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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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who will speak up for science in this new government?

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Professor Ian Chubb – toughing it out


I made a very quick video the other night after listening to some depressing news on Lateline, or rather a depressing interview with our chief scientist, Ian Chubb, about the changes being made by the incoming conservative government. But I haven’t yet got the facility to host my own videos so I’ll write something instead.

Chubb was being questioned about the new government’s intention to abolish the Climate Change Authority, the Climate Commission and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, as well as to scrap the position of Science Minister. Now, you might think that all this scrapping, discarding and abolishing is a clear indication of the value that Tony Abbott and his colleagues place on science in general, and that our chief scientist might have some choice words to say about that, but it seems Professor Chubb is a canny operator who knows how to keep a cool head and to emphasize co-operation and positivity under the most strained circumstances.

Asked first off about the axing of the science portfolio, he put a brave face on it by saying that, as science was spread over a number of portfolios, having an actual Minister wasn’t as essential as having someone in government who is passionate about science. [Only one?]. When asked who that might be, Chubb rather dodged the question, unless you can take seriously his suggestion, presented almost sheepishly, that this might be the Prime Minister’s role. Abbott, you’ll recall, once publicly stated, and not so long ago, that anthropogenic global warming is bullshit.

Chubb spoke, no doubt sincerely, of a strategic whole-of-government approach to science, using the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, but I’m sceptical that the new government will deal with anything strategically. My expectation is that it will govern like most conservative governments – do nothing innovative, abolish, cut and scrap as much as you can, make yourself as small a target for criticism as possible, and boast about your economic credentials while health, education, infrastructure and the rest are run into the ground.

Chubb went on – and I can only marvel at his bravery – to answer a question about Australia’s science education results, and how they lag behind those in Asia, by arguing for a more interventionist approach from government in this area. I thought I saw pigs flying across the screen at that one. Then the interviewer asked about the scrapping of the climate change ministry and the various environmental bodies aforementioned, on one of which, the Climate Change Authority, Chubb actually sits (or sat). The actual question asked was – did these to-be-axed bodies have a value? Chubb couldn’t really avoid that one, and had to respond positively, but he qualified this by saying he could only really speak about the body he sat on, and that, anyway, the CCA ‘will doubtless be compensated for by other bodies and groups and, doubtless, individuals who will be offering advice’. Doubtless? I doubt it.

One individual already offering plenty of advice at taxpayers’ expense is Abbott’s chief business adviser, one Maurice Newman, who describes climate change as a myth. What Newman actually means by this queer claim might be worth investigating, but here isn’t the place for it. When asked about this remark, Chubb was more blunt than usual, describing it as a ‘silly comment’. Generally, though, he countered the negativity and anti-science silliness of the conservatives with a lot of talk about the role of science, the importance of evidence, facts and informed debate. His many remarks about scientists being evidence-driven and free from beliefs seemed a trifle idealistic, but they still needed to be made in the face of the fixed, clearly uninformed beliefs of Abbott, Howard and others on that side of politics. Some of his remarks, such as that every contribution to the climate debate, whether pro or con, was valuable, seemed overly mollifying, but generally he gave science a good rap, in the typically cautious, under-stated way of most scientists.

Still, what I heard in the interview, about what was still then a government-elect, hardly warmed my heart about the future of evidence-based decision-making in this country. Hang on science lovers, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

This is an issue worth keeping an eye on. I’ll try to report on any further developments, or lack thereof.

*Incidentally, I was bemused on reading, in the transcript of this interview, that little Johnny Howard, that Giant of Aussie Science, is to deliver a ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture’ in November, bearing the title ‘One religion is enough’. Now think about that title. It does more than claim that anthropogenic warming is a religion, it claims that any more than one religion is too much! And what is that one religion? Well, Jesus, it must be that religion. So much for our resident Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jainists, Pastafarians and whatnot. Talk about an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

Written by stewart henderson

September 19, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Iraq, ten years on

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I protested against the Iraq war ten years ago, but as always with my sceptical tendencies and my need to have a worked-out, informed position, I had qualms about simply joining the anti-war crowd. Getting rid of Saddam would surely be a good thing, but that wasn’t the motive of the US administration. They were talking about WMD and trying to make a connection – quite ludicrously – between Iraq and September 11. And they were clearly bullying the UN reps who were reporting no hint of WMD, and the UN Security Council nations who opposed war. What’s more, the US push had little to do with humanitarianism, and much to do with the restoration of national pride after a fall, an absolutely appalling reason for a militarily mighty nation to declare war on a much smaller one. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the cost to the Iraqi people would surely be enormous.

But that was my dilemma. Saddam’s dictatorship was obviously hurting the Iraqi people, though some more than others (and I didn’t really know too much about the ethnic, regional, economic and religious differences within the country and how they aligned with Saddam). Could an intervention manage to topple Saddam as bloodlessly as possible, and replace him with something more generally liberating for the Iraqi people? I thought not, even with the most meticulous international planning. And of course, there’s no such thing as meticulous international planning, and I hold little hope that there ever will be.

So, though, I believe in the, probably hopelessly idealistic, humanistic notion of humanitarian intervention to rid any nation or region of oppressive government, and though I have little respect for the notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty, being humanistically anti-nationalist, I recognised pretty clearly that the planned invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good. Of course I didn’t recognise at the time just how much harm it would do.

So just how much harm has it done? Just last week, in my adult English class, I talked to my students, apropos of the coming Australian election, about the politics of their own countries. One of those students was from Iraq. Her words were – ‘before, Saddam in power, bad person, but country not so bad. Now, after war, everything bad. No safe, all fighting, economy, all bad. All destroyed. Terrible.’

