Australia has anti-science nuts, too

We Americans like to think we’ve got the greatest everything, including the greatest science denialists. Who can forget Sarah Palin’s rage against mere fruit fly research? And now we’ve got Donald Trump, irate about his hair spray.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen Donald Trump lower, again and again, the bar for political discourse. All the while, though, he’s been lowering the scientific bar, too. In May, for instance, while speaking to an audience of West Virginia coal miners, Trump complained that regulations designed to protect the ozone layer had compromised the quality of his hair spray. Those regulations, he continued, were misguided, because hair spray is used mainly indoors, and so can have no effect on the atmosphere outside. No wonder Hillary Clinton felt the need to include, in her nomination speech, the phrase “I believe in science.”

And it’s not just hairspray: there is a legion of scientific issues on which Trump is ignorant and wrong.

Just to be fair, though, I’ll remind everyone that Democrats have sometimes gone down this road: I remember Proxmire and his Golden Fleece award, in which he railed against science he didn’t understand, and then there’s Tom Harkin, throwing away money on quackery.

But now Australia is getting in on the game, in a very Proxmirish move.


Oh, yeah, how dare they study philosophy, history, psychology, or sociology. We must ridicule what we don’t understand.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.

Don’t academics understand that the only thing we’re supposed to do is cure cancer? It’s a zero-sum game, and every study of medieval history or Renaissance art or the psychology of gender or goddamn fruit flies means another metastasizing tumor and horrible slow death.

So the solution is to demand that the Australian Research Council present grant proposals for review to the beery patrons of local pubs. Yeah, that’ll steer research funds appropriately.

Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.

Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.

Uh-oh. Nobody tell Trump about this idea to put bars in charge of NIH/NSF/NASA. He’d probably think it was a terrific plan. So would his fanatical followers.


  1. cartomancer says

    It’s always Medieval history with these people, isn’t it? I mean, not literally – their ire tends to get drawn first by things in the social sciences and research into contemporary culture, but when they turn to historical research you can bet your last groat it will be the Middle Ages that come in for the philistine’s scorn. I’m quite used to it by now.

    For some reason research into history pre 500AD and post 1500AD is seen as intrinsically more valuable than medieval history. It gets a reputation as being utterly irrelevant to anything we do now, and thus can only be a whimsical distraction done for amusement’s sake. An ill-deserved reputation of course – we live in a world that was built during the Middle Ages. The universities that conduct any kind of research are a cultural product of the medieval world, as are the parliaments from which ignorant critics lambast them. I suppose it’s a disease more common among New World bigots whose own medieval history happened on a different continent, but even ours in Europe do it to some extent.

    One might be tempted to point out the well-worn maxim that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. It’s not like the heirs of medieval Europe are making military interventions into the Middle East driven by strong ideological and profit-seeking intentons anymore after all…

  2. w00dview says

    I always feel sorry for folks like this. To have such a lack of interest in the world around you must make for a very limited outlook on life. Wonder what happened in their childhoods to drain the wonder and curiosity out of them? As Trump would say, Sad!

  3. says

    Oh, come on. The Middle Ages? Peasants lying about in the muck with their pigs, dyin’ of the plague, and nothing happening until the Renaissance and they discovered chiaroscuro and perspective? That was the problem, they were all flat and lacking in shadows. Who would want to read about that?

  4. says

    Sarah Palin’s attacks on carrying out research on “fruit flies”, and doing it in Paris, were demagogic, but way off mark. Most of the responses defended doing research on Drosophila to illuminate the cell and molecular biology of humans.

    But actually the research was on the Olive Fruit Fly, which isn’t even Drosophila. It is a serious pest of olives. You have to do the research in Europe, where the fly is prevalent, because raising it in the U.S. is too likely to result in infestations. And the research was not to learn about the cell and molecular biology of all of life — it was to learn how to control the darn thing and prevent it from infesting olives. It was applied research, narrowly applied, and for the immediate benefit of the olive industry. Palin was way off base (but so were all the defenders of Drosophila research).

