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A Friendly Letter to the Heartland Institute and Other Advocates of Free Speech on Global Warming

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For years, the primary mission of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) had been to censor any scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution in schools -- and sometimes in the academy too. We at Discovery Institute were curious and concerned recently to learn that the NCSE is expanding its struggle against free speech to the debate over global warming and climate change.

Now before I go any further, please let me explain that I don't consider myself a confirmed dissenter from the "consensus" view on manmade global warming. I'm very open to believing that human activity is causing changes in the climate. I have fond memories of taking courses at Scripps Institution for Oceanography, while earning my master's degree in earth sciences, where we discussed how the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been going up steadily, year after year, especially since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Almost everyone acknowledges that fact, and I don't think it's purely a coincidence. But some doubt the standard view that human-generated CO2 is the cause of climate change. That's probably the biggest issue in the debate. Again, I don't consider myself a confirmed dissenter of that standard view.

That said, I'm also a proponent of healthy, free, and robust scientific debate over these controversial scientific questions. So while I'm probably not going to go out and argue against manmade global warming, I do maintain that we need unimpeded scientific debate in the classroom, the laboratory, the peer-reviewed journals, the government, and the public square, especially on controversial scientific issues like global warming. I'm concerned that in the debate, we've seen the same kind of censorship and suppression of minority, dissenting scientific views that have become routine in the debate over Darwinian evolution.

I am increasingly struck by the common challenges faced by global-warming skeptics and Darwin doubters. Josh Rosenau of the NCSE sees the commonality too. He recently attacked both the Heartland Institute and Discovery Institute in a Washington Post article, which reported:

Rosenau says that Heartland could do what creationist groups like the Discovery Institute have been doing for years and simply mail out supplemental materials to educators far and wide.
Cold mailings to educators? For years? I don't remember that. Discovery Institute has rarely if ever considered such strategies, which would likely be futile. Instead we focus our educational policy efforts on providing interested school boards and state boards of education with solid information on how to legally and effectively teach the scientific controversy over evolution. A major part of our efforts has been to develop high-quality textbooks like Explore Evolution. These can be used in public schools to teach students about the scientific evidence for and against neo-Darwinism.

So Mr. Rosenau is misrepresenting our approach, trying to demean us as a desperate and ineffective "creationist group." For him and for the NCSE, this is true to form. In reality, we've had some major educational successes in the past few years that go far beyond anything you could hope for from cold mailings to educators. Mr. Rosenau shouldn't diminish what we've accomplished -- our successes could make great fundraising talking points for the NCSE!

In any case, since the Heartland Institute, Discovery Institute, and other scientific dissenters from the "consensus" are now being jointly misrepresented and attacked by the NCSE, I thought it might be helpful to encourage Heartland and others involved in the fight to protect academic freedom and scientific free speech with a friendly open letter. Now that the NCSE has taken its campaign of censorship to the global warming debate, let me give you some ideas of what you can look forward to.

1. Expect to face a condescending tone with lots of sneers and name-calling. Also, be prepared to use NCSE rhetoric to your own advantage.

Among those who defend Big Science, smears and stereotypes are the rhetorical bread-and-butter. You already know what I'm talking about, the litany of stock libels: "anti-science," "denier," "ignorant," "dishonest," "science-abusers," "fundamentalist," "anti-intellectual," "war on science." We have become accustomed to attacks like these, and much worse, from evolution activists. (Mr. Rosenau's and the Washington Post's "creationist group" sneer is comparatively mild!) Let me share some strategies on how to handle the personal attacks, the attempts to marginalize you with rhetoric.

First, when you face such an attack, try not to take it personally. On the contrary, be encouraged because it's usually a sign that you're winning the argument. If your opponents had anything logically compelling to say, you can be sure they would be saying it. The fact that they feel compelled to resort to emotional rhetoric and personal attacks suggests that, on logical and evidential grounds, you've made a strong argument.

Second, remember who your audience is. You're not trying to convince Josh Rosenau at the NCSE. Your audience is the vast majority of people in the open-minded, undecided middle -- normal folks who are willing to listen to reason, and don't like nasty rhetoric. This leads to my next suggestion.

