Several years ago, I stopped listening and watching the news and current affairs on the ABC. I was sick of being consistently fed what I believe was biased and unbalanced reporting. We are told by ardent ABC supporters this is not how the ABC operates. But you only have to look at their main website to see they have a track record a mile long of upheld complaints about stories that were found to breach their standards for impartiality. The ABC has had to publicly admit on a number of occasions that their stories were found to be inaccurate, biased, and lacked balance. A common theme in the successful complaints is that presenters failed to challenge interviewees over claims they made, and appropriate stakeholders were not invited to present opposing viewpoints.
However, when I saw a story from the ABC through a LinkedIn post by a retired zoologist, I was immediately interested. This was because the zoologist quoted a sentence from the story that attracted my attention – “Land clearing and habitat loss are the biggest drivers of animal extinctions”.
I have a keen interest in the topic of Australian animal extinctions as I have continually challenged people over the years who have made false claims that forestry practices have led to the extinction of species. I am aware that there is no current scientific evidence linking timber harvesting in Australia to any animal or plant extinctions. I was unaware of any clear proof that animal extinctions were solely the result of land clearing, but I was happy to learn more about this if that was no longer the case.
The ABC story starts with a bit of hyperbole “Australia is a world leader in chopping down trees and wiping out animals: two questionable accomplishments that are tightly connected” but does settle into providing some facts. It lists total clearing figures for each state and territory for 2010-18 based on data from the Federal Government’s National Greenhouse Accounts. Any analysis of tree clearing also needs to measure increases in tree cover. The agricultural sector has argued this point when fighting the draconian tree clearing laws in Queensland. Governments, bureaucrats, academics, and activists all push a narrative that wholesale areas of forests are disappearing forever. The ABC acknowledged in their story that there has been a net increase of tree cover after tree clearing during the study period. Still, they were quick to dismiss this data because ‘critics’ claimed it “does not represent what is happening in our forests from a wildlife conservation or carbon storage perspective”.
I was immediately keen to understand why an explosion of 4.19 million hectares of new forest in eight years across the Australian landscape, as reported in the National Greenhouse Accounts, is deemed insignificant for wildlife. I was also eager to find out exactly what animal species have become extinct from land clearing. I put a simple question to the zoologist – what evidence supports the statement land clearing and habitat loss are the biggest drivers of animal extinction? He responded that “this has been extremely well studied in Australia and worldwide”. He provided me with a link to an opinion piece in ‘The Conversation’. He also referred me to the State of Environment Reports produced by each State and Territorial government. Frustratingly he didn’t answer my question, but maybe I should have been more explicit in asking for a list of extinct species courtesy of land clearing.
The start of the above opinion piece quoted then Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews. He told ABC radio that land clearing (in Queensland) was not the biggest threat to Australia’s biodiversity. He believed the number one threat was the feral cat, followed by foxes and fire. The article then raised a counter-argument by relying on a paper published in BioScience that focused on specific threats to species to identify broad trends in species endangerment. There was nothing in the article that provided unambiguous evidence that Australian animals have disappeared due to land clearing mainly because it didn’t focus on extinctions. It was more about how species were becoming endangered.
I pointed out to the zoologist my distrust of government or political reports and claimed they are mainly full of platitudes and hollow statements to fit a particular narrative. For example, the most well-known political reports are those produced by the United Nations (UN) on climate change. In their recent and dramatically titled “Human Cost of disasters: an overview of the last 20 years (2000-2019)” they were caught out telling lies about climate change, weather extremes and climate-related catastrophes. As pointed out by geoscientist Dr John Happs:
“…any reader of this report will immediately see this is not a dispassionate, empirically-based document prepared by scientists who have carefully scrutinized available literature on natural disasters.”
The claims in the report of rising climate-related disasters over the last twenty years are at odds with a graph produced by the UN that showed climate-related disasters have declined over the previous 20 years.
Other scientists have asked for the report to be withdrawn as data on disasters from the last century are flawed and unreliable. Yet we are told repeatedly to trust everything that comes from the UN because their reports are credible and based on scientific work. From what I have seen of their reports, they are alarmist hyperbole and use phrases not becoming of scientific research.