  5. says

    w00dview @2,
    Better to feel sorry for those trying to eke out a career in Australian Science, of which I am thankfully no longer one. The current government (of which Morrison is a member) announced the closure of the institution at which I earned my Ph.D. *on the eve of the election*, after the news blackout had begun. Mob of short-sighted populist bigots. I subsequently fled to a country that is still funding science.

  6. w00dview says

    gondwanarama @5,

    That’s really shitty to hear, sorry. Did not want to give the impression I empathized more with willfully ignorant troglodytes than the scientists being affected by their demagoguery. Cannot imagine how tough it is to work in an environment where the government and the likes of the Murdoch Press are baying for your blood. Hope you are doing well now.

  7. vytautasjanaauskas says

    For some reason I think you could easily convince the average pub audience to go along with most of these projects with a 10 minutes presentation. Unlike with these idiots who haven’t bothered to figure out what the research is about.

  8. cartomancer says

    PZ, #3

    When I was doing my doctoral studies my friend, his own field of study being 19th century Irish history, tended to dismiss the Middle Ages as “all woad and witchcraft”, and often asked me which of the two I was looking at today. Though, admittedly, I did tend to respond in kind by saying that his field was basically just a case study in the economics of the potato. Occasionally we’d call a truce and go and pick on our mutual Classicist friend, though he rather spoiled things by being far more dismissive of the works of Vergil he was studying than we could ever be.

    The irony of the chiaroscuro and perspective thing is that medieval scientists and philosophers were massively into the behaviour of light and shadow, and it is their works on optics (the medieval Latin term actually being perspectiva) that laid the groundwork for the artists of the Renaissance to formulate a painting style that reflected it.

  9. cartomancer says

    Though, admittedly, the lack of chiaroscuro and perspective might well explain why the Middle Ages were entirely devoid of black people, as our learned friends in UKIP have pointed out…

  10. says

    w00dview @6,
    No worries mate, no offence taken at all. Life is alright now, apart from being rather ashamed of my land of birth. Sympathy gratefully received, but not required ;).

  11. numerobis says

    gondwanarama@11: how does Abbott rate versus Trump? They both seem to be obnoxious loud-mouth unempathetic and incurious assholes.

  12. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Trump admits to using HAIR SPRAY?1??

    Seems kinda suspiciously swishy to me. I wonder if his RWNJ fans know.

  13. w00dview says

    gondwanarama @11,
    Good to hear things are getting back on track. Honestly, come October in Austria, we might have an actual fascist as president so I am unsure what that will mean for my Department but it sure as hell will be shit for the country overall. And because I am not an Austrian citizen, I cannot vote at all so I am resorted to begging the Austrians I know to remember to vote this October!

  14. blf says

    All-mine-mine-mine, er, Abbot, was elected, albeit so-far the trum-prat has not been. Unfortunately, Ozland is the “protector” of the Great Barrier Reef, which it has noticeably failed to do, and one of the largest per capita emitters of GHGs (and exportors of dirtier fuels (I think)). So All-mine-mine-mine was, unfortunately, not inconsequential (and this is ignoring things like the concentration camps on Manus and Nauru, and assorted facilities, some used against the indigenous aboriginal populations, in Ozland itself). To the best of my knowledge, All-mine-mine-mine and his band of kooks all had rather heavy involvement with all of these anti-civil-society policies. Last(?) year, after All-mine-mine-mine was out-of-office, he toured the UK(at least) promoting the Ozland concentration camp “solution” to “illegal” immigration.

  15. gijoel says

    Murdoch must be on an anti-science tear at the moment. The local rag had a story that a study by the tourist industry said that less than 5% of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by bleaching. The fact that this was front page news in Newscorp rag gives me suspicions of the source.

  16. Usernames! (╯°□°)╯︵ ʎuʎbosıɯ says

    What if I said I wanted to spend billions of $$$ to maybe land people on the moon, walk around, collect a few rocks and take some pictures?


    Well, then I guess we can shitcan the modern PC/Laptop/Cellphone, Satellite TV, GPS, Artificial Heart, Firefighter’s Respirators, Teflon fiberglass (used in roofing), multi-spectrum imaging, and food safety protocols that cut salmonella cases by 50%.

