Science and Free Speech
Dr Alex Ritchie
Dr Alex Ritchie received his BSc. (Hons) in Geology and a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh. He worked as a Paleantologist at the Australian Museum from
1968 to 1995 where he is currently a Research Fellow.
As a participant and witness for the scientific side in the recent Plimer/Roberts "Noah's Ark" court case, I have been disturbed by media reports in Australia and overseas suggesting that Justice Sackville's verdict was a victory for free speech. I disagree and would appreciate an opportunity to explain why, based on my own experience. Very important principles are at stake in this matter.
This has been reinforced by the news on July 2, 1997 that the Geological Society of London, the oldest geological society in the world, has made Professor Ian Plimer an Honorary Fellow for his "courageous stand" against creationism—international recognition of the fact that he is "a man of enormous courage who has put his money where his mouth is."
In delivering his judgment in the Plimer/Roberts case, Justice Sackville took the opportunity to comment that "there is a serious risk that the courts will be used as a means of suppressing debate and discussion on issues of general interest to the community." Most of your readers would probably agree with His Honour, as I do—but most of them would also be unaware that his judgment was based on only part of the evidence and tells only part of the story. The Plimer/Roberts "Noah's Ark" case was not about free speech, nor was it about creationism. The judge was asked to determine, within the strict confines of the Fair Trading Act, whether Allen Roberts had made misleading statements in a series of public lectures about Noah's Ark "in trade and commerce". Evidence deemed irrelevant to the strict provisions of the Fair Trading Act was therefore rejected as inadmissible before the case began.
However, some of the rejected evidence bears directly on the free-speech issue. It was all the more surprising, therefore, that Justice Sackville, having considered only part of the evidence, chose to speculate publicly about the possible effects of such cases on free speech. It was also ironic that Allen Roberts, despite having been found to be "misleading and deceptive", was able to hail his technical legal win as a victory for "free speech".
In a democratic society, the concept of free speech surely also includes the right to reply, to dissent, to question. I have attended many public meetings organised by so-called "creation scientists" and can confirm, from personal experience, that many creationists have a strange concept of "free speech". The format of the meeting is always tightly controlled. Various tactics and stratagems are employed to ensure that discussion or dissent is minimised or prevented. This is especially true if any scientist present tries to protest about public misrepresentation of science.
"Dr" Allen Roberts's lecture tour provided a good example of how the process works. Before each of Roberts' public lectures on "Noah’s Ark", the meeting chairman would announce to the audience that Roberts would not respond to questions from the floor. He would only answer written questions dropped in a barrel in the foyer during the interval and left temporarily out of sight when the audience re-entered the hall. Roberts’s Ark lectures, heavily dependent on biblical sources, also included many references to supposed scientific evidence supporting his findings. To anyone scientifically literate, these revealed Roberts's limited knowledge of science, and especially of geology.
Professor Ian Plimer, Head of the School of Geology in the University of Melbourne and one of Australia's most experienced and respected geologists, attended Roberts' Ark lecture in Melbourne in April 1992. When he publicly challenged Roberts on his statements about geology and tried to question him, the chairman immediately called on police, apparently waiting ready in the wings, to evict Plimer from the hall.
Later the same week, Plimer flew to Tasmania to attend Roberts' next lecture in Hobart and invited a Channel 9 TV crew to accompany him to record what might happen. Plimer again tried to question Roberts on geological matters and the results were caught on camera. When he rose to ask his question the chairman immediately called on police officers, again conveniently waiting in the wings, to evict him. The bizarre aspect of this eviction was not just that it happened, but where it happened. The Hobart meeting was held on the grounds of the University of Tasmania and saw a respected Professor of Geology evicted from university premises for daring to ask a fundamentalist creationist a question on his own specialty - geology! And the officials who evicted him were not campus police, but state police, operating outside their jurisdiction.
Word of these events soon spread through the scientific community. I decided to attend Roberts's lecture on "Noah's Ark" held a month later, in May 1992, in the Wesley Centre in Pitt Street in central Sydney. I took the precaution of inviting some friends, science students and members of Australian Skeptics to accompany me, and approximately thirty of them did so. Plimer, who was passing through Sydney, was also present. As we entered the hall together, he was handed a writ for defamation, taken out by Roberts, concerning remarks that Plimer had made about Roberts’s "scientific" qualifications.