We get the same from the Queensland government when it tells us the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is exquisitely delicate and fragile, is sick and is dying from farming practices in the GBR catchment and climate change. For a living organism that has outlived the dinosaurs, coral is an ancient and persistent life form. This gloomy picture about a doomed reef is based on dubious science. It all started with an outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish in the 1970s. Today, after nearly 50 years and hundreds of millions of dollars in research, there is still no evidence that the starfish’s population booms are not natural events, as they are with other starfish worldwide. But what scientists did learn during this period was that alleged threats could attract research funding and public recognition, as well as excellent media attention. Up until the 1990s, research continued to focus on understanding coral reef processes. However, things changed dramatically from the 1990s, when a new labour government came to power in Queensland, after many decades of National Party dominance. A more radical green view on how the environment worked took over from the mundane research methodology that relied on numerically verifiable information. Eco-threats became prominent based on prophecies. Universities spawned a whole new generation of scientists. Their entire research experience of the GBR is about finding, investigating and promoting environmental threats. Today, every fluctuation in nature on the reef is used as evidence. ‘Reef experts’ always declare some dire and imminent threat to the reef which the media gleefully publish under sensationalist headlines. No-one notices that these perils have proven to be temporary and the reef quickly recovers as it deals with a highly dynamic and variable environment.
The media recently reported that at least 50 per cent of the reef is dead from coral bleaching due to warming from climate change. After reading the scientific work that led to these headlines, you get suspicious when you find out that the 50 per cent figure is based on measurements over particular reef habitats. The research involved someone sitting in an aeroplane 150 metres above the reef observing what looks like barren areas on the only part of the reef visible at that height – the reef crest. Follow-up ground-truthing measurements was only done only on those crests.
Biologist Jennifer Marohasy questioned the coral bleaching research from James Cook University claiming the survey method was flawed. She said the study ignored all the corals in the reef lagoons. Bleaching is a common event on the reef crest as it is the highest point of the reef subject to exposure at low tides, rain, and is most vulnerable during cyclones when waves damage the coral. Particularly after recent cyclones, it is not surprising that these areas are either dead or stunted in growth. Nor is bleaching the sole indicator that the reef is dying from a changing and warming climate. Bleaching is a normal process and occurs when wave-driven mixing ceases during periods of extended calm associated with the ocean surface’s unusual warming. These conditions recently happened during the extreme El Nino of 2015-16. The narrative that the reef is in trouble and requires urgent additional funding is pushed by the Queensland government and supported by research institutions dependent on public funding. Presenting an opposing view that the reef is resilient and not dying from coral bleaching doesn’t attract millions of dollars of research grants. It also doesn’t support the storytelling of the government agencies that supply the funding.
The other disturbing feature around reef science is the claim that coral growth collapsed by 14 per cent between 1990 and 2005 due to human pollution. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is the body responsible for measuring coral growth rates. They stopped measuring coral in 2005, and so we have no data for the last 15 years, despite millions of dollars thrown at reef research. Marine physicist Dr Peter Ridd and colleagues reanalysed the data and found what they believe were two significant mistakes in the original study. The first was an incorrect measurement of the near-surface coral rings on most of the corals. Secondly, much smaller and younger corals were used for analysis in the 1990-2005 data compared to the mostly large and old corals of the pre-1990 data. In other words, it is claimed AIMS changed their methodology, and that is why the results showed an apparent drop in the growth rate from 1990. When the problem was corrected in Dr Ridd’s reanalysis, the fall in growth rate disappeared. AIMS begrudgingly agreed they made a mistake with the first problem but the second error is still in dispute. The problem is, the disputed data and conclusions are still being used in government reports such as the 2019 Reef Outlook report. As Dr Ridd quite rightly points out:
“I am not cherry-picking a minor problem. It is a fundamental problem with a keystone piece of GBR science. We thus have a situation that arguably the most important data that tells us about the health of the GBR is highly questionable from 1990 to 2005. What is far worse is that we have no data whatever since 2005. The science institutions have not only failed to investigate probable major errors in their work, [but] they have also failed to update measurement of this fundamental parameter while claiming, in increasingly shrill tones, that the GBR is in peril.”
