Late last year "revisionist" historian David Irving was released from an Austrian prison after serving 13 months of a 3-year sentence. Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier and anti-semite, had violated Austria's 'Prohibition Statute' which forbids the trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust.
I am certainly no fan of Irving and his warped view of history, but I find it disquieting to know that one can still be jailed in a liberal democracy like Austria for being a prisoner of conscience. It appears that some countries find it necessary to ban the freedom to deny.
Irving may be using his credentials as an historian (whatever those 'credentials' may be at this point) to propagate disinformation, but he is within his rights to do so. Our society does not enforce the integrity of the memesphere through coercion. Moreover, Irving clearly subscribes to a certain belief structure. In a free society, we have no choice but to tolerate this sort of bullshit.
That doesn't mean, of course, that we can't rail against it. Even Deborah Lipstadt, an outspoken critic of Irving, was opposed to his imprisonment, noting "I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth."
It's all too easy to throw a hissy fit and throw people in jail when their views oppose your own, but this is exactly what is happening with Holocaust deniers. And disturbingly, it appears that the right to deny global warming is also in jeopardy. Like the war against Holocaust revisionists, there are those who would like to permanently silence the global warming skeptics. The fear and dread surrounding the climate change crisis had led to a religious-like fervor and the emergence of a new political correctness. Even more bizarre is that global warming skeptics are actually being compared to Holocaust deniers.
Take for example the recent outburst from journalist Ellen Goodman. "I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny," she proclaims, "Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future." Goodman and others would like to see this sort of memetic linkage stick, which would cause brains to automatically turn off and see emotions raised to the boiling point.
Climate change is now such a serious social issue that entire careers and reputations are at stake. Recently, Heidi Cullen of the The Weather Channel suggested that the American Meteorological Society revoke their "Seal of Approval" for any television meteorologist who expresses skepticism that human activity is creating a climate catastrophe. "Clearly, the AMS doesn't agree that global warming can be blamed on cyclical weather patterns," she says, "It's like allowing a meteorologist to go on-air and say that hurricanes rotate clockwise and tsunamis are caused by the weather. It's not a political statement...it's just an incorrect statement."
And just last week a dispute erupted in Oregon, where Gov. Ted Kulongoski has considered firing the state's climatologist George Taylor, who has said human activity isn't the chief cause of global climate change. "It seems if scientists don't express the views of the political establishment, they will be threatened and that is a discomforting thought," said Alabama state climatologist John Christie, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Indeed, the notion that certain lines of scientific inquiry be prohibited is unacceptable and runs against the spirit of academic due diligence. Part of the problem here is that bona fide research is often conflated with the malevolent work of the denial industry; there is a growing network of fake citizens' groups, extremists, and bogus scientific bodies who are claiming that the science of global warming is inconclusive. These groups, to no one's surprise, are the sorry spawn of corporations who have the most to lose in the struggle against greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon is one company that certainly comes to mind.
Again, like the Holocaust deniers, these groups are shielded by freedom-of-speech laws. At the same time these disinformation engines need to be exposed, and it is our responsibility as concerned citizens, writers and activists to make that happen. Scientists and highly influential figures also need to wade into the fray -- and they have. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has been tremendously influential, and groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists are working to reveal scientific abuses and interference.
Meanwhile, scientists and academics deserve to be protected from the perils of groupthink and "consensus science." Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), warns that "rational and open" discussion of climate change science that includes dissenting voices is in danger of being short-circuited at the expense of sound science and free speech. "It smacks to me of McCarthyism and big-brotherism and is completely antithetical to the scientific process and the American political philosophy of free speech," he says.
Attacking researchers who seek to challenge the status quo, aside from it being a witch hunt, may also work to the detriment of those concerned about the environment. If there are other factors and circumstances contributing to global warming we most certainly need to know about it.
The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion where 'climate contrarians' have been pegged as the new blasphemers. At its extreme, global warming skeptics may be at risk of being accused of crimes against humanity.
And it is here where I will close by making an important distinction. It is one thing for a scientist to continue to gather evidence, pose theories and work towards verification. It is another thing altogether for unscrupulous groups to like Exxon and corrupt politicians to add unwarranted noise and obstacles to the discussion. Politicians do not have the luxury of experimentation. Instead, they need to act and forge policy.
Consequently, politicians are by necessity held to a different standard. They have an obligation to parse through the noise and act in the public's best interest. In order for them to do so they must be informed by the best of what science has to offer.
And in order for there to be 'the best science' we have to give the scientific establishment the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to conduct sound and unhindered scientific investigations.