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Almost three months ago I wrote this letter (below, updated with links)  to the ABC’s manager of News and Current Affairs in Tasmania (Mr Andrew Fisher). 

Three months is usually enough time to receive a reply, even to inform of disinterest. However, I have not yet received any reply from Mr Fisher about issues. An issue that involves the ABC.

Let me explain.

Key statements have been made on ABC radio by experts that I can’t find a shred of evidence to back up. 

My interest in this matter arose when Professor Chris Johnson from the University of Tasmania assured the listening public of the overwhelming evidence for fox populations (such as the recovery of fox bodies and road kills) on the ABC (TT HERE). This refuted Dr David Obendorf’s position when interviewed separately on the same programme a few days before. (TT HERE).  I maintained, and still do, that the ABC should assist in defending and testing the quality of information by organising an open debate.  No detailed discussion or analysis was presented on where exactly the disagreement lay or what details were disputed.  The listeners were left to speculate as they still are.

At least Dr Obendorf has taken the time to list his points of disagreement (TT HERE) (All David Obendorf, HERE).  No other scientist has so far had the mettle to address them or to take up Dr Obendorf’s offer to make themselves available for a debate. I can see merit in many of Dr Obendorf’s claims and I know I am not alone.  These points need to be openly tested.

Again on the ABC, a colleague of Prof Johnston’s (at the same university department) repeated the same claims together with an additional one. It is now claimed that fox road kills have appeared in Tasmania due to a decrease in Tasmanian devil numbers. I can’t find a shred of evidence to support this particular claim made on the ABC’s Science Show no less (TT HERE)

What’s even more interesting is the recent claim that both experts have a conflict of interest.  Because, if you are receiving or seeking funds on the basis that foxes do exist in Tasmania, it would seem that you have a vested interest to maintain that the evidence is overwhelming.  Is this a conflict of interest?  Well, I don’t know and the ABC has not bothered to ask. Again, it is a very valid question.  It’s no crime for academics to seek public funds of course, but if the claims they make publicly to support their work are wrong, then you would think they should be corrected toot sweat.  Otherwise, what are we to think?

Other statements litter the web such as “Devils prey on fox cubs and compete with adult foxes for food (HERE), that is attributed to Prof Johnston.  Again, when I looked for the evidence to back these claims all I could find was speculation made by Tim Flannery many years ago. It now seems to have become solid gold fact despite no evidence.  Yes, Tim Flannery. You know, climate change and Australian of the year Tim Flannery. Defender of scientific accuracy Tim Flannery. Sure, this might be true, but there is not a shred of evidence to support it as a fact as far as I can see. No one has actually observed it - ever.  Perhaps the ABC needs to ask Tim Flannery?

So, what I am interpreting from Mr Fisher’s silence is that he is disinterested in the ABC being a platform for a debate between scientists with conflicting views. More disturbing however is seemingly a lack of willingness to correct misleading and inaccurate information that the ABC has been responsible for disseminating. 

Are these statements true or not Mr Fisher?  Does it matter at all to the ABC?

After all, we heard them on our ABC and would like to know!

Alexander Thomas

My (unacknowledged) letter to Mr Fisher:

Mr Andrew Fisher
Tasmanian manager
News and Current Affairs
ABC Centre
Hobart

Wednesday 14th September 2011

Dear Mr Fisher,

I write with the hope of convincing you to organise a debate on ABC radio between the scientists who have opposing views about the Tasmanian fox issue. This is in the public interest and not before time. Many of us just don’t know where to go with the information currently on offer. It is important that we hear about the science.

Some six weeks back I listened to an interview with Professor Chris Johnson from the University of Tasmania on the ABC. He assured the listening public of the overwhelming evidence for fox populations (such as the recovery of fox bodies and road kills) for their presence. This refuted Dr David Obendorf’s position when interviewed separately on the same programme a few days before. 

No detailed discussion or analysis was presented of what this evidence was or was not or where the disagreement lay.  The listeners were left to speculate.

