Saturday, March 31, 2012

Murray Gate 3 The Response, the debate

The following correspondence with Media Watch producer Lin Buckfield, Richard Kingsford, Jennifer Marohasy and Peter Ridd is published in the public interest. We look forward to seeing the proposed debate between Jennifer Marohasy and Richard Kingsford telecast, (but we won't be holding our breath). We still await responses to follow up questions from Richard Kingsford and Lin Buckfield over ABC's misrepresentation of comments made by Peter Ridd. Their silence is deafening.

 ...there are two much wider problems here which I tried to get across in my phone conversation with Media Watch.  The first is the manipulation of the media by the large government organisations, and the second is the lack of a mechanism in science where we can guarantee that the science behind the big environmental issues of our time have been properly scrutinized (not merely peer reviewed).
Peter Ridd

It seems Media Watch are interested in telling the story they want to tell, and anyone who does not play by its rules are treated accordingly.

Each email large bold at start

from: Marc Hendrickx
to: Lin Buckfield
cc: Richard.Kingsford, Jennifer Marohasy, Peter Ridd
date: Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 6:30 AM
subject: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March
 Dear Lin,
Just seeking to clarify a few things regarding your report on Monday March 19. Your reply for possible posting on the ABC NEWS WATCH Blog. I have cc'd Prof. Richard Kingsford, Dr Jennifer Marohasy, and Dr Peter Ridd and would be interested in their comments as well. 

It seems that in the course of your 10 minutes or so on the subject of reporting science you failed to live up to the standards you were promulgating.

In regard to Jennifer Marohasy's AEF report  Plugging The Murray River’s Mouth: the Interrupted Evolution of a Barrier Estuary Media Watch pointed out the document was reviewed by Professor Peter Ridd, James Cook University. You indicated "Professor Ridd is a director of the AEF and has known Dr Marohasy for years. " You then added the sarcastic remark  "So much for peer-review."

Media Watch then went on to provide examples of a number of experts who agreed and disagreed with Dr Marohasy's report. However for some reason Media Watch did not shine the same intense light of scrutiny on these experts. Unlike Dr Marohasy their relationships with their funding agencies, the nature of the peer review of their reports and their political allegiances were left totally unexplored.  It seems you reported only one side of the story.

For instance Media Watch quote Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, who disagrees with Dr Marohasy's policy for the lower Murray lakes. In his assessment, provided by Media Watch, Dr Kingsford cites a 2011 paper that was published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research*. The journal is edited by Dr Andrew Boulton who has previously collaborated with Dr Kingsford, Dr Boulton is referred to in the acknowledgements of the paper. It seems Dr Boulton and  Dr Kingsford  have had a close working relationship going back many years. Based on this, is a similar sarcastic remark such as "So much for peer-review." warranted for the paper by Dr Kingsford?

Did Media Watch seek more information about Dr Kingsford's sources of funding that according to The Conversationinclude "Australian Research Council, State and Federal Governments, industry groups and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority". Which "Industry groups" are relevant here?  Should Media Watch have asked for more information about Dr Kingsford's sources of funding?

What does Dr Kingsford's odd endorsement of ALP politician Nathan Rees as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2006 say about his political affiliations? "Professor Richard Kingsford is a water expert from the University of NSW who has fought to save the Murray Darling Basin and has been impressed with Rees's intelligence and his refusal to suffer fools. "I've had a bit to do with various water ministers over the years and he's by far and away the best I have come across," says Kingsford, who reckons other minister are often captive to their advisers."He has an ability to listen for a long time and to come in with politically incisive and technically incisive questions. That's a breath of fresh air." Should Media Watch have asked for more information about Dr Kingsford's political leanings?

I am not asserting or implying in any manner that Dr Kingsford's professional judgement and integrity as a scientist have been influenced or corrupted by personal financial gain. Nor am I disputing his right to promote his views and challenge and debate the views of others. I am merely pointing out the different manner Media Watch treated Dr Marohasy compared to the manner it reported the comments of experts Media Watch appear to agree with. The role science plays in policy is increasingly important, the media should remember at all times to maintain their independence and impartiality.