Third, keep in mind another main reason why the Big Science Lobby acts as it does: they use pressure tactics to intimidate people and bully them into capitulating. Nobody likes being called names, so when someone at a self-proclaimed "national center" is on stage calling global-warming-skeptics or Darwin-skeptics "anti-science," some folks find it easier to just go with the flow. The NCSE's strategy is straight out of the fourth grade: "Call your opponents nasty names, and people will be intimidated into joining your camp, or will at least withhold their criticisms." In the scientific community, where reputation is so important, this is part of how they intimidate many who might speak against the "consensus" into silence or conformity. The problem for the NCSE is that we're not in the fourth grade anymore.

The antidote is to encourage the public not to be intimidated by playground-style name-calling, but instead to think for themselves. Encourage your audience, whatever view they ultimately adopt, to do so only after a careful consideration of the evidence, not because of pressure tactics.

Most normal people believe (correctly!) they have the right to think for themselves, and they don't like being bullied and they don't like being told what to think. So when an NCSE activist is on stage smearing certain viewpoints (e.g., as "anti-science," "denier," "anti-intellectual") and using stereotypes (e.g., "ignorant," "extremist," "fundamentalist") to bully the audience into submission, speak up in the name of intellectual freedom. Encourage people to bravely stand up to incivility by thinking for themselves. This will resonate with the undecided middle, and often shames the name-callers into silence.

Finally, remember that the average person out there watching these debates isn't angry, and is turned off by the negativity of personal attacks. So when your opponents start in with the name-calling, shine a spotlight on it. When you respond in a pleasant, calm, civil, and rational manner, your morally and intellectually credible position will resonate with listeners and readers.

Let me share an illustration from my field. In the Darwin debate, we have to deal with countless name-calling evolutionists. Among the most famous is University of Minnesota, Morris, biologist PZ Myers. Last summer I wrote an article noting that even left-leaning academics and evolutionists are horrified by what the New York Times called his "incendiary rhetoric." I wrote:

The NY Times is probably the most prominent of all the adamantly pro-evolution media outlets on the planet. One cannot imagine a major media outlet that is more predisposed to be favorable towards someone like PZ Myers -- a professional biologist at a respectable university, and creator of perhaps the most popular pro-evolution science blog on the Internet.

Yet the NY Times doesn't see Myers's methods favorably. Instead, the paper compares PZ Myers's blog (as well as his fellow science bloggers) to Fox News -- the ultimate insult in the left-leaning world of the establishment media. The article makes this comparison because of the "incendiary rhetoric" and "class-war claptrap" which permeate the writing of Myers and his fellow Sciencebloggers. For the NY Times to turn against one of its own to such a great extent would seem to imply not just that something is amiss, but that something is radically distasteful about PZ's methods.

With his nasty rhetoric and unyielding incivility, PZ Myers turns off even his own side . Your NCSE opponents in the global warming debate will do the same for you: just highlight their tactics and reasonable people will be attracted to your position.

2. Expect the NCSE to try to paint you as fringe extremist -- but be prepared to show that they are the ones in the minority.

Here's a little trade secret: I know part of what inspired the NCSE to get involved in the global warming debate. It is fact that in 2009, Texas adopted state science standards requiring students to "analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming" (ยง112.37. Environmental Systems, (c) 9 (H).) I was there in the boardroom the day it happened.

What many people have probably forgotten is that the standard was first proposed by Mavis Knight, a Democrat, who was (and still is) one of the most liberal members on the Texas State Board of Education. According to my notes from the vote, that standard was adopted by a unanimous vote of 14-0, with all members of the Texas State Board of Education -- including some very liberal ones -- voting yes.

Don't assume that it's just conservatives or Republicans who support free speech and open debate on global warming. Lots of rank-and-file Democrats and liberals -- who aren't activist types like the folks at the NCSE -- actually stand with you in demanding open scientific inquiry on these issues.

