In 2012, in a proceeding straight out of the Inquisition, an Italian court convicted six scientists for providing "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" in the lead-up to the earthquake. Now, a philosophy professor says that case may provide a worthwhile example for the treatment of scientific dissenters—specifically, "climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public's understanding of scientific consensus."
Writing for The Conversation, a publication geared to academics, Lawrence Torcello (pictured at right), a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says the time for conversation is over.
The importance of clearly communicating science to the public should not be underestimated. Accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death. When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes, an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent.
Torcello then tries to parse the details of the earthquake case, saying, it was "actually about the failure of scientists to clearly communicate risks to the public."
Even so, Torcello acknowledges the chilling effect of prosecuting scientists for not framing their public statements in a sufficiently prosecutor-friendly matter. Researchers might not try to warn anybody if they could face fines or prison time for being inexact, incomplete, or contradictory after the fact. He ultimately allows that he wouldn't actually criminalize poor scientific communication—just anybody who might support dissenting scientists, or receive such support.
If those with a financial or political interest in inaction had funded an organised campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made, then many of us would agree that the financiers of the denialist campaign were criminally responsible for the consequences of that campaign. I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism….
We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public's understanding of scientific consensus.
If you're trying to figure out how that doesn't threaten the free exercise of speech, Torcello assures us, "We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one's unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public's ability to develop and voice informed opinions."
So…You can voice a dissenting opinion, so long as you don't benefit from it or help dissenters benefit in any way?
By the way, according to RIT, Torcello researches "the moral implications of global warming denialism, as well as other forms of science denialism." Presumably, his job is a paid one. But this is OK, because…the majority of scientists agree with his views on the issue?
Let's allow that they do—and that a majority of scientists agree about man-made climate change and a host of other issues. Just when does the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition meet to decide what is still subject to debate, and what is now holy writ? And is an effort to "undermine the public's understanding of scientific consensus" always criminally negligent? Can it ever be simple scientific inquiry? Or even heroic?
Or maybe we just assume underhanded motives on the part of scientific outliers and their supporters once the committee has ruled.