in a manner common amongst paleontologists dealing with the human era, but unusual amongst other scientific fields. My editor at Australasian Science, Guy Nolch, loves it. Not only is it a subject with widespread appeal (I mean, who could resist a three tonne wombat?) but everytime he runs an article from one side he gets a message from a supporter of the other – often a quite nasty message – criticising the article and often him for running it. He has a much thicker skin than I have, and while I would be cut he just says “well write me a response and I’ll run it”. On occasion he’s got off the phone to express the view that articles on the topic are two for the effort of one.

There’s been less coverage of the debate in recent years, and my perception was that this was because the hunting side was winning. Certainly they’ve seemed more confident in their conclusions of late, announcing that new dating has demolished the climate change side’s best arguments. OTOH, we ran one article from the climate mob that was actually rather humble, simply saying the debate was still open, rather than proclaiming victory.

However, today I interviewed UNSW’s Prof Mike Archer, one of Australia’s most famous paleontologists. It turns out Archer is on the climate change side (I lose track of who is where) and far from conceding defeat he claims most paleontologists have shifted to his side. His key evidence is that hundreds of megafauna fossils have been found from the era when Aborigines had arrived in Australia, and none of the diprotodonts at least show any sign of spearing or otherwise having their deaths brought about by humans. He also says the number of species declined dramatically even before humans arrived.

I can go into the debate in more depth if anyone requests it in comments, but it seems what we have here is a live issue (about dead animals). There are credible scientists on each side publishing work in peer reviewed journals that builds their case. I have no idea who is right. What I can say however, is that this is the sort of debate that should be taught in schools. One where each side has evidence, and is pursuing genuine research to test and expand that evidence. This is a great opportunity for students to learn how science is actually done, while discussing a topic that probably will really grab their attention. Again, three tonne wombats!

Of course this is the sort of debate the LNP would hate to see taught in schools. For one thing, fitting these things on the Ark would have been hard. For another, however, the last message they want to send children is that when scientists disagree they actually test each other’s work and publish in peer reviewed journals, rather than using the column inches of Murdoch media hacks who never darkened the door of a science lab.

It also might be a little troubling for McIver et al to learn what the two alternatives are. After all, if natural climate change could do that sort of damage it rather indicates we shouldn’t mess with the planet’s thermostat too much. OTOH, if hunting was the problem, back in the day when the human population of the continent was a few percent of what it is now, it’s rather hard to run the line that nature is so robust we can’t make a difference.

All of which is why you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the LNP to promote the teaching of a real scientific controversy in schools. Not unless you want to go the way of the diprotodons.

The three tonne wombat you've been waitng for by Nobu Tamoura

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Anthroplogy, Australasian Science, Enemies of science, Global Warming, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to That’s Not A Controversy, THIS Is A Controversy

  1. geoff mason says:

    Well said, Stephen. I am a graduate primary school teacher and I am always looking for ‘live’ debates like this one that I can use to get some academic controversy going. For years I have thought that the syllabus documents were more in line with the science on environmental issues than the ‘average’ punters position in the community. The syllabus docs really do place a fair bit of emphasis on the environment and they get better all the time. Perhaps this means that the Bolts/Jones’ of this world with their denialist rantings will get short thrift in future decades when my charges reach adulthood!

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  3. Reader says:

    “when scientists disagree they actually test each other’s work and publish in peer reviewed journals, rather than using the column inches of Murdoch media hacks who never darkened the door of a science lab.”

    Speaking as somebody who researches (Though does not believe) in off beat topics and arguments that fall outside of the scientific mainstream, I can tell you that there are many topics\perspectives that peer review journals simply will not publish. No matter how rigerous the research, and no matter how scientifically valid the conclusions. Even people who have been published many times before can find it impossible if their paper covers one of these topics\perspecitves.

    This is not simply a “scientific purity” issue, as evidenced by the fact that papers debunking\disproving these topics\perspective don’t get published.

    • I’m sure there are some topics that are harder to get published on – probably impossible in some journals. However, I’d be very surprised if there is any really good research that can’t be published anywhere. A friend told me about a peer-reviewed medical journal that specialised in improbable sounding topics. One she mentioned was on correlations between heel height and schizophrenia in women. I can’t remember the journal’s name, and being published there was probably not the reputation booster most researchers are seeking, but for medically related topics it makes a nonsense of the claim that publication is impossible.

      There may not be exact equivalents in other fields, but with so many journals out there, I want to see examples of fine research that can’t get published at all, rather than taking the claims of the researchers (or an anonymous commentator) on trust that it’s solid research.

  4. Pingback: “They Were Dead When We Got Here – Honest” | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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