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When you have nothing left with which to argue, please avoid the smear…

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 10 March 2015


I recently showed Judith Curry, of Climate etc, at what I think is her best: advising government in a style that is assured, knowledgeable, moderate and questioning. I said also that she is now, along with some other notable sceptical scientists, the target of what looks like a highly organised attempt to denigrate her. It is something that can happen quite easily in the USA, where Congressional Committees have the power to subpoena witnesses, and where the individual has little redress.

This attack seems to have started with the publication of a paper, on 'climate sensitivity', by four well-known sceptical scientists, Monckton, Soon, Legates and Briggs. It was published (in English) in the Chinese equivalent of Nature, and gained instant attention. It used a simple mathematical model, and IPCC data, to suggest that even if CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere doubled, which might take the rest of the century, average global temperature would not rise by much more than 1 degree Celsius.

Their paper is not an easy read, though it has been downloaded around 25,000 times, which is a record for the journal. What was notable after its publication was that the orthodox critics did not attempt to show that it, or any of it, was wrong, but attacked the authors, and Soon in particular, for not having disclosed the source of his funding. To do so was doubly irrelevant, since the paper had not required funding at all, being done as a desk-based intellectual argument.

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That might have been shrugged off, but then a Democratic Congressman called Raul Grijalva got into the act, firing off a long letter to the universities that employ Soon and six other well-known sceptical scientists, including Judith Curry. The letter asked for information about virtually every aspect (in Professor Curry's case) of her income, financial reports, grants, projects, drafts and so on going back to 2007. Each of the seven had given testimony to one or more Congressional committees.

As a former university president, I would have found the letter (a copy of it can be found at Climate etc. here) both extraordinary in its tone and deeply troubling. Rep. Grijalva is simply a senior member of one House Committee (Natural Resources). He has no particular status, and cannot himself subpoena witnesses or demand documents. His letter was expressed almost as a demand, but it could only be a request.

My initial response, if I had to answer it, would be to say that responding to his request would cost a lot of time and money, and that it was unclear how all this would aid Grijalva in his work as a Congressman. Perhaps he could make that more clear. Much of the information would already be available in various public forms. And so on. Or perhaps a polite suggestion that he might find other things to do. But of course university presidents don't have the luxury of telling Congressmen where to go. They could, nonetheless, come out in support of their staff when they encounter a fishing expedition like this one.

At much the same time, and apparently in conjunction, there commenced an attack on Dr Soon in the pages of The Guardian and the New York Times which soon extended to the others. One of the seven is Roger Pielke Jnr, whose research I have written about before, who was so upset by the attacks on him, which he described as 'a politically motivated witch hunt', that he has declared he will not write on 'climate change' any more.

While I have written to Roger supporting him, and written also to Judith Curry, being the two with whom I have corresponded most frequently, Roger's intended retreat from the field worries me, and has worried many of those who have gone to his blog to support him. He is being silenced, and that is the antithesis of science and of research more generally. As it happens the Vice-Provost (Deputy Vice-Chancellor in our world) of his University has come out strongly in support of him.

That hasn't been the case, at least yet, for Dr Soon, with his institution, the Harvard-Smithsonian, saying only that it does not support his views on climate science, but not otherwise causing him angst. I have every hope that Judith Curry's President will speak out in her support, too.

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Could all this happen in Australia? Yes, it could. Our institutions have had a huge dose of PC, especially, though not at all solely, in the field of climate science. The number of public sceptics who hold tenured chairs in our universities is very small indeed, and I can think of no junior staff member who has ventured a sceptical opinion. What saves us are the very limitations on the powers of MPs and Senators that keep our parliamentary bodies focussed on Parliament itself and the doings of the current administration.

But the importance of money in our universities, the very high status of research, and the fact that so much research funding comes either directly or indirectly from the Federal Government, means that vice-chancellors and deans are unlikely to look with favour on an academic who dares to suggest that the emperor seems increasingly devoid of clothes.

I find the whole issue a distasteful one. If there is something wrong with the Monckton, Soon, Legates and Briggs paper, then surely the clever ones among the orthodox could point that out. As it happens, a noted blogging engineer, Rud Istvan, has done that on Climate etc., though his criticism does not disturb the real force of the paper*. Professor Bob Carter, who has experienced the force of PC disapproval himself, has written a clear and sensible statement on Dr Soon, while the Heartland Institute, the organised him of climate dissent in the USA, has a database on the whole issue that is updated daily.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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