12. Barry Jones

Past Perfect: Future Tense

Barry Jones 

With more than 1,000,000 students currently undertaking post-graduate or undergraduate degrees at our universities, and millions more in our community, this is by far the best educated cohort in Australia’s history.

However, the quality of debate in public discourse is conducted at a debased level and in such issues as climate change, population, taxation, refugees and mandatory detention, plain packaging of cigarettes, limitations on problem gambling, and access to water, both sides resort to cherry-picking of evidence, denigration of opponents, mere sloganeering, leading to infantilisation of democracy, treating citizens as if they were unable to grasp major issues.

The media is partly to blame, no doubt. Revolutionary changes in IT may be even more important, where we can communicate very rapidly, for example on Twitter, in ways that are shallow and non-reflective. Advocacy and analysis has largely dropped out of politics and been replaced by marketing and sloganeering. Politicians share the blame as well, as consenting adults.

Australia faces a potential breakdown in its political system. The 2010 election represented a low point in our political history, and both sides were at fault.

In 2010 the assertion that Australia’s public debt was getting out of control was largely unchallenged – although figures confirmed we had the lowest percentage in the OECD. Similarly, nobody pointed out that we run 46th in the number of refugees arriving unheralded on our shores.

Despite the exponential increases in public education and access to information in the past century, the quality of political debate appears to have become increasingly unsophisticated, appealing to the lowest common denominator of understanding’.

Although a non-scientist, I became fascinated with the history of science and how discoveries changed our understanding of the world. The current passionate and often irrational argument about climate change and the carbon tax illustrates the problem of balancing evidence and opinion.  So do debates about vaccination, fluoridation, links between smoking and lung cancer, Holocaust denial, even the survival of Elvis.

Our democratic practice is based on the principle that every vote is of equal value.  But is every opinion, on every subject, of equal value?  The Welsh geneticist Steve Jones asks an important question:  If there is a division of scientific opinion, with 1000 on one side, and one on the other, how should the debate be  handled? Should the one dissenter be given 999 opportunities to speak?

It is a serious issue.