I hate to talk about myself, so this first part will be short. A little biography is necessary to set the stage for this post. A few years ago, I heard well-known climate contrarian Christopher Monckton speak on human-caused climate change. Monckton has been a favorite hero of the anti-science movement and, for the rest of us, a source of amusement as he travels the world reciting basic scientific errors and misrepresenting his own credentials.
After hearing Monckton's lecture, I posted a detailed rebuttal online showcasing his mischaracterization of the science and his obvious and elementary errors. In response, my university and I received a 99-page complaint letter, which ended with a request to pay $110,000 to the United States Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. This was followed by attacks against me by Marc Morano, who was kind enough to publicly post my contact information on his website. Monckton went on to encourage listeners of the radical Alex Jones show to write to my university administration to "investigate" me.
What ever happened to that whole episode? Not much. A few hate messages that appear in my mailbox from time to time. They are easy to spot because they never have a return address and their speeling and punctuation,,, is just terrble! And has Monckton ever followed through with his promised? Nope… I am still waiting. This whole event, as a colleague told me, was the bite of a toothless Chihuahua. It helped that my University stood beside me and was not bullied by this sideshow.
My colleagues, however, have endured far worse attacks by the anti-science crowd. Take, for instance, Dr. Ben Santer and the attacks leveled against him in The Wall Street Journal. Or how about the numerous attacks against Dr. Michael Mann? He has been viciously attacked on blogs and in far right-wing media as his work on paleoclimate has been held up as the face of climate change.
But Dr. Mann has not only been attacked on blogs, television, and in print; he has been attacked in court. For instance, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli tried to force Dr. Mann to release private emails and other documents from his research work at the University of Virginia. He demanded correspondence between Dr. Mann and a number of other scientists in a style that echoed back to McCarthyism. Mr. Cuccinelli failed in his misguided attack. The total cost to the University of Virginia for this fishing expedition? Just $350,000. Now Mr. Cuccinelli is running to be the next governor of Virginia.
For Dr. Mann, the outcome is that he has wasted time and money fighting against these attacks. On the other hand, his science, which is perhaps the most scrutinized in the world's history, has emerged victorious. The "hockey-stick graph" is now one of the most trusted and widely recognized graphs in all of science. To his colleagues, Dr. Mann is a hero.
Dr. Mann aptly uses the phrase "Serengeti strategy" to describe this attack strategy. Isolate and run down individual scientists. By attacking and trying to discredit one scientist at a time, they are able to discredit all scientists by profession. And, if they cannot discredit the scientist – then just make up facts about them and put those facts online and in print.
What is concerning is how young, upcoming scientists will view this environment. People go into science because of a curiosity about the world, not because they want to fight endless FOIA requests or have lies told about them in the media.
Will the hostility that this environment presents dissuade our best and brightest from even entering science? I hope not, for their sake and the sake of all of us.
Another concern is the cost (financial and time) that defending against the attacks requires. To this end, my friend and colleague, Professor Scott Mandia, along with Joshua Wolfe, have founded the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF). CSLDF was established to let scientists conduct research without the threat of politically motivated attacks. Not only does this group raise money to help cover legal fees, they provide training materials to both young and seasoned scientists. CSLDF is a project of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) so donations are tax-deductible. Perhaps the best description is from Professor Mandia himself, "The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was established to make sure that legal actions are not viewed as an attack against one scientist or institution but as attacks against the scientific endeavor as a whole. Our goal is simple: let scientists conduct research without the threat of politically motivated attacks."
We really don't think this is the best environment for science, but when the issue is as polarizing as climate change, perhaps the present situation is inevitable. On the other hand, over the past few years scientists have learned that the Serengeti Strategy only works when the predators are able to isolate their prey from the larger herd. Scientists have learned that protection of one is protection of all. We have also learned that good science will always win in the end. When the history books are written, I'll sit down with my daughters and tell them the story. It has clowns, hockey sticks, and witches – a real thriller. Let's hope it ends with truth and an emerging plan to believe the real scientists and disregard their attackers. The history books are being written right now.