Commentary: Are some things best left unsaid?

  • 13 August 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

  • Lawrence Krauss

IT IS clearly desirable for popular scientific debate to be restricted to those issues about which there are legitimate scientific differences. Equally, it is clearly wrong to censor honest discussion. But where to draw the line?

Where does limiting debate to genuine scientific differences become censorship?

This tricky issue ambushed me last month. I am the outgoing chair of the American Physical Society's Forum on Physics and Society (FPS), and my colleagues and I on the executive committee started receiving angry email messages from recipients of the forum's recent newsletter, which is produced quarterly to encourage discussion and disseminate information about science policy issues. It is not peer reviewed; articles are selected or solicited by the editors.

Earlier this year, the editors ran a piece submitted by Gerald Marsh, a frequent contributor to FPS, in which he questioned the accuracy of climate change predictions and estimations of anthropogenic contributions to it. The article gave the editors the idea of devoting an issue to debate about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's statements regarding human-induced global warming.

Being unfamiliar with the field, they asked Marsh to suggest authors on both sides of the argument, and sent out requests. Physicists David Hafemeister and Peter Schwartz kindly contributed a tutorial on the physics of global warming. Marsh also suggested "Christopher Monckton of Brenchley", who the editors assumed was a climate scientist. Monckton submitted what appeared to be a highly technical piece refuting the notion that global warming is occurring, much less induced by human activity.

The editors ran both articles, and encouraged feedback. They also prefaced the issue with an unfortunate editorial stating that there is "considerable" debate within the scientific community about the IPCC statement that global warming is anthropogenic.

Within hours of the issue appearing on the web, an angry physics community responded. The editors then learned that Viscount Monckton - who they had addressed as "Dr Monckton" in their correspondence, a misconception he did not correct - was actually a British journalist and global-warming sceptic. His article presented claims that he has been circulating for years and that climate scientists say they have debunked.

Worse, prominent global-warming sceptics, including the office of Senator James Inhofe, began circulating Monckton's article and citing it as evidence that there is significant debate over global warming within the physics community, and that the American Physical Society (APS) had changed its official stance, which is that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are changing the Earth's climate. News outlets and bloggers announced that a conspiracy of silence among the scientific community had been broken. And Monckton began claiming that his work had been accepted by a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Back at the APS, there was a flurry of activity to clarify the situation. Some people called for the online version of Monckton's article to be removed, or labelled with a disclaimer. Ultimately, we decided to attach directly to all FPS articles the disclaimer that already appears at the beginning of the newsletter: that they are not peer reviewed and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors or the APS. The editors also rescinded their statement about "considerable" debate.

The furore seems to have subsided for the moment, aside from Monckton's continued insistence that his piece was peer reviewed, and his supposed outrage over the disclaimer (the litigious viscount has apparently demanded an apology from the APS for posting it).

But the episode prompted the question that I would like to raise here and address further in my next column. Was our response appropriate? More generally, what constraints should be placed on public scientific forums so that they properly reflect ongoing science, while at the same time ensuring that one does not inappropriately censor unpopular minority viewpoints?

Climate Change – Want to know more about global warming: the science, impacts and political debate? Visit our continually updated special report.

From issue 2669 of New Scientist magazine, 13 August 2008, page 46



Click here