The Costs of a Climate of Fear

When scientists are attacked professionally and personally, independent science and the public suffer.
By Michael Halpern

Ben Santer answered his doorbell one evening to find a dead rat on his doorstep. He looked up and saw a man driving away, shouting obscenities out the car window. It would be one thing if this were an isolated incident. But Santer had been harassed before. A groundbreaking climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he was a lead author of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which for the first time attributed global warming to human activity. Santer’s research had earned him high esteem from scientists and contempt from those who did not accept his conclusions.

The funders of climate-change skepticism are engaged in a full-throttle effort to sow seeds of doubt among the public and policy makers, much as tobacco companies did decades ago. Without science on their side, these groups seek to manufacture controversy by attacking scientists conducting important research.

Muddying the Waters

Santer—and dozens of other climate scientists—have received threatening letters and e-mails for years. Their names have been dragged through the mud in congressional hearings, on newspaper editorial pages, on talk-radio shows, and in their home communities by those seeking to distract and mislead the public.

Despite the continued harassment, however, scientists were still winning in the court of public opinion. The majority of the public understood that the overwhelming body of evidence supports the theory that the earth is warming and that humans are contributing significantly to the warming. Scientists and the organizations that represent them had made significant headway in helping the public and policy makers better understand what is happening and what can be done to mitigate and adapt to changes in the earth’s climate.

Then came November 2009. Computer hackers broke into servers at England’s University of East Anglia and downloaded thousands of messages sent among scientists who study climate change. Shortly before critical international climate-change negotiations were set to begin in Copenhagen, the e-mail correspondence was released, and climate-change deniers pounced like hungry wolves. “The Evidence of Climate Fraud,” read one headline. “Climategate: The Final Nail in the Coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’?” read another. The conservative blogosphere went into a frenzy, and soon the story spread to the mainstream media, focused on one central question: had scientists conspired to exaggerate the threat or causes of global climate change?

Groups seeking to confuse the debate combed through thousands of the scientists’ personal e-mail messages. And what did they find? Scientists expressing frustration to each other about how their work was being hampered by a constant barrage of requests for data; discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of various statistical techniques; and private jokes about what the scientists would like to do to climate-change skeptics. In other words, they found scientists expressing human emotions and exploring ideas.

Lost in the shuffle, of course, was the fact that nothing in the stolen e-mail messages undermined the scientific consensus on climate change. Yet the so-called scandal, and the confusion it caused, muddied the waters around the critical 2009 Copenhagen conference. For opponents of climate change, it was mission accomplished, at least until the scientific community could regroup. Scientists are not political operatives or paid pundits. They are unprepared for the down-and-dirty world of the blogosphere, where standards of evidence and accountability are low. The twenty-four-hour news environment, and the necessity of responding immediately, succinctly, and with complete conviction, disadvantages scientists, who are trained to resist statements of utter certainty. It’s just not a fair fight.

At first, two investigations were conducted, one by the British Parliament and one by the independent Science Assessment Panel. Each group chastised the University of East Anglia for not being sufficiently transparent with its research results and not adequately complying with British Freedom of Information Act requests. But each group determined there was no evidence of scientific misconduct. Scientists were not surprised, as they knew that science is selfpolicing; if a scientist fabricates data, eventually his or her peers will discover the malfeasance.

Targeting Scientists

But soon, based on the hacked e-mails, Pennsylvania State University launched another investigation into the work of a member of its faculty, leading climate researcher Michael Mann, who in the late 1990s developed the “hockey stick” graph showing the abrupt spike in average global temperature in recent years.

Mann’s research had been attacked for years by climate-change deniers, most notably by Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Mann’s research has been scrutinized more than the work of most other scientists. Long ago, he made all of his data and research methods publicly available, and scores of researchers have succeeded in replicating his data. His work was examined by a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences and found to be scientifically defensible. That was in 2006. Penn State’s investigation was, yet again, unable to turn up any evidence that called Mann’s research into question.