The point of the story is that  "journalists too easily swallow, and pass on without challenge, highly controversial claims put forward in the name of science, by organisations whose agendas aren't obvious from their names. It seems that Media Watch struggles just as much as the rest.

Marc Hendrickx

(*Kingsford, R.T., K. F. Walker, R.E. Lester, W.J. Young, P.G. Fairweather, J. Sammut, M.C. Geddes (2011). A Ramsar wetland in crisis – the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth, Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 62: 255-265.) 

from: Richard Kingsford 
to: Marc Hendrickx
cc: Jennifer Marohasy, Ridd, Peter, Lin Buckfield
date: Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 1:38 PM
subject: RE: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March
Dear Marc

In response to the three substantive issues raised in your email, I make this response.

1.      I have collaborated with Dr Boulton in the past but as editor of a scientific journal it was his responsibility to deal with the submission of our paper in an objective and professional manner. As with any other scientific paper, the manuscript you refer to was reviewed anonymously by two scientists. Both recommended publication, subject to clarification of a number of issues. This is the normal process of peer review. I do not know who those scientists were as clearly this was the role of the editor. The paper followed the strict protocols laid down by the peer review process.
2.      Funding. Most of the funding for my group’s research comes from normal research sources, which you listed in your email and were listed on the Conversation. The reason that only ‘industry groups’ as a category was listed was because we obtain relatively small amounts of funding from a range of different organisations including Catchment Management Authorities, fauna conservation groups (e.g. Birds Australia), farming groups and councils. There was not sufficient space to list all of the groups. They probably account for less than five percent of my research funding. Funds from these groups are invariably used to support honours or postgraduate projects, or other relatively small projects. In particular, all our publications acknowledge such funding sources.
3.      Political connections. It is the nature of our research that we focus on key issues for sustainability; many are relevant to the natural resource or conservation management of governments. Over the course of my work, I have been asked to brief a number of Ministers from both major parties, including Nathan Rees, who was Minister for Water. He invited me to discuss a particular water management issue with him. My comment about his capabilities were purely in relation to many other Ministers that I have briefed and his ability to quickly understand the key issues. I am not a member of any political party and only interact with politicians on the basis of my research work.

Yours sincerely

Richard Kingsford

Professor of Environmental Science
Director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences University of New South Wales Sydney NSW 2052

from: Lin Buckfield 
to: Marc Hendrickx
cc:  Richard Kingsford, Jennifer Marohasy, Peter Ridd
date: Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 6:49 PM
subject: RE: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March
Dear Marc

Thank you for your email regarding the Media Watch program which aired on Monday, 19th March 2012.

Media Watch stands by its report which looked at how the media covered the release of a report commissioned by the AEF and authored by Dr. Jennifer Marohasy. Media Watch stands by the meticulous research undertaken by the program in compiling the item that was broadcast.

To be clear, Media Watch did not  dispute the right of the AEF and Dr Marohasy to promote the views expressed in the report “Plugging the Murray River’s Mouth: the Interrupted Evolution of a Barrier Estuary.”

What Jonathan Holmes in summing up was this:
We are saying that journalists too easily swallow, and pass on without challenge, highly controversial claims put forward in the name of science, by organisations whose agendas aren't obvious from their names.

With regard to your comments about the peer review of Dr Marohasy’s paper by Dr Ridd, you omit to mention the admission made to our researcher by Dr Ridd.  He said, as we reported: ...”if what you are saying is, there is a possibility that we are friends and I haven't seen all the flaws in it, then I'm quite happy to accept that.” 

It was that remark that prompted Jonathan Holmes to say “so much for peer review”.

With regard to your comments about Prof Richard Kingsford, so far as we are aware, his scientific views have been published in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals.   The fact that an author is the former colleague of an editor does not invalidate the peer-review process, which is, or should be, undertaken by two or three reviewers  who are not made aware of the identity of the author of the paper reviewed.  If the peer review of Prof Kingston’s paper had been conducted by Dr Boulton, on his own, that might be a parallel to the Marohasy paper, but you do not seem to be alleging that.

