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Judge Calls for Academic Freedom…in Australia

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It is always a delight to report on a victory for academic freedom in science, even it’s on the other side of the globe! Peter Ridd, former head of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University in Australia, had been forced out of his university after critiquing claims that the Great Barrier Reef is almost dead due to global warming and other causes. An aggravating factor was that Ridd opposed scientific conclusions reached by his own colleagues at JCU. He filed suit against the university in November 2017. 

In April, Judge Salvatore Vasta ruled in favor of Ridd on some 17 counts, calling JCU’s action against him “unlawful.” In a ringing endorsement of academic freedom, Judge Vasta notes:

That is why intellectual freedom is so important. It allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. It allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth. And that, at its core, is what higher learning is about. To suggest otherwise is to ignore why universities were created and why critically focused academics remain central to all that university teaching claims to offer.

Wow! That is some stirring prose. The reference to Darwin is ironic, though. Note how nowadays the tables are turned, as it is the critics of evolutionary theory who seek to “break free of the constraints” placed on them by censors, bullies, and groupthink.

What About the United States?

Furthermore, according to Australia’s ABC News: 

Judge Vasta wrote that the university had “not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom”.

“In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset.

“It may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth.”

This gives me hope…for Australia, anyway. These kinds of decisions can enable scientists who are perhaps slightly more sensitive to institutional pushback than Ridd to speak up about what they think on controversial scientific issues. What about the United States, where scientists with dissenting views are still largely masked? It’s time for a Science Uprising.

Photo: Great Barrier Reef, by Holobionics [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.