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Civil Discourse and Public Attention

March 22, 2010

As a long time advocate of public participation in the political process, including years of community forums and candidate forums with the League of Women Voters, I have noticed that our level of civil discourse has been in a downward spiral.   Even more troubling is the ascent of bullying… in corporate life, our schools, and toward scientific discourse.

Colleagues have commented on bullying in the corporate world, when overly aggressive executives have prevailed in meetings by what can only be called bullying tactics, often resulting in sub-par performance of less-than-best initiatives that do not truly have participant buy-in.

Those of us current with education have been aware of bullying and “cyber-bullying” as it has been labeled in schools.  While more and more administrators are aware of the phenomena and can take disciplinary steps to curtail it when a case surfaces, it exacts a considerable toll on its unfortunate targets.

Political bullying has long been around, and now it has expanded ‘way beyond candidate or office-holder targeting who expect it.  Now there are widespread reports of e-mail abuse and threats against those publishing studies and reports with facts and data aiming only to shed light on issues.

This is especially prevalent toward those documenting climate change.

On March 1, 2010, Scientific American ran an article describing how “researchers must purge e-mail in boxes daily of threatening correspondence…” (http://bit.ly/Sci-Am_Bullying).

Gavin Schmidt, a NASA scientist, gets a barrage of e-mails every time his name appears in the press.  He sees the spam as “simply part of the job of being a climate scientist.”

The leader of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Kevin Trenberth, has collected 19 pages of “extremely nasty, foul, abusive” emails received just since November.

Clive Hamilton, an Australian author and academic, believes there is a more sinister objective:  to intimidate and drive scientists from the public debate, and calls it cyber-bullying.

While many of the e-mails look to be the work of frustrated individuals, some appear to be the result of coordinated campaigns cued by influential anti-climate change advocates.

Some – especially anonymous e-mails – threaten possible physical harm; in Australia, recipients are asked to keep those emails in a separate folder, rather than deleting them, at times calling in the police  (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2826189.htm).

Some are even “intimidating letters” from congressional members using their positions of power to threaten dire consequences, presumably to research or organization funding.

Those who host websites, such as Skeptical Science (http://www.skepticalscience.com/ – March 19), report being hacked, content being changed, and the possibility of user logins stolen.

Fortunately, the response by many responsible scientists is re-affirmed commitment to publish the facts and trends their research shows.   The fact that their response could be otherwise shows how vulnerable our marketplace of intellectual discourse could be…. this and Google’s difficulties with China.

Conclusion?  For me, I will continue to advocate to my colleagues and my government for open, public Internet forums;  I will encourage legal consequences for physically threatening correspondence; I will advocate more strongly for public funding for climate and other basic research and for professional, objective, non-partisan science agency management; and I will send e-mails of appreciation to the researchers I value.

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