In the evolution debate, we have a similar dynamic where over 80% of self-identified "Democrats" and "liberals" endorse teaching both the "strengths and weaknesses" of Darwinian evolution. We had the same experience in Texas where both liberal and conservative members of the State Board overwhelmingly adopted standards in 2009 that required students to "analyze and evaluate how natural selection produces change in populations" or "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

Which brings us to another tactic you can expect from the NCSE: They will try to paint these kinds of policies as extremist, when they're really not. The NCSE simply ignores the demographic facts, and paints anyone and everyone who supports free speech as a whacko right-wing extremist.

The reality is that for a supermajority of Americans, supporting free speech on these issues is just common sense. So take polls on what the public really thinks and be ready to throw those statistics back at the NCSE. If your position is "Let's have an honest, open, and free debate in schools, laboratories, science journals, and the media," then the reality is that most of the public is in your camp, not theirs.

3. Expect to hear lots of appeals to authority -- but rebut them with appeals to the evidence (and by citing your own credible authorities).

If there's one area where you might not have a majority of support, it's among the elite echelons of the scientific community. The NCSE and its allies love to shut down free speech by claiming that if it isn't the "consensus view" among members of the National Academy of Sciences, then it doesn't deserve to be heard. Name-calling aside, the NCSE's entire rhetorical strategy is one long argument appealing to authority.

But as you already know, not being the consensus doesn't mean you're wrong, and it certainly does not mean your views don't deserve to be heard. So when someone invokes the "consensus" to shut down your viewpoint, remember the words of Michael Crichton:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

(Michael Crichton, "'Aliens Cause Global Warming'," reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.)

Not being the consensus also doesn't mean there aren't plenty of credible people who agree with you. In the debate over evolution, we maintain a list (now over 800 Ph.D. scientists) of scientists who "are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life." Every time we cite this list, the evolution activists misrepresent it. One of the common things they say is: "Just because you have PhD scientists on your side doesn't mean you're right." Well, yes! Exactly. What they don't understand is that this is precisely the point we were making by citing the list. Just because they have lots of PhD scientists on their side doesn't mean they're right. It doesn't mean they're wrong either. But we have a critical mass of credible scientists on our side too.

Because we have credible scientists on our side, you can't just dismiss our views by appealing to the "consensus." There's a real scientific debate here.

We've been at this long enough to hear NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott say many times that "science isn't a democracy." By that she means that in scientific debates, democratic values like free speech can be ignored. She's wrong there, but she is also right in a sense that she doesn't realize: In science, it isn't votes that count, but the evidence. And when there's a critical mass of dissenting scientists on your side, nobody can justifiably dismiss their views by appealing to the majority vote, or the "consensus."

The list could go on and on...

There are many other lessons I've learned over the years that would probably help other people in their debates with the NCSE. You probably already know many of these tips, but here are a few more anyways:

  • Demand citations when your opponent makes outlandish claims.

  • Double-check the references when you suspect your opponent is citation-bluffing.

  • Beware of activists posing as friendly scientists and scholars so they can harass you.
Given the recent Peter Gleick scandal, I'm pretty sure you're already aware of the importance of my third tip. We've experienced this same kind of thing many times over the years.

It all comes down to this. The NCSE has a predictable style that they've used for years. It relies on silencing and intimidating people into conformity through appeals to the consensus, meanwhile stereotyping and smearing dissenters as fringe fanatics. They'll use a condescending tone, sneer at you, and call you crazy. But rarely will they get into details about the scientific evidence. When I was a student and heard the NCSE's Eugenie Scott speak at UC San Diego against intelligent design, I was surprised to learn that her organization's approach was so intellectually weak. I suspect you'll come to these same conclusions as you become more and more familiar with the NCSE's style.

But there are many reasons for hope. When people try to shut down dissenting voices in the name of the "consensus," Michael Crichton's words ring true: "Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough." Your response should be to keep the discussion focused on the scientific evidence, because that is where scientific debates are truly won or lost.

At the end of the day, our true adversary is censorship -- and this is exactly what the NCSE stands for. Climate skeptics and Darwin doubters now have a common opponent, and we're going to be linked and attacked in many of the same ways. Whatever you believe about evolution or global warming, may intellectual freedom prevail.

Photo credit: Wavy1, Flickr.