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How to use cherry picking to pick on scientists

May 7, 2012

Here’s an example of the unscrupulous use of cherry picking to demonise climate scientists.

There’s a program on ABC radio called Counterpoint, run by Michael Duffy and Paul Comrie-Thomson, both climate skeptics. In this afternoon’s program, a short segment near the beginning, unrelated to any of the topics in the rest of the program, was used to belittle climate scientists. You can listen to the program here, or here’s a transcript:   

 Michael Duffy: Before we get to any of that, a quick quiz, Paul. When is a death threat NOT a death threat?

Paul Comrie-Thomson: Let me think. When it’s made against a climate scientist, perhaps? You’ve been reading The Australian newspaper Michael.

MD: Indeed I have, and last week the national broadsheet reported a story that harked back to claims that some of Australia’s leading climate scientists had been the subject of email death threats. This is what ABC radio broadcast last June: “Several of Australia’s top climate change scientists at the Australian National University have been subjected to a campaign of death threats, forcing the university to tighten security. Several of the scientists in Canberra have been moved to a more secure location after receiving the threats over their research. Vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young says the scientists have received large numbers of emails, including death threats and abusive phone calls threatening to attack the academics in the street if they continue their research. He says it’s been happening for the past six months and the situation has worsened significantly in recent weeks.”

PC-T: So, a clear and present danger.

MD: So it seems, but this got climate blogger Simon Turnill interested, and he asked the ANU for copies of the emails. Well the university found eleven, but refused to hand them over on the grounds they might endanger the life or physical safety of any person.

PC-T: Well we can’t be too careful with death threats.

MD: No indeed, but then it got more interesting. Turnill, who’d lodged a Freedom of Information Request, appealed, and the matter ended up with privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, who’s announced that ten of the eleven emails in fact do not contain death threats, or even threats of harm. And the other one, which is only an account of a conversation that occurred off campus, poses a threat to physical safety that Pilgrim considers not a real chance.

PC-T: Still, consider the precautionary principle. Perhaps the climate scientists lives hadn’t been threatened, but they might be later.

MD: (chuckling) Yes, indeed. As of last week the university was standing by its decision not to release the emails.

PC-T: Freedom FROM information; where would we be without it?

MD: Now let’s stick to the theme of apprehended violence and turn to video or computer games.

Where does the cherry picking come in? Well, the story of the death threats was originally broken by Rosslyn Beeby in the Canberra Times. In an excellent article published today, Beeby explained:

The news report was based on information – including copies of a number of abusive emails – provided by more than 30 scientists in all states and territories. As the reporter who researched and wrote the story, the aim in contacting scientists right across Australia was to determine if the abuse was only being directed at pockets of high-profile scientists. If that had been the case, one could argue being a target for hostile comment is an inevitable downside of being a public figure.

and further

In the case of the 30 or so climate scientists mentioned previously, many received hate emails that were well beyond the pale. And yes, there were specific threats of violence, sexual assault and worse. In the most stomach-churning case, a woman’s children – a toddler and a pre-schooler – were named and threatened. Why wouldn’t she be rattled?

So the idea of ridiculing climate scientists on the basis of an FOI request targeting 11 emails sent to six scientists is, yes, cherry picking. And neglecting to mention that commissioner Pilgrim explained that the emails did “contain insulting and offensive language”, could also be considered cherry picking.

The worst part is that Duffy and Comrie-Thomson seem to care not a jot that scientists  are being abused and threatened – apparently if you’re a climate scientist, that’s what you deserve.

(Graham Readfearn has much more detail on this affair over at his blog).

  1. Michael Simpson permalink

    When you come back from your break, I hope you catch this comment. I think we should avoid using the term “skeptic” for climate change deniers. Scientific skepticism is the noble art of constantly questioning and doubting claims and assertions, and holding the accumulation of evidence as of fundamental importance. The climate change “skeptics” are pseudoskeptics, that is they claim to review evidence, but in fact, no amount of evidence would ever change their minds.

    I was truly skeptical of climate change data, until I reviewed it, and read the writings of real scientists. I reviewed the evidence with an open mind. Climate change deniers basically deny all evidence.

    Anyways, I don’t think we should credit denialists with the “skeptic” honorific. Real skepticism is noble (or at least it attempts to be so).

    • I agree, Michael. I never use the term “skeptic” for those I know are deniers. I did apply the term to Duffy and Comrie-Thomson in this case because I was not completely familiar with their overall stance on climate change. Sure, they sound like deniers to me, but I don’t listen to their program regularly (I find their general political orientation extremely distasteful) so I couldn’t say they are definitely deniers. I suppose I was giving them the benefit of the doubt.

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