    …because nothing says “success” like limited, short-term thinking by uneducated dolts.

  17. blf says

    cartomancer@1, I suspect it’s more anything which doesn’t immediately increase their income(typically in the form of bribes (which are not necessarily cash)). So, e.g., AGW and related subjects are vehemently attacked; GHG-generating industries get subsidies. The tobacco and gun genocides don’t have too much trouble(at least in USAlienstan), but, e.g., research on gun-related issues is exceptionally difficult.

    Or to put in another way, I suspect it’s a case of follow the money, which is a fairly good summary of essentially any antics politicians (in general, and teh thugs in particular) get up to…

  18. martin50 says

    We can gripe about Proxmire, but ultimately he was reacting to was poorly written significance sections in our grant applications. –The public is paying for the work that we scientists do, and it’s not unreasonable for them to want to understand what they bought.

  19. says

    numerobis @12,
    Less scary I’d say. More George W. level embarrassing. Didn’t get the chance to invade anywhere though, and I’m sure he’s upset about that.

  20. numerobis says

    I guess W also set up an island prison for indefinite detention and torture, so that does fit pretty well.

  21. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    without fully reading (excuse me), I’m reminded of rock star Prof. Brian Cox’s (of The InfiniteMonkeys) recent visit to Australia to discuss science issues with the OZ PM Science Denier Supreme. His Tweets from OZ were amusing.

  22. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    to point out the “hair spray” mistake:
    the only regulation that affected hair spray to protect the ozone layer, had to do with removing freon as the propellant The chemicals that land on the hair are unaffected. Freon was also regulated as prohibited in AC. I don;t hear Drumph complaining his AC don;t work no more cuz of EPA removing the Freon from his AC. Most hairspray today used plain compressed gas as propellant or hand pumped nebulizers.

    To throw in a dis: I’m sure his weave requires no spray at all.
    And has his hair been getting more yellow since the start of the campaign? At first tangereen [sic], now more lemony. hmmm reflecting his sour attitude? Maybe cameras trying to color correct his spray-tan to more normal skin tone…

  23. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 23: my apostrophes keep changing into semicolon, due to god typo. readers may substitute where approp.

  24. blf says

    …due to god typo…— No, no, we all know yer encoding secret messages to, um, er, ah, ah, well, we all know who!

  25. says

    numerobis @21,
    Actually, it was Howard, 3 (or 4, depending on how you count) PMs before him who started that. And it’s very much a bipartisan policy: The Labor party introduced mandatory detention.

  26. wzrd1 says

    Trump gets so damned much wrong, that honestly, I’ve been tempted to show up at one of his rallies and demand ID, for surely he’s also gotten his name wrong as well.

  27. Silver Fox says

    Well, duh, people, if it can’t be weaponized what’s the point in studying it? Now, if some clever scientist from Down Under were to figure out a way to make great white shark torpedoes or exploding ninja koalas he’d be on to something really useful. Piles of research cash pouring in then.

  28. DanDare says

    My daughter is doing a dual science degree in psychology and biology here in Queensland. Science education is doing ok.
    My best school bud is now highly placed in the CSIRO and there things are more grim. The government keeps squeezing the budget so they won’t be able to report conclusions the government want to hear. As they try to arrange to squabble over the slim budget some projects have gone in for crowd funding. I chucked a sum at the Mopra radio telescope to complete its galactic survey.

  29. says

    I am another refugee from the land of Oz doing a PhD overseas. The escape backfired when the Uni shut down my research school using the argument that it only graduated 20% of its students each year. Considering the time involved in doing a PhD that is a pretty good figure. Not only did they shut it down they took 6 months to work out what to do with the students. Lumping them all into a department that didn’t want to know about them and in many cases losing their supervisors. They also shut down the research library for 6 months. A year down the track I am still not assigned to any department. I retained my supervisor but we are both in some sort of admin imposed limbo. Furthermore a request by students to have a semester’s worth of fees waved and extensions of time granted for time lost during the shut down were refused. Even more insulting the research schools buildings were handed over to the business and banking faculty whose most recent venture was to hire them out as the set for a B grade movie about a haunted hospital.