Science & Technology

Scientific Nuremberg Trials?

Who needs data, experiments and peer reviewed journals when we can settle scientific matters via trial by ordeal?


David Roberts is a blogger over at the green website Gristmill, which is associated with Grist, the online environmental magazine that bills itself as "Gloom and doom with a sense of humor®." On September 19, 2006, evidently fed up with climate change deniers, Roberts made an interesting suggestion for how to resolve scientific issues. To wit: "When we've finally gotten serious about global warming, when the impacts are really hitting us and we're in a full worldwide scramble to minimize the damage, we should have war crimes trials for these bastards—some sort of climate Nuremberg." Roberts is far from alone. As Brendan O'Neill over at spiked points out, "climate change deniers" are now being likened by some activists to Holocaust deniers or even Nazis themselves. Apparently, it is no longer acceptable to question in polite company the hypothesis that humanity is causing catastrophic climate change.

But before environmentalist climate change avengers rush those they regard as scientific miscreants and corporate shills into the dock, perhaps they should consider that some of their opponents think that turnabout is fair play. Not even a week after Roberts made his proposal for a climate Nuremberg Steven Milloy, publisher of Junk Science website proposed a day of reckoning for DDT foes. To wit: "Businesses are often held liable and forced to pay monetary damages for defective products and false statements. Why shouldn't the National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club and other anti-DDT activist groups be held liable for the harm caused by their recklessly defective activism?"

Last month, the World Health Organization reversed a 30 year policy and endorsed the spraying of DDT to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Considering that between 300 and 500 million people suffer from malaria and more than 1 million die of it each year and that economic growth in malarious areas is reduced by 1.3 percent annually, monetary damages owed by DDT deniers could be substantial. The science relied upon by DDT opponents was suspect to say the least. In addition, some might think that DDT opponents' cost benefit analysis in which they more highly valued wildlife over human lives is morally dubious.

Basically what climate avengers and DDT defenders propose to do is try their opponents for heresy. Heresies are any opinions or doctrines at variance with the official or orthodox position. There are no heresies in science—there are theories that have wide assent among experts but all theories are perpetually open to criticism and revision. So instead of heresy trials, let's stick to scientific free speech and let scientists and policy types argue out the meaning of data, experiments and proposed programs in public. Scientific understanding advances through the application of what Brookings Institution fellow, Jonathan Rauch calls the Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.

On the other hand, it would be fun to see a sword fight between global warmer James Hansen and catastrophic warming skeptic Richard Lindzen.

Disclosure: I have worked with many organizations that people like Roberts would regard as promoting climate change denial. However, I am no longer in denial—not because I'm afraid of being a heretic, but because the data have convinced me to change my mind.