Out of Facts, Climate Contrarians Seek to Intimidate

, , former science communication officer | November 10, 2014, 10:33 am EDT
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Last week, my colleague Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel gave a talk alongside Dr. Michael Mann, a Penn State professor who has faced constant harassment from politicians and groups that don’t accept mainstream climate science.

The event received an outsize amount of scrutiny from climate contrarians, including some misleading and forceful demands directed at Dr. Mann and the event organizers.

The institution handled the matter soundly and the experience provides useful lessons for other institutions dealing with political pressure around scientific talks.

Overall, Dr. Mann said the event was well-received. “We had an opportunity to engage in an in-depth and nuanced discussion of one of the most critical challenges we face as a society,” he told me. “I also had an opportunity to have numerous conversations with thoughtful audience members during my book signing afterward. The efforts to hijack the event and intimidate the organizers, if anything, backfired. The turnout was great and the shenanigans by industry-backed groups amounted to little more than an oddly amusing sideshow.”

So how did these groups attempt to hijack the discussion?  They used several methods:

Calling for false balance

According to correspondence Dr. Mann shared with me, climate contrarian Dr. Willie Soon wrote the organizers to suggest that he should be invited to speak, too. Broadly speaking, Dr. Soon thinks the sun is responsible for climate change, despite the fact that the Earth has been warming as the sun’s output has slightly diminished.

Although Dr. Soon’s ideas have not passed muster with his scientific peers, he seeks to insert them into public discussions around climate change, anyway. It’s not surprising then, that he put his request to the organizers this way: “I am sure that Dr. Mann and Ekwurzel will be happy to finally have someone [who] speaks in opposition to their so-called ‘consensus’-based anti-science paradigm.”

I found Dr. Soon’s message odd, since he’s essentially insulting the people he hoped to present alongside. That doesn’t seem like a great way to get an invite, no matter the topic.

John Coleman, an affable weatherman who also happens to be wrong about climate science, expressed interest in offering an opposing view at the event, too, though it’s not clear if he reached out directly or if someone did so on his behalf.

The bottom line is that climate contrarians haven’t made their case based on the evidence, so they try to make it by intimidating institutions and media outlets into given them equal footing and equal airtime, anyway.

Misrepresenting authority and legitimacy

In his email, Dr. Soon touted an award he received. The website to which he pointed – ClimateChangeAwards.org – is a project of the Heartland Institute, a free market group that once compared people who accept climate science to the Unabomber. The awards are probably an attempt to emulate the ones legitimate scientific societies give to mainstream scientists.

A Heartland Institute billboard. Several companies stopped supporting the group after they saw this.

A Heartland Institute billboard. Several companies stopped supporting the group after they saw this.

A different face for the Heartland Institute. Screengrab of Dr. Soon's profile from Climate Change Awards.org.

A different face for the Heartland Institute. Screengrab of Dr. Soon’s profile from Climate Change Awards.org.

Promoting conspiracy theories

James Enstrom, who has previously challenged the prevailing scientific evidence on the deleterious effects of second-hand smoke, also sent an email to Dr. Mann. He wrote about his efforts to support Dr. Soon and Coleman’s request to participate in the event, then added: “I have a long history of making scientifically accurate, but politically incorrect, discoveries. I have made another such discovery regarding the [event] and I have formulated a hypothesis that an activist political agenda underlies [it].”

Enstrom then accused the organizers of conspiring to use the event to aid a local Congressional candidate, a strange argument, indeed, with no basis in reality.

Harassing scientists and institutions through open records requests

Finally, Steve Milloy, another veteran of the second-hand smoke wars, hit the organizers with a freedom of information request, demanding their correspondence about the event. While open records laws are critical to fostering government accountability, they can also be misused to intimidate and harass scientists and institutions.

Responding to scrutiny

The organizers politely thanked the climate contrarians for their interest and informed him that the program was already full. It’s as simple as that. For mainstream institutions, this sort of intimidation really doesn’t need any other response.

Unfortunately, other institutions have caved to pressure like this. They don’t need to.

We don’t need “Both Sides” when one side is wildly inaccurate

When contrarians pressure institutions – including universities and media outlets — they often insist that events should be “balanced” with people who reject mainstream climate science. Often, these demands are couched in the values of “free speech” and “open debate.”

Here’s the thing: contrarians have many venues in which they can freely exercise their right to advance debunked arguments about climate science. They have their own blogs, their own conferences, and their own relationships with sympathetic members of Congress.

They have friendly media outlets, too. John Coleman, for instance, did an interview with Fox News based on an open letter he wrote criticizing the organizers. He used the opportunity to share his political opinions, cite misinformation about the so-called “Oregon Petition,” repeat an ugly myth about Al Gore’s old teacher ‘renouncing’ climate change, and claimed that Arctic sea ice isn’t shrinking. Coleman also faced much more thoughtful and critical questions on CNN’s Reliable Sources, which led him to reveal his conspiratorial belief that climate scientists manipulate their results to secure research grants.

John Coleman being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on Fox News Channel. Source: Talking Points Memo.

John Coleman being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on Fox News Channel. Source: Talking Points Memo.

