Features Australia

Something smells fishy at JCU

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

Do you remember the shocking scientific study about how baby fish in our polluted oceans now actually prefer eating plastic microbeads to their natural diet? It was reported everywhere from the Times and the Washington Post to the BBC and, very likely, the ABC too. Our media, as we know, just loves a nice, juicy, ‘it’s all our fault and we are not worthy to live on this fragile earth’ environmental disaster story.

What you’re much less likely to have come across, though, is the subsequent correction. That original 2016 story wasn’t just bunk, it was positively fraudulent. The paper — by a Swedish team led by Dr Oona Lönnstedt of Uppsala University — was found to be so riddled with errors that it was officially retracted. Lönnstedt herself was found by a university disciplinary committee to have ‘fabricated the results.’

But the scandal didn’t end there: it has just got bigger — and moved closer to home, with the exposure of a number of similarly dubious studies, published by the prestigious Coral Reef Centre at James Cook University (JCU).

The investigating team of seven scientists that has exposed the alleged misconduct is the same one that rumbled Lönnstedt’s dodgy ‘baby fish prefer plastic junk food’ paper. Led by Timothy Clark, an aquatic physiologist from Victoria’s Deakin University, they examined eight JCU studies on the effect of climate change on coral reef fish — one of them authored by Lönnstedt — and found 100 per cent replication failure. That is, none of the findings of the original eight studies was found to be correct.

Clark et al.’s paper, based on three years’ research involving more than 900 fish from six species, and published in Nature last week, is titled ‘Ocean acidification does not impair the behaviour of coral reef fishes.’ This provides an invaluable and timely correction to the notion, widely promulgated in the media, that ocean acidification is the second most disastrous environmental threat facing the planet after climate change.

Though Clark et al. don’t actually disprove the existence of ‘ocean acidification’ per se, they do debunk several of the scare stories surrounding it. They find, contrary to the claims in eight published JCU studies, that high CO2 concentrations do not cause small reef fish to: lose their ability to smell predators — or even to become attracted towards the scent of predators; become hyperactive; lose their tendency automatically to swim either left or right; develop impaired vision.

Yes, it might sound trivial — does it really matter, in the great scheme of things, whether or not small fish behaviour is marginally affected by carbon dioxide? But it is, of course, the drip, drip, drip of these seemingly reputable scientific studies, eagerly and relentlessly reported in the media, which make looming environmental catastrophe so credible in the public’s imagination. After all, those expert scientists in their white lab coats: they’d never lie to us if the threat weren’t real, would they?

Except, of course, they would. This was something President Eisenhower predicted in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation, when he warned that ‘the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.’ He was talking about the US, but the phenomenon is now worldwide: a vast, global Climate Industrial Complex — costing taxpayers in excess of $1.5 trillion a year — is distorting research and corrupting honest science. After all, if much of the available government grant money is there for scientists who can prove that climate change is a problem it makes strong financial sense to steer your studies towards the ‘right’ side of the argument, even if it means torturing the data till it screams.

The JCU scandal is a tremendous vindication for former professor of physics turned whistleblower, Dr Peter Ridd, who was fired by the university in 2018 after forty years of service. Officially, this was for ‘academic misconduct’. In truth, it was because he had publicly criticised JCU’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies for producing science which was not ‘properly checked, tested or replicated.’ Ridd was subsequently awarded AU$1.2 million for unfair dismissal, a court decision that JCU is now contesting.

Ridd’s particular beef was with JCU’s scare studies about the Great Barrier Reef, on which he had published numerous scientific papers demonstrating that reports of its imminent demise were either ‘plain wrong or greatly exaggerated.’ The university preferred to back the scaremongers on its staff, perhaps because they were more numerous, or because their papers attracted more media attention and grant funding.

But the latest revelations have left JCU little choice but to act. Last year it appointed a panel of ‘eminent academics’ to look for evidence of misconduct in the work done at JCU by Lönnstedt when she was there as a PhD student between 2010 and 2014. Now it will come under pressure to investigate her three PhD supervisors, five of whose papers were found severely deficient in the recent Clark et al. study.

While there is no direct evidence of fraud, there is, says Ridd, ‘considerable evidence of very lax scientific standards such as the lack of videoing of behavioural experiments… Combined with a 100 per cent replication failure rate, it is clear that there was not an institutional culture of high scientific standards and integrity at the JCU ARCCoE.’

Ridd is now demanding that the ‘highest officers of the University’ who failed to investigate possible fraud should be severely disciplined, as an example to other universities; and that if they’re not, then science funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council should withdraw all financial support.

He is right to seek redress. But those dodgy papers from Uppsala and JCU may be just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it’s vanishing Golden Toads in Costa Rica, frogs changing sex because of the herbicide Atrazine or bees being wiped out by neonicotinoids, so many of the environmental scare stories we see in the media turn out, on closer examination, to be based on the most dubious of research.

As the saying goes: ‘a lie is half way round the world before the truth has got his boots on.’ Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the hysterical, overpromoted, cash-drenched field of environmental science.

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