Both parties can’t be right. Dr Ridd claims little change in growth rates and AIMS say there has been a significant fall in coral calcification rates. New measurements need to be taken to test the competing theories, hypotheses and claims. Farmers, in particular, who are accused of killing the reef, would be very keen to see this issue resolved.
Many tourists are led to believe that if they visit the GBR, they will be inundated with dead and bleached coral. Once they visit the reef, they are astonished to not only see the water teeming with abundant life and healthy corals in the magnificent clear water, they also marvel at how beautiful and resilient the reef is away from the crests. Tourist operators see many parts of the reef all year round. Still, they are too timid to argue against the government and science industry doomsday narrative about the reef, even though it potentially affects their business.
I am certainly not the only one who despairs at the quality of GBR science, despite government claims they are acting on expert, peer-reviewed science in the interests of protecting the reef. According to marine biologist, Walter Starck:
“…in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in devising hypothetical solutions to imaginary problems on the Reef, almost every productive economic activity in the region is being increasingly impacted by regulations and restrictions said to be necessary to ‘save’ the Reef. Farming, grazing, mining, fishing, tourism, aquaculture and almost any kind of development are all paying a heavy price to prevent problems that can’t be shown to actually exist and for which there is no sound evidence of any measurable beneficial effect. However, unlike the imaginary threats, this is a real and present impact on the productive economy, and it is growing”.
“The key advice documents for GBR policymakers are not fit for purpose. There is flimsy or absent rationale, poor quality of technical advice, weak logic or arguments, narrow scientific coverage, insubstantial analysis, inadequate interpretation and a lack of acceptance of challenge. Policy, regulation and public spending are inevitably compromised.”
Getting back to my dialogue with the zoologist on extinctions. I outlined to him the information he referred me to was not sufficient evidence to support the claim linking land clearing with species extinctions. He still hadn’t given me the name of just one species known to become extinct from land clearing. I believe he was uncomfortable about my request to supply supporting evidence. He wrote, “it appears that anything in print that disagrees with your point of view is a biased opinion piece”. He also believed opinion pieces by researchers hold more weight because “they are written by experts and their conclusions are based on the collection, analysis and interpretation of data”. He also claimed that because government reports are “based on peer review papers”, presumably I should kneel in front of the ‘trust me I am a scientist altar’ and worship the science they produce without question.
However, there are valid reasons for not always believing everything written by scientists for the following reasons. Research has shown that more than 70 per cent of scientists have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. Ninety per cent of respondents to a survey in Nature agreed there was a ‘reproducibility crisis’. Replication is supposed to be a hallmark of scientific integrity. According to one of the authors of the Nature study, published work is a “highly curated version of what’s actually happened”. Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, argues “the way the [publishing and funding] system is set up encourages less than optimal outcomes. What we are finding is that there is currently a 50 per cent accuracy rate with peer-reviewed papers”. Unfortunately, mistakes in peer-reviewed papers are easy to find but hard to fix, reinforcing the notion that humans are good at self-deception. This has led to poor policy choices when governments rely on scientific work for policy formulation. It is often said that academic journals today seek controversial headlines and click-bait rather than sound methodology.
The science crisis is more heavily biased towards the psychology, economics and medicine fields. It is more difficult and expensive to redo studies in ecology, and we do expect far more variation due to environmental stochasticity or random variables. However, that does not mean that ecology’s broad scientific field is not prone to biases and underhand scientific work. A 2018 study by quantitative ecologist Hannah Fraser and colleagues, found that 64 per cent of ecologists choose not to present all of the variables evaluated if they were not significant and 54 per cent reported unexpected findings as if they were predicted from the start. These are similar results to the questionable research practices found in psychology research, and it is “therefore likely that ecology has just as big a problem with reproducibility”.
This is interesting, especially when we are told by scientists to believe everything they publish because it has been peer-reviewed. It is erroneous to suggest the peer-review process is ‘a gold standard of scientific proof’. It is more a process of checking if the hypothesis is sound and relevant and supported by the Introduction; the logic of the paper is sound; the methods are sound and relate to the hypothesis; the argument is well constructed etcetera. Peer reviewers do not do the experiment again. Nor do they make the same observations and obtain the same results – they do not replicate the research. The ‘proof’ of the findings of a research paper are confirmed under the blowtorch of ‘test by replication’.
