Abusive Hate Campaign Targets Climate Change Philosopher

DIE you maggot,” reads one of the hundreds of emails from climate science deniers that have dropped into philosopher Lawrence Torcello’s inbox in recent days.

“Fortunately, your kind will be marched to the wall with all the other leftist detritus,” says another.

Others accuse Torcello, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Department of Philosophy in the west of New York State, of being a fascist, Stalinist and a Nazi.

The catalyst for the bilious outpouring was an article Torcello had written for The Conversation website arguing there was “good reason to consider” that “the funding of climate denial” was morally and criminally negligent.

I knew there would be debate in the comment section, which I was welcoming,” Torcello told me, adding he also knew the “usual climate denialist blogs” wouldn’t like it too much.

But I didn’t expect the wide level of exposure that the misrepresentations would get in the press and I didn’t expect the intense storm of hate mail and Twitter harassment the article experienced.”

At one point, he says he picked up his phone to be told that soon he would be “paid a visit.” One email told Torcello — in customary all-caps angriness — that he was a “FAGGOT” and that global warming was “A LIE STRAIGHT FROM THE JEWS.

“When I include phone calls and twitter harassment in addition to the emails I’ve received, then somewhere above 700 items of correspondence seems like a good estimate,” says Torcello.

“I did stop keeping count after the first few days of constant bombardment, but over a week later mail is still coming.”

More accurately, it seems the catalyst for the hate campaign was not so much the article itself but the way it was misrepresented in conservative media.

Climate science denialist James Delingpole, now writing for the conservative activist website Breitbart, managed to twice misrepresent Torcello’s article in his very first sentence. 

Under the headline “US Philosophy Professor: Jail 'Denialist' Climate Scientists For Criminal Negligence," Delingpole wrote Torcello had argued “scientists who don't believe in catastrophic man-made global warming should be put in prison.”

“This was a blatant misrepresentation of my article,” says Torcello, whose article did not mention climate “scientists” or say that anyone should be put in the “slammer,” as Delingpole had claimed. Torcello says:

One crucial aspect of the scientific process is that ideas are tested against rigourous skepticism. Scientists who challenge conventional understandings of climate change in the course of their research are doing exactly what scientists are supposed to do.

Despite Delingpole’s misrepresentation, things soon got worse. The Daily Caller’s Education Editor Eric Owens wrote that Torcello “wants to send people who disagree with him about global warming to jail.”

Owens, whose story was reposted by FoxNation, also thought the chilly 18 degree temperature in Rochester on the day Torcello’s story was published was in some way relevant.

Conspiracy-friendly Infowars.com went a step further, claiming that Torcello had “called for the incarceration of any American who actively disagrees that climate change is solely caused by human activity.” Traffic-heavy The Drudge Report reposted the Infowars.com story.

Lord Christopher Monckton wrote to the provost at Torcello’s college to encourage them to consider if he was a “fit and proper person to hold any academic post at the Institute.”

Lord Monckton’s outburst seems particularly ironic, given that he once told a partisan Australian crowd of climate sceptics: “So to the bogus scientists who have produced the bogus science that invented this bogus scare I say, we are coming after you. We are going to prosecute you, and we are going to lock you up.”

Climate science denialist blogger Anthony Watts promoted Monckton's letter and provided his readers with the email addresses of senior university personnel and encouraged complaints. In another post, Watts gave links to Torcello’s academic home page containing his email address.

“If you choose to lodge a complaint, be sure to be courteous and factual, we don’t need to surrender the moral high ground to anger,” wrote Watts.

Despite this apparent plea for civility, several comments were allowed to stand on Watts’ blog making references to Torcello’s looks and calling him various names including “bozo,” “idiot” and “crazy lunatic.” One commenter suggested that someone should “put [Torcello’s] ass in prison.”

Torcello says:

Perhaps this sounds naïve in retrospect, but I expected that anyone who had a response to the article I wrote would have read it. One thing that almost all of the calls and emails I know of shared in common was a lack of having read my article.

Now it is clear that the bloggers misrepresenting my views knew exactly what they were doing with the scandalous headlines and crafted misquotations. Even when they linked to my article, they felt secure in the judgement that their audience wouldn’t read it.

Torcello did receive some supportive emails sent to his bosses. One came from philosopher Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago and founder of its Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values. Leiter said:

This kind of organized harassment of faculty by the far right happens too often, and universities should be encouraged to take a stronger stand against this malevolent behavior.

The Rochester Institute of