The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Difference Between a Liar and a Heretic

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A few days ago The College Fix, an online student paper, published a piece entitled “The Pushback Against Attempts Punish ‘Heretical’ Views on Climate Begins in Earnest.” The thrust of the article is that attempts to silence or punish climate deniers violates the principle of free speech. I should say that I have no wish to launch a personal attack on either The College Fix or the author, David Huber. As far as I can tell, they are simply raising an important concern for discussion. I accept the invitation. I’m discussing.

The thing is, neither American law nor American values literally protect all speech. There is libel. There is fraud. There is the bully at the dinner table defending his or her obnoxious drivel with “hey, it’s a free country!” (which is true inasmuch as being obnoxious isn’t illegal, but no law requires inviting the obnoxious to dinner again, either). Free speech exists on two levels, legal and social, but neither level literally protects everything a person could possibly say. Differentiating protected speech from something else requires careful thought. As a general rule, freedom of speech, correctly applied, is the refuge from bullies. Misapplied, it is the refuge of bullies.

The author of the College Fix piece, Dave Huber, is concerned that attempts to prosecute ExxonMobile for its climate denial activities constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Further, efforts to publicly vilify the company violate fair play. Mr. Huber contends that these efforts constitute a decision to stifle speakers based on which side they occupy in public debate, something that obviously cannot happen in a functional democracy.

The important point is that ExxonMobile is not in trouble for speaking–the company is in trouble for lying, and specifically for lying in such a way as to undermine political support for government regulations that would have protected the public at the expense of ExxonMobile’s business. Arguably, that’s fraud.

There are two other important points, here.

One is the limit of the concept of “opinion.” As a society, we generally share a conviction that everyone has a right to form, express, and share their opinions, and to hold on to those opinions without censure from others. And we do have that right, but not every thought or idea is an opinion in that sense. Opinions are matters of taste or judgment. In my opinion, lemonade is better than coffee. Your opinion may differ, but there is nothing whatever you can do about mine except accept it. I’ve tasted both, and I’d rather have lemonade. I can also have professional opinions, where I render a judgment based on my experience as a writer, and I have opinions on questions that have no secular answer, such as whether heaven exists. But for questions that have answers that are clearly and unambiguously answerable by secular means? They just aren’t matters of opinion. For me to say that, in my opinion, New York City is in New Jersey is balderdash. The word “opinion” is not a license to just say whatever. New York City is not in New Jersey.

And Planet Earth is getting warmer.

The other important point is that debate must be rooted in the truth, so far as the truth is knowable. If we’re going to have a public discussion about what to do about an issue–say, unemployment, crime, pollution, or the fair distribution of marshmallows at a Girl Scout camp-out, we have to base our discussion on the known facts. I can’t insist that there are more Girl Scouts on the trip than there actually are, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the discussion. Introducing error in such a discussion is just as bad as suppressing a particular voice, because either undermines the process of group decision-making. So, while there are circumstances where the law must protect speech regardless of its truthfulness, morally speaking, there is no right to lie publicly.

And ExxonMobile, and climate deniers generally, lie.

There is a neat little rhetorical trick where people defend their actions by speaking to legitimate, but inapplicable, anxieties. For example, there is the classic false populist who orates about the high unemployment rate in order to gin up support for policies that only benefit the rich. There are the privileged who yell “I’m being oppressed!” when anyone tries to even slightly level the playing field. And there are climate deniers who, as a group, lie, bully, even threaten in order to keep the truth about climate change out of the public debate and then become very concerned about freedom of speech when anyone tries to stand up to them.

Essentially, if I can convince you that the best way to avoid being robbed is to give me a hundred dollars, I’m going to get your money because you are very worried about robbery. You’re worried about robbery because, on some level, you know you’re being robbed–by me.

So, let’s go over this; yes dissidents should be allowed to speak freely. Condemning people for their opinions or ideas is contrary to the ideals of a free society. We don’t hunt heretics anymore, or shouldn’t, anyway. But no, ExxonMobile is not a beleaguered dissident and no, climate denial is not simply an example of an unpopular group of ideas.

The problem with climate denial is not that 97% of climate scientists disagree; the problem is that climate denial is being propagated by and for bullies. The rest of us have a right to stand up and protect ourselves.


Author David Huber also uses the College Fix article to indulge in a somewhat tangential ad hominim attack on Bill Nye that deserves rebuttal. The substance of the attack is that Nye is an engineer, not a climate scientist, despite calling himself “The Science Guy,” and that such misrepresentation would never be tolerated in a climate denier. The fact of the matter is that having hosted a TV show called “Bill Nye the Science Guy” does not constitute a claim to be a scientist any more than Mr. Wizard ever claimed to actually practice sorcery. Bill Nye is not a scientist, he’s a science communicator. That is, he is not, nor does he claim to be, authoritative. He’s just a messenger. When climate deniers are called out for not being climate scientists, it’s because either they or their supporters have done something to suggest that they are climate scientists. Either that or, yes, somebody is being snarky because they don’t like the message.

There is no double-standard here; messengers are judged by the reliability of their message, not by their own expertise, unless they claim to be experts themselves.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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