More on Freedom Boy

Perhaps I did Mr Wilson a disservice in my post yesterday.  His position may indeed be heroic.  I looked up the Copenhagen Consensus Centre.  I found the following.

The objects of the body:

About us

Expert advice to do the most good

The Copenhagen Consensus Centre is a think tank that researches the smartest solutions for the world’s biggest problems, advising policy makers and philanthropists how to spend their money most effectively.

Its governance:

Board and directors

Bjorn Lomborg, President and Founder
Roland Mathiasson, Executive Vice President, Secretary, and Assistant Treasurer
Scott Calahan, Treasurer, Member of Compensation Committee, and Independent Director
Loretta Michaels, Member of Compensation Committee and Independent Director

Executive Assistant, Zsuzsa Horvath +1 347 903 0979

Advisory panel

Professor Henrik Lando, Copenhagen Business School
Spence T. Olin, Professor
Douglass C. North, Washington University in St. Louis
Professor Martin Paldam, COMMA

That does not look to be the most august academic or scientific body on the planet.  Mr Calahan looks to have the plum job.  A number of questions may arise.  One is: what makes a director ‘independent’?

Under the heading, ‘Cutting carbon emissions’, I find this:

Climate economist Prof Dr Richard Tol examines the costs and benefits of cutting carbon under different scenarios.

He finds: ‘A well-designed gradual policy of carbon cuts could substantially reduce emissions at low cost to society.  Ill-designed policies, or policies that seek to do too much too soon can be orders of magnitude more expensive.  While the academic literature has focussed on the former, policy makers have opted.’

Unfortunately, the think tank cuts out there, and we are left to dangle.  Their introduction to the subject is, however, a bit of a tease:

Climate change is real and man-made.  It will come as a big surprise that climate change from 1900 to 2025 has mostly been a net benefit, rising to increase welfare about 1.5% GDP per year.

The people at the CCC were obviously thrilled to bits to sign up a ‘global top-ranked university’ WA.  The website, however, has not caught up with the news that the university has realised that it has been sold a pup.  The link to the sign-up page – with a photo of the moving hand and, I suspect, the besieged Vice-Chancellor who is coming to terms with the phrase ‘due diligence’ – has this.

Do good vs feel good

The consensus methodology engages economists and sector experts to identify solutions that actually work and do the most social good for every dollar spent.

I cannot find on the site a statement of the academic credentials of Dr Lomborg, apart from a reference to Ph D.  In fact I cannot find any academic credentials for anyone on the site.  All I can find for COMMA is that it is a punctuation mark.

As bullshit goes, this is world class – indeed, it is out of this world.

Just think what the ‘Do good vs feel good’ crowd could do in a bull session with our Human Rights Commissioner.  You may recall his view is that policy is not about evidence and that the direction of policy is primarily decided by the questions you ask.  Lawyers are right on to this.  There are some questions you never ask, but some naughty lawyers frame their question so as to attract a certain answer – from their own client.

And this mode of policy formation may not, in truth, be sound.  Imagine a parent advising a teenage child on their first hit of booze, sex, or ice.  ‘Well, dear, it depends on the question you ask.  If you only ask whether that will make the night go off with a bang, go for it.  If you want to be here and look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow, drop it.’  That may just be too open-ended for some parents and all children.  Was part of the problem that Dr Lomborg knew which questions not to ask, and how to frame questions that would please him and his backers?

And we might be wary of Mr Wilson’s view that there is no one correct answer in public policy.  That may or may not be the case.  It may again depend on how you frame the question.  But there may be any number of bad answers.  I dare say that even Mr Wilson’s famous tolerance would draw the line at the resolutions on policy of IS.

The difficulty in which the UWA got itself can be understood by looking at other possible manifestations.  Say that Julia Gillard while PM appointed a former adviser to herself on climate change to head a think tank at Melbourne University through a body that her government funded and the function of which will be to give advice on policy issues on climate change.  Mr Abbott appoints an ecclesiastical adviser to head up a think tank at a Catholic University that is not shy of monumental controversy to provide advice funded by his government on mild uncontroversial issues like abortion and euthanasia.  The Southern Evangelical Baptist Church persuades a cash-strapped Latrobe University to host a think tank on creationism – when they are accused of selling out to people who deny science, they invoke freedom of speech, the glorious roles of universities in dissent, and Socrates, and Aristotle, and Galileo, and anyone else who swam against the tide and paid for it.  The idiots and frauds become heroes.

The short point is that we do not want our universities to prostitute themselves in the hands of bullshit artists.  Even Mr Wilson might understand that.

Mr Wilson again

There has been a dispute within the University of WA about a centre to study policy issues to be directed by a Danish economist called Dr Bjorn Lomborg.  The idea came from the Commonwealth who put up four million dollars.  Dr Lomborg had been an adviser to the PM and the project was supported by the PM and Mr Pyne, the Education Minister.  The name of the centre was a mistake.  It was to be called the Australian Consensus Centre.  There was no consensus at all.  The opposition to it was intense.  Dr Lomborg’s standing and the objects of the Centre were said by opponents to be inappropriate.  The University was persuaded by these arguments and the certain controversy and possible damage to the University if they went on with it.  They dropped the idea.  Dr Lomborg knows something of our politics.  He blamed the university’s decision on ‘toxic politics, ad hominem attacks and premature judgment’ and said the centre had been used as a ‘political football’.

Mr Wilson, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, is saddened by this result.  He says that the decision is ‘disturbing for its validation of a culture of soft censorship.’  What on earth is that?  No one is forbidding Dr Lomborg to propagate his views – all that has happened is that this university has said that they would rather that he did not do it over their name.

You might think that what has occurred is a triumph for freedom of speech.  Messrs Abbott and Pyne used their freedom to float the idea.  Members of the university and the public used their freedom to oppose it.  The university used its freedom to say no.  Is this not the result sought for by those who like to see the competition of ideas? Well, not if you are a supporter of the government like Mr Wilson, or Mr Henry Ergas in the column next to him.

But Mr Wilson gives grounds for rejecting the Centre at any university.

Lomborg’s views are not about science, they’re about public policy.

Public policy is a debate about competing priorities for government.  Everyone is entitled to their views on public policy.  There is no one correct answer in public policy.

Nor is policy about evidence.  Evidence informs policy development.  The direction of policy is primarily decided by the questions you ask.  The questions asked are heavily informed by values and political priorities.

This sounds like Voodoo, but if you take at face value the statement that policy is not about evidence, then no university would want to have anything to do with it.

It is hard to follow Mr Wilson.  He says that this case is different to that of Mr McIntyre and SBS because McIntyre ‘slurred a large section of the public and broke the terms of a voluntarily agreed employment contract that led to his dismissal.’  Are we to take it that our freedom to offend cuts out if we slur a large section of the public’ and that the Gestapo had every right to turn off Dietrich Bonhoeffer for slurring a large section of the German public by warning of false leaders?  And does not the second point just beg the question – should our law enforce a contractual term that permits an employer to sack someone for saying something offensive?

Is it curious to hear a negative answer to that question from our Human Rights Commissioner?  Perhaps not – Mr Wilson was content in that capacity to describe as stupid and offensive and despicable the opinions of a blackfella who exercised his freedom of speech to express a view on a matter of social policy that did not harmonise with those of Mr Wilson.  Perhaps the crime of the blackfella was to slur a large section of the public.

And if someone tries a political stunt like this at my university, I will march.