by Judith Curry
You have signed the death warrant for science. – Peter Webster
In case you don’t know what RICO is (Wikipedia):
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act or simply RICO, is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. The RICO Act focuses specifically on racketeering, and it allows the leaders of a syndicate to be tried for the crimes which they ordered others to do or assisted them, closing a perceived loophole that allowed a person who instructed someone else to, for example, murder, to be exempt from the trial because he did not actually commit the crime personally.
RICO was enacted by section 901(a) of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 While its original use in the 1970s was to prosecute the Mafia as well as others who were actively engaged in organized crime, its later application has been more widespread.
Senator Whitehouse has proposed to use RICO laws against climate change skeptics and fossil fuel companies, in a WaPo article The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to mislead the American public. Excerpts:
The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.
In the case of fossil fuels, just as with tobacco, the industry joined together in a common enterprise and coordinated strategy.
The tobacco industry was proved to have conducted research that showed the direct opposite of what the industry stated publicly — namely, that tobacco use had serious health effects. Civil discovery would reveal whether and to what extent the fossil fuel industry has crossed this same line. We do know that it has funded research that — to its benefit — directly contradicts the vast majority of peer-reviewed climate science. One scientist who consistently published papers downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change, Willie Soon, reportedly received more than half of his funding from oil and electric utility interests: more than $1.2 million.
The Weekly Standard has a hard hitting article: Senator Whitehouse: Use RICO laws to prosecute climate skeptics. Excerpts:
Obviously, there’s a lot of money hanging in the balance with regard to energy policy. But when does coordinating “a wide range of activities, including political lobbying, contributions to political candidates, and a large number of communication and media efforts” go from basic First Amendment expression to racketeering? The tobacco analogy is inappropriate in regards to how direct the link between smoking and cancer is. Even among those who do agree that global warming is a problem, there’s a tremendously wide variety of opinions about the practical effects. Who gets to decide whether someone is “downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change” relative to the consensus? If message coordination and lobbying on controversial scientific and political issues can be declared racketeering because the people funding such efforts have a financial interest in a predetermined outcome, we’re just going to have to outlaw everything that goes on in Washington, D.C.
In February, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., attempted a McCarthyite witch hunt against climate scientists he found disagreeable. And Sheldon Whitehouse is sitting U.S. Senator. He’s now publicly encouraging legal persecution of people who conduct scientific research and/or those that have opinions about it he disagrees with. He wrote this opinion in the Washington Post on Friday, and no one much noticed or batted an eye at the consequences of what he’s advocating here. Such calls for draconian restrictions on speech are becoming alarmingly regular. And if more people don’t start speaking out against it, sooner or later we’re actually going to end up in a place where people are being hauled into court for having an opinion that differs from politicians such as Senator Whitehouse.
20 U.S. climate scientists
When I first spotted this, I rolled my eyes – another day, more insane U.S. climate politics. What really motivated this post is the following letter, from 20 U.S. climate scientists. Letter reproduced in full [link]:
Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren
September 1, 2015
Dear President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren,
As you know, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. We applaud your efforts to regulate emissions and the other steps you are taking. Nonetheless, as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The stability of the Earth’s climate over the past ten thousand years contributed to the growth of agriculture and therefore, a thriving human civilization. We are now at high risk of seriously destabilizing the Earth’s climate and irreparably harming people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people.
We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change. The actions of these organizations have been extensively documented in peerreviewed academic research (Brulle, 2013) and in recent books including: Doubt is their Product (Michaels, 2008), Climate Cover-Up (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009), Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), The Climate War (Pooley, 2010), and in The Climate Deception Dossiers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation.
The methods of these organizations are quite similar to those used earlier by the tobacco industry. A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.
Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT
I am familiar with all of these names, and know a few of them fairly well. The list includes several members of the National Academy of Science, and numerous IPCC authors. Apart from Trenberth and Robock, as far as I know, none of these individuals have made previous public/political statements about climate change. In fact, one of them told me (say a decade ago), that he had worked hard to keep his head below the radar and stay out of all the politics and the fighting. Another (Mike Wallace) wrote a jacket blurb for Roger Pielke Jr’s latest book The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (note: Pielke Jr was one of the Grijalvi 7).
My first reaction was that this was some kind of joke, or that some of these individuals didn’t know what they were signing. The document originated from the Institute of Global Environment and Society, of which Jagadish Shukla is President (and first signatory, and presumably the instigator). So it seems that at least the 6 individuals associated with the IGES knew what they were signing.
The quote from Peter Webster at the start of this post was included in an email that he sent to one of the signatories. The (anonymous) response:
After reading Senator Whitehouse op ed in the Washington Post, I thought the senator should be supported by the scientific community. Similarities with the tobacco industry are compelling. This is just a small step for me to get engaged with social/policy relevant issues.
Forgive them (?)
Well, that letter reflects, at best, a great deal of naiveté by the signatory. Perhaps some of them had their arm twisted by the instigators/advocates, and were just trying to be collegial.
To paraphrase the other JC:
Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Dear signatories of this letter:
I will try to clarify here what you have done, and why it is wrong.
First, you have been duped by the Merchants of Doubt book/movie. See my previous blog post Bankruptcy of the ‘merchants of doubt’ meme, which includes reviews by other social scientists.
Second, the consensus on human caused climate change is not as overwhelming as you seem to think. See my recent blog post The conceits of consensus, which includes a detailed analysis of an extensive survey of climate scientists (not to mention extensive critiques of the Cook et al. analysis).
Third, the source of funding is not the only bias in research, and the greatest bias does not necessarily come from industry funding, see these posts:
- Conflicts of interest in climate science
- Is federal funding biasing research?
- Industry funding and bias
- Industry funding: witch hunts
- Scientific integrity versus ideologically fueled research
Fourth, scientists disagree about the causes of climate change for the following reasons:
- Insufficient observational evidence
- Disagreement about the value of different classes of evidence (e.g. models)
- Disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence
- Assessments of areas of ambiguity and ignorance
- Belief polarization as a result of politicization of the science
The biggest disagreement however is about whether warming is ‘dangerous’ (values) and whether we can/should do something about it (politics). Why do you think your opinion, as scientists, matters on values and politics?
Fifth, what you have done with this letter is advocacy. This is a very dicey role for a scientist to play, fraught with reputational and ethical land mines. Here are several essays on this topic, written from a range of perspectives:
- (Ir)responsible advocacy by scientists
- Ins and outs of the ivory tower
- The adversarial method versus Feynman integrity
- Advocacy science and decision making
- Too much advocacy?
- Refocusing debate about advocacy
- Rethinking climate advocacy
- Ethics of communicating scientific uncertainty
- Tamsin on scientists and policy advocacy
- Mann on advocacy and responsibility
- Climate scientists joining advocacy groups
- Science, uncertainty and advocacy
What you have done with your letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy, which is to attempt to silence scientists that disagree with you by invoking RICO. It is bad enough that politicians such as Whitehouse and Grijalvi are playing this sort of political game with science and scientists, but I regard it as highly unethical for scientists to support defeating scientists with whom you disagree by such methods. Since I was one of the scientists called out in Grijalvi’s witch hunts, I can only infer that I am one of the scientists you are seeking to silence.
Peter Webster did not exaggerate when he wrote:
You have signed the death warrant for science.