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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