Walking into a climate of conformity
In 1987, the American historian and philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind. It was about the mediocrity and intellectual conformity of American universities. Bloom died in 1992. If he was alive today and writing about Australian universities his book could be titled The Closed Australian Mind.
The reaction of university academics to the Abbott government's decision to provide $1 million to fund a branch of Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Centre at the University of Western Australia demonstrates all that's wrong with Australia's universities. Their culture tends to be distrustful, insular and choked in unthinking intellectual uniformity. That's why the number of Australian researchers who rival Lomborg's global renown can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Probably the closest any Australian comes to having anything like Lomborg's international standing in the field of philosophy and policy is the ethicist Peter Singer now at Princeton University. (Singer who supports infanticide in some circumstances was voted one of Australia's most outstanding public intellectuals. He's also been awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia, the country's second-highest honour.)
Instead of welcoming a world-class public policy thinker coming to Australia and to their university, academics and students at the University of Western Australia are outraged. The vice-president of the university's staff association talked of having the funding revoked, while the student guild launched a 'Say No to Bjorn Lomborg' campaign.
Lomborg's problem is he's a climate "contrarian". As the The Guardian newspaper has helpfully pointed out a climate "contrarian" is someone who is not a climate "denialist" but who nevertheless says things that "infuriate" people who believe climate change is the world's most serious and urgent problem. And the reason we know Lomborg is not a "denialist" is because the university's vice-chancellor says so. At a meeting last week of 150 angry academics the vice-chancellor attempted to placate his staff by reassuring them Lomborg most definitely wasn't a "denialist" and his institution "had a history of defending its climate change research staff against the most extreme views of climate change deniers". (There's no record of the vice-chancellor defining what he meant by the term "denialist". Presumably his university doesn't employ any.)
Lomborg believes humans are causing the climate to change and he believes it's a problem. But he also believes that much of the money spent on fighting climate change would be better spent on overcoming malaria and HIV/Aids and assisting the 700 million people on the planet who don't have clean water. These views apparently make Lomborg unfit to hold a position at the University of Western Australia. As yet it's not clear what Lomborg would have to believe to satisfy the staff and students of the university.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom examines how the teaching of humanities has been affected by postmodernism and moral relativism. For Bloom, what's even worse is that so many academics think the same things and they won't tolerate anyone disagreeing with them. He tells the story of what happened to him as a student.
"We are used to hearing the Founders charged with being racists, murderers of Indians, representatives of class interests. I asked my first history professor in the university, a very famous scholar, whether the picture he gave us of George Washington did not have the effect of making us despise our regime. 'Not at all,' he said, 'it doesn't depend on individuals but on our having good democratic values.' To which I rejoined, 'But you just showed us that Washington was only using those values to further the class interests of the Virginian squirearchy.' He got angry, and that was the end of it."
What Bloom said about the humanities in American universities 30 years ago is true of science in Australian universities today. Those who dare to question whether the science of climate change actually is "settled" provoke anger and name calling from many in Australia's scientific community.
Australia's Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty is a leader of that community. He's another one angry Lomborg is coming to this country. Doherty's attitude is disappointing but also perplexing. Without contrarian thinkers there wouldn't be many Nobel Prizes to hand out.