Science on trial: in which I advise sceptics to be careful what they wish for (WtD 2010 reprint)

Back in March 2010 I advised the climate sceptics to be very careful for what they wish for in bringing legal action against scientists or bodies charged with scientific research. I’m going to claim a bit of both a) told ya so and b) a tiny bit of prescience in how sceptics would response to inevitable defeat – they would claim it was a conspiracy. Below is a reprint of my 2010 article. 

Seen it all before…

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 realm 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”.

7 thoughts on “Science on trial: in which I advise sceptics to be careful what they wish for (WtD 2010 reprint)

  1. klem says:

    Wow, I’ll bet now they wished they had listened to your warnings way back in 2010. If only they had listened, they would never have gotten all of that free climate skeptic publicity for so many years.

    Oh why, oh why didn’t they listen?!!…sniff…

  2. catweazle666 says:

    The only conspiracy here is the one by you lot alleging that there is some sort of “denialist” conspiracy funded or coordinated by Big Oil/Koch Bros/Whoever.

    While you continue to believe that, you are fighting the mist.

    Carry on.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks Cat – actually, I don’t think that at all. As many of my posts have said again, and again this is about;

      – values
      – climate change becoming a culture war issue
      – the individual’s cognitive skill set
      – politics of left v right

      And so on… you’ll neither I and many of the “warmist” commentators even talk about big oil etc.

      That Cat, was your straw man argument🙂

    • Nick says:

      Get a grip,catweazle666: our host has not claimed Inhofe’s actions are conspiratorial. After all,Inhofe operates publicly,and his actions,while utterly cynical,are lawful in the US. Inhofe is a seeker and recipient of monies from fossil fuel interests. This is public knowledge,though not widely appreciated by the average taxpayer. He then represents his funders interests,as they and he see them. This is not a matter of belief,it’s a matter of the public record.

      He used to employ Marc Morano,and,at public expense,they dispensed disinformation about science and scientists to any takers,actively undermining legitimate science outreach from both government and privately funded researchers. This in spirit was an abuse of his office…while being legal. Morano has moved on to the ‘private sector’,and Inhofe still acts as a conduit for such bullshit generators. Inhofe exploits the latitude of the system to undermine many of the interests of his own electors.

      The US political system has been described as ‘the best democracy money can buy’,as corporations and privateers like the Kochs seek to frame legislation and direct legislators through such gatherings as ALEC…this is a process that undermines the independence of elected representatives and limits the access of individuals to their reps…and that’s
      simply the truth.

  3. […] 2012/09/08: WtD: Science on trial: in which I advise sceptics to be careful what they wish for (WtD … […]

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