It was an assessment that confirmed my suspicions, but of course somewhat lacking in detail, and for all I know quite incorrect. So let’s have a bit more of a look-see. I’ll base much of what I write here on the three-hour BBC documentary aired recently.

That documentary starts with Bush’s simple-minded post-September 11 us-and-them pronouncement, ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’, and then takes us to communications between the US and Iraqi governments. The US was demanding a complete falling-in-line with their position, it appears. They were asking, ‘are you going to fully co-operate with us against al-Qa’ida?’ Saddam’s response, according to an Iraqi intelligence agent, was ‘America isn’t the only country to suffer terrorism. The sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism.’ He also said that these sanctions had killed far more people in Iraq than died in the US on September 11. He may well have been right, but he conveniently omitted his own role in bringing those sanctions about, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve manipulated the sanctions and their impact for his own propaganda purposes.

The point is that his response to the US administration wasn’t grovelling enough, and the Bush team used this as an excuse to target him. Ten years later, some 170,000 Iraqis are dead (the figures are of course notoriously rubbery) and their families devastated, Baghdad remains a hell-hole, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has assumed quasi-dictatorial powers and has been acting against the Sunni minority, within his own government and within the country, in order to suppress sectarian violence. This hasn’t been hugely successful, and I think it’s fair to say that the Iraq of today is neither peaceful nor particularly democratic, though earlier this year Maliki’s opponents managed to get a law passed banning him from seeking a third term in office. Maliki has been PM since 2006, having been re-elected in 2010.

So what was it all for? The war brought al-Qa’ida into Iraq, where it hadn’t been before. It unleashed terrible sectarian forces within the country, as well as creating huge anti-US and anti-western resentment. You could say it has led to an uncertain Iraqi future, but that would be unfair, since that was also the situation under Saddam. The war would have cost the US a fortune, though I’m sure that many Americans ripped their own fortunes out of the Iraqi economy during that time. About 4,500 US soldiers were killed during the invasion and occupation, and none of their objectives have been met. The world is not safer because of it, quite obviously, and Iraqis are certainly not safer for it. The main lesson to be learned from it is a lesson that never does get learned – don’t intervene in a nation’s affairs (or a region’s affairs) unless you’re sure that the outcome won’t be worse than the situation that caused you to intervene.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that this is something you can never know for sure, and could therefore be used as an excuse for never intervening anywhere, but generally you can have a good idea, and you can plan for an outcome. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible not to, especially when human lives are at stake. The Bush administration seems to have had very little interest in the outcome of its intervention. Was it interested in establishing a democracy in Iraq? Seriously? Could it possibly be so utterly devoid of realism? It seems to me obvious that it had never given the outcome that much thought. The intervention in Iraq was, as I’ve said, about restoring US prestige after September 11. Invading Afghanistan and ousting the Taliban (or half-ousting them) wasn’t enough of a muscle-flexer, something had to be done on a bigger stage. The Iraqi people, if they were ever considered at all, were treated as if they would be just like Americans. They’d all hate living under a dictatorship, they’d all embrace democracy whenever they got the chance – maybe they’d even become a new Christian outpost in the Middle East. As for the Sunni-Shia problem, the Kurdish problem and all the other sectarian issues, the lack of secular political institutions, the absence of any real history of democracy and so forth, all of these were barely considered.

It was irresponsibility on a massive scale, but the question is – was it criminal? Listening to Tony Blair talking in the documentary about – and this is a direct quote – having ‘taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East’, as if it was a piece of plasticine, shows breathtaking naivete, hubris and insensitivity (think of who the ‘we’ is here), but on the face of it, it hardly sounds criminal. After all, Blair is a ‘good guy’, unlike the bad guys of al-Qa’ida. He’s not out to kill as many infidels as possible so as to be a hero to his people. He genuinely wanted to help the Iraqi people, I’m sure, but in doing so he chose to minimise their nature, or to recast them, essentially, as western liberal democrats. I’m sure that he would argue that he wasn’t under-estimating the task, but the fact is, that’s exactly what he was doing. Underestimating the task and the cost to the – completely unconsulted – inhabitants of the region.

Heads of state, especially of powerful states, have an enormous responsibility, which carries with it extra accountability. History is an account of heads of state, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Adolph Hitler, using their power to conquer or reshape massive, and massively populated regions of the world, with little regard for the local inhabitants. In earlier times, this was just the way of the world – if you and your family were in the way of the Viking or Mongol or Nazi invaders, bad luck. But times have changed, and we now have terms like genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, to consider, and we have – admittedly fledgling – institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to render justice to those ‘inconvenienced’ by the mayhem involved in the remaking or reshaping of particular regions of the globe.

Iraq has been pretty well wrecked by the needless intervention of western powers in the last ten years. I would say that 200,000 avoidable deaths would be a conservative estimate, and that’s just the pointy end of the mess. Possibly as many as 2 million have been displaced. Nobody has been held accountable and western leaders are still telling bare-faced lies about the impact of the invasion. Just last month the death toll from fighting in Iraq was 1,057 – the biggest monthly death toll in 5 years. The descent into civil war looks inevitable.

The most powerful countries don’t want a bar of the ICC, they prefer to have a free hand for their reshaping and remaking, but if the behaviour of the decision-makers who created this bloody debacle isn’t criminal, I can only scratch my head and wonder what the word ‘criminal’ actually means.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2013 at 11:41 am