Cyber bullying rises as climate data are questioned
1 March 2010
'That is chilling the work of science in the agencies.'
By Douglas Fischer
Daily Climate editor
The e-mails come thick and fast every time NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt appears in the press.
Rude and crass e-mails. E-mails calling him a fraud, a cheat, a scumbag and much worse.
To Schmidt and other researchers purging their inboxes daily of such correspondence, the barrage is simply part of the job of being a climate scientist. But others see the messages as threats and intimidation – cyber-bullying meant to shut down debate and cow scientists into limiting their participation in the public discourse.
"I get a lot of hate mail," said Schmidt, a climate modeler at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies who also runs RealClimate.org, a website devoted to debunking myths and errors about climate change. "I get a lot of praise mail, but pretty much every time I have a quote in a mainstream publication I'll get a string of emails from various people accusing me of various misdemeanors and fantasizing about my life in prison."
Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has a 19-page document of "extremely foul, nasty, abusive" e-mails he's received just since November.
Australian author and academic Clive Hamilton noted that many of the country's most distinguished climate scientists are increasingly the target of e-mail attacks aimed at driving them from the public debate.
Chemical and Engineering News
"The purpose of this new form of cyber-bullying seems clear; it is to upset and intimidate the targets, making them reluctant to participate further in the climate change debate," Hamilton wrote in a column published last week by Sydney's ABC News. "While the internet is often held up as the instrument of free speech, it is often used for the opposite purpose, to drive people out of the public debate."
The bullying has long been part of life for many climate scientists. Retired NCAR climate scientist Tom Wigley said he's been fighting it for the last 20 years or more. Most of the e-mails appear to be the work of frustrated individuals, ranting into the ether, scientists say. But some appear to be the work of coordinated campaigns, and many, scientists say, appear to be taking their cue from influential anti-climate change advocates like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and ClimateDepot.com.
Scientists say the bullying, if anything, emboldens them. But it does have a cost.
Organized, "McCarthyite" tactics aimed at specific scientists by various groups can be stressful, Schmidt said. "Frivolous" Freedom of Information Act requests can tie up considerable quantities of researchers' time.
Worst of all, he said, are "intimidating letters" from congressional members threatening dire consequences to scientists working on climate change.
"That is chilling the work of science in the agencies," Schmidt said. "It's certainly very off-putting for scientists who want to talk about their stuff in public but fear the political consequences."
"Nobody wants to create an enemy on the Hill."
For the most part, the rants have remained just that – rants. Threats of physical harm remain rare and are usually discounted, scientists say. "These people don't really know you," Schmidt added. "They're not really talking about you. You're just a symbol that has an e-mail address."
The pace picked up late last year, several scientists said, when several years' worth of stolen correspondence among climate scientists were published on the Web. The onslaught intensified as errors in the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change's most recent report surfaced in January and policy makers and reporters began to question what has become the gold standard of climate science.
What's clear is the e-mails show anger and hostility. There's no effort to ask questions or seek what Trenberth called "the truth." Scientists aren't the only target; journalists covering the issue also routinely find their inbox stuffed with epithets.
"They do not tend to be reasonable," said Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of Chemical and Engineering News, who has been covering science for the magazine for 30 years. "They do not seem to be interested in dialogue. They are shrill, they are unfriendly, and they are bullying."
Why so much venom and vitriol?
The answer is simple, said Marc Morano, executive editor at ClimateDepot.com, who has spent years trying to expose global warming hype: The public is bitterly angry at the "con job" perpetrated by climate scientists.
"You have every aspect of our lives subject to regulatory control – down to the light bulbs we can put in – based on climate science," Morano said. The researchers "never wanted to debate and they kept trying to demand the debate was over."
"Whenever you have someone ginning up a crisis and wanting to take power, you're going to have anger," he added. "When you've been conned at a used car dealer, you don't go back cheerily and politely to talk to them."
That neither the stolen correspondence nor the minor IPCC errors undermine the underlying science of climate change hasn't checked the onslaught.
Trenberth says that is the most dispiriting aspect of the e-mails: Facts don't carry more weight in the public debate. The nature of public discourse – be it climate change or health care – has changed; information that does not fit one's worldview is now discounted or rejected.
Increasingly," wrote Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald recently, "we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth."
Added Trenberth: "In science there's a whole lot of facts and basic information on the nature of climate change, but it's not being treated that way. It's being treated as opinion."
The attacks are not limited to climate research, either. Researchers working on atrazine, a widely used herbicide, bisphenol A, a common plastic additive, and other environmental pollutants have received similarly intimidating e-mails and even threats.
Determining whether any given e-mail is part of an organized campaign is difficult, said Richard Littlemore, editor of DeSmog Blog and author of Climate Cover-up, an investigation of industry's effort to undermine climate science.
But it's not happenstance, he said. The bullying doesn't start serendipitously or from scratch.
It starts with a paid campaigner – Morano; the International Climate Science Coalition's Tom Harris; JunkScience.com publisher and Fox News commentator Steve Milloy – and filters out from there, Littlemore said.
"They're the PR guys and they're in the game and taking money for what they do," he said. "They also wind up recruiting other folks (who) in many ways are just dupes and sincerely believe they're standing up for democracy."
"They're people whose world view is being disrupted by climate scientists," Littlemore added. "Sometimes they end up being the most effective and vitriolic."
Morano, for his part, is unapologetic.
He doesn't wish anyone harm. But he sees opportunity. "I seriously believe we should kick them while they're down," he said. "They deserve to be publicly flogged."
Illustration courtesy Bullying UK.
Reach Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [ at ] dailyclimate.org
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