A climate advocacy group called Skeptical Science hosts a list of academics that it has labeled “climate misinformers.” The list includes 17 academics and is intended as a blacklist. We know of this intent because one of the principals of Skeptical Science, a blogger named Dana Nuccitelli, said so last Friday, writing of one academic on their list, “if you look at the statements we cataloged and debunked on her [Skeptical Science] page, it should make her unhirable in academia.”
That so-called “unhirable” academic is Professor Judy Curry, formerly the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, and a Fellow of both the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society. By any conventional academic metric, Curry has compiled an impressive record over many decades. The idea that she would be unhirable would seem laughable.
But there is nothing funny about Skeptical Science. Today, Curry should be a senior statesperson in the atmospheric sciences community. Instead, she is out of academia. She attributes that, at least in part, to being placed on the Skeptical Science blacklist and its use, as expressed by Nuccitelli, to make her “unhirable.”
I asked Professor Curry about this situation. She explained, “In 2012 I was informed by my Dean that the administration wanted me to step down as Chair. While there were several reasons for this, one obvious reason was extreme displeasure by several activist climate scientists who had a very direct pipeline to the Dean.”
So Curry stepped down and started looking for administrative positions at other universities, “At the time, I was getting numerous inquiries from academic headhunters encouraging me to apply for major administration positions, ranging from Dean to Vice Chancellor for Research. I applied for several of these, and actually interviewed for two of them. I did not make it to the final short list.”
The headhunter gave Curry the following feedback from the universities: “They thought I was an outstanding candidate, looked excellent on paper, articulated a strong vision, and interviewed very well in person. The show stopper was my public profile in the climate debate, as evidenced by a simple Google search.”
Indeed, in my own Google search of “Judy Curry,” and confirmed by others on my Twitter timeline, the Skeptical Science blacklist page for her appears on the first page of Google results, and for me it was the top listing.
How can it be that a website, founded by an Australian cartoonist named John Cook and run mainly by volunteer non-academics and amateur scientists, can rise to the position of not just claiming to arbitrate who is and who is not an appropriate hire for universities, but actually fulfilling that role?
Skeptical Science emerged in 2007, the peak of the climate blogging era. It was also a time when the pursuit of “climate skeptics” (or “deniers”) really took off. The website soon found a large audience and was promoted as an ally in the battle against climate skeptics and deniers. For instance, according to Wikipedia, “The Washington Post has praised it as the “most prominent and detailed” website to counter arguments by global warming deniers.”
But the main legitimizing factor in the rise of Skeptical Science as a powerful climate advocacy group was its endorsement by prominent scientists, such as by widely-known climate scientists Michael Mann of Penn State University and Katherine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech. Like Skeptical Science, Mann and Hayhoe focus much of their advocacy efforts on identifying and denigrating so-called climate skeptics or deniers.
The American Geophysical Union (AGU), a leading scientific association that includes many climate scientists, has routinely endorsed Skeptical Science. The AGU has even invoked the Skeptical Science blacklist, as recently as last December, when one of its writers dismissed an Australian academic by observing simply that he “has his own page on John Cook’s Skeptical Science site.” The mere fact of being listed on the Skeptical Science blacklist appears to be sufficient to be dismissed on the official website of the AGU, where Curry was elected a Fellow.
But what has happened to Curry is just the tip of the iceberg.
Upon discussing on Twitter the Skeptical Science claim that their “debunking” of Curry should make her “unhirable in academia,” a follower of mine pointed to a trove of hacked internal discussions among the Skeptical Science team. In those discussions from around 2010-2012, my father, Roger Pielke, Sr. — also a prominent atmospheric scientist — was mentioned some 3,700 times. Correspondingly, my father is also listed on the Skeptical Science blacklist.
I have read those internal discussions and what I saw is incredibly disturbing, for academic freedom and for simple human decency.
Let me take a step back and explain why I believe that it is appropriate to discuss the content of these hacked discussions. (Note: These hacked discussions are different than the Photoshopped imagery found in 2013 on an unprotected Skeptical Science website showing several Skeptical Science team members with their faces super imposed upon Nazi soldiers, with John Cook as Heinrich Himmler. According to Rob Honeycutt of Skeptical Science, those images were prepared as an in-group joke to make fun of a climate skeptic who appears on another of their lists, and were not intended for the public.)
The discussions in the hacked conversations – like those in the Wikileaks releases, those of President Emanuel Macron’s hacked conversations, or even the Climategate emails – are legitimately in the public interest.
There are at least three reasons for this. One, the hacked forum reveals that Skeptical Science – a foreign advocacy group — in collaboration with the Center for American Progress (a DC-based progressive advocacy group), improperly obtained Congressional testimony in advance from several U.S. scientists and were engaged to help Democrats in the House to impeach the testimony of these scientists. Second, the leaked discussions reveal a coordinated effort to lobby U.S. elected officials by a foreign-based entity. While such coordination may or may not meet the legal definition of “lobbying,” the appropriateness of such foreign influence efforts in U.S. politics is certainly fair to question. Third, Skeptical Science has positioned itself as a public arbiter of truth, including rendering judgments as to who is or who is not employable by universities. Their claims to service in the public interest mean that evidence contrary to such claims is also in the public interest.