Prof Kingsford was clearly identified by Media Watch as someone who disagrees with Dr Marohasy’s report and takes issue with the AEF’s interpretation of what constitutes “peer review”.

Media Watch is not aware of any outstanding issues regarding the “peer review” status of any papers published by Dr Kingsford in any reputable scientific journal.  

I note that you have cc’d your email to Prof Kingsford, Dr Marohasy and Dr Peter Ridd, I look forward to reading any comments they might have on the matters you raise in your email.

Lin Buckfield
Executive Producer
Media Watch

from: Marc Hendrickx 
to: Lin Buckfield, Richard Kingsford, Peter Ridd, Jennifer Marohasy
date: Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 8:06 PM
subject: Re: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March
Dear Richard,
Thanks for your response, it is appreciated. And your explanations are entirely satisfactory and appropriate, as were Dr Marohasy's to Media Watch. The point of my email was to highlight the different treatment afforded by Media Watch to Dr Marohasy, and Peter Ridd compared to yourself.  It seems Media Watch are interested in telling the story they want to tell, and anyone who does not play by its rules are treated accordingly. For instance, here's how your response about peer review could have been broadcast (in italics) If Media Watch were so inclined:

1. On peer review..Prof. Kingsford has worked closely with Dr Boulton. Did editor Boulton choose reviewers likely to provide a soft review? Fortunately for Prof. Kingsford and Boulton, the reviewer's identities remain anonymous so we will never know  (insert sarcastic comment). 

It is disappointing that Lin Buckfield has taken Peter Ridd's comments entirely out of context. It seems he was providing an honest response indicating that given his previous relationship with Dr Marohasy it may be possible that he may have overlooked problems in Dr Marohasy's report. He did not say that he had. He said that Media Watch had implied it. While the policy outcomes of Dr Marohasy's report are obviously open to challenge, the facts as presented in the report that document an estuarine history for the lower lakes do not appear to have been significantly challenged. What do you say Richard? Did Lin Buckfield and Media Watch fairly represent Peter Ridd's comments? Would you be happy if your comments were presented in the same manner?

Lin, perhaps you can provide the full transcript of Peter Ridd's interview with your staffers. It seems it's missing from the Media Watch website.

ABC is not supposed to take an editorial position. However it is very clear that Media Watch have. 

Best Wishes

Marc Hendrickx

PS Richard I enjoyed your contribution to the ABC's Lake Eyre Documentary the other night. Remarkable country.

from: Jennifer Marohasy 
to: Marc Hendrickx, Lin Buckfield, Richard Kingsford, Peter Ridd
date: Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 10:51 PM
subject: Re: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March

