Putting climate science on trial: deniers should be careful for what they wish

Climate Science on trial
Mike Faraday
1 April 2013

WASHINGTON – The trial of several prominent climate scientists begins tomorrow in the US Federal Court. Prominent Republican Senator James Inhofe, who has been agitating for criminal charges to be brought against scientists for violating Federal laws and misappropriating public funds, is confident that the Federal Court judge overseeing the trial will confirm his allegations.

Said Inhofe “Global warming is the biggest swindle committed against the American people. I’m confident the court will find these individuals guilty of manipulating data and misappropriating funds for personal gain.”

The National Academy of Sciences released a press release today stating that the trial was “an unfortunate phase of the scientific debate” and that it had “every confidence the scientists currently on trial will be found innocent of all the charges laid against them”.

Contingents of media around the world have descended on Washington to report on what many are calling climate sciences equivalent to the famous “Scopes Monkey” trial.

 Sources: AAP, Washington Post; The New York Times; The Times; The Age

Imagine if these events came to pass: terrifying? Most certainly. But are they within the realms of possibility? Unlikely.

Still, the political pressure on scientists is obviously increasingly, as prominent Republican Senator James Inhofe is actively calling for criminal charges to be laid against scientists. Inhofe’s office released a report detailing the alleged crimes of climate scientists.

As one would expect, his office uses the leaked CRU emails as evidence of malfeasance on the part of scientists:

“The scientists involved in the CRU controversy violated fundamental ethical principles governing taxpayer-funded research and, in some cases, may have violated federal laws. In addition to these findings, we believe the emails and accompanying documents seriously compromise the IPCC-backed “consensus” and its central conclusion that anthropogenic emissions are inexorably leading to environmental catastrophes…”

Other commentators have been aghast, claiming this is a “new form of McCarthyism“. I agree. It is an attempt by a powerful public official to bully and harass individuals. Even if it doesn’t come to criminal charges, it does cast an ominous shadow.

The report authored under Inhofe’s name lists seventeen scientists. Obviously is intended to intimidate them. Said one of the named scientists:

“I am worried about it, I have to say,” said Raymond Bradley, director of the climate science research centre at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is also on the list of 17. “You can understand that this powerful person is using the power of his office to intimidate people and to harass people and you wonder whether you should have legal counsel. It is a very intimidating thing and that is the point.”

All the deniers need to do is bring political pressure to bear on scientists. No need to actually prosecute them.

What if criminal charges are laid?

As worrying as these developments are, it did make me think “What is the worst that could happen?”

Watchers of the debate are familiar with the calls of the more rabid deniers for scientists to be “charged” and “put on trial” to “answer for their crimes”.

So, let’s consider for a moment that Inhofe is successful in his attempt to criminalize scientists.

What would happen?

Obviously the distress felt by scientists working in good faith would be enormous. They would not only have professional reputations questioned, but every aspect of their personal and public lives would be scrutinised by an army of angry deniers. It would be a very ugly spectacle.

And yet, I believe if climate science was “put in the dock” (so to speak) it would not only be complete vindication scientists, but the science itself. It would be an embarrassing reversal for the denial industry.

Precedents for when reality and fantasy collide in court: Kitzmiller and Irving

There are other court cases we could consider  guides to what will happen. Not precedents in the legal sense, but historical examples of when cranks are forced to play by the rules of evidence.

The two best examples in my mind are Kitzmiller v Dover and the Irving v Penguin:

  • Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District – this 2005 US case was an embarrassing defeat for the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. The attempts by conservative members of the school board to introduce ID were soundly defeated, In addition ID was scrutinised as a “science” by the Judge and were found to be nothing more than dressed up creationism. For years creationists had been hoping to “put Darwinism on trial”, believing it would vindicate their beliefs. They got that day, and where soundly defeated.
  • David Irving v Penguin Books Limited and Deborah E. Lispstadt – notorious Holocaust denier Irving brought a libel suit against Penguin books and historian Lispstadt for publishing the book Denying the Holocaust. Irving was named as a “holocaust denier”. At the heart of the trial: a debate over the historical veracity of the Holocaust. The results for Irving where disastrous:  his reputation as a historian completely destroyed and he was forced to pay the others sides legal costs.

For the deniers it may be a case of be careful for what you wish for. As the Kitzmiller and Irving trials showed, level playing fields aren’t necessarily a good thing if your evidence is at best flimsy.

The deniers would be forced to back up their claims of conspiracy theories and manufactured data. One has to wonder how well their evidence would stand up under true scrutiny?

Much as Irving and the ID movement found out, the end result would almost certainly be a complete and utter rout.

Of course, after their defeat they’d claim it was all part of “The Conspiracy”.

3 thoughts on “Putting climate science on trial: deniers should be careful for what they wish

  1. […] This is their “Dover moment”: when both sides are given equal opportunity to present their arguments and evidence. It is up to an objective body to assess the veracity of each of their respective claims (see my post Putting climate science on trial: what is the worst that could happen?). […]

  2. […] will be there Dover moment. It won’t destroy them, but it would be a humiliating defeat greatly setting them […]

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