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When it comes to fixing ‘bad science’, scholars are not the enemy

Crikey readers discuss the need for a 'bad-science' watchdog, the prime ministership of Boris Johnson and Australia's handling of Timor-Leste.

(Image: Unsplash/Ousa Chea)

Calls for a bad-science watchdog should be tempered, Crikey readers wrote over the weekend — responding to Amber Schultz’s peek at a field grappling with slipping research standards and plagiarism scandals. Elsewhere, readers discussed Boris Johnson’s new leadership, and how Australia mistreated its relationship with Timor-Leste.

On bad science 

Geoff Edwards, Royal Society of Queensland president writes: Be careful what you wish for in recommending the establishment of a “bad-science watchdog”. If anything is likely to “add fuel to the climate denialists’ debate” it would be an oversight body appointed by government to pick and choose which scientific articles were deemed “bad science”. It would be impossible to constitute such a body to be as free of bias as the existing process of peer review before publication and then international critique afterwards. Yes, compromised research does slip through, especially in disciplines such as medicine which are extensively sponsored by corporations. Yes, Australian universities are struggling, but prevalence of sloppy research is not the cause and the remedy does not apply in establishing another layer of bureaucratic oversight to make life more difficult than it currently is for scholars. Overhauling the incentive structures for academics would be a good place to start, an administrative not a scholarly matter.

On Boris Johnson

Cameron Bray writes: I have been thinking a bit about the different skills needed to be successful at politics and successful at government. The two have always been in a Venn diagram but has something changed in the last few years to move the sets further apart? It seems to me that for all sorts of reasons we are moving into dangerous territory where these things become antithetical: that real or perceived competence in government will be a disadvantage to getting elected.

On Timor-Leste

Robert Johnson writes: Sophie Raynor suggests that 1999 marked the reversal in Australia’s “ambivalent foreign policy” toward Timor-Leste “and stepped in”. But Australia’s fingerprints were very much on the circumstances leading to these events. This is because Australia’s unambivalent position was made explicit a few months earlier, in December 1998, when Howard wrote to new Indonesian president Habibie unequivocally stating that Australia supported keeping East-Timor within Indonesia.

Howard was undoubtedly concerned by Portugal resuming diplomatic relations with Indonesia and the threat to its hold on Timor Sea oil that Portugal had challenged in the International Court of Justice, and proposed to Habibie what he believed would be a successful ploy to thwart independence. Howard wrote: “The successful implementation of an autonomy package with a built-in review mechanism would allow time to convince the East Timorese of the benefits of autonomy within the Indonesian republic.” Howard was advocating a process well short of an act of self-determination.

Howard had totally misjudged Timorese sentiment (or even worse: maybe he didn’t), Indonesia understood that a vote was unavoidable, and Australia was forced into a peacekeeping role it had not envisaged. This enabled Howard to flip over to positioning Australia as Timor-Leste’s friend. On its independence day in 2002, there was just one departure from the ceremonial proceedings: a solitary decision-making formality when Howard required the new state leadership to sign the Timor Sea Treaty “before it would have time to develop second thoughts about the equity of the deal” (according to Juan Federer, a witness to these events). As Sophie correctly says, “forcing acquiescence to our oil theft”.

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