July 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Angry Boys

By Mike Steketee
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Bullies versus Science

Albert Einstein wrote to his friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann, in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” According to Jeroen van Dongen, of Utrecht University’s Institute for History and Foundations of Science in the Netherlands, the letter was written not long after a rally in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall, organised by “a right-wing rabble-rouser with nationalist and völkisch [populist] ideals”, where Einstein had been denounced as a fraud and scientific philistine. The rally was no isolated event: even two years later, fears of anti-relativist violence led Einstein to cancel an important lecture.

If it seems remarkable now that the theory of relativity, long recognised as the foundation of modern physics and astronomy, could arouse such political passions, perhaps future generations will marvel at the lengths to which those who challenge climate science were prepared to go. In July last year, Hans Schellnhuber, the founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who by coincidence works in the same building where Einstein had his office, was the star turn at a conference on climate change at the University of Melbourne. He had just risen to give his keynote speech when a protester in the second row held up a hangman’s noose. The stunt was organised by the Citizens Electoral Council, the local offshoot of the extremist LaRouche movement, which, among other things, has accused Queen Elizabeth of drug-running. The CEC regards action on climate change as “green fascism” and a plot to destroy industry. 

The CEC is at the loony end of opposition to action on climate change on ideological grounds, but the spectrum also includes respected conservatives like Nick Minchin. A few weeks before he helped remove climate change advocate Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader, the former senator said that the issue provided the extreme left with “the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do – to sort of de-industrialise the Western world”. 

Most scientists were initially bemused by such attitudes and ignored them: science, to their way of thinking, is not about taking sides. But it has become more serious. Prominent figures in the climate debate, including scientists, economists, politicians and journalists, are now routinely abused and sometimes threatened, mainly by email and particularly after public appearances. “You try to not let it affect you but it still ruins your appetite and ability to sleep on occasions,’’ says an Australian government scientist who prefers to remain unnamed, one of several who have now removed themselves from Facebook as well as the phone book.

When David Karoly, professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne, received emails saying such things as “die you lying bastard” and “people that promote [global warming] need to be put down”, he referred them to the Victorian police. They traced the most threatening email to a person in Queensland, but told Karoly it did not constitute an immediate threat of violence. Karoly agreed to withdraw his complaint, but police did advise him and the university to take security precautions. “I think it is important not to be beaten down by what I consider a strange response to providing peer-reviewed scientific opinion,” Karoly says.

However, a concerted strategy to intimidate can have an effect. Government organisations in particular are a target for blanket Freedom of Information requests that ask not just for final reports but for early drafts of documents and internal correspondence. According to one scientist, this is inhibiting the way he and his colleagues work. “In the course of our work we do scientific reviews and normally you want to play the devil’s advocate and ask ‘Can you justify this?’ or ‘Is this right?’ You start to become a bit paranoid about how this material might be used.”

Einstein’s experience resonates in today’s scientific debate. As van Dongen wrote in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, many anti-relativity campaigners were amateur researchers who, like Minchin, were prone to conspiracy theories: “The fact that for them [the theory of] relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful, strengthened the contention that a plot was at play.” The anti-relativists set up an Academy of Nations that had an international board and bestowed honorary degrees and prizes. The idea was to create the impression of a prominent and thriving international association, rather than a marginalised reactionary movement with anti-Semitic elements. Today, opponents of climate science have established a ‘Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’, as if it were an equal counterweight to the United Nations body.

Opponents of the theory of relativity exist to this day. As a movement early last century, they generated enough controversy to contribute to the Nobel committee delaying awarding its prize to Einstein in 1921; he received it the following year for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect instead. The campaign against climate science has likewise had success in weakening public support for action. Meanwhile, evidence of human-induced climate change keeps accumulating. The World Meteorological Organization tells us the first decade of this century was the hottest since records began in 1850.

Mike Steketee
Mike Steketee is a former columnist, national affairs editor and political correspondent at the Australian.

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