There are examples of these problems in forest science. For example, a published paper was recently retracted. Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick wrote an opinion editorial (op-ed) in the Fairfax newspapers on the 7 June 2020. He claimed multiple peer-reviewed studies on bushfire science had “clear and overwhelming evidence…that logging makes forests more flammable”. All of the academics who wrote those papers were ecologists, not fire scientists. They erroneously claimed that a contradictory paper on fire behaviour in 2013 was funded by the logging industry, implying a certain level of bias when the paper concluded timber harvesting did not increase fire risks. The authors of the 2013 paper were a fire scientist, a former head of CSIRO’s Bushfire Research Unit and five employees of state government land agencies, including two who are amongst the nation’s leading bushfire researchers. Following the op-ed, a research paper was published and co-authored by three University of Tasmania academics, including Professor Kirkpatrick. The paper claimed managed forests were more susceptible to burning. However, it was retracted by the authors in August just three months after publication. The paper incorrectly categorised forest types from publicly available data sets to make their case more plausible. Despite a relatively short peer review process, it took two volunteer independent scientists and academics to pick up the errors through publicly available data and highlight the substantial issues in methodology.
Additionally, one of the co-authors of the retracted paper is a research associate employed by the University of Tasmania and also works for the Bob Brown Foundation. It is a non-profit fund affiliated with the protest group ‘Forest Watch’ and was set up to “help campaigns and activists who show real pluck and intelligence in protecting ecosystems, species and wild and scenic health.” Accusations have been made that the publication fees of the retracted paper were paid for by the Foundation. Questions have also been raised about the partiality of a university employee’s research work and their apparent conflict of interest while working for a radical environmental group that continually breaks the law at forest protests and has members arrested.
Scientists have used wrong information in their analysis which has led to an erroneous conclusion. I know of an example where a study relied on 80 per cent of a region’s forests being available for harvesting when the official figure was only 39 per cent. The findings in that article were based on inaccurate information that was not picked up during the peer review process, and the assertions and conclusions are now in question.
Some papers are published after a rapid peer-review process. In some cases, the peer review process is as short as ten business days. The peer review process of itself is no guarantor of good quality science as the process is not designed to pick up any experimental faults. That only comes if the research is scrutinised by peers from the wider scientific community.
Meanwhile, my little debate with the zoologist continued. He posted a lengthy ten-part repost to my further challenge. However, still, not one extinct species due to land clearing was named. Surely there must be examples based on data that falsified a falsifiable hypothesis. Then a botanist from Western Australia chimed in. She said “it’s guaranteed that we’re losing species (and ecosystems) before we even know they existed” and that “it’s not up for debate”. She may well be right but my rational and inquiring mind is working overtime at this point with so many questions. If you don’t know species were alive, how do you know they are dead? Do you discover unknown dead specimens? After you discover this new species, how do you know none are still alive and they are now extinct? If you don’t know anything about the species, how certain are you they died from tree clearing and not natural or other causes?
I inquired further and she simply replied: “I was not interested in the truth”. With the stroke of seven piercing words my understanding of science and how it works was shattered. Clearly it is not based on observing a pattern, enunciating a theory, collecting data, verifying the data supports the theory and verifying that it is reproducible. Instead, it is all about accepting someone’s version of the truth without any evidence. The problem for the botanist, however, is that science is a mode of inquiry, not a belief structure. The best way you can establish that a hypothesis is true, is to try to prove it is false and fail. The scientific method is designed so that you can never definitively establish the ‘truth’ of a hypothesis, but over time you can go close. This is the nub of the problem when anyone is involved in scientific debates these days. The official narrative is permanently immunised from attempts at falsification but still assumes the mantle of ‘science’. When assertions based on scientific work are challenged and cannot be defended, debate quickly shifts to ad-hominem attacks or belief systems or both, or is closed down – “it’s not up for debate”. The truth I am interested in is based on the scientific method, which is clearly different to the botanist’s version of the truth.