Yet the climate contrarians continued their attacks against Mann and his colleagues. And then came one more shot across the bow. On April 23, 2010, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli slapped the University of Virginia with two civil investigative demands (CIDs)—essentially subpoenas—related to grants Mann had received when he was on the university’s faculty between 1999 and 2005. Cuccinelli, a vocal denier of climate science, argued that Mann defrauded the state under the Virginia Fraud against Taxpayers Act. The state attorney general demanded access to everything related to Mann’s tenure at the university—data, paper drafts, e-mails, even handwritten notes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which, since its founding at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than forty years ago, has worked to improve the ability of scientists to inform public policy, saw the danger in the CIDs and immediately wrote to Cuccinelli and alerted the news media about the attorney general’s actions. “This action will only tie the hands of researchers that are helping the public and policy makers better understand how our climate is changing,” wrote Francesca Grifo, a botanist who directs the UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “Any individual e-mail discussion or scientific paper may legitimately contain speculations or arguments that later turn out to be false. This is completely routine and should not be taken as evidence of fraud, much less evidence against climate change. By challenging minor mistakes made by their peers, scientists move slowly towards a better understanding of our world.”

Nobody was arguing that academic scientists should be above the law. If a scientist intentionally commits fraud, he or she should be held accountable. But given the consequences that legal attacks could have on the willingness of scientists to pursue lines of research that may inform public-policy decisions, the bar for evidence used to launch an investigation should be quite high.

Reaction from other organizations was swift. The AAUP and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Cuccinelli, “If scientists refrain from novel methodological approaches because they may be characterized as ‘fraudulent,’ then scientific research, and, by extension, society as a whole, will be the loser.”

The Washington Post weighed in as well, first condemning the attack and, a few days later, urging the university to fight it. “We hope that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the University of Virginia have the spine to repudiate Mr. Cuccinelli’s abuse of the legal code,” the editors wrote in their first editorial. “If they do not, the quality of Virginia’s universities will suffer for years to come.”

But the initial response from the university was troubling. UVa spokespeople told the press that the university’s hands were tied and that it would comply with the CIDs. The university was in an awkward position: the state’s top lawyer, who generally is in the position of defending the university, was instead suing it. And although in Virginia the attorney general is an individually elected position, the university was probably nervous about offending Governor McDonnell’s administration, which could exert influence over the university’s funding.

Together with the AAUP, the UCS organized a letter from eight hundred academics and scientists, including several hundred at UVa, urging Cuccinelli to back down. The two organizations then worked with local scientists and their supporters to generate print and broadcast stories throughout the state, while many independently took up the cause. “I’ve got a pile of lab notebooks that contain results someone might disagree with,” wrote one scientist to Cuccinelli in a letter printed in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. “Could your office help me check the calculations?”

As it became increasingly evident that the court of public opinion was on its side, UVa made the right decision—to fight the subpoenas. In late May, the university hired outside counsel and asked a Virginia circuit court to set aside the CIDs. Over the ensuing weeks, the two sides filed various legal briefs.

In July, Penn State released its final report exonerating Mann, while a third independent investigation into the e-mail controversy, commissioned by the University of East Anglia, found no evidence of wrongdoing. But Cuccinelli continued to pursue the case. By that point, the UCS, the AAUP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression were collaborating. Together, those groups filed an amicus brief supporting UVa’s challenge with the circuit court.

During oral arguments in August, Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. of the Albemarle County Circuit Court repeatedly asked the attorney general’s representatives for their evidence that Mann had committed fraud, and he did not appear satisfied with their responses. He read aloud to the court portions of an open letter sent to the attorney general by the prominent climate skeptic Thomas Fuller:

No matter what has prompted your investigation, there is no doubt that it will be interpreted as a witch hunt. If you are in fact investigating a credentialed scientist for results that do not suit your political opinion, that interpretation is correct. Unless you can reveal to the public prima facie evidence that shows cause for this investigation, I beg you to reconsider. There are ample avenues of professional and academic recourse for people like me who think he has done something wrong. But being wrong is not a crime, and intimidating scientists [is] not a path that this country, including I presume Virginians, should ever pursue. You may consult with colleagues in Salem to determine how long it takes to live this type of thing down.

