Australian media on a mission to make scientists look dodgy

By Rebecca McLeod 21/12/2009 8


Yesterday 895,000 Australians (and this one Kiwi) woke up to the headline “HOPES FADE IN COPENHAGEN, RISE ON THE REEF” in a national newspaper. As one who is always up for a bit of optimism I began reading… but by the second line my hopes were somewhat dashed: “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral”.

This front page story reported the views of one (I repeat ONE) scientist, Peter Ridd, a physicist from James Cook University, who believes that ecologists and biologists studying the Great Barrier Reef are guilty of exaggerating threats to the reef, such as increased sedimentation, crown of thorns starfish, pollution, and temperature-induced damage called bleaching. Ridd argues that the reef is still in ‘good health’ despite public attention being drawn to these individual threats over recent years, thus affecting the credibility of marine scientists, particularly with respect to current concerns about the susceptibility of coral reefs to climate change.

It seems to me that The Australian has gone out of its way to turn this scientific debate, which is essentially one marine scientist disagreeing with a score of others, into another example of how ‘dodgy scientists’ are conspiring to delude the public into thinking that climate change is a real phenomenon.

A more in depth article further inside the newspaper “How the reef became blue again” does quite a good job of describing recent research findings by scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, regarding the ability of corals to recover from bleaching events caused by increases in water temperature. However, you have to dig really deep to get to what I think is the part that is deserving of the headline:

“Ocean acidification is another matter, however. This lesser-known product of climate change is a greater danger to the reef by Ridd’s assessment. It happens as the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, altering its pH value. Although surface sea temperatures are rising fastest in tropical regions, the threat of acidification comes from the higher latitudes, where the colder water takes in CO2 more easily.

The theory is that when atmospheric CO2 reaches between 480ppm and 500ppm, the warmer water lapping coral reefs will cease to be a barrier to acidification: even a small change is thought to spell trouble for calcifying organisms such as corals, making it more difficult for them to make the skeleton structures that in turn build reefs.”

If you would like to find out more about this incredibly scary phenomenon, I posted a rather thought-provoking film on it a couple of months ago. Even Peter Ridd thinks that ocean acidification is the single greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef – but only those few of the 895,000 that got close to the end of the 2 page article would be aware of this!

Are the public so supersaturated with climate change stories that the media are having to infer scientific controversy to get the attention of the public? Quite possibly. How sad.


8 Responses to “Australian media on a mission to make scientists look dodgy”

  • This is happening worldwide – most of the world’s media is run by a very few, very large businesses… what are they there for? Profit for their shareholders. “Objective or Investigative Journalism” in the old media is long gone…

    Additionally there are censorship efforts on individual scientists who refuse to “tow the line” in certain government organisations… witness Jim Salinger at Niwa in NZ, and some CSIRO climate scientists in Australia – one resigned recently due to pressure to censor/modify his publications.

  • Yes Alan, I agree that this problem is definitely not confined to Australian media! And not to ‘The Australian’ either. It seems to me that discrediting scientists is rather in fashion at the moment, and it is incredibly sad to hear not only the public, but also some scientists beginning to doubt findings that have resulted from many years of hard, and high quality work. The power of the media huh – a scary thing indeed.

  • Wow, I had no idea Gareth! I have been spending a lot of time working in Australia lately and am always a little confused as to which paper to buy (there are so many to chose from) – seems like I will need to try a new one : )

  • Unfortunately scientists are not as innocent as they would like to feel in the sensation seeking that is modern media. Many of them have latched onto the effect of exaggerating importance of their findings in press statements, presumably to promote their research and keep it viable. This leaves the science community vulnerable to sensation seekers.

    Also science often seems pretty boring to your average citizen and there needs to be an angle to get their attention. Proving the whole body of science wrong somehow gets people really excited, hence the temptation to come out with statements like the one you report on.

    I am not sure how this trend can be reversed without removing the percieved need for it, probably linked to very limited competitive funding.