Tony Abbott is a liar: It’s a mathematical truth

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Tony Abbott is a liar. It’s a mathematical truth

May 29, 2014

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Burkard Polster and Marty Ross

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Do politicians lie? Of course they do, including, of course, Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Whether it’s the manufacturing of a budget “crisis”, or the systematic trashing of election promises, or pretending that taxes are anything-but-taxes, or lying about spying, or lying about lying, Abbott has demonstrated his disdain for the truth.

There is no need to go into detail here since Mike Carlton has already documented much of the fibbing, ably assisted by Annabel Crabb and Laurie Oakes and Bernard Keane and … well, pretty much every political commentator who isn’t a Liberal Party shill.

And Tony Abbott is not alone. The Prime Minister leads a fine cabinet of companion liars, including the Minister for the Destruction of Education, Christopher Pyne. A “unity ticket” on the Gonski education reforms? Nope, just some airbrushing of history and yet another lie.

The overarching lie is that Prime Minister Abbott is leading a conservative government. In fact, Australia is being pummelled by American-style, dog-eat-dog radicals. Far from being conservative, current Liberal Party philosophy is little more than adolescent-level libertarianism.

It shouldn’t be news that politicians are lying and it’s not mathematics. Well, we believe that the depth and the nature of Liberal dishonesty is news, and we believe there is a connection to be made.

Since there is no minister for mathematics let’s begin with the minister for science. And he is … a ghost. Yes, for the first time since 1939 the federal government of Australia has no minister for science.

But it doesn’t really matter if there’s no science minister, just as long as scientific research is well-funded. And the CSIRO, the government’s dedicated body for science research is … having its funding slashed.

But it doesn’t really matter if a particular science organisation has to jettison research, just as long as someone is doing good science. And the federal government is promoting careful research into …wind turbine syndrome.

Yes, Prime Minister Abbott has arranged for the National Health and Medical Research Council to undertake a study of the health effects of wind turbines. Even though there is no scientific basis for the concerns, and even though study after study after study after study has demonstrated that wind turbines are safe. However one cannot be too careful and perhaps the National Health and Medical Research Council will discover something new. Perhaps they’ll figure out how the thousands of wind turbines that have been in Denmark for decades have failed to kill everyone. Or anyone.

But it doesn’t really matter if the Prime Minister is distracted by a little bit of cultish nonsense, just as long as the major scientific issue of our time is being addressed with care and honesty. Which brings us to global warming. Or climate change, if you prefer. Whatever. A withered rose by any other name is just as dead.

To be clear, we have no intention of debating global warming. Why not? Because there is no debate. It is a scientific fact that global warming is happening. It is a scientific fact that humans are responsible, through the production of greenhouse gases. And the evidence very strongly suggests that the consequences are already occurring, and in the future will be extensive and bad. Or, if the world continues to do bugger-all about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, very very bad.

We believe a zero-respect policy on global warming denialism is long overdue. However for the moment our concern is not with the madness of crowds but the madness of politicians.

Are the politicians mad? Abbott infamously declared climate change to be “absolute crap” but that was years ago. Abbott now claims to believe in climate change. Is he now lying? Who could possibly tell? But it also doesn’t matter.

Whether or not Abbott still believes climate change is crap, his government invariably acts as if it were crap. The list, helpfully compiled by Crikey’s Giles Parkinson, is already phenomenal: the submission of legislation to repeal the carbon tax; the demolition of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency; the guess-what-will-happen review of Australia’s renewable energy target; moves to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; moves to demolish the Climate Change Authority; the demolition of the Climate Commission; appointing a full-blown climate crank as chief business adviser; and transforming the minister for climate change into another ghost, to keep company with the minister for science. All of this while underfunding the Liberal Party’s own absurd carbon capture scheme with its absurdly inadequate target.

Can Abbott possibly get away with this environmental and scientific (and economic) vandalism? We don’t know but the Liberal Party obviously believes it’s on a winner. And it may be that enough Australians listen to enough nonsense, or just have insufficient concern, that the Liberal Party is correct.

It is clear that many Australians do not have any great respect for the scientific method or scientific practice. It seems way too common to regard science as just another belief system, nothing but boffin-based opinion. The result is that science is permitted no special claim to truth, which is a very dangerous, essentially mediaeval, state of affairs. What on Earth has happened?

A little bit about school mathematics: we, as mathmeticians, have banged on and on, column after column, about the woeful presentation of mathematics in curricula and textbooks, and consequently in maths classes. We’ve wailed over the presentation of mathematics as a collection of facts to be religiously accepted, rather than as a beautiful, precise and incredibly powerful method of reasoning. The harm to students’ opinion of mathematics is obvious and massive, but we believe the harm extends much further.

The just-the-facts style of teaching mathematics promotes a warped, faith-based attitude to knowledge. It undermines the whole point of education, for students to learn to think, to value truth as the end result of reasoning rather than as a collection of God-given facts. Until there is a dramatic change in Australia’s approach to education we cannot see how there will be any improvement in Australians’ attitude to scientific and mathematical truth, or to truth of any sort.

It’s a very long bow to blame the poor teaching of mathematics for Abbott’s anti-science crusade, and we have no intention of drawing it. But it is unarguable that Australian society currently places a depressingly low value on reason and truth, and so on science in particular. We believe mathematics teaching must take its fair share of the blame.

But what of Tony? Will he be remembered as a liar? Probably, but probably he’ll be remembered for much more. Eventually, and more likely sooner rather than later, global warming will be undeniable. Truly undeniable.

Which means Abbott should go down in history as the Australian Prime Minister, the last Australian Prime Minister, to deny physical reality.

Associate Professor Burkard Polster teaches mathematics at Monash University, Clayton. Marty Ross is a mathematician. As the Maths Masters they write a weekly column for The Age’s Education pages.

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