AS MOST readers will now be aware, the Ian Plimer/Allen Roberts court case has been adjudicated, and the results for Ian were not as he had hoped. The case was brought under federal Trade Practices legislation and state Fair Trading legislation and concerned two issues. The first was a breach of copyright action, where Ian’s co-applicant, David Fasold, alleged that Roberts had used a diagram, Fasold’s intellectual property, without permission. The second issue alleged that, in his lectures and sale of tapes, etc, Roberts had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in pursuit of trade.
In the first matter, the judge found that Roberts had breached Fasold’s copyright and awarded the latter damages of $2,500. In the other matter, the judge found that Roberts and his co-respondent, Ark Search Inc., had not been engaged in trade or commerce, within the meaning of the act. He did find that statements made by Roberts in his lectures, and in preparation of brochures were false and misleading, but, as he had already found that the respondents were not engaged in trade or commerce, then no law had been infringed. At the time of going to press, it is expected that Ian Plimer will appeal the findings.
Interviewed on TV after the judgement, Roberts claimed that he had been completely vindicated and that it was a victory for freedom of speech. On the first point, it is surely a strange interpretation of the result, which found that he had used another person’s property without permission and that he had made false and misleading statements, for him to claim complete vindication.
On the second, and more serious point, we wonder that the words did not choke him. There have always been elements of “freedom of speech” in this case and it is an issue that greatly concerns Australian Skeptics. The case developed precisely because those who arranged Roberts’ meeting denied that freedom to people who attended the meetings, and who wished to ask questions. In at least one of the meetings in question, armed guards were employed to ensure that people wishing to ask questions were bodily removed. This was further compounded by a writ taken out against Ian Plimer, accusing him of defamation, as a result of comments made after one of the meetings. So much for the commitment of Roberts and his organisation to free speech.
Freedom to Question
Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental rights that underpin any democracy, but that freedom always incorporates the freedom of others to question one’s statements. It is not an infringement of anyone’s freedom of speech to require them to justify what they say.
Since the conclusion of the case, we have received an unprecedented number of calls offering support to Ian Plimer and to the Skeptics for backing him. We were particularly heartened to find that this support came, not just from scientists and members of the sceptical public, but also from members of the Christian clergy and laity, who objected to their beliefs being tainted by association with fundamentalism. At the post-judgement press conference, every member of the Australian Museum’s professional scientific staff crowded into the Skeleton Gallery to support Ian Plimer and we must thank the Museum Director, Dr Des Griffin, for his words of encouragement and support. Among the witnesses who offered their support to Ian’s case were an elder of the Presbyterian church and an Anglican archdeacon.
Whether or not it was wise of Ian Plimer to take the action he did is a question that only he can answer — it has certainly proved to be an extremely expensive course of action, and one from which he is unlikely ever to recover financially. However, his was an extremely courageous action, and he deserves our strongest support. It was brought about by his perception of his duty, as a publicly funded scientist and educator, to challenge pseudo-scientific and anti-intellectual dogma wherever it is being foisted upon the public. It is an attitude we can only commend, and it is one that other prominent public figures might well consider emulating, though arguably not through the courts.
A writer in this issue has asked, “Is it wise to debate fools in public?” to which we can only reply with the words attributed to Edmund Burke, “It is necessary only for good men to say nothing for evil to triumph”.
Evil or Silly?
Are we over-stepping the mark in describing fundamentalist creationism as an evil? Is it, of itself, no more evil than any other basically silly belief? That is true, but it is not the belief that we regard as evil, it is the consequence of acting on that belief — the public dissemination of ignorance; in particular, the dissemination of ignorance to children. And that is precisely what organisations promoting creation “science” do; they promote ignorance because knowledge comes into conflict with their beliefs; beliefs which are neither scientifically nor theologically sustainable. Worse, they exhibit no sense of shame at their ignorance; rather, they flaunt it like a badge of honour.
In fact, there is no such thing as creation science — all of its efforts are aimed at discrediting the fact of evolution and, by extension, biological, and all other science. One will find little or no creation “science” in creationist texts; at best one will find sophistic arguments that seek to force the scientific facts to fit in with a narrow religious dogma. A few scientific terms are attached to make it seem respectable, at least to a scientifically unsophisticated audience. Creation science has as much to do with science as Donald Duck has to do with the care and maintenance of domestic poultry.
Ironically, while Ian Plimer is seen to have lost his case, its result may well have served to advance his cause of confronting and exposing pseudoscience wherever it crops up. Resulting media coverage, domestically and internationally, has thrown a great deal of critical light into some very dark places indeed. The public is now much more aware of the vacuous underpinnings of literalist creationism than it ever had been before. The evidence suggests that the promoters of this nonsense have found the unwanted glare of publicity most unwelcome, and it is up to organisations like Australian Skeptics and professional scientific and educational bodies to maintain that scrutiny.
It is no longer enough for Skeptics, scientists or educators to sweep this pernicious dogma under the carpet; to rely on the fact that its incompatibility with observed facts makes it self-evidently ridiculous. On the ABC TV 7.30 Report, on June 3, it was revealed that up to 60,000 Australian children are now enrolled in 300 schools in the “Bible-based schools” system. In the programme, Mr Bob Frisken, a leader of this movement, said “We would encourage children not to trust what they read, whether they are reading that in an encyclopaedia, or in a text book written by a Christian. We believe that God has revealed himself in the Bible and that therefore they can trust the Bible as a safe source of what God has said.” In the same programme, a child at one of the schools said “Christians … need to know that science supports creation … because of the evidence for design”
We would hardly argue with the idea that people should be sceptical of what they read, but Frisken is not saying that. What he is saying, is that they should be sceptical of everything except the Bible, because he believes that God has revealed himself in that book and that he knows what it is that God has said. The child has been told that science supports creation, when quite clearly science does no such thing. Science has nothing at all to say about “creation” in this sense, but, because the child has had propaganda fed to him under the guise of creation “science”, he has been misled as to what science is about.
New government regulations allow such schools to attract state funding and, the programme claimed, their numbers are expanding by 10% per year. We can therefore expect that increasing numbers of our children will be subjected to this form of intellectual child abuse. It is just not good enough.
Reprinted with permission from the Australian Skeptics’ website.