Voices: Harassment of scientists reaches a fever pitch

by Chris Rowan
Friday, January 20, 2012

In recent years, climate scientists, particularly those involved in communicating the risks of anthropogenic climate change to the public, have faced increasing levels of vitriol from politicians, pundits and the public alike. The news earlier this year that leading Australian climate scientists were receiving death threats, in the midst of a fierce debate on the implementation of a carbon tax, is just the latest escalation. Other recent events include the legal harassment brought to bear on Penn State climatologist Michael Mann by the Attorney General of Virginia, and the baseless media firestorm over the hacked “Climategate” emails in late 2009, which also led to prominent British climate scientist Phil Jones receiving numerous death threats. And then there is this week's release of 5,000 more hacked emails. This has to stop, or we may start seeing a backlash where scientists refuse to explain their research findings at all. If that happens, society loses.

Harassment of scientists in controversial areas of research is hardly new: Think back to Galileo. More recently, many biologists who experiment on animals have been forced to zealously hide their addresses and treat their mail with suspicion. But the worrying novelty in the current hounding of climate scientists lies less in the methods and more in the motives: It appears that the primary goal of the intimidation is not to shut down what is perceived to be morally objectionable research, but to prevent any sensible public debate about climate change by discouraging scientists from participating.

More worrying still is the fact that this chilling effect is exacerbated by certain sectors of the media, who not only uncritically report unsubstantiated accusations of scientific fraud, but employ pundits and columnists who join in the opprobrium. With such behavior being tolerated and in many ways encouraged, it’s hardly a surprise that some individuals are inspired to take things further.

The potential consequences of this intimidation are serious. Even with scientific voices actively trying to pull us out of the pseudo-debate over whether we are changing our planet at all, substantive public discussions about how our civilization should respond to anthropogenic climate change are all too rare. If scientists are driven out of the debate entirely, the situation will only get worse.

In Australia, more than 30 climate scientists, many at Australian National University in Canberra, have reported receiving death threats and threats against their families this year over their research, as public debate erupted over the carbon tax. Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed a carbon tax that forces emitters to pay starting next year. That bill passed the lower house of Parliament in October and passed the upper house Senate earlier this month. In response to the threats, the Australian National University moved high-profile climate scientists into secure buildings. According to media reports, other scientists say they have installed home security systems, become inactive in social media, delisted their phone numbers and are refusing media interviews. We can only hope that it doesn’t begin to drive talented researchers away from a vital area of research.

Climate science is just the tip of the iceberg. Seismologists are looking worriedly toward Italy, where six scientists were indicted and prosecuted for failing to adequately warn people prior to the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, which killed more than 300 people. Given that timely earthquake prediction is currently impossible, it is unclear how any scientifically justifiable statement could be considered “adequate.” But whatever the outcome of the trial, the end result will almost certainly discourage geologists from making any public statement about future earthquake hazards, resulting in a less-informed and less-well-prepared public, more at risk from future earthquakes.

As science and technology become more central to our society, and as the problems we face on our planet become more complex, making sure that the scientific perspective is heard is becoming ever more important. Yet simultaneously, scientists who are willing to stick their heads above the ramparts of the ivory tower keep finding themselves tried and convicted in the court of public opinion simply because their research uncovers uncomfortable or inconvenient facts.

Although scientists should hardly expect statements made in public to go unchallenged — there is a murky line between objective fact and subjective opinion that requires constant scrutiny — the current rules of engagement give them very little incentive to speak at all.

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