National Science Week

Popper's theories led to a real revolution in science. Before Popper we thought about science in an inductive way. 

I did want to speak this evening on the actual topic. I wanted to speak on science. I will still, hopefully, get to science, but Senator Bilyk spent just a bit under 20 minutes speaking about politics in a very misleading way. I think at the end she said Labor has a vision. She certainly had visions in that speech, because they were not actually based in fact at all! I want to point out a few of the mistruths in this and I might actually use some facts while I do that.

I picked up that Senator Bilyk said that there had been over $1 billion in cuts from R&D tax credits under this government. It surprised me a bit that she attributed those to this government, because they were actually announced by the previous government. Those cuts were their policy in government. To make sure that the Australian public know that I am not misleading the Senate, I actually have some facts here in front of me that Senator Bilyk did not have. I have a press release here from Mr Wayne Swan on 27 June 2013. He said:

The R&D Tax Incentive is one of the most important elements of the Government's support for our innovation system. It will continue to provide generous, easy-to-access support for around 10,000 companies each year who are undertaking eligible R&D.

This is the kicker:

The change will affect less than 20 corporate groups and will ensure this support is better targeted at small to medium businesses.

He was envisaging exactly what this government has done, which is focus the R&D tax credit on small and medium enterprises, not large companies. The press release went on to say:

Savings from the reforms - estimated at over $1 billion from 2014 to 2017 - will fund Government priorities including measures announced in the Government's Industry and Innovation Policy Statement, A Plan for Australian Jobs.

So Senator Bilyk has just spent a fair amount of time of her speech criticising Labor Party policy, which I am not objecting to. If that is how Senator Bilyk wants to use her time in this chamber, we should give her an extension of time. We should hear more from Senator Bilyk more often so that she can expose in more detail the deficiencies of Labor's approach to policymaking in this country.

I also heard Senator Bilyk say that CSIRO has had job losses, and it is a fact that CSIRO, unfortunately, has had job losses in the past few years. Again, what Senator Bilyk did not mention was that in fact, of the 1,000 reduction in staff numbers in CSIRO in the past few years, 600 of those actually occurred between 30 June 2013 and the end of 2014, almost completely during the Labor government except for those last few months of 2014.

Senator Ronaldson: "She didn't say that."

No, she didn't say that, Senator Ronaldson. I did not hear that, but I just wanted to check. Did you hear her say that? I might not have heard all of her speech, but I do not think she mentioned that 600 of those job losses were actually under the Labor government. Indeed, in the case of the other 400 jobs that unfortunately have been made redundant since, that was actually a consequence of the efficiency dividends the Labor Party put in place while in government. While they were in government they subjected government agencies and departments, not just the CSIRO but all government departments and agencies, to two efficiency dividends. I am not criticising that practice; that is something all governments do from time to time. But that was a decision they made, and the result of that decision is obviously that agencies and departments have to cut their costs. And when they have to cut their costs often they have to do so by cutting staffing costs, because labour costs are the biggest part of the budget for departments and agencies of the Commonwealth. They are only going to meet these efficiency dividends by reducing staff numbers. Senator Bilyk should know that. Certainly the government at the time would have known that. That would have been the advice they would have had from Treasury and Finance, and that was a consequence of their decision. They should have the guts to own up to the consequences of the decisions they made in government.

Senator Bilyk also mentioned the RV Investigator, a CSIRO vessel. Apparently we are not funding the RV Investigator as much as they did. Well, again, I have right here in front of me, from 2013-14, budget paper No. 2, which is the final budget that the Labor government announced before being dismissed at the last election. On page 214 there is a measure to do with the CSIRO—Marine National Facility operational funding. Under that measure it says:

The Government will provide $12.1 million to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to conduct sea trials of Australia's new Marine National Facility (MNF) vessel, the RV Investigator.

So, they funded it by $12.1 million. What Senator Bilyk failed to outline is the funding they provided beyond 2013-13. What do you think it would have been, Senator Ronaldson, if you could hazard a guess? Senator Bilyk did not mention it, but presumably Senator Bilyk was expecting that the ship would continue to be used. She said it should be used 180 days a year, or something like that. That is how often she wants it to be used. You would think Senator Bilyk would have wanted the Labor government to actually fund it to get out for 180 days a year. But let's just look at the budget papers. There is a table, and under 2013-14 there is $12.1 million. Just to be clear for Senator Bilyk, under 2014-15, what number is there? Zero. Under 2015-16, what number is there? Zero. Under 2016-17, what number is there? Zero—three zeroes, three strikes for Senator Bilyk. No funding was provided by the former, Labor, government for the RV Investigator. We have provided funding for it—perhaps not as much as Senator Bilyk would have liked, but much, much more funding than her own government put forward for it. Indeed, it is so much more funding that you cannot even calculate it, because you cannot calculate a percentage of zero.

