The Dangers of Being a Scientist

In which occupations would you expect to be threatened with murder?

Soldiers, at the front lines of combat zones, are an obvious example. Police officers would often qualify, too. Even high-ranking government officials put their safety at risk – just look at the number of American presidents that have been assassinated. Gang leaders and drug dealers, if they can be called “occupations”, would be high on the list.

What about scientists?

They don’t spend their days suppressing violent criminals. Although they’ll occasionally speak to the media, they could hardly be called public or political figures. Their job is to learn about the world, whether they sit in a lab and crunch numbers or travel to the Antarctic and drill ice cores. Not exactly the kind of life where threats to personal safety seem likely.

Nevertheless, top climate scientists around the world have been receiving death threats for over a year now. This violent hate campaign recently reached Australia, where, as journalist Rosslyn Beeby writes, “Several universities…have been forced to upgrade security to protect scientists.”

Their names have been deleted from staff directories. One scientist’s office cannot be found by without photo identification and an official escort; another has a “panic button”, installed on advice of police.

Some researchers have installed advanced home security systems, and made their home addresses and phone numbers unlisted. They have deleted their accounts on social media sites. All because some people feel so threatened by the idea of human-caused climate change that they’d rather attack the scientists who study the problem than accept its reality and work to fix it.

In the United States, such threats to climate scientists are commonplace, but the hate speech is protected by the American freedom of speech laws, so there isn’t much police can do. The situation isn’t quite as widespread in the UK, although several scientists have been excessively targeted due to the “Climategate” campaign.

Nobody has been hurt, at least not yet. However, many researchers receive regular emails threatening murder, bodily harm, sexual assault, property damage, or attacks on family members. One anonymous scientist had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. A young Australian woman who gave a speech at a library about carbon footprints had the words “Climate Turd” written in feces on her car.

Several American scientists say that the threats pick up whenever right-wing talk show hosts attack their reputations. It’s common for Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh to single out climate scientists as socialist frauds, or some variation of the sort. However, knowing that the more extreme viewers of Fox News will watch these baseless attacks and, subsequently, whip off threats of murder in emails to the scientists involved, is unsettling, to say the least.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some people who deny the reality of climate change are also denying the reality of these violent threats. In Australia, the Liberal spokesperson for science, Sophie Mirabella, stated that “the apparently false allegation of death threats have diminished the individuals involved and reflect poorly on the scientific community”. In some ironic twist of logic, the victims of hate crimes are now receiving even more public battering of their reputations, simply because they reported these crimes. There’s no way to win.

We can only hope that these threats will subside with time, and that nobody will get hurt in the process. We can only hope that governments and police agencies will take the threats seriously and pursue investigations. However, once climate change becomes so obvious that even extremists can’t deny it, we will all face a greater danger: the impacts of climate change itself. We can only hope that these hate crimes don’t frighten scientists into staying silent – because their knowledge and their voices might be our only chance.

References:

1) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Climate of fear: scientists face death threats.” The Canberra Times, 4 June 2011.
2) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Change of attitude needed as debate overheats.” The Canberra Times, 14 June 2011.
3) Hickman, Leo. “US climate scientists receive hate mail barrage in wake of UEA scandal.” The Guardian, 5 July 2010.

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8 thoughts on “The Dangers of Being a Scientist

  1. This is a vitally important discussion. Thank you.

    But with global warming, everyone on the planet will be endangered – put at risk. The pity is that everyone will be suffering, everyone will sacrifice. We will be victims or martyrs.

    Who is the violent criminal? It is a crime that any wealth is built on the sacrifice of innocents. And promoting delusion is leading to the demise of our future. That is a colossal crime by skeptical sociopaths.

    If we know that is inevitable, then it behooves us to all face the struggle directly. Slow, carefully thought-out change is a luxury of a stable world. To know that we have MAYBE 100 years of civilization – with this rate of change – this means that we must push for change. Or we must accept the physical change imposed upon us.

