“Why are British taxpayers financing this?” is the kind of headline you see in the kind of right wing newspaper I don’t read, but this question is my own, and it’s serious. Why are the Higher Education Funding Councils of England, Scotland and Wales, plus a dozen British Universities, subsidisng a website where Australians can be rude to each other?
“The Conversation” is an Australian website which describes itself as “A new journalism project featuring content from the sharpest academic minds” and which boasts under its masthead about its “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”. At:
“The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public. Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to allow for better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversations.
We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism….
The Conversation launched in Australia in March 2011. Since then it has grown to become one of Australia’s largest independent news and commentary sites. Now we’ve launched in the UK to bring our brand of trusted, evidence-based journalism to a new audience. The Conversation UK will be a distinct site, focused on issues of relevance to a local audience. The Conversation UK is launching as a pilot site, building up to a larger newsroom of dedicated journalists…”
Which is fine. There’s obviously a wealth of talent among ambitious young academics, only too willing to display their knowledge before a wider public, doing for free what journalists get paid to do. And the comments threads allow you to discuss subjects of interest with specialists. I commented on an article by an Australian specialist in Italian politics, writing from Italy, and he wrote straight back. Mind you, I was his first commenter.
It’s not like that on the articles about Climate Change, of which there are many, including nine already on the recent IPCC report. Take
which was published on 26th September and attracted 324 comments before comments were closed two days later. It’s about the response of denialists to the IPCC report, so it was a bit odd that the article was written before the report was published, and that comments were closed before denialists had a chance to respond to the report. Still, the author, Clive Hamilton, is Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics of Charles Sturt University, so I suppose he knew what he was doing.
After lamenting the passing of “the world we used to live in, the one in which the ideal of scientific knowledge held true…(otherwise known as the enlightenment)..” Professor Hamilton claims that the deniers “are out in force attempting to spike the IPCC report before it appears” and backs this up with a link to an article that appeared in the Conversation just four days previously, by David Holmes, who is Senior Lecturer in Communications and Media Studies at Monash University
He goes on to claim that people (i.e. climate deniers) act irrationally, not because their knowledge is deficient, but because “facts are no match against deeply held values”. His source for this information is
which is another article in the Conversation published just two days previously, by Dr Rod Lamberts, who is deputy director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science.
He then undertakes a quick review of the history of climate denial, from “the industry funded lobbying campaign” through the Tea Party to “Right-wing demagogues like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones [who] have taken up the denialist cause as a means of prosecuting their war against progressive trends in Australian society” and finishing with these two paragraphs:
“The same is true here in Britain where the culture warriors of the conservative press have all felt it necessary to sacrifice their faith in science in pursuit a larger ideological struggle. Even the BBC repeatedly undermines public confidence in the IPCC by “balancing” the vast authority of climate science against the cranky views of a handful of unqualified ‘sceptics’.
“Once the debate shifted from the realm of science to the realm of culture, facts were defeated. If the science challenges the values, the values will win. The braying donkeys of the Murdoch press understand this better than those of us who naively insist on the facts.”
The last sentence about “braying donkeys of the Murdoch press” links to
which is an article by Professor Richard Allan of Reading University, also in the Conversation, and also published two days previously. Professor Allan mentions an article in the Mail reproduced in the Telegraph, but nowhere refers to the Murdoch press, let alone “braying donkeys”.
Professor Hamilton’s expression “here in Britain..” is odd, since he is in an Australian university. Australian university professors do sometimes come to Britain, it’s true, but it’s hard to believe anyone in Britain could believe that the Mail and Telegraph were Murdoch papers.
Hamilton’s next reference is to
which is by Ben Newell, who is Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of New South Wales, which is followed by a reference to
by Rebecca Syed of Kings College London. Note that we’ve left the ostensible subject of denialist attacks on the IPCC far behind (haven’t we?) and are now discussing the dangers of being attacked by schizophrenics.
Perhaps it’s fitting that his next (and last) reference is to
by Helen Camakaris, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Melbourne
So there you have it. According to the Australian Professor of Public Ethics, all you need to know about the response of denialists to the IPCC report can be found, days before the report is published, under the headings of Climate Science, Media Studies, Schizophrenia and Stone Age Brain Studies – and all at the Conversation.
Except that sometimes the sources Hamilton quotes have nothing to do with the point he’s making, and sometimes they actually contradict the point he’s making, a fact of which he is sometimes dimly aware, as when he says, quoting the schizophrenia study:
“We are often preoccupied with visceral fears that are grossly exaggerated, and have to use our cognitive faculties to talk ourselves out of baseless anxieties. It’s the method of cognitive behavioural therapy,”
and then adds, bizarrely:
“In the case of climate change it is the other way around; we must persuade ourselves to be fearful using abstract information.”
* * *
But the Conversation is not just about Australian academics quoting other Australian academics. It’s also about interaction with their readers, who are numerous and lightly moderated, in my experience. Hamilton’s article got 324 comments in 48 hours, only 15 of which were removed by moderators. This is very reasonable indeed, given that the Conversation seems to be designed to appeal to the more intelligent type of Guardian readers (the ones with opposable thumbs).
After the Philosophy professor and his descriptions of climate sceptics as “denialists”, “cranks” and “braying donkeys” it’s quite a relief to read the comments, most of which were fairly polite attacks on a small number of sceptical commenters, of whom Geoff Sherrington was the most vocal and impressive.
I missed that thread, but got in late on the Allan thread, which is still open at the time of writing.
It starts badly, with these comments:
“Thanks for the explanation, Prof Allan. Here we are, trolls, come and bite.”
“Climate change is causing some animals to shift their ranges. The trolls are just moving from under bridges to under climate change articles. Please have sympathy. They’re some of the victims here.”
But it gets better, and ends with a civilised discussion of the supposed missing heat hiding in the deep oceans between me, Barry Woods, Andrew Vincent, and Rob Painting.
* * *
Under the name of each author (British or Australian) of recent articles appears this announcement:
“The Conversation is funded by the following universities: Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, City, Glasgow Caledonian, Liverpool, Open, Salford, Sheffield, Surrey, UCL and Warwick. It also receives funding from: Hefce, Hefcw, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation and The Wellcome Trust.”
Universities are, in theory, and in my experience, places where intellectual debate can take place between people of radically different political opinions. So far, the Environment + Energy pages of the Conversation reads like a sub-section of Guardian Environment. The Guardian is an independent newspaper, free to print whatever they want, and free to ban me, Jack Savage, Rising Tide, MoveAnyMountain, and dozens of others from their pages for the crime of having dared to disagree with them if they want.
The Conversation is not like that. They are in receipt of state funds, and are therefore under the obligation to maintain a certain political neutrality. It will be interesting to see how this obligation is interpreted should they receive, for example, a proposal for an article which deviates from their party line.