Fall 2012

Perspective: Standing Up to Anti-Science Bullies


Standing Up to Anti-Science Bullies

When scientists make new discoveries, we all benefit from knowing what they have learned. But if a discovery threatens vested economic interests—as when scientists find that a product or by-product harms human health—corporations and related stakeholders often choose to attack the credibility of the scientists or their research rather than respond responsibly to the findings. Over the years, asbestos and pesticide manufacturers and the lead and tobacco industries have all taken this approach.

More recently, some in the fossil fuel industry have attacked researchers whose work shows that burning oil and gas overloads the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide and dangerously alters our climate. As the harmful consequences of global warming become ever clearer—like this summer’s heat waves, droughts, and forest fires—the harassment and criticism of scientists grow increasingly extreme.

The American Tradition Institute (ATI), for instance, has demanded private email correspondence from climate scientists at public universities under state freedom of information laws. While these laws were designed to allow citizens to watchdog government agencies and officials, ATI is using them presumably to find material it can misrepresent or take out of context to sow confusion and doubt about global warming. Taking these cynical strategies one step further, the Heartland Institute sponsored billboards comparing people who accept climate science to “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, while a Competitive Enterprise Institute representative compared a Penn State climate scientist to former football coach and convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky.

In the face of these attacks, it’s more important than ever for scientists to fight back, and UCS is making sure their voices can be heard above the din of denial. We have helped scientists and universities fight intrusive open-records requests, condemned the use of inflammatory rhetoric, and released a booklet that offers scientists guidance on dealing with harassment. We have also put pressure on Pfizer—which has professed a commitment to addressing climate change—to join the 20 companies that have withdrawn funding from the Heartland Institute in response to its anti-science ads.

We feel confident that this dark hour in public policy debate presages a dawn of positive change, and that the public will increasingly recognize and reject these disturbing and extreme attempts to delay meaningful action. By supporting scientists under attack, we can help ensure their science contributes to decisions that improve our health and environment.

Kevin Knobloch, president