Firstly, I want to make clear that I do respect scientists and their work. In my profession I have relied on scientific work to do my job. I believe that sometimes claims are made as scientific truths when in fact there is no falsifiable science that supports that view. Occasionally scientists make claims outside of their field of expertise. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it also doesn’t mean they are automatically right. If you read or hear something that doesn’t quite ring true in your mind, then ask, challenge and seek the knowledge that keeps you informed. The best scientific approach is to be sceptical, to question, critique and research rather than blindly accept what someone is saying. There is nothing wrong with arguing a contrarian viewpoint if you believe it is valid. That is what I did when I read the bold claim that land clearing is the principal driver of animal extinctions. Firstly, if it was true then I would learn something new and would it help me ensure I don’t just believe things I want to believe (aka confirmation bias). Plus, I was keen to read the studies that proved that was the case and add them to my professional library. Judging by the lack of evidence to support their claim, I believe I was justified in asking the question.
I think it would have been better for the ABC and the zoologist to qualify their claim by stating “land clearing is carried out at an extensive scale and it is thought it could be the main driver of animal extinctions, but there is no definitive scientific proof to confidently say this. We believe more research in this area is required”.
Secondly, I believe there is a disturbing trend within large scientific institutions set up by governments to research a specific field where proper scientific methods are not closely followed. They produce a disproportionate amount of research that fits a pre-determined narrative to promote doomsday prophecies. There is a distinct lack of establishing a hypothesis and proving it does not fail with evidence and data. Some scientists within these organisations who question the scientific methods are too afraid to speak up as they are seen to be non- collegiate and risk losing their job. One high profile example of this was the sacking of Dr Ridd by the James Cook University after he publicly questioned the veracity of Great Barrier Reef science emanating from the university.
I can report that following a complaint from Forest and Wood Communities Australia, the Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that the inaccuracies and lack of context in the ABC article on land clearing had the effect of unduly highlighting the role of commercial forestry activities in land clearing, and was therefore not in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards for impartiality. Specifically, the article conflated land clearing with deforestation; reasonable efforts were not made to verify images purporting to show illegal logging; inadequate context was provided regarding forestry, including that commercial forestry activities regrow/replant trees; insufficient context was provided in the Victoria and Tasmania sections which had the effect of overstating the role of native forest logging in land clearing; and inadequate context was provided about the Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs) particularly around environmental protections.
I wonder if the ABC’s claim that “land clearing and habitat loss are the biggest drivers of animal extinction” should also be tested against their requirement to be balanced, unbiased and impartial. After all, I am still none the wiser about what animals have become extinct from land clearing and what evidence supports that claim. If anyone can provide the information, please leave a comment to this article.
I don’t believe I am being too harsh and unfair on the ABC. How can any competent manager allow the same type of complaints to be upheld? Why aren’t the reporters and journalists trained to present their stories to avoid the same successful complaints against them? This is not about exercising editorial control, something ABC employees die in a ditch over. Surely the ABC can present its stories to meet its own standards without compromising the obvious ideological prejudices of its reporters and managerial staff.
My forestry blog on 6 November provides more context around the land clearing debate in Queensland that is ignored by the mainstream media – https://www.robertonfray.com/2020/11/06/woody-weed-invasion-of-the-rangelands/
 He didn’t distinguish between prescribed on the landscape level or mega wildfires, but reports from the recent 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires have indicated the tragic loss of wildlife over 18 million hectares.
 This report is prepared by a UN offshoot called United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. They have established a Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG) to provide technical advice and support. The work of STAG “encompasses all aspects of the scientific and technical dimensions of risk reduction…” To the layman, this means they rely on scientific advice as part of their work on reducing risks of disasters.
 Senate Inquiry: Identification of leading practices in ensuring evidence-based regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef 2020. Submission number 46.
 Baker, M. (2016) 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility. Nature 533: 452–454
 I was surprised to learn that an extraordinary number of published scientific papers across all disciplines are retracted each year. There is a great website that keeps track of these retractions – https://retractionwatch.com
 Conservation ecologist, Dr Jamie Kirkpatrick is a respected academic in Tasmania. I have used some of his research in my book “Fires, Farms and Forests: a human history of Surrey Hills, north-west Tasmania”. He is quoted as saying of the retraction “we all make mistakes. I find it devastating to be part of. I have written 333 refereed papers and this is the only one I have had to retract.”
 To really understand how the Bob Brown Foundation works you can read a summary of their activist training sessions that train people in the art of protest and arrest revealed on Facebook – see Support Tassies Timber People posts from November 2019.