There is one final point I want to make about Senator Bilyk's contribution, and Senator Carr's as well, about the terrible impacts of funding cuts to the CSIRO. It is very interesting to point out that in 2008 Labor actually cut $63.4 million from the CSIRO budget. It is even more interesting that the then science and innovation minister, Senator Kim Carr, who now speaks so sanctimoniously about science funding, admitted that the cuts had to be tough 'because we are fighting a war on inflation'. Do you remember the war on inflation, Senator Ronaldson? That was a difficult war, wasn't it? That was a tough war that we all had to get through, in mid-2008. As soon as the war on inflation ended, what did they have next? I think they had a war on obesity. How did that one go, Senator Ronaldson? How is the war on obesity going for you? I am struggling a bit with that war! And then they had the building the education revolution. They were a very violent government. They had all these revolutions and wars. And then of course they had a coup, and they got rid of two Prime Ministers—and then another one for good measure.

So, that was the Labor government. They had a record of cutting funding to science and now they sanctimoniously come into this chamber and criticise this government for doing the same thing. They did indeed criticise them sometimes for implementing the very policies they announced only a few years ago. It has been an amazing road-to-Damascus conversion for the Labor Party in the past 18 months.

But I did actually want to speak on science, and I now have more-limited time to do so. But I would still like to do so, because I think it is important in National Science Week that we as representatives in our nation's parliament engage not just in politics here. So I am sorry I had to do that, but I did have to point out those errors. But I want to speak a little bit about science itself and how important it is, and my concerns at the state of science, not just here in Australia but around the world. I want to talk about a guy called Karl Popper, with whom I share some affinity, because Karl Popper once thought of himself as a communist—for a few days, apparently—and I, too, once thought of myself as a communist, although I think I might have sinned for a bit longer than a few days. When I started university I thought: 'Yep, communism; that's the way to go. Let's share the wealth, let's all be happy and not have competing interests and base capitalistic or profit-motive interests.' That is what I thought. I soon discovered I was wrong. When I met some communists I discovered that I was very, very wrong. I was a bit of a loner in high school in my Marxist days, but once I got to university there were some actual, real communists there, and when I met them I thought, 'These guys are on a different track than me.' So, I did learn. I did hopefully accede to the aphorism attributed to Churchill, I think it was, that if you are not a communist when you are 20 you do not have a heart and if you are still one when you are 30 you do not have a brain—and hopefully I have acceded to that.

That is probably where my affinity with Karl Popper ends, because Karl Popper, for those who do not know, was one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, one of the most influential at least. I certainly will not achieve those goals—notwithstanding the fact that I certainly cannot be a great philosopher of the 20th century, having been born in 1980; I do not think I will be a great philosopher of the 21st century either. But what Karl Popper was famous for was the philosophy of science. I listened in the chamber earlier to Senator Rice's contribution. She is a scientist, and she spoke about how she is a scientist because she believes in rational and logical thought. I did not feel that Senator Rice succinctly or clearly summed up what her philosophy of science is. It is a very important thing to think about what science is. What does it mean? What can we take away from people that do science and apply science?

Karl Popper had quite a revolutionary idea: that science is not about creating conclusions from observing the real world; it is not about making positive or truthful statements about what we see around in the world; it is actually about putting forward hypotheses or, in more colloquial terms, conjectures, about the world and then trying to test them and seeing if they can be falsified. He used the example of Albert Einstein's theory. Einstein had a hypothesis that light would be distorted as it got close to solid bodies. That theory could be tested. It was tested during a solar eclipse—I think it might have been in the late 1910s or the 1920s. Much to the surprise of the scientific community, who at the time largely agreed with Newtonian physics, Einstein was proven correct. At least his theory was not falsified—the Newtonian theory that light was a constant and would not change was falsified. So we went from having a Newtonian view of the theory of light to having a relative view, which Einstein established.

Popper compared the theories of Einstein to those of another famous thinker of the time, Sigmund Freud, who invented psychoanalysis. He compared them usefully and said that the theories of psychoanalysis could not be falsified. Sigmund Freud and his followers did not make predictions that could be tested and falsified. That is not to say that Freud's theories are useless or should not still be studied and considered. But it does clarify what it means to be scientific. What does science mean? Science in Popper's view—and it is a view that I definitely think has some merit—is about having those testable and verifiable conjectures and then subjecting them to real-world data. With Freud's theory of psychoanalysis that could not be done, so that was not science.