Honestly, it’s hard to complain about not having your views heard when you’re invited to do an interview on a national cable news channel, let alone two. It makes me wonder if this entire effort wasn’t just an excuse for contrarians to cry foul and get media coverage. The rude and hyperbolic nature of the emails Dr. Mann received and Coleman’s interview with Fox News Channel certainly makes it sound that way.

Similarly, “open debate” in science means that anyone can prove something wrong at any time in the peer-reviewed literature. It takes just one paper, one discovery to overturn a scientific finding. Contrarians haven’t done that to mainstream climate science.

But often, contrarians try to confuse having an open debate about policy with having a misleading debate about established science.

Disagreements about policy are good – they’re the lifeblood of democracy – but spreading misinformation about science pollutes our public discourse.

It’s also mathematically misleading for them to demand equal time with mainstream scientists. As HBO’s John Oliver hilariously illustrated, a representative climate science debate might be 97-to-3, not 2-to-2.

How could institutions host an effective debate?

The might consider doing a panel discussion with mainstream scientists followed by a policy debate with different speakers. Ideally, of course, the people debating policy would accept mainstream science. Thankfully, there are groups from across the political spectrum that do.

The rest of the world is moving on

There will probably always be people who want to dispute climate science. But as the effects of climate change have become more evident, media outlets, policymakers and institutions are moving on.

For the past several months, CNN has hosted no misleading debates about climate science, for instance. And they’ve done more to highlight debates and discussions about policy. The same is happening with political debates, especially in coastal states.

Fareed Zakaria interviews former Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin about climate change.

Fareed Zakaria interviews former Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Robert Rubin about climate change.

Climate contrarians might see this as suppression. It isn’t. It’s just people recognizing that their scientific arguments are inaccurate.

Still, scientists and institutions should read up on how to deal with harassment and misleading scrutiny of their work.

More importantly, they shouldn’t get too distracted by climate contrarians’ antics and arguments. They should concentrate their communications efforts instead on the broader public, the media outlets that we go to for information and the political leaders who are responsible for dealing with the risks the scientists have identified.

The real debate is about if and how to respond to climate change – not the science.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  • Chang Woo

    Agreed. All opposition to our position must be silenced. When we are right we are right. There must be zero tolerance for dissent or treason of any kind. You are absolutely correct to declare there is no purpose in “balance”. This is, after all, settled science. These opponents of popular wisdom, these egregious troublemakers must not be allowed any platform from which to question our authority. That is how science is best protected for the good of all. Where do these hooligans think they are, America?

    • That’s quite funny; thanks. As I noted above: “Here’s the thing: contrarians have many venues in which they can freely exercise their right to advance debunked arguments about climate science. They have their own blogs, their own conferences, and their own relationships with sympathetic members of Congress.”

      Contrarians are insistent that they are right, too, but unlike scientists, they don’t back up their claims with evidence. Contrarians are free to say what they like — no one can or should stop them — but at the same time, no one is under any special obligation to listen to them.

      • Shelly

        When will deniers learn it is rude to question science? I for one am sick of hearing them refute the theory so I think they should be stopped. I did not permit my kids to talk back to me. Early on they learned to agree with me and things went splendidly after that. That’s what we need for climate science.

      • Good-faith questioning would be great. That’s not what is happening here, unfortunately.

  • canuckinaz

    Great article. My one quibble would be that it’s dangerous to say that “It takes just one paper, one discovery to overturn a scientific finding.” This kind of thinking leads the “contrarians” to seize upon every paper disputing the consensus that comes out as proof that anthropogenic global climate change has been overturned. When the amount of evidence supporting the consensus is a big as it is, it will take far more than a single paper to disprove it. I know that you were talking about a single scientific finding, but even then, one paper doesn’t necessarily overturn it–it’s often the case that the paper seeking to overturn the original finding has flaws and is shown to fail in disproving the original. In any case, I think it’s better to inform contrarians that it will take far more than a single paper if they want to uproot the consensus.

    • Thanks. You’re absolutely right about that. One paper might be able to disprove a link between a specific heat wave and climate change, but it’d certainly take more than that to overturn the many lines of evidence that industrial activities are causing climate change, for instance.

  • Hi, could you please explain how the requests from Soon et al. were intimidatory. Apart from being presumptive (of their own ‘correct’ position), how were they intimidatory? Were there threats made, veiled or otherwise? Were clear ‘consequences’ – or else – aimed at the organisers? Trying it on, as these people do, is not necessarily intimidation.

    I quite regularly get intimidatory messages from the flying monkeys for communications with respect to climate change. I also get the occasional polite enquiry from a contrarian, aiming to set me on the right path. I don’t see the point in labelling contacts intimidatory if they are not – not saying they weren’t but you haven’t presented any evidence to suggest they were.

    • Good question; I could have made that more explicit in this post. The implication was that they’d publicly criticize the university if they weren’t invited. And, indeed, it appears that is what Coleman and the Heartland Institute did. I’m not sure to what degree Milloy was coordinating with the other folks involved, but the FOIA request is certainly an aggressive move, too.

      • Thanks. That’s intimidatory. I think it’s really important these these details are clearly documented, so that it can be made as clear as possible as to what’s going on, rather than he said, she said.

  • Tom Servo