- Click here to download a copy of Dr Anthony Turton's paper entitled 'Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About' (0.75 MB)
South Africa has been stunned by the “Turton Affair” in which the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) acted against one of its own researchers, a fellow in the Natural Resource and Environment Unit, namely Dr Anthony Turton.
Firstly, on November 18, the agency obliged Dr Turton to withdraw his presentation, “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond,” from the CSIR’s Second Biennial Conference. Secondly, on November 21, the CSIR suspended him, for contravening CSIR policy.
In a statement issued on November 22, the CSIR said that Turton’s paper had been withdrawn “... due to certain statements that were made in the presentation, which could not be sufficiently substantiated, as well as the depiction of burning victims, which could have offended sensitive members of the audience.”
Furthermore, the statement affirmed that “Dr Turton elected to engage with the media on the matter of the withdrawal of his presentation, despite internal avenues that are available, and in contravention of organisational policy. An internal investigation has been started and Dr Turton was suspended ...” The statement did point out that Turton’s paper was still freely available, including on the CSIR’s own website.
It goes almost without saying that the result has been a public relations disaster for the CSIR. It has made the Council look intolerant, authoritarian, and, worst of all, downright stupid.
Now, display of pictures of burning people – victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa – would have been inappropriate, but hardly grounds for forcing the withdrawal of the paper. This was, after all, a scientific conference attended by adults, not a school assembly or a church meeting.
As for the claim that “certain statements ... could not be substantiated,” this leaves one incredulous.
Is it necessary to point out that, when Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, what it contained, although rigorous and coherent, was entirely unsubstantiated? Not until 1919 was the first experimental support for the theory obtained.
The point is not to compare Turton to Einstein, the point is that scientific papers do not need to have all, or even any, of their statements substantiated – how else can you put forward new ideas? How can you trigger debate? And is not the triggering of debate one of the purposes of a scientific conference? What scientific papers must be is rigorous and coherent, and the CSIR statement does not accuse Turton’s paper of being sloppy or incoherent.
Indeed, the fact that Turton’s paper remained on the CSIR website is confirmation of its intrinsic quality. But, if it is good enough to be on the website, why wasn’t it good enough to present at the conference?
It was first assumed that the CSIR had caved in to political pressure, that Turton’s warning on the state of the country’s water supply had offended the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.
However, it subsequently became clear that Turton’s position was, in fact, very close to that of the Department of Water Affairs and Tourism (Dwaf) – it turned out that he is a member of a committee headed by the Director-General of Dwaf – and that the Department shares his concerns.
As for his suspension, it also emerged that Turton had not, in fact, approached the media at all. It had been a non-governmental organisation that had done so, making the affair public. Only after the issue had come into the public domain did Turton accept invitations to talk to the media about it.
Clearly, on the currently available evidence, the CSIR has to hold an urgent internal enquiry – but not into Dr Turton’s behaviour, but into the intellectually incoherent and authoritarian behaviour of elements of its own management.