Ten days later, the judge dismissed the CIDs for lack of evidence, but not before affirming the attorney general’s right to investigate fraud in such cases with an appropriate threshold of evidence. Cuccinelli has since resubmitted one CID to UVa and has filed a notice that he will appeal parts of the judge’s ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.

So the crusade continues.

Lessons from Virginia

Scientists and academics are not above the law, and any compelling evidence that a scientist has attempted to defraud the state should be brought to light. But a court of law is not the right place to settle scientific disagreements, and an attorney general should not be in the business of evaluating scientific research.

Attorneys general around the nation are no doubt watching carefully to see whether Cuccinelli’s crusade will succeed and, if it does, at what cost. These public officials need to hear from their constituents that they should not follow Virginia’s lead, and they should feel significant pressure if they choose to go down that road. Faculty members and researchers must work together to make sure that only allegations with real merit move forward. Ideological campaigns need to be both exposed and defeated.

The old adage that the best defense is a good offense applies, however. Institutions must be prepared to defend those who are attacked. Scientists and other academics must be better prepared, engage with the public, and speak out against any entity that, without evidence, attempts to undermine the credibility of their peers.

As the Virginia attorney general prepares his next salvo, educators of all disciplines should explore issues of scientific freedom in their classrooms. While this is a scientific issue, the outcome is pertinent to all academic disciplines. Ken Cuccinelli’s misguided efforts, for all of the damage caused, also provide a teachable moment: to instill in the next generation an understanding of freedom of inquiry and of how various interests try to influence how science is used to inform public policy. An informed public that can see through the tricks and charades of those who aim to subvert scientific information can only be good for democracy.

Michael Halpern is a program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), where he works to prevent political interference in science. The UCS, a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens, was founded in 1969. His e-mail address is [email protected].



"When scientists are attacked professionally and personally, independent science and the public suffer"

- I agree.  EXCEPT your article would have been MUCH more compelling, if it included examples from BOTH sides. As if ONLY pro-global warming scientists have had their integrity attacked in any way. By the title of your article and the point I think you are trying to make, you SHOULD definitely have examples of instances for the other side. If you don't believe they exist, write me back and I will do a little research for you.

- Additionally, this article diverged and devoted most of its bulk to one case. I would expect to see some stories of scientists reaching a certain conclusion because they knew that if they reached the opposite conclusion, they would no longer get funding. (I.e. if the answer is "yes" or "no" end of research, but if it's "maybe" ... ) This could be true for BOTH a pro-global warming stance and an anti-global warming stance.

 "Michael Halpern is a program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), where he works to prevent political interference in science. The UCS, a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens, was founded in 1969. His e-mail address is [email protected]"

 - If you want to prevent political interference, you need to prevent it for those with opposing views of your own. There is quite a bit of evidence that humans are NOT significantly affecting warming and even that the warming is not occurring at all.

 - Facts can easily be distorted to tell a different story.  "Carbon levels in the atmosphere increase 35%!"  Sounds bad, as if 35% of the atmosphere is carbon - how are we gonna breath? Yet, when you read that it's increased from 265 parts per MILLION to 357 parts per MILLION, whoopeee.

 - Just as one little example (I have MANY more), I like this kid's analysis from the temperature data from the Goddard Institute for Space Science.  (Global Warming Urban Heat Effect)

Global warming advocates want to totally dismiss these kinds of reports (there are others). In the name of scientific integrity, would you not support some research that totally disproves this? That shows that urban temperature averages are NOT increasing more than rural averages?

