Don Aitkin, truly a national treasure

Don Aitkin shows how a public intellectual can contribute to the public debate on difficult and divisive issues, notably the matter of climate science and the policy response to warming. He has provided a role model for the likes of Paul Kelly and Graham Lloyd and it is both instructive and alarming to see how far they fall short of the standard that Don set.

Don Aitkin AO (born 1937) is a political scientist, writer, and administrator. Until 2012 he was Chairman of Australia’s National Capital Authority. He served as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002, and as Vice-President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee in 1994 and 1995. He played an influential role in the evolution of national policies for research and higher education from the mid-1980s, when he was the Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee, a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, and Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. Appointed as the first Chairman of the Australian Research Council in 1988, he established the new body as a national research council of world class; its funding trebled during his term of office. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1998.[1]

To get a sense of the way a proper public intellectual can engage with professionals climate science, especially warming alarmists, see his rejoinder to Dr Stephen Schneider who achieved fame for the following statement.

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. (Quoted in Discover, pp. 45–48, October 1989.)

Don Aitkin’s reply after an exchange of views on the ABC radio program  Occam’s Razor.

And as soon as I began to read I started to shake my head. You must know that the way you describe the IPCC process is a form of ‘wall-papering’. The numbers you quote are not accurate measures of what actually happens. For me the notion of ‘consensus’ in this debate is intellectual bunk, and you know why. Phrases like ‘the vast bulk of knowledgeable climate scientists’ (you like ‘vast’) cut no ice with me at all. I think I have spent as long as you in the world of peer review, and as I have written elsewhere, it gets only two cheers from me. The defence of ‘peer review’ in this domain is a poor one, and again, you know why. The notion that the IPCC’s use of numbers to describe its sense of the probability that statements are true is again a form of wall-papering. These numbers have no basis in measurement at all, and you know that.

Don Aitkin Comment on Schneider

See his contribution to the climate debate, starting in the 1990s. There are many more recent pieces, this just shows how early he was on the case.

A recent post, summing up his view of warming alarmism.

Meanwhile, Europe disappears under snow.

Long jams have built up on Germany’s motorways as the nation’s record-breaking snowfall persists, leaving hundreds of people stranded in their cars.

Shivering drivers have been found huddled in their vehicles, complaining of going 16+ hours without food as temperatures plunged below -12C (10F).

Snow chaos on Germany’s roads.

The bottleneck, which was caused by trucks stuck in the snow and stretching over 43.5 miles (70 km), had still not been cleared, local police said.

According to, severe jams were also reported in Hesse, with drivers there trapped for approximately 15 hours.



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7 Responses to Don Aitkin, truly a national treasure

  1. John Bayley says:

    Shivering drivers have been found huddled in their vehicles, complaining of going 16+ hours without food as temperatures plunged below -12C (10F).

    Fast forward to 2030:

    “Frozen drivers have been found huddled in their electric vehicles, as their range halved due to cold weather and the cars’ internal heating had to be turned off in an attempt to reach the next charging station.”

    Saving the planet!

  2. Ian Macculloch says:

    Always a class act – his scholarship is extraordinary and indeed worthwhile following. A brilliant man of letters and it is his humility and self-awareness that also shines through.

    His rigorous search for truth on climate science is befitting a person long versed in dealing with researchers. in all fields.

  3. max says:

    The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H.L.Mencken

  4. Woolfe says:

    Are their young thinkers of this calibre coming through?

  5. Michel Lasouris says:

    Umm… I hope they can spell….but I rather doubt it.

  6. Rafe Champion says:

    Fair go Michel, Woolfie’s heart is in the rite place but nobody is perfict!

  7. Peter S says:

    I totally concur

Comments are closed.