Over two subsequent weeks, tired of the lack of certainty, I decided to look at the actual evidence in detail. Much of it surprised me. It was far from being conclusive in my opinion.  Dr Obendorf listed some key issues and independently I could confirm that many were (at least) not refuted by key Tasmanian authorities. New findings and admissions that Dr Obendorf points to are indeed found in transcripts and cast a shadow over certainty.

I wrote to Professor Johnson and he very kindly responded on three occasions.  However, this was conditional upon me not passing on his communications.  This thwarted my attempts to resolve some of the outstanding issues in this matter more widely of course. This is frustrating as I was surprised firstly by the professor’s candid admission that he had only recently arrived in Tasmania and was not able to discuss many matters in detail.  Despite this, he had made absolute and unqualified statements about the overwhelming nature of the evidence. It soon became apparent that he not seen it his role to question any of it and any ‘evidence’ of foxes he would give the benefit of the doubt to.  I find this quite unscientific as I mentioned to him as much of the evidence has been provided anonymously or in strange circumstances that are worth knowing about.

Again, without a discussion of the merits of the evidence, a college of Prof Johnston’s (at the same university) repeated these certain claims on ABC radio weeks ago with the additional claims that the fox road kills have appeared due to a decrease in Tasmanian devil numbers. This is almost funny when you find out that the only one that might be a road kill was claimed to be run over in the middle of the Burnie urban area, two were claimed to be shot and the one turned up in highly contentious circumstances that are almost certainly fraudulent. When you are in possession of the conflicting ‘facts’; the fox bodies seem unbelievable given a range of factors. They follow two cases of hoaxing that are not disputed.  (Claims were made on the ABC’s Science Show (HERE)

I can’t find a shred of evidence for other statements attributed to Professor Johnston where “Devils prey on fox cubs and compete with adult foxes for food (HERE). Nothing at all apart from it being speculation made by Tim Flannery many years ago that seems now to be a solid gold fact despite no evidence.

I note that the claim has been made that both university staff who have made these statements are involved in research funding and applications for projects that depend upon the presence of foxes in the Tasmanian environment for their relevance.  This is not an accusation of vested interest, but a reason why it is necessary for the evidence to be beyond question and the questions asked. Recipients of public funds must be willing to defend their statements at the very least on publicly funded radio especially if they have a material interest.  If they are not, then the ABC can justly be accused as being an easy platform for spruiking funding applications. I have not heard of one journalist picking up on the total absence of evidence concerning devils eating foxes or fox road kills appearing in Tasmania. It is simply untrue as far as I can tell. If it is, I would think it somewhat of a scandal that experts could get it so wrong.

Dr Obendorf says he is keen to debate the issues however Professor Johnson has so far been unwilling to commit to debating Dr Obendorf, on the merit of the evidence he says is overwhelming.  I find this incomprehensible. Given his willingness to make clear and absolute statements that refuted Dr Obendorf on radio a few days (now months) before. I hope this is not connected to the Eureka awards where the Tasmanian devil and Tasmanian fox issue got a good run in the press and UTAS had associations with the award given for vaccine research on the mainland.  While he has suggested that writing something down might help, I disagree.  The problem is that so much of what has been written down that does not stand up to much scrutiny and the people who make unilateral claims to the contrary should surely be willing to back them with proof and when they are contested?

A debate between two scientists that deal with the issues would move this issue on and not rehash, review and restate the very things that are questioned.  Putting the two parties on the spot to put their case where they could place counterpoints is the only way to allow people to determine what position has voracity. 

It is not disputed that two foxes arrived in Tasmania - both in containers apparently.  It is also not disputed that foxes would be a tragedy if established in Tasmania.  No, the question is the quality of the evidence for them being here and established as well as the truth of statements made by experts. I suspect that there is a problem here and the ABC could assist very much in defending the quality of information by organising what would be a much discussed debate.

Your sincerely,

Mr Alexander Thomas

I attach my correspondence to Prof Johnson without his replies as he requested