Anyway, I could write an entire book.

The point is that the premise of your article is politically neutral, but the article itself is completely one-sided. Besides, the real costs of climate fear would manifest themselves if we passed the cap and trade legislation which would NOT reduce emissions, but instead would simply cause energy to cost more, funneling the money to underdeveloped nations.


Thanks for this clear and relevant paper on how the power structure can subvert scientific inquiry.  It makes me proud to be a supporter of UCS, ACLU and AAUP.  While it is more obvious with climate change studies, all research has public policy implications, especially that of social scientists.  I have been advocating for some time for a public interest science approach to our work.  Using this approach, researchers specify their values on the issues they are studying, whether they be the preservation of the environment or a eduction of violence or other social problem.

They then show how the variables they are studying and the
measurements they are using support those values.  There is no "value free" research, as many analysts of these issues have pointed out.  The results either support the values (even if they are only the status quo) or they negate them (as in the case of climate change).  All published studies then conclude with recommendations for continuing (and improving) on processes and programs that support public interest values or for changing or discontinuing processes and programs that negate them.

I realize the public interest science approach is unfamiliar and may be uncomfortable for many scientists (especially outside the social sciences).  However, in the emerging world of policy work and active vested interests, this approach and, more importantly, education and training in public interest science is vital!


I draw your attention to the graph on page 517 ,Chapter 7 of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report on Climate Change. The regression shown there of CO2 concentrations on fossil fuel emissions has, referring to the original data, a highly significant R-square of 0.933. The figure caption concludes " The observations show that the north-south difference in CO2 increases proportionally with fossil fuel use, verifying the global impact of human-caused emissions."

But the time series data for this graph exhibit highly significant, positive trends over time. Thus, the stationarity assumption made in assuming the sample means constant and producing a significant R-square, is clearly in error (1). Removing these trends reduces the R-square of the regression to an insignificant 0.29.

As is well known in statistical circles, such an error is so common that undergraduate statistics and time series courses frequently use such nonstationary data on homeworks and quizzes to emphasize the traps of statistical nonstationarities.

This error was reported to the IPCC several years ago without response.



You repeat the global-warming-as-a-vast-conspiracy meme:

"I would expect to see some stories of scientists reaching a certain conclusion because they knew that if they reached the opposite conclusion, they would no longer get funding."

Do you seriously think that the Reagan and Bush administrations (when the basic climate research was done) decided to only fund scientists who supported man made climate warming? And convinced thousands of them to come on board with the fraud? Really? Seriously?

And you say,

 "Yet, when you read that it's increased from 265 parts per MILLION to 357 parts per MILLION, whoopeee."

If only I knew what 357 ppm Co2e meant. If only someone would tell me! Oh yes, I forgot: thousands of climate scientists, backed by thousands of years of accrued scientific knowledge and detailed quantum mechanical computations of the absorption spectrum of various gases have already done that. And they say a doubling of Co2e will cause 2-4 degrees of warming. But wait a minute, J.O. thinks otherwise. Who to believe?


 As a member of the AAUP, I just received the latest journal, containing Halpern's article entitled "Climate of Fear." The first paragraphs do not belong in this journal. We do not need to hear about possible criminal activities by people, such as someone putting a dead rat on a doorway. Academe should restrict itself to improper activities by university personnel, not unknown strangers.

I am a mathematics professor. When I start discussing a topic in class, I begin talking about the principles. Students need to understand what are the rational ideas and empirical verifications. Halpern's article failed this educational principle. If Halpern were in my class, I would hand back the paper and ask him to rewrite it, being careful to follow the guidelines of professional writing, and not to write as journalists do. Begin with discussing the principles and justifications.