    Anyone who knows the changes ahead is ethically bound to warn others. What is the danger of not speaking out? Versus the danger of speaking out. The difference is an early sacrifice vs a later sacrifice.

    Everyone is endangered. The battle is over the arena of denial and obstruction. In as few as 5 or 10 years, – or sooner – it will be very clear what has to be done.

  2. Every scientist need to realise, it is only a matter of time before their paper is singled-out for a well-funded; orchestrated and perpetual campaign of vilification.

    Scientists need to support one another, some kind of science defence association is needed. All respectable publishing scientists need to hang together, or it’s certain they will all hang separately.

    As Martin Niemoeller remarked:

    ‘First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.’

    One need only consider Professor Michael Mann’s experiences: repeated fishing expeditions [Cuccinelli]; Wegman Report; FOI blizzard; CRU hack; hate-campaigns; witch-hunts and serial victim of malicious false accusations & etc. How would YOU cope?

    You know what needs to be done!

  3. 3) Hickman, Leo. “US climate scientists receive hate mail barrage in wake of UEA scandal.” The Guardian, 5 July 2011.

    That should be 2010

    Thanks! -Kate

  4. Kate:

    We can only hope that these threats will subside with time, and that nobody will get hurt in the process.

    As we say in the Army, hope is not a method.” — James Morin Herndon

    The way things are going, I see no way that the threats are going to subside — not with shock jocks constantly egging people on, not with entire organizations such as the Daily Telegraph and CFACT publicly spreading lies and innuendo to downplay the seriousness of the threats.

    Blog commenter bill wrote,

    The potential prosecution of this would-be 21st Century Madame Defarge is a much more interesting matter [than two trolls trying to derail a thread]. We should certainly be encouraging the pursuit of all available legal options directed at whichever of these people can be identified.

    Also, publicly claiming someone invented allegations of death threats is surely defamatory? Defamation is a live issue in Australia, and doesn’t have to be solely a weapon of elite power. I’m sure there are prominent lawyers who’d be willing to act in both matters.

    Alas, I somehow doubt any of these will happen.

    — frank

  5. “However, once climate change becomes so obvious that even extremists can’t deny it…”

    I’m beginning to suspect we’ll never reach that point; on the contrary, I think the more the evidence firms up, the more violent will be the response from those who wished it weren’t reality.

    Case in point: Peak Oil (crude) happens (2006, according to the IEA, though for some odd reason they only formally admitted it in 2008). You’d think that would be a serious wake-up call, but no: e.g. Canada (now) has clearly turned its back on any attempt to minimise emissions, and is earnestly raping forests for the oil in the tar sands beneath them.

    • “I’m beginning to suspect we’ll never reach that point”

      We will. But, on the way to that point, I suspect that deniers will decrease in number but increase in frenzied hysteria. The ones who can’t maintain the position will rarely admit they were wrong. They’ll just disappear.

      In the end, there will still be some, probably more than the current number of flat-earthers or geocentrists or perpetual motion inventors. That remainder will steadily become part of the frantic, wild haired, gimlet eyed, unwashed legion of social outcasts who pluck imploringly at the sleeves of passersby. (When they’re not avidly dredging the further reaches of the intertubes for more evidence of vile conspiracies.)

      Never, ever understanding why ‘they won’t listen to me’.

  6. A cross-post of my response to the final article in the Conversation series:

    Newscorp reporters — some of whom have been known to apologize to scientists in advance and off the record for their being tasked to return from public meetings, not with an actual news story but with scathing statements from the handful of deniers in the audience.

    Hey scholars, what’s the use of telling us all these? What do you expect us to do, find Rupert Murdoch and whack him in the head?

    Except for Michael Mann, and Andrew Weaver, climate researchers seem to me to be extremely reluctant to take any concrete, direct action to punish the climate science disinformers for their disinformation. And no, writing lots of essays doesn’t really count.

    As I said, if climate folks won’t vigorously protect their own rights, there’s nothing much we can do to help them.

    — frank

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