Fired for Questioning: An Australian Geophysicist’s Fight for Academic Freedom

By Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
July 8, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021

The act of questioning the quality of his colleague’s work has turned into a fight for intellectual freedom in Australia’s apex legal institution, the High Court.

Marine geophysicist Peter Ridd’s legal battle for freedom of speech is nearing its end after his appeal was heard in the High Court on June 23.

Former Professor Ridd, who is an expert on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), was fired from James Cook University in 2018 after questioning the reliability and quality assurance systems of fellow scientists researching the reef, calling their work untrustworthy.

“What they should’ve done is come back and say: ‘Well, no Peter, you’re wrong for all these reasons.’ But instead, what happened was they squealed to the Vice-Chancellor because they didn’t like what I was saying,” Ridd told The Epoch Times in an interview.

The university then fired him, claiming his comments were discourteous, disrespectful, and damaging to the institution’s reputation.

Ridd has worked on the GBR since 1984 and pushes back against mainstream science which claims that the world’s largest coral system is in danger due to climate change. He explains that major bleaching events have constantly occurred throughout history, but the coral always grows back.

“The science institutions, through the media, make a big deal when large amounts of coral die, then ignore when it slowly grows back,” he said.

Unreliability of Science Institutions

Ridd argues that there is an ongoing issue within the scientific community that can lead to unreliable findings becoming a prevailing view.

“There are many fields of science that we can’t trust,” Ridd said, citing a paper published in 2003 that discussed unreliability in published research findings.

The paper by Professor John Ioannidis from Stanford University outlined how most published research findings are false due to the unreliability of peer-reviewed research, particularly in the biomedical area.

“[Ioannidis’s findings] demonstrate the large-scale unreliability of scientific literature—and it’s well known in the scientific fraternity,” said Ridd. “One of the things I was saying is: there are these problems in peer review in the biomedical area, why would you not expect it to be in environmental issues such as the Great Barrier Reef?”

Ridd also argues that many marine biologists study the reef due to a love of fish and marine life and get emotional when large amounts of coral start dying.

“They’re emotional about it, they’re not necessarily objective about it,” Ridd said. “In addition, there are massive incentives for the scientists say the reef is damaged because it guarantees the funding over decades.”

Epoch Times Photo
High coral cover on Linnet Reef in 2020, indicating strong recovery from cumulative disturbances since 2013, which have included crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, mass coral bleaching and two severe tropical cyclones. (Australian Institute of Marine Science)

Furthermore, Ridd said scientific organisations compel the governments to comply with their narrative; otherwise, they are accused of denying science and called out for being evil—another reason for poor quality assurance.

AgForce, the peak body representing Queensland’s rural producers, are concerned that agricultural regulations, implemented to protect the reef, are causing many family-owned businesses to consider their future in the sector.

“[Currently,] opinion–dominated social media and sophisticated marketing tactics overshadow seemingly outdated virtues like reason and fact,” AgForce CEO Michael Guerin said.

The 2017 Reef Scientific Consensus Statement claims that the GBR ecosystem, which is in “poor condition,” is at high risk from pollutants from agriculture, such as pesticides used against pests. This has led to increasing regulation in the sector, making it harder for businesses to survive.

“And yet the data—all the data—says that in the reef, the concentrations of pesticides are generally so low that you can’t even measure them with the most ultra-sensitive scientific equipment,” Ridd said.

“How can you have any confidence in the scientific institutions when there is such a contradiction?”

Fight for Freedom

Ridd challenged the university in court in a battle he calls “Free Speech v Authoritarianism,” arguing that he had been unlawfully dismissed.

He describes his dismissal as one of the more spectacular examples of cancel culture in universities.

“But it also occurs in other ways. If you say the wrong sort of things, you can suddenly find yourself unable to get funding,” Ridd said. “It happened to me about 10 years ago because I was talking about similar issues around the quality assurance of science.”

Since academics know the consequences of going against the mainstream, most elect not to do it. This has caused widespread self-censorship in academia out of self-preservation.

If the court case is won, Ridd hopes it will demonstrate to some extent, that protections do exist for people who speak out, and academics can be assured they will not be fired for putting their views forward.

“I think we’re going to win this fight for academic freedom,” he said. “I think we’ve reached rock bottom, in terms of freedoms, and it is just starting to come up again.”

Epoch Times Photo
Scientist Peter Ridd. (Supplied)

Ridd said he felt much more confident in solving the problems around academic freedom in universities now compared to two years ago because left-wing media has also become concerned about the topic.

“So this is not just an issue for the right, the left also see a problem—and that’s an excellent step forward,” he said.

Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu