The Courage to Publish

I’ve recently been aware of some controversy regarding a psychology study involving research into the links between conspiracy theory and climate denial. To my delight, I’ve just finished reading the paper in question, freely available online, and it’s not only informative, it’s amusing as well.

Recursive Fury is the follow-up to a paper published by Lewandowsky, Oberauer and Gignac in which they noted a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories, belief in laissez-faire economics and climate change denial. This follow-up study reports on the responses to that study on the internet and was originally accepted for publication by Frontiers, a psychology journal. Legal threats induced Frontier to change their minds about publication but the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky is based, had the courage to publish the study on their own website (which is where I’ve linked to).

I can heartily recommend the paper as a read – rarely have I read an academic paper written seriously, soberly and at the same time with a light sense of humour.

And yet there’s a serious question here. Why should it take courage to publish an academic paper which has been peer-reviewed and the research passed by an ethics committee? Surely that’s just routine academic publishing?

The debate on climate science/climate change denial seems to be moving towards a more legal-bludgeon-threat stage of response rather than the “no consensus” and “science is wrong” arguments seen so far. This attempt by a group to gag publication of papers and articles they don’t like by threatening legal action is not that unexpected, I think – it certainly follows long-established strategies in modern history, where “if you can’t beat them threaten them” does appear to be a widely-used debating technique (consider the tobacco industry’s attempts to block research linking smoking with cancer).

Recently I’ve also heard about a nasty outbreak of abuse and hate mail, directed at a philosophy professor who published an article discussing putting professional climate change denialists (not the man-on-the-street –  the vested interests and their employees deliberately obscuring the issue) on trial, using the precedent of Italian earth scientists jailed for failing to accurately communicate the risks of an earthquake to the public. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of either the Italian verdict or the article – read them yourself and make your own mind up! It’s a complex area – but I do see a problem here with the erosion of free speech.

For example, Lawrence Torcello has apparently been the victim of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of hate email and abuse following the publication of his article, regardless of the fact that a philosopher philosophising is merely doing his job.

I want to feel entirely free to express my feelings about climate change science and climate change deniers, whether confused, mislead, paranoid, convinced or cynically working for pay, but if I’m going to claim this privilege for myself, then logically, morally and ethically, how can I deny the same privilege to anyone else? Nobody should be the victim of hatred and abuse for expressing their opinion and if a philosopher can’t speculate, what’s the world coming to? Surely we’ve moved on since Socrates was forced to commit suicide by poison for expressing his opinions?

Let’s keep the debate based on science and not resort to legal threats and abusive behaviour, even if we don’t keep it entirely polite. Any contentious subject raises passions and passion requires passionate words for its expression – but not hate mail or gagging attempts.

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