For these reasons I have made the judgment that discussing the leaked discussions relevant to their stated public interest mission – and which have been in the public domain for many years – is not only fair, it is important. As the editor of the Times of London wrote in 1852, “We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences.”
Knowing full well the considerable power and influence wielded by Skeptical Science and their allies, I am fearful indeed, but truth matters more. And the truth here is ugly.
The internal discussions among the Skeptical Science team, with the 3,700 mentions of Pielke Sr., reveal a years-long campaign to destroy his reputation, and to elevate their stature at his expense. The effort was coordinated and brutal.
In one representative exchange, they said, “We are HUNTING Pielke” and in another, “We are trying to bring him down,” and still another, “My vote is to take the bastard down!” Across 3,700 mentions in the dataset, there is no shortage of such expressed intent to damage, if not end, my father’s distinguished career.
Their strategy was sinister. They sought to define Pielke Sr. as a “climate denier,” and to use his prominent status in the field as the basis for elevating their own by then taking him down. Often they commented on how pleased they were to be able to use the stature of Pielke Sr. to elevate their own profile in the climate debate, “”The fact that Pielke even acknowledges SkS is a good thing.”
At times the Skeptical Science team was confused at why Pielke Sr. was engaging with them: “Why does a scientist of Dr. Pielke’s stature choose to spend so much of his time and enrgy posting on SkS? Doesn’t he have more important things to do?”
What they did not understand is that Pielke Sr. is a science nerd and is willing to talk atmospheric science with anyone – alarmist, skeptic, expert, non-expert – 24/7/365. They took advantage of this openness to discussion, and perhaps his naivete as to their motives, to seek to destroy him. They went so far as to strategically have one team member contact him by email on multiple occasions to appear friendly and engage in a side discussion to see if they could gather further information via a good cop/bad cop routine.
Some of the discussions of Pielke Sr. veered into the paranoid, with Skeptical Science team members on several occasions fantasizing that Pielke Sr. was perhaps the point man in a global climate denier conspiracy. If only they could somehow access his university emails, one mused, “Look, if the deniers’ emails are exposed I have no doubt that what we see will be unbelieveable, mind blowing, maybe even criminal. Why none has tried legitimitely (i.e., through FOIA) to access their emails is beyond me.”
The idea that Pielke Sr. is a climate denier is laughable. Skeptical Science consistently interpreted Pielke Sr.’s willingness to engage with their mortal enemies (such as Anthony Watts of the skeptical blog WattsUpWithThat) not as a sign of a magnanimous senior statesman willing to help anyone bring their ideas to the peer-reviewed literature, but as evidence of some sort of deep and irreparable moral turpitude. The hacked discussions are infused with such Manichean paranoia.
As time went by the Skeptical Science team’s attitude toward Pielke Sr. became increasingly unhinged and personal. John Cook, the founder of Skeptical Science, wrote, “”I’m finding myself very annoyed when I think about Pielke, having trouble thinking purely rationally and strategically when I think about him.” One team member expressed some concern about their attacks, “It looks like a great lion being mobbed by snarling jackals. I don’t like it.”
But in the end, the political aims of Skeptical Science meant that Pielke Sr. needed to be destroyed: “he lends the camouflage of scientific respectability to what is likely to be a very dangerous policy of fossil-fuel appeasement. I don’t care how Pielke is behaving: I’m playing to win.”
And win they have.
Even given my obvious biases, Pielke Sr. is undoubtedly a giant in the atmospheric sciences. It is hard to find any scientist of his generation with a stronger record of achievement. He was an early pioneer of computer modeling of weather, contributing to demonstrably better weather forecasts. He was also a leader in recognizing the role of land surface processes in regional and global climate. A full recounting of his achievements would span many columns here. At a time when he should be receiving lifetime achievement awards and celebrated for his contributions to science, he is instead ostracized and is still being denigrated by Skeptical Science and their followers.
My bias is not simply familial. You see, I am also on the Skeptical Science blacklist. Rarely does a day go by that this is not used on social media or, at times, in personal interactions to illustrate my lack of fitness to participate in scientific discussions, to damage my career and reputation.
Like Curry and Pielke Sr., I have seen firsthand the consequences of a public and behind-the-scenes campaign by Skeptical Science against me. Despite the widespread aversion of professor blacklisting, in climate science at least, such blacklisting is allowed and even encouraged by the community, and as a result, it works.
I have been locked out from Twitter for sharing some of the information from the hacked Skeptical Science discussions. Several Skeptical Science team members have contacted me by email in the past hours with vaguely sinister but eminently deniable threats. I expect they will come after this column next. And if you hear that I have left academia, like Curry, you’ll know why.
Even so, everything here is true, and truth matters more than fear.