The internet has become a great enabler of many fascinating behaviours, one of which is the ability to sling public insults at a rate never previously approached. I must admit that I have contributed to a few very enjoyable online flame wars myself, albeit on forums where all the participants know the drill full well, and the dialogue flows accordingly.
But the internet is not and should not become simply one enormous argument, where tempers flare and insults are hurled unceasingly. As a tool for communication the normal rules of civil society should still apply, where comments are polite and constructive, at least in the first instance. We are all human and things may always go downhill more or less rapidly from there, but I am a great believer in never being the first to get personal or rude.
The question arises about when it becomes acceptable to reply to insults in kind, and in what measure. The answer is individual to each of us and it would take a person of exceptional calmness and self-confidence never to be goaded into such behaviour. I have written previously about my own anguish about being labelled a ‘denier’, but I have yet to be insulted directly on the subject of global warming badly enough to have lost my temper with anyone online about it. So far.
The same is clearly not true about Dr Roy Spencer. Having for many years been on the receiving end of some very harsh invective, in a recent post he has announced his intention to reply in kind, and that he will from now on label his assailants as “global warming Nazis”. It’s an interesting decision, not one I agree with, and I hope he won’t come to regret it.
In any large confrontation where both sides are calling each other names it is futile to attempt to establish which side made the initial insult. The first time I heard the term Nazi used as a generalised moniker to indicate a totalitarian mindset was about twenty years ago when my brother (I’m much the quieter of the two of us) started referring to ‘Safety Nazis’. I’m sure he didn’t invent the phrase but it certainly made me laugh, because (at least for the British) the Nazis are equated not only with being sinister but also somewhat absurd and utterly humourless.
Dr Spencer’s response was provoked by repetition of the specific term ‘denier’. I must admit that I’ve always been somewhat puzzled about what exactly is supposedly being denied. Is it radiative physics, or perhaps the basics of thermodynamics? It is a question that those labelled as deniers frequently ask in online discussions. However, I have yet to read a single clear explanation from the ‘other side’ of exactly what it is in scientific terms that deniers deny. I am left assuming that there is a germ of truth in the assertion that it is a smear by association, connected with the use of the term regarding the idiots and bigots who deny the reality of the Holocaust.
Personally, I find the term ‘anti-science’ to be much more hurtful, but also foolish on the part of those who use it. To accuse people such as Freeman Dyson, David Bellamy, Richard Lindzen, or Judith Curry somehow being anti-science is utterly laughable. Again, attempts to elicit an explanation of exactly what science they are ‘anti’ meet with no response, particularly from Michael Mann.
Another favourite insult is that those who argue against an imminent climate catastrophe are participants in a conspiracy theory, akin to those who argue that the Apollo moon landings were faked. I have never noticed a single sceptic make such a claim about faked moon landings or similar nonsense. I for one do not believe there is or has been any conspiracy regarding global warming, nor do I class it as a hoax. I believe that the work of some rather politicised scientists has been seized upon by scientifically ignorant politicians to further their pre-existing political agenda. Sure, there is some behind the scenes backstabbing and manoeuvring going on but it’s all just basic human nature, there is no grand conspiracy required. The thing I most object to is that bad science is being used to justify political action that is immensely damaging to the wellbeing of billions of people, in particular the poorest living in unimaginable conditions in underdeveloped countries. It is thinking about the victims of the Green cause that is most likely to make my blood boil.
I don’t think anyone would much argue against ‘Nazi’ being a particularly nasty tag (unless used with a touch of wry humour that is almost impossible to express except verbally) and its use instantly renders any rational debate impossible. Godwin’s Law applies but only mentions the likelihood of Nazis being mentioned, not, as some like to claim, that the first person to refer to the Nazis has automatically lost the argument. I fear Dr Spencer has merely descended to the level of the most shrill Greens and will emerge as mud-splattered as the worst of them.
If it comes to it, I think ‘fascist’ is a more exact term to use to describe the totalitarian stance of many Greens, with their rubbishing of contrary views and the stifling of debate and suppression of opponents views. Here is an excellent example. Readers may have noticed that I tend to use the term ‘Alarmist’ as a useful label. It’s less confrontational than many of the alternatives and I use it to denote those that are already flinging insults and espousing totalitarian views. I don’t mean it to include anyone concerned about ways in which our planet’s climate could change and inflict damage on human progress, and who doesn’t think the answer is to rubbish anyone who disagrees with their particular views on the subject. I very much share those general concerns.
For my part, I don’t mind the actual term ‘denier’ too much, it’s a bit of a badge of honour. I prefer ‘sceptic’ or perhaps even ‘heretic’ although that’s one the ‘other side’ avoid using, as heresy requires an entrenched and dogmatic orthodoxy, which they are keen to deny exists.
This entire topic is quite disheartening really as in an all-out fight it is almost never the moderates that prevail; the extremist zealots of either side tend to rise to the top, with those on the winning side dominating the post-conflict agenda. I do therefore worry quite a lot about what may come about, with the general public just seeing mud slung on all sides, and science in general as the loser.
Interestingly, the only person I have ever met who sincerely believed the Apollo landings were faked is someone pretty much fully signed up to the Green agenda. Her claim seems to centre on two main points. Firstly, that as she couldn’t imagine how to go about building a machine capable of landing on the moon nobody else could, and secondly that Apollo was an American programme, and everybody knows how evil the USA is. I found the brief conversation we had on the subject as unnerving as talking to a born-again Christian engineer I once knew. Both of them expressed more certainty on their subject than I have ever heard from an adult human being before or since.
Since posting I have discovered that Dr Spencer is some sort of creationist, which greatly diminishes my respect for him as a scientist but doesn’t affect the point of the article.