Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is not very happy with Canberra

Sandstone bubble-wrapped moral panic a frightening force to see

The "sandstone" universities are old and the nearest Australia has to an Ivy League.  Uni. W.A. is one of them

Nick Cater

Who does Paul Johnson think he is? The University of Western Australia’s vice-chancellor or something? It must have been something of a shock for Johnson to discover that despite what it says on his business card, he doesn’t actually run the university.

The withdrawal of UWA’s offer to host Bjorn Lomborg’s ­Australian Consensus think tank offers an insight into the ungovernable, undisciplined and unenlightened world of the modern university. Real authority within does not reside with its appointed executives. It derives from a mandate from the masses, like the autonomous collective King Arthur encounters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

One imagines Graham Chapman as Arthur ­reining in his steed on Stirling Highway and pointing at the vice-chancellery cloisters: “Please, good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

Woman: No one lives there.

Arthur: Then who is your lord?

Woman: We do not have a lord … we are an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

The objects of the Python satire were the dreamers of the early 1970s, a ragged group dedicated to overturning the cultural hegemony that legitimised capitalism. Today’s utopians are defenders of a new culture that maintains the doctrines of sustainability and social inclusion, and ­enforces the rules of political ­correctness on Australian ­campuses.

The old Left presumed to represent the workers. The new Left claims to defend stakeholders, community leaders and expert opinion.

Johnson’s mistake, they say, was to stitch up a deal with Lomborg’s think tank without consulting “key stakeholders”. He was naive to expect the deal would stick without the approval of Ray Willis, for example, an adjunct professor in something or other who The Sydney Morning Herald says has been “a spokesman for the university on climate change ­issues for the past seven years”.

Older alumni will be surprised to learn that the university now has a spokesman on the science of climate or indeed anything else. Does UWA also have an official stance on say, dark matter, or does it allow other multidimensional theories to be aired?

Could a student major in nonsymmetric gravitational theory without being branded a heretic?

In climate science the orthodoxy prevails and Willis — not, it should be noted, a full-time member of any faculty — is one of its many enforcers. “The appointment tarnishes the reputation of the university,” he told the Herald. “It’s like appointing Brian Burke to look after your economics.”

The sad truth is that Lomborg would be a misfit on almost every contemporary Australian campus. His dispassionate, empirical approach to economics and public policy fell out of favour some time ago. Lomborg is further handicapped by incurable optimism, confidence in free markets, his ­belief in the benefits of trade and his benign view of corporations.

Unfashionably, he adopts the classical liberal view of scientific, technological and industrial pro­gress which he regards as the solution, not the cause, of humanity’s problems.

In short, Lomborg is temperamentally ill-suited to contemporary academe, a fact the hipness of his T-shirts was never going to hide. He is cursed with an open mind that makes him reluctant to bow to conventional wisdom, as a successful academic must.

Conventional wisdom has become synonymous with sound scholarship making its position impregnable. The scholar of conventional wisdom, wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, “walks near the head of the academic professions; he appears on symposia; he is a respected figure at the Council on Foreign Relations; he is hailed at testimonial banquets”.

The sceptic, on the other hand, is disqualified since “were he a sound scholar, he would remain with the conventional wisdom”.

Today’s intellectual dissenters become the object of witch-hunts pursued with medieval fury.

There has been no attempt to explain why the centre’s intention to compare the costs and benefits of development goals was a bad thing. There was no need: this was an inquisition, not an inquiry.

The protocol of academic discourse is ignored; argumentation has been replaced with accusation; disputation has given way to ­denunciation.

Among those overjoyed with the backdown is Guild of Students president Lizzy O’Shea, who was elected last year on a platform that included free premium Wi-Fi and “a long-term vision for catering”.

“It’s a really good sign as far as community action goes that if enough people have mobilised against something, and don’t support it, that people will change their minds,” she told the ABC.

O’Shea claims “students, staff and alumni alike are outraged” that the university would flirt with a man such as Lomborg. But how do we know? There has been no plebiscite or indeed anything approaching an open discussion.

We are told that the 150-seat venue for a staff protest meeting was full. “Others (were) turned away because of health and safety concerns,” the Herald reported.

OH&S notwithstanding, one assumes the other 1400 academics on UWA’s books had better things to do than join the posse against a mild-mannered, quirky Dane.

Many, one suspects, would have been cowered into silence, as dissenters frequently are. Moral panic, incubated in the bubble-wrapped, navel-gazing environment of a comfortably endowed sandstone university, is a frightening force.

Whatever the objections to the Lomborg centre, this is not the way that reasonable people behave. Nor does it assist the growth of knowledge. “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race,” John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, a text that is no doubt thick with dust in the UWA library.

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

A crusade that was supposed to protect UWA’s standing has ended up by damaging the institution’s reputation more than these deluded vigilantes will ever know.

Its consequences for the reputation of Australian universities in general are dire.

If a liberal-minded institution such as UWA can be captured by the forces of unreason, what hope is there for the rest of them?


Indonesia unconcerned about foreign aid cuts

INDONESIA has hit back at reports Australia will greatly wind back its foreign aid program in next week’s budget, saying it doesn’t need our money and is not asking.

Speaking to reporters in Jakarta about the departure of ambassador Paul Grigson yesterday, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said “it is what it is”.

“As I have said on many occasions, the Indonesia and Australia relationship is an important partnership, not only for Indonesia, but I believe for Australia,” he told AAP.

