Guest post by Stephan Lewandowsky
Bristol University • School of Theoretical Conspiracism
In a way, today’s scientists have it better than Hypatia of Alexandria. They don’t have to worry about being flayed with sharpened stones—yet; but they do endure things no scientist should.
They never signed up for this.
Nobody said their life’s work would be critically scrutinized, repositioned from fact to theory and slandered as “uncertain.”
Nobody warned them their work was going to be forcibly disclosed, competitively replicated (usually with different results), pedantically ransacked for errors and fallacies, refuted in and out of the peer-reviewed literature, ignored, investigated and cleared by two-dozen independent inquiries, debunked by amateurs of no scientific standing, and disbelieved.
(It’s the disbelief that hurts the most.)
The methods may have changed over the centuries, but whether it’s the Roman Inquisition interrogating Giordano Bruno or some head-in-the-sand blogger intimidating the ANU by asking for information, the point of questioning academics is always the same: to stifle inquiry.
Psychologists familiar with the way deniers behave have called it “bullying.” Wikipedia tells us that,
The word “bully” was first used in the 1530s meaning “sweetheart”, applied to either sex, from the Dutch boel “lover, brother” […] The meaning deteriorated through the 17th century through “fine fellow”, “blusterer”, to “harasser of the weak”.
I have an uglier term for harassment of the weak: illegitimate insertion.
When Inboxes Attack: safety tips for email recipients
Because bullying campaigns take the form of email, they can be hard to distinguish from emails.
The point of questioning academics is always the same: to stifle inquiry.
But bear in mind at all times that:
- A real scientist will always use the email address of a reputable institution.
- A real scientist will always state his/her credentials and repeatedly acknowledge yours, thus establishing a basis of mutual legitimacy for the interaction.
- A real scientist will never ask for your credit card number.
- A real scientist will seldom threaten to rape and murder your family; this is an admission of losing the argument, something proper academics rarely concede.
Deniers often take advantage of the fundamental and absolute openness that is the sine qua non of all science to disguise their attacks as requests for information.
There are, however, some subtle tipoffs. A mala fide email often gives itself away when the sender
- claims to be a scientist but says words only a conservative would use: bitter, cling, guns, religion, Rush, Limbaugh, Popper, Feynman, etc.
- claims to be “skeptical,” but later makes a comment that reveals detailed knowledge of your work. Remember, real skeptics know almost nothing about climate science, which is why they’re not convinced yet. But if they understand the science, that’s mens rea right there—they are (by definition) denying it.
- has a paranoid or distrustful tone. If you sense even the slightest subtext of suspicion, this should set off major alarm bells.
- casts aspersions on your manhood, then proceeds to hustle you with inflated claims about expensive supplements and weird exercises that just don’t work. Remember guys: if the “results” sound too good to be true, why haven’t you read about it in the peer-reviewed literature?
When people ask for your data, what do they really want?
This is a good question with no easy answers.
A Freedom of Information [FOI] request isn’t necessarily a vexatious, chilling assault on science. It probably is; but what if a legitimate scholar simply needs some data to strengthen the consensus?
In psychological and legal theories of harassment, it is the victim’s perception that defines and categorizes a given act. So the question that matters is, how does the request make you feel?
Negatively? Does it make you feel negatively, huh?
(For instance, you might be afraid of showing your data. And who could blame you? Or perhaps it would be a time-consuming pain in the ass to track it all down—assuming it even exists—and unarchive, format, sanitize, collate and upload it.)
Admit it: it makes you feel negatively, doesn’t it?
By definition, then, what you’re experiencing is FOI harassment.
Besides, bear in mind that your data is already freely available online and always has been, so the request doesn’t even make sense!
Obviously, therefore, it’s not about the data—it’s about harassing you.
In the workplace.
The worst thing for you to do would be to release the data. That’s what bullies want!
Scientifically-illegitimate people are positive there’s something incorrect, or incomplete, in science’s understanding of the world. They can’t say what, but they’re determined to find out! So if you suspect someone is on a ‘fishing expedition’ against science, say so:
Why should I make my data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?
Too many people in science think they can appease its enemies with a small show of coöperation, concession or compromise.
That’s futile, as Phil Jones understood. No matter how many errors are discovered and corrected they won’t be satisfied. When you’re a bully, the current state of science is never good enough.
When illegitimate forces abuse FOI by seeking information, tell them:
- Most of the data used by real scientists like you is the proprietary, expensive product of many years of fine-tuning and value-adding, so you’re not at liberty to share it with illegitimate parties—though they are, of course, welcome to make up their own data.
- Whatever data you may or may not have misplaced in a fit of early-career naïveté—back when climate science was an academic backwater of no political importance—it doesn’t do anything to change the science (which, as everyone knows, is robust and invariant to the removal, correction or addition of any amount of data).
- Also, all your data has always been freely available online.
- Logically therefore, the real agenda behind the request must be FUD. But they weren’t counting on one thing: you’re a climate scientist, so you don’t scare easily.
- You are being probed illegitimately.
- Victims of unwelcome insertion often blame themselves, but what happened is not your fault. To be sure, you probably could have avoided it by being less provocative in your claims; but now that you know the kind of skeptics who are out there—beneath the surface, hidden in shadows, highly organized, pursuing you wherever you go—you’ll be more careful next time.
- You don’t have to disclose anything to anyone unless it feels right. It’s your body of work, and your choice whether to share it with a given person.
- You do not owe the masses an explanation. Science is about increasing human knowledge—not everyone’s knowledge.