gainst McCarthyesque Attacks on Climate ScienceEmails Reveal Argument Among Scientists for Strong Response A

For many, it’s time that climate scientists took off their white coats and stood up to the ongoing broadside against their work and the near-constant drumbeat from right-wing pundits and politicians that have added derision of global warming to their conservative litmus test, disavowing anyone who might dare take seriously the work of the climate science community.

Earlier this month, a thread of emails was disclosed to Greenwire and the New York Times from U.S. scientists revealing that many are “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore,” encouraging their colleagues and scientific institutions like the National Academies to “push back” against the “McCarthyite” smear campaign.

Most of our colleagues don’t seem to grasp that we’re not in a gentlepersons’ debate,” said Paul Ehrlich, a well-known biologist and author of The Population Bomb. “We’re in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules.

Not all the participants in the email discussion think a counteroffensive against the denial and cynicism is the best approach. Matthew Nisbet author of the blog Framing Science, warns that there is more at play with the decline in public concern and understanding of global warming than just the efforts of denialists, including the economy, confusion over the cold weather, and lack of effective leadership in Washington. Focusing on an angry and emotional battle with such people is a  “a major distraction and it reflects their own perceptual biases.”

These biases are well understood and predicted by past research in communication,” says Nisbet in an email. “They include a tendency for individuals heavily involved on an issue to perceive almost all news coverage as hostile to their goals (even news coverage that favors their position); to presume much larger effects for a message on the public than the actual influence; and to apply a faulty quasi-statistical sense to where public opinion might actually stand on an issue, perceiving public opinion as hostile to their goals, no matter what the objective indicators might say.

Dr. Randy Olsen, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist started his lengthly reply to Nisbet with:

There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves. My book is about the fact that there is more than just brains inside average folks — they also have hearts, guts and even sex organs.

You want to know why Al Gore and his movie have proven to be such an abject failure? (And yes, failure is the right word — polling shows no net increase in public concern about global warming in the years following the movie — for two decades its been roughly a third of the public who are seriously worried about global warming.) It’s for this very reason. A very dull and dispassionate voice was chosen to deliver a supposedly dire and passionate message. It was one of the worst cases of bad casting in history. Gore is ultimately “a scientist” when it comes to communication instincts. You can see it played out in his movie and two books as he’s slowly come to the realization that you need something more than information to reach the masses. Duh.”

Others echo Olsen’s sentiment, suggesting that the there comes a time when it is best to fight fire with fire. Writes professor Paul Falkowski at Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences:

We need to develop a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog on the incredible, destructive demagoguery that has invaded the airwaves, the news media and the public forum and has prevented a rational discussion about political solutions to human perturbations on the environment”

Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, is one of the 17 scientists that Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a vociferous climate change denier known for his questionable and often dishonest tactics in pursuit of his denial, has accused of “possible violation of federal law” in the wake of the hacked email fiasco from last year now popularly known as “climategate”. Schneider maintains the scientific community has been subjected to “neo-MaCarthyism” by the likes of Inhofe and his staff.

I am hopeful that all the forces working for honest debate and quality assessments will decry this McCarthyite regression,” says Schneider, “and by name point out what this Senator is doing by a continuing smear campaign.”

The email discussion originated on a listserv maintained by the National Academy of Sciences for members on the Academy’s environmental sciences and ecology division. An NAS spokesman said the emails where a private conversation between the dozen or so scientists involved, and the thread appears to have been forwarded outside the list by an unknown person.

Some other sentiments questioned whether an effort to launch a full-blown public relations counteroffensive was the best use of time and money. More importantly, the discussion led to the consequences of the fallout from Climategate on the “broader well-being” of the scientific community.

If the public looses faith in scientists, we can see the inevitable consequences. H1N1 vaccines were taken a plot to kill our children. Regardless of the evidence, cell phones cause brain cancer,” wrote Falkowski from Rutgers. “The political dialogue is course — but scientists are being treated like political pawns — and it is not acceptable.”

Paul Ehrlich warned that now is the time for the scientists to take a strong stand, or at least try:

Science is getting creamed with no effective response, and our colleagues involved with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] are getting threatened with prosecution by the likes of Inhofe. It is not clear whether the NAS can ever be an effective voice, but if we don’t start some action it surely never will be.”

Read the entire email thread (pdf)

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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