Australia’s science academy attacks ‘cherrypicking’ of Great Barrier Reef research | Environment


Australia’s peak scientific institution has told an inquiry into the reliability of Great Barrier Reef science that it is “greatly concerned” over a trend to cherrypick and misrepresent scientific evidence.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry, the Australian Academy of Science’s president, Prof John Shine, wrote that selective use of science and misrepresentations were “dangerous” and would lead to “poor outcomes”.

The inquiry, introduced by the Nationals senator Susan McDonald and the Liberal senator James McGrath, is looking at the evidence linking pollution from farm runoff to degradation of the reef.

In the months leading up to the inquiry, industry groups including Canegrowers and AgForce had sponsored a speaking tour by the controversial scientist Dr Peter Ridd, who claims that the reef is not being damaged by farm pollution. He also disputes evidence for human-caused climate change, and claims that mass coral bleaching events on the reef are natural.

The campaign had aimed to pressure the Queensland government to withdraw proposed legislation, which later passed, that set limits on nutrients, sediments and chemicals running into the reef’s catchments.

Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb, who chairs an expert panel of reef scientists, likened the campaign to the tactics used by the tobacco industry when it attacked the science linking its products to cancer.

In his submission, Shine wrote: “The Australian Academy of Science is greatly concerned about a recent tendency to ‘cherrypick’, dismiss, misrepresent, or obscure scientific evidence or smear individual scientists.”

Prof John Shine

Prof John Shine: ‘Cherrypicking evidence to support a decision or position is dangerous.’ Photograph: Australian Academy of Science

Later in the submission, he added: “A commonly used tactic in opposing or advocating for policy positions is to ‘cherrypick’ scientific findings rather than consulting and analysing the body of literature systematically.

“Cherrypicking evidence to support a decision or position is dangerous and leads to poor judgement and outcomes.”

The academy said it backed the methods and findings of a 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement on the impacts of poor water quality of the reef.

The Australian Environment Foundation – a group that promotes climate science denial and supported Ridd’s tour – has also written to the inquiry, repeating Ridd’s claims that science linking farm pollution to the reef was “demonstrably wrong or unreliable”.

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Dr Jennifer Marohasy, a former long-serving director at the AEF who now works at the Institute of Public Affairs, claims in a submission that water quality is improving along the reef, and that governments were conspiring to “maintain the perception of declining water quality”.

Last week one reef scientist explained to Guardian Australia that Marohasy had misrepresented her work in an IPA video.

The submissions also reveal a split among Queensland’s canegrower industry groups.

The Proserpine and Bundaberg districts continued to question the science in their submissions, while groups in Cairns and the Herbert River said farm runoff was damaging to the reef but challenged the need for regulation.

The Queensland Farmer’ Federation also said it had “no reason to question that land-based runoff continues to impact water quality in the GBR, and that agricultural activities contribute to this”.

As reported by Guardian Australia, the federation’s newly elected president, Allan Dingle, the chairman of Bundaberg Canegrowers, has been an enthusiastic backer of Ridd’s claims.

He has characterised the science underpinning the Queensland government’s laws as “unsubstantiated scaremongering”.

The farmers’ federation manages more than $4m of taxpayer-funded water quality improvement grants from the federal government’s controversial grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

A submission from the Department of the Environment and Energy highlights how the world heritage committee had expressed concern in 2017 that water quality on the reef was not improving. The committee will review the reef again next year.

In August the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority downgraded the reef’s long-term outlook from “poor” to “very poor” for the first time, citing impacts from climate change as a key driver.

The Senate inquiry is due to issue its report in October 2020.


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