Popper described his theory as 'critical rationalism'. It was about being rational, of course, and providing rational data, and it was about taking a critical view of those theories. It was not just inductivism. It was not just saying that because the sun has risen every day since I was the born, or since the start of time, tomorrow the sun will also rise. That is induction. That is saying that because something has happened every time before, it will happen again in the future. Popper said that that is not actually science. Science is saying that we put up a theory that the sun will rise tomorrow and we do not know whether it is true or not until we get up tomorrow and see if it has risen. That statement is scientific because it can be falsified. It is a verifiable statement.

We would think about science as being logical, as Senator Rice established. We would be able to say statements in science like, 'If Socrates is a man then Socrates is mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.' That would be a scientific statement, because you would be inducing something from certain established facts. After Popper you were more likely to characterise science in a falsifying or disconfirming manner. So we would say things like, 'If Socrates is a god then Socrates is immortal. Socrates is not immortal, therefore Socrates is not a god.' We would use the negative to think about scientific theories.

Popper's theory is that we cannot prove that a conjecture is true. There is no way of doing that. All we can do is proof that it is false. If a conjecture is proven not to be true, then the above logic is used to dismiss that conjecture. I think a couple of quotes from Popper help sum this up more usefully. One that I like is:

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.

Another quote from Popper that I like is:

Whenever a theory appears to you as being the only possible true one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

I like this last quote, because even though it was written in the 1950s, I think it usefully sums up some of the problems that I have with our modern approach to science and particularly the language around it. We are often told that the science has spoken. Indeed, Senator Rice emoted science as some transient being, almost—science is shaking its hands or science is doing certain things. Science does not do any such thing. If you agree with Popper's theories, which I largely do, science can only ever make conjectures or hypotheses, not conclusions, not anything precisely true.

We can usefully base our understanding of the world on those conjectures that have withstood testing and are yet to be falsified. These statements are often made about many different areas of science. We often think science does many different things. I want to touch on the subject that is most commonly put up to a lack of scientific scrutiny, in my view, and that is climate change. I think it is important, because whenever you talk about climate change there is a propensity to distort and deceive what someone has said about it. I want to put on the record what I think at the moment. I am not a scientist, so I do not know, but I have read quite a bit of the literature.

There certainly appears to be evidence that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere. That can be tested—you can do that in the lab and people do to that in the lab. Carbon dioxide certainly warms atmospheres in a laboratory environment. It is much different, though, to conclude that the increase in carbon dioxide emissions that we have experienced on our planet have caused an increase in global temperatures. It is a much, much different hypothesis again to say that these increases will cause catastrophic global warming that leads to extreme weather events, the deaths of polar bears and, apparently, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, will lead to bread not rising as much as it has in the past.

Senator Ronaldson interjecting

I hear you laughing, Senator Ronaldson. I do not exaggerate. Indeed, if I were a schoolboy right now, I would love climate change, because instead of saying that the dog ate my homework, I could just say that climate change did it. It explains so many things these days, apparently.

These hypotheses are conjectures that are made. We can test whether in future bread will rise as much as it has in the past, but of course we cannot do that until the future. What I am concerned about, though, is not that climate change science does not generate falsifiable conclusions—it is that when it does, and the theories are tested and an answer comes back different, the goalposts get moved. There have been modelled predictions from climate change scientists in the last 20 years, and almost all of them have been proven to be far too exaggerated. The temperature on whatever series you use, whether it is HadCRUT, UAH, RSS—these are all measures of global temperatures—has been proven to not rise in line with the theories. So we can conjecture and we can debate whether they have been falsified, but they certainly have not been verified at this stage, and there certainly needs to be a lot more work done in this field.

What concerns me most about this debate is that we speak often about climate change as if we know it all, and we certainly do not know it all. I studied philosophy at university and I was a great fan of Socrates and his dialogues. His most famous idea was that true wisdom is to know that you do not know it all. And we certainly do not know it all. There is much that we do not know about the universe, and that is why we need science to continue to explore and understand more about our universe.

I just want to conclude our contribution to this debate with a final remark from Karl Popper on this subject which I think usefully captures this wisdom. Karl Popper said once:

For it was my master who taught me not only how very little I knew but also that any wisdom to which I might ever aspire could consist only in realising more fully the infinity of my ignorance.


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