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Guest Post: Bottling Nonsense, Misusing a Civil Platform

John R. Mashey, Ph.D., vice president of technology at Techviser, and Robert S. Coleman, professor of chemistry at Ohio State University:

Anthropologist Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, published “Bottling Up Global Warming Skepticism” on Innovations, followed by “Climate Thuggery.” The first mentioned a 3-week-old Science profile of Mashey’s efforts to defend climate scientists from political attacks.

Wood’s article misused the platform of CHE. Its relevance to the concerns of CHE was minimal. It had little purpose but to damage the reputation of one of us, John Mashey, and the climate scientist Michael Mann, whom Wood has often denigrated elsewhere. The political false-association tactics were obvious. Climate scientists are under incessant attack, a fact strongly decried the day before Wood’s article by the AAAS Board. The muddy battlefield of blogs and media has now arrived on the CHE premises, easily seen in the comments.

Although we see this elsewhere and ignore it, we were surprised to find articles and comments by Wood in CHE that could be considered libelous. We value the academy for open discussion and seeking truth. We both take academic misconduct seriously and have filed formal, detailed misconduct complaints. Wood’s use of phrases like “tattered reputation,” “statistical trickery and suppression of discrepant data,” “Barnum-esque hokum,” and “academic dishonesty” are not things that credible people publish without showing expertise and evidence. As Christopher Hitchens has so accurately stated: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Much of what Wood writes falls under the category of assertion without evidence, counter to the principles of scholarly discourse.

Wood devoted 60% of his piece to American showman P. T. Barnum. He dismissed that as “vacant thoughts,” and shifted to the Science profile, vaguely referenced. In a radical departure from standards of academic integrity, he called Mashey’s reports of serious plagiarism, also known as research misconduct, as “flyspecking.” He tried to conflate Mashey, Mann, and the field of climate science with Barnum and Bruno Latour. Wood wrote strong opinions with little basis, often erred on simple facts, and displayed no apparent expertise in the scientific discipline he was criticizing. How did this happen here?

Science profiled Mashey largely because he studies and writes about the machinery of climate anti-science and other misuses of science. Researching Wood, NAS, and related background paints a strange story. For example, Wood lauded the Viscount Christopher Monckton here in his post Tyranny or Theft? Part 1. Monckton is a non-scientist and polemicist with zero credibility on climate science. Wood failed to mention Monckton’s use of swastikas and other non-scholarly tactics.

This post is far too short to do justice to the story, but this 34-page analysis is a start: “Bottling Nonsense – Peter Wood and the National Association of Scholars.” It includes about 150 citations. But when Wood was asked for citations in the comments thread of the post, he replied: “I am not going to spoil it by providing citations. They are easily available to anyone willing to look.”

Based on that attitude, we leave it to CHE readers to judge the scholarly value of Wood’s discourse.

Wood writes: “Good science doesn’t limit itself to the views of narrow-cast specialists.” On the contrary, good science comes directly from the efforts of highly trained specialists, who have the focus and ability to dig deeply into an area of investigation. This science is critiqued by other highly trained specialists, yielding scientific facts and theories that can be applied to broader problems. Scientific consensus is built over time by this collective effort, not by opinion pieces by academicians lacking expertise in the scientific discipline.

All this raises interesting issues for the members of the National Association of Scholars and separately for the CHE community. We need civil discussions on matters of scientific fact, not hyperbolic allegations. This, we believe, is relevant to the interaction of the academy with the Internet.

We hope members of the National Association of Scholars will comment, pro or con, on Wood’s articles. On this, we wonder how well he represents the association’s membership. He certainly does not represent that of distinguished climate researcher Kerry Emmanuel, who wrote the eloquent, well-informed “’Climategate’: A Different Perspective,” a perspective that Wood ignores.

How does CHE support open discussion and still maintain civility? Is the blog section an open free-for-all where people may write anything at all, or should it be moderated?

People should be free to express their opinions, but not all opinions are equal, especially about science. Is it acceptable in CHE to state as fact that cigarettes cause no disease? Can one claim that the chemistry behind ozone depletion is a fraud? Can one state that the moon is made of green cheese? Can one say that astronauts lied about landing there and should be put in prison? Might Rush Limbaugh comment here, repeating his opinion that scientists should be “named and fired, drawn and quartered”? “Public flogging” was enough for Marc Morano of CFACT, whose funder Richard Mellon Scaife is the same core funder for NAS and key think-tanks that have managed attacks on climate researchers.

These comments are not characteristics of open academic discourse. Welcome to the new Middle Ages.

Is there a dividing line between legitimate academic controversy and libel? If so, where is that line and who draws it? Academic controversy is not characterized by use of Nazi labels or exhortations that scientists be physically harmed. It is not characterized by baseless, wacky conspiracy theories about worldwide plots by mainstream science. Academic discussions involve data, facts, and justifiable, soundly crafted theories.

A USA Today editorial, “Our View: America, Pick Your Climate Choices,” reads, “Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the ‘birthers,’ who continue to challenge President Obama’s American citizenship—a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.”

Read the article comments and see if that seems to apply to any of the writers. Some climate scientists have faced this politically based assault for years. Anti-science echo-chamber blogs amplify anger, yielding nothing like legitimate scientific discussion, and as a likely result scientists get death threats and dead rats left on doorsteps.

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