“That’s why we want to look ahead so that we can immediately go back to increasing co-operation in many fields, whether it be security, politics, economy and culture.”

Mr Nasir said Indonesia would not be concerned if Canberra cuts aid in next week’s federal budget. “Indonesia at the moment is no longer a country that needs aid for development,” he said.

“Nevertheless, any aid given by Australia is their effort to increase, to strengthen our partnership. And so, it’s their right to give, but Indonesia is not asking.”

It comes as new polling commissioned by the Lowy Institute found Australians have a strong preference for a restrained diplomatic response from the Australian government to the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Only 28 per cent of those surveyed supported suspending Australian aid projects, and a minority (42 per cent) supported Australia recalling its ambassador.

The course of action most preferred was ‘private diplomatic protests’, with 59 per cent agreeing with this approach. Trade sanctions were the least supported action, with just 24 per cent agreeing.

The poll results also suggest that the executions will have little impact on Australians’ travel plans, buying habits or business dealings with Indonesia. More than three quarters (76 per cent) said business between the two countries should continue as normal.

Nearly three quarters (71 per cent) said it would make no difference on whether they bought Indonesian products, while 63 per cent said it would not affect their decision to travel to Indonesia.

Australia’s $600 million foreign aid budget to Indonesia is widely expected to face the axe in Treasurer Joe Hockey’s second budget next Tuesday. In 2013/14, Australia sent $581 million to Indonesia. The 2014/15 budget estimate puts that figure at $605.3 million.

Last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did not rule out the prospect of reducing our contribution to Indonesia, which is the largest recipient of Australia’s foreign aid budget. Australia is the second largest donor behind Japan.

In his first budget Mr Hockey sliced $7.6 billion over five years, overturning Labor’s commitment to peg aid spending at 0.5 per cent of national income.

There was a second sting in December when the midyear budget review took another $3.7 billion over four years, including an unprecedented $1 billion cut for the 2015/16 financial year.

AAP reports the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is developing aid investment plans for all country programs by July. It is understood diplomatic posts have been asked to prepare both 40 per cent and 20 per cent aid cut scenarios.


Inequality is inevitable in a free society

Last week, the Philosopher’s Zone program on ABC radio discussed the contribution of families to inequalities in the wellbeing of children and therefore in their life opportunities and outcomes. The program philosophically explored the question of whether families should be abolished in order to level the playing field. This was not a serious suggestion, but rather a thought experiment that allows assumptions to be examined, challenged and confirmed or refuted.

A review of the research literature confirms the common wisdom that variation in family and parenting practices play a role in creating unequal wellbeing and outcomes of children. Some families create the conditions that allow children to flourish physically, emotionally and intellectually, while others do not. It is less about family income than the things families and parents do. Ultimately, the discussion on the radio program confirmed the importance of families for the wellbeing of children.  

Whether the advantage of a functional loving family is ‘unfair’ and should be equalised are entirely different matters. Is it more important (and fairer) to maximise the quality of life and opportunity for all children, or to try to ensure no child is better off than any other?

When it comes to families, few would suggest the latter is appropriate. Socialists and libertarians alike would be scornful of the notion that parents should not be allowed to read bedtime stories to their children because it confers an unfair advantage over children whose parents don’t read to them. 

Yet when it comes to school education, the response is sometimes different. The philosophers on the program argued parents should not be able to make choices that might advantage their children over others, and these choices should be restricted.

The reality is that no matter what families, parents, governments, schools, and other institutions do, there will always be inequality. Natural variation in genes and environments, and the interactions between them, combined with free will and chance, create inevitable differences in opportunities and outcomes.  Efforts to help disadvantaged children should be focused on their needs, not limiting the opportunities of others.


Blame 'preventive health' pushers for public ignorance and harm

The most remarkable thing about Professor Christobel Saunders's speech at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons' annual conference was not that she criticized overuse of breast cancer screening. It's that her criticism came as a surprise to anyone.

The medical community has known for years that cancer screenings, for all their benefits, are not an unalloyed good and in some cases are more likely to harm than help. In the particular case of breast cancer screenings, there is potential for harm both from overdiagnosis (i.e., where women endure painful or disfiguring treatments for low-grade cancers that never would have harmed them if left alone) and from the radiation dose in the screening itself.

That's why the current medical consensus recommends regular mammograms only for women over 50. Younger women should get screened only if they have reason to suspect they may be at higher risk of developing breast cancer due to genetic or lifestyle factors.

But if this consensus is uncontroversial among medical experts, why did Dr. Saunders's speech get written up by the Sydney Morning Herald as if it were news? Because ordinary Australians still don't know about the risks of too much breast cancer screening. University of Sydney research in 2011 found most women had no idea of the risks of mammography. You might be thinking: If only there were some sort of national body dedicated to publicising up-to-date information about preventive health, so that Australians could make more informed choices.

There was such a body, of course: the Australian National Preventive Health Agency. Unfortunately, ANPHA, like many others in the preventive health sphere, chose to focus on politically flashy topics like tobacco, alcohol, and obesity, and neglected duller but more important forms of preventive health like mammography.

This misplacement of priorities contributed to the Abbott government's decision to abolish ANPHA in 2014. It has also contributed to the public's continued ignorance of important facts about breast cancer screening. And this ignorance, as Professor Saunders has reminded us, causes real harm to hundreds of Australian women every year.


1 comment:

Paul said...

I wonder how long Indonesia hasn't needed our money for?