Evidence, opinion, interest: the attack on scientific method
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Come along to this free public discussion as part of the Game Changers conversation series and join guest speaker The Hon. Dr Barry Jones AC.
Australia is in the grip of a dangerous case of intellectual cringe. Climate change, vaccination and taxation are all being dumbed-down for public consumption, with simple slogans and self-affirmation replacing significant debate. What is the future for a lucky country so ready to ridicule its experts? When will our thinking elite climb down from their ivory towers and make themselves heard?
Professor Jones brings his rallying cry to the heart of Footscray for a public conversation hosted by Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Dawkins.
Registration & event details
This is a free event. No registrations are required.
We will see you at VU at Metro West on 2 March at 6pm.
Speaker's full abstract
Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia, although medical research and astronomy may be exceptions. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media, and the whole concept of scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed.
In a complex world people seem to be looking for simple solutions that can be expressed as slogans, and the quality of public debate on scientific issues has been trivialised, even infantilised. The controversy on anthropogenic global warming has been conducted at an appalling level on both sides of politics. Debates on refugees and taxation have been conducted at a similar level. Vaccination, fluoridation and even evolution are hotly, but crudely, disputed in some areas.
Despite Australia’s large number of graduates (more than 4,000,000), our 38 universities and intellectual class generally have very limited political leverage and appear reluctant to offend government or business by telling them what they do not want to hear. Universities have become trading corporations, not just communities of scholars. Their collective lobbying power is weak, well behind the gambling, coal or junk food lobbies and they become easy targets in times of exaggerated budget stringency. Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with ICT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote.
In a democratic society such as Australia, evidence is challenged by opinion and by vested- or self-interest. Australia has no dedicated Minister for Science with direct ownership or involvement in promoting scientific disciplines. If every vote in Australian elections is of equal value, does this mean that every opinion is entitled to equal respect? It is easy to categorise experts as elitists and out of touch. There are serious problems in recruiting science teachers, and numbers of undergraduates in the enabling sciences and mathematics are falling relative to our neighbours. In an era of super-specialisation, many scientists are reluctant to engage in debate even where their discipline has significant inter-sectoral connections.
About Barry Jones
The Hon. Dr Barry Jones was born in Geelong and educated at Melbourne University. He has been a public servant, high-school teacher, media performer, university lecturer and achieved early fame as a TV quiz champion.
He was the Member of Parliament for Melbourne in the Victorian Government (1972–77), before transferring to the Commonwealth Government as the Member for Lalor where he was Minister for: Science (1983–90); Prices and Consumer Affairs (1987); Small Business (1987); and Customs (1988–1990).
He served on the UNESCO executive board in Paris (1991–1995), and was vice-president of the World Heritage Committee (1995–1996).
Professor Jones was national president of the ALP (1992–2000 and 2005–2006), deputy chairman of the Constitutional Convention in 1998 and was a visiting fellow commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge (2000–2001).
His best seller, Sleepers, Wake!: Technology and the Future of Work (1992) was translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Swedish and Braille. His encyclopaedic, Dictionary of World Biography (1998) was republished by Australian National University as a free e-book in 2013. His autobiography, A Thinking Reed, was published in 2006.
Professor Jones is the only person to have been elected as a fellow of all four Australian learned academies: FTSE (1992), FAHA (1993), FAA (1996) and FASSA (2003).
He was awarded an AO in 1993, promoted to AC in 2014, and named by the National Trust in 1993 as one of Australia’s 100 living national treasures.
His passions include music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, photography and travel.
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