When we entered the hall we saw no sign of police, but something more alarming. The auditorium was patrolled by five burly security guards, the leader ostentatiously wearing a two-foot long wooden club in a sheath on his hip. They circulated the hall trying to identify potential "trouble makers". One security guard occupied the seat immediately behind mine throughout Roberts's lecture, presumably to intimidate me. I had not intended to interject during Roberts's talk, but could not stay quiet during one of his more fatuous references to scientific evidence. My query, about radiocarbon dating, was picked up by another member of the audience who, for his pains, was evicted from the auditorium, together with his wife, by the security guards. He was Dr Colin Murray Wallace, an expert in radiocarbon dating, then with Newcastle University!
In the interval after Roberts's talk, I asked my supporters to form a protective square around myself and Plimer when we went back into the hall for question time. In the naive belief that it is not yet against the law in Australia to ask a speaker a polite question at a public meeting, I intended asking Roberts a simple geological question! During his talk, in referring to the "boat-shaped structure" in Turkey, which he interprets as remains of Noah's Ark, Roberts scathingly said that "some geologists say this is only a geosyncline!" In a newspaper article a week before the Sydney meeting I had been mistakenly reported as describing the structure as a "geosyncline" when in fact I used a quite different term—a syncline. A first-year geology student would know the difference.
During question time, I rose and invited Roberts "to explain to his audience the difference between a syncline and a geosyncline". Pandemonium ensued. The chairman of the meeting leapt to his feet and shouted "Call the police!" At the same time three of the security guards forced their way into the centre of our group to confront me, trampling on the feet of my supporters to do so. "Sir, you are causing a disturbance and we are asking you to leave." I had quietly resumed my seat after asking my question, and I declined their invitation to leave until I got an answer to my question. Three of them then proceeded to try to lift me bodily out of my seat to throw me out of the hall. Being of a fairly robust constitution, I was able to remain attached to the seat until they belatedly realised that they had gone too far and withdrew. It was real storm-trooper tactics—but it took place in the centre of Sydney in the 1990s
Only later did I discover what might have happened if things had got out of control and turned really nasty! Dr Peter Pockley, a qualified scientist, attended Roberts' Sydney meeting as a science journalist writing for various newspapers and journals. He later informed me that he had seen the security guard leader bring in another three clubs and place them on an empty seat near our group, presumably ready for use.
Roberts made no attempt to answer my simple geological question, or any other questions from the barrel. The meeting closed shortly afterwards, after state police finally arrived, wondering what all the fuss was about. It was a very educational experience, and very illuminating in what creationists mean when they talk about "free speech". In their interpretation, "free speech" means they have the right to misquote or misrepresent scientific evidence in public in front of lay audiences of adults and children. And if any scientist in the hall is foolhardy enough to publicly question, or disagree, they believe they have the right to evict them from the hall, by force if necessary. So, when "Dr" Allen Roberts claims that his rights to freedom of speech are being infringed by scientists, I beg to differ.
I have many witnesses to confirm what happened when I tried to question "Dr" Roberts on a matter of science. In my long scientific career I have never ever attended a scientific meeting where the organisers felt it necessary to have police waiting in the wings, or to employ baton-wielding security guards, to ensure that no one asked the speaker a question.
The Canberra Times recently reported that Senator Kim Carr was concerned about the number and nature of new fundamentalist schools being opened around Australia, many of which receive both state and federal funding, but whose activities were, he said, "shrouded in mystery and completely unaccountable." "We have no mechanisms to check what is going on in these schools" he says, and he is correct. "Dr" Roberts' doctoral thesis, from Freedom University (based at a suburban church in Orlando, Florida) was "On the teaching of absolute Christian values in Australian primary schools". Having experienced what happens when I, a qualified scientist with 40 years' experience in geology and paleontology, tried to question Roberts on scientific matters, I shudder to think what reception a bright pupil might receive in a fundamentalist school if he or she had the temerity to question a creation science teacher's statement that the world was formed in six 24-hour days, 6000 years ago, and that all of the world's rock and fossil record was laid down in the year of Noah’s Flood!