Hi Marc
Thanks for your email. 
I get the impression that Lin Buckfield and the Media Watch Team are not that clever.  I also get the impression that they really don't understand the concept of peer review.  I also get the impression that they don't understand the difference between blind review for publication in a scientific journal and the more open peer review that is common for commissioned technical reports like my report 'Plugging the Murray Mouth: The Interrupted Evolution of a Barrier Estuary".  
Of course some reports are not peer-reviewed at all.   Consider the report by Jennie Fluin, Deborah Haynes and John Tibby entitled  'An environmental history of the Lower Lakes and Coorong'.  
Was this report, commissioned by the SA Department of Environment and Heritage, peer-reviewed at all?  If so by whom?
This is the key report that the South Australian government quotes when anyone make enquires about their claim that Lake Alexandrina has a freshwater history.   
This is also the report that Xanthe Kleinig from Media Watch relied upon as she gathered information for the Media Watch broadcast last Monday.
Can Media Watch confirm that this report by Fluin et al., so central to their argument, has been peer-reviewed at all?
Of course the real value of a report, be it my report 'Plugging the Mouth...', or their non-peer reviewed report, 'An environmental history...', is whether or not the information presented stands the test of time.  
But it would also be good, nevertheless, if as you suggest, the Media Watch team could provide the full transcript of the interview with Peter Ridd. I know, and you know, that they misrepresented what he said about peer-review.  It would be good to see the evidence.
Xanthe Kleinig from Media Watch also spoke on the phone to John Abbot about peer-review as part of her research.  In that conversation Ms Kleinig misrepresented the issue of peer review.  That is why Dr Abbot wisely terminated that conversation.
We know that Ms Buckfield and the Media Watch team, including Ms Kleinig, aren't scientists and don't understand the concept of peer-review or evidence.
We also know that they don't understand the natural history of the Lower Lakes and neither does Dr Kingsford.  Yet there is so much available evidence - good evidence that ordinary people who care about this issue could consider. 
I would of course be prepared to debate Dr Kingsford on ABC National Television on this issue of whether or not Lake Alexandrina was part of the Murray River's estuary before construction of the barrages - or not.    
I would simply ask that the broadcast be live and that I be given equal time to answer the questions.   Such a debate should be something the ABC is interested in facilitating, particularly given the importance of this issue.  
We are talking about the possible waste of $10 billion dollars of taxpayer’s monies.  It a big budget! And I write 'waste' because so much of the money spent and water 'saved' is meant to be for the environment.  This is what has been repeatedly broadcast as fact on ABC radio and TV.  But there is mounting evidence that the water is just for the dam at the bottom of the river system; I'm referring to that artificially created freshwater reservoir called Lake Alexandrina.  Of course I'm prepared to argue my case.  
There are many Australians who do care about this issue, and the truth, and the media's treatment of the same.   
Consider for example the information provided at Jo Nova's blog and some of the insight comments that follow on exactly this issue...  
This information, at Jo Nova’s blog, is on the short and punchy side.  This is clearly what Media Watch would like to be.  But just keeps missing the mark, and not understanding the available evidence.

from: Marc Hendrickx 
to: Jennifer Marohasy, Lin Buckfield, Richard Kingsford, Peter Ridd
date: Sat, Mar 24, 2012 at 6:26 AM
subject: Re: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March
Thanks Jennifer,
It's clear that policy in this area is being developed without the full facts being known. The politicisation of aspects of environmental science and the participation of ignorant activists in the media is clearly not helping the formulation of appropriate policy responses. 

The more light shed on it the better, and with that in mind, if there are no objections (received by 5.00 pm Monday) I will now post this thread of letters to ABC NEWS WATCH. Bearing in mind my initial comments that responses would be made public. 

If anyone else has anything to add please do so. 


from: Peter Ridd  
to: Lin Buckfield, Marc Hendrickx, Richard Kingsford, Jennifer Marohasy
date: Mon, Mar 26, 2012 at 9:38 AM
subject: RE: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March

Dear Lin,

I am quite cross about the way my comments have been used by media watch. The point I was trying to make was that peer review is not supposed to be a process where all the flaws in a paper are found before publication. It is only by getting the paper out in the open that people can debate the ideas and challenge what may be right and what is wrong. I reviewed Jennifer’s paper as part of a process within the AEF. I think that it is an excellent paper, but there may be some flaws in it. So far I have not seen any other scientists make a significant dent in it however.

Regarding being a friend of Jennifer. Yes I consider myself to be one even though I think I have only met her 4 or 5 times mostly at the odd AEF conference. That might surprise you.

I happen to agree with her on scientific matters and our paths have crossed scientifically on many occasions, not least in the AEF, but also from many years in the past on matters associated with the bad science associated with the supposed threats to the Great barrier Reef.

You may also not be aware that many scientific papers (in major international Journals rather than small reports by and environmental organisation) are reviewed by people who know very well the authors.

Finally your central point about the AEF not being what the name implies is fundamentally in error and perhaps you could have had peer reviewed your own work better. As I mentioned in my phone interview, I have been in the conservation movement for decades ever since fighting with my mum to have the, the Downey Creek rainforest protected, and the  Daintree rainforests world heritage listed. I have played my part in getting a property developer massively fined for clearing mangroves and fought the damming of the Herbert and Tully Rivers. I spend many of my weekends killing invasive plants around my property west of Townsville (massive environmentally degradation around a platypus inhabited river)  and one of my central research themes is automated and robotic  ways of destroying invasive plants. But I am disillusioned with the present green movement. They have lost the plot. I believe we need nuclear power as a green form of energy and genetic modification of food to massively decrease herbicide and insecticide usage is obviously a sensible thing to do. It may not sound green to you but maybe you have not had long enough to think about it.