From the technical standpoint, the article is simply wrong. Published scientific theories indicate a long-term trend in climate change, such as a 15-century cycle, verified by evidence. A millennia ago wine grapes were grown in Britain, indicating a warm climate. Then the climate cooled, with the advent of the Little Ice Age. Greenland was colonized during a warming period, and abandoned during a cooling period. Papers that refer to past decades while ignoring past centuries violate basic scientific principles of empirical verification. The logic is that the sun emits particles with a many-century cycle. As these charged particles modulate the flux of galactic cosmic rays that enter the upper atmosphere they interact with water molecules causing them to collect into droplets, forming clouds. When there are more solar particles there are less clouds, and so the climate is warm and pleasant. Of course, we need to do more research. Currently we have a space vehicle orbiting the sun gathering data. We also need to do more historical and archeological research on the effects of the warming and cooling cycles on human behavior and history.

What we professors need is thinking that is more rational. We express wrong ideas about the nature of black holes. Since it takes forever to reach a black hole, due to general relativistic time dilation, we cannot speak about the inside and things not getting out. Economic professors, including Nobel Prize winners, express wrong, harmful, and dangerous ideas about the economy, supporting Keynes. His ideas are both illogical and have been clearly invalidated by historical evidence. I wrote these ideas in my new book that I suggest more people read. The book is Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living.

In summary, scientific truth is not determined by popular vote, but by logical clarity. This article was one-sided. In the interests of advancing truth, "Academe" should publish another article by professors or scientists who have a different idea. Looking forward to reading this article.


 This article is written in a moral bubble, assuming there is something called science that is irrefutable (scientific “truth), that the scientific community is in absolute charge of this knowledge, and that the best effect of science on policy is self-evident. Lurking in the background are assumptions that stigmatize those who disagree with scientific truth and who disagree with the ideology of science.

In general, no-one knows what scientific knowledge is, nor is there any agreement on who can authoritatively opine on it. The historicist critique of science, and its post-modernist co-actors, effectively dissembled the Enlightenment Project. In particular, that statement is less true for sciences whose object is inanimate things only; and more true for science that attempts to evaluate living things or systems. Global climate change is about living things. Knowledge about it has more inherent uncertainty than knowledge about how to make a cell phone or nuclear device.

There is no uniformity to the scientific community; and overall among all the epistemic communities that aggregate to “science” there are widespread conflicts-of-interest. In this case some scientists, claiming authority to represent the entire scientific community, are making moral arguments about the better reliability of their conclusions. Those arguments are moral because they are the representations of “experts,” of gatekeepers; but in the absence of an overall authority to which such disputes can be referred, they are voices in the political community, not Godly pronouncements.

Since positivist science was and is instrumental in destroying the idea of moral absolutes of any kind, even of the idea of natural law, it is also instrumental in destroying the efficacy of its own arguments. If those who adhere to scientism wish to have a more convincing voice as experts, then they have to comport with moral norms of some kind. Scientists might start with dissociating themselves from industry and the profit-motive … from the desire to create intellectual property, from the propensity to see in nature only lifeless things to be counted and measured … they might turn to the [Aristotelian]  Good.

Since we all know how far those suggestions will go, we can perhaps understand the stridency of scientific voices, and the increased use of “social authority” to manipulate and control funding and public opinion. Science is now the locus of propaganda generation, and scientists feel driven to engage in that tactic because no-one listens to their reasons … this, of course, makes their case even worse, as it cheapens all scientific discourse.

From a Hegelian perspective, the idea of science, as manifested in history, is disordered. New forms or syntheses will emerge from the dialectic. It mirrors historical movements in the larger polity; and will no doubt become reordered when the polity does …


I am surprised by the number of comments suggesting that this article is one-sided, calling for a more neutral approach.  I would like to know how many climate- change deniers have been asked by their attorneys general to hand over all of their scientific research - down to the their hand-written notes.  Mr. Halperin has described a scenario that should be frightening to all academics no matter where you stand on any given subject.   If academics have the threat of investigation hanging over their heads while they are doing research, where will that lead? We might just kiss academic freedom goodbye.