No one is attacking, or questioning, creationists' rights to free speech. No scientist is demanding equal rights to teach science as well as creationism from the pulpits of churches. But surely we have a right and a duty to question the intrusion of religious dogma into science classes of Australian schools, especially those supported by state or federal funding.
We live in a competitive and highly technological world. Our survival as a nation is dependent on encouraging our best and brightest students to develop their skills and compete in an international arena, and that includes the fields of science and technology. If children are not exposed to the scientific method while still at school then it is unlikely that most of them will encounter it after leaving school. Who knows how many bright pupils have been turned off science forever by missionaries masquerading as science teachers in their schools? Mainstream religious organisations may also like to ponder how many students have had their religious beliefs shattered after discovering that they have been systematically lied to by proponents of pseudoscience in the classroom.
Despite the outcome of the Plimer/Roberts case, I suggest that Judge Sackville has clarified the situation by his judgment. He may well also have created a legal precedent for tackling the educational threat to the education system in Australia posed by young-earth, Noah's Flood creationists. His Honour found that, had the Fair Trading Act applied to this case, Roberts's behaviour "would have constituted misleading and deceptive conduct on his part." Despite this, Judge Sackville found in Roberts' favour because, technically, he was not "in trade and commerce". His Honour took into account that Roberts did not receive a salary from his Noah's Ark lecture tour and that his organisation was not incorporated at the time of the public lectures and was supported by unpaid volunteers, not by paid staff. Roberts' lecture tour was not "a business carried on for profit". Roberts also did not operate from special premises but from his own home. It should be noted, however, that the main drive to infiltrate creationist teachings into the science classes of Australian schools is spearheaded, not by Roberts, but by an organisation called the Creation Science Foundation (CSF).
The CSF has established headquarters in Brisbane and Sydney, and a mobile arm, its Creation Bus, which regularly tours throughout Australia. The CSF is an incorporated organisation and much of its income comes from the sale of its own long-established publications (magazines, journals, books), audio and video tapes etc. Although CSF uses volunteers for many of its activities it also employs many permanent staff on salary. I suggest that it is legally "in trade and commerce" and is "a business carried on for profit".
In his judgment on the Plimer/Roberts case, Judge Sackville may thus have inadvertently provided grounds for a follow up court case, if a public-spirited sponsor can be found. I suggest that sufficient grounds exist for a legal class action on behalf of the scientific and educational communities in Australia against the threat to scientific education posed by the Creation Science Foundation.
The aim of such a case would be "to request and require the Creation Science Foundation to remove the word "science" from the name of its organisation on the grounds that such usage constitutes "misleading and deceptive conduct". It can hardly be an infringement of their rights merely to require the CSF, in future, to call itself the Creation Foundation, especially since their own Statement of Faith makes it abundantly clear that, in all matters, science is subordinate to religion.
Such a test case would provide an opportunity for any qualified scientist (and there are several) employed by CSF to explain publicly why its activities should be classed as scientific rather than religious.
In proposing this it should be made clear that no one is attacking CSF's right to free speech, or to publish or promote its creationist wares and views, only its claim to be using scientific methods and evidence to support such claims. Many scientists, myself included, who are well aware of the misrepresentation of science inherent in fundamentalist creationism, would welcome an opportunity to question, in open court, leading Australian creation scientists on the "science" behind "scientific" creationism. This should not be seen as an attack on religion but as a public defence of science. I suspect that, given the opportunity, most mainstream churches would support the case for a clear demarcation of science and religion as different ways of interpreting the world around us.
The problem, as Ian Plimer recently discovered to his considerable cost, is that no working scientist has the financial resources to mount such a legal test case personally. I invite some public spirited individual or organisation with sufficient financial backing to sponsor a class action on behalf of Australian science and education to test the legality of "science" in the "Creation Science Foundation".
[Ed. Readers should be aware that the Australian Creation Science Foundation has recently changed its name to Answers in Genesis, which is the name used by Australian-born creationist Ken Ham for his US-based organisation.]