So I am in the AEF for the environment, and we are Australian and a Foundation. It sounds like a reasonable name to me. What should these journalist who reported upon our report have said. Perhaps “This report has been done by a bunch of liars and cheats masquerading as greenies”? Would that do?


Professor Peter Ridd
Department of Physics
James Cook University.

from: Peter Ridd  
to: Lin Buckfield, Marc Hendrickx, Richard Kingsford, Jennifer Marohasy
date: Mon, Mar 26, 2012 at 11:11 AM
subject: RE: some questions regarding your report Monday 19 March

Hi Lin,

I may have sounded a bit grumpy in my last email -  I do feel that you have made a bad error of judgement. But let’s move on.

But there are two much wider problems here which I tried to get across in my phone conversation with media watch.  The first is the manipulation of the media by the large government organisations, and the second is the lack of a mechanism in science where we can guarantee that the science behind the big environmental issues of our time have been properly scrutinized (not merely peer reviewed).

 Manipulation of the media: Organisations such as CSIRO, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and all universities all employ people to feed stories into the media. There are far more science media officers than scientifically literate reporters. It is easy to pull the wool over the eyes of illiterate reporters. I think you fall into this category, but that is not your fault.  In addition scientists (especially successful ones who often use the media) can manipulate a story. For example, regarding the Great Barrier Reef, one can often find material which will say something like , “the inshore Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is under significant threat from sediment and pollution coming from agriculture”. The key here is the use of the word ‘inshore’. It sounds big, maybe half (inshore versus offshore). In actually fact, because most reefs on the GBR are OFFSHORE, the area of affected reefs is very small, less than 1%. These organisation can also be very selective in what they report. The Great barrier Reef marine Park Authority could put out a media release saying “No coral major coral bleaching on the GBR in almost a decade despite global warming” because that is the fact of the matter. But that would be embarrassing to the organisation which has jumped onto this bandwagon. On the other hand they will point out some minor bleaching event which doubtless occur every year somewhere on the GBR (with a couple of photos) which is happily swallowed by the media. Keep trickling in the bad news and avoid anything that might contradict the official view of the organisation.

Most scientific results are insufficiently scrutinised: I have written about this here  but the general gist is that the scientific system is akin to a legal system where an accused person does not have guaranteed access to a defence lawyer. It is fundamentally flawed. For example there are many papers on the GBR which are gravely in error but because it takes a lot of time to fully analyse the data, the errors are not always picked up. Nobody is paid to do this job. We need a system where we can guarantee that the major keystone scientific papers on the big environmental issues of our time are tested by an organisation whose sole purpose is to try to find what is wrong (if anything) with the conventional scientific wisdom. Only then can we have confidence that we are basing important political decisions on sound science. Science needs to emulate the legal system.

In 20 years we will look back on this period of environmental scares and realise that we have focused on the wrong issues due to media manipulation and over politicisation of our government authorities and organisations. To some extent, MW has become caught up in all this.




  1. Crucial stuff happening here, I hope you are promulgated far and wide not only as a blog but also a methodology.

  2. FYI- and prepare to die from irony overload...

    Lin Buckfield is still in a band... and it's called

    the BULLY GIRLS.

  3. One of their songs....

    can’t believe you
    See the sunrise
    In your eyes
    There will come a time
    When there are
    No more lies
    No more lies

    Can’t believe you say it
    Can’t believe you say it

  4. Nowhere is Peter Ridd's comment "In 20 years we will look back on this period of environmental scares and realise that we have focused on the wrong issues due to media manipulation and over politicisation of our government authorities and organisations" more relevant than in the fiasco that is the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

    When our once thriving irrigation dependent communities are all gone and we are importing all our food from China, we will be able to blame it all on sham science and politics. How do these people sleep at night knowing they are manipulating the truth for their own agendas.

    It is time for some common sense. There is no rush now, let's slow down and get it right and stop all the b-s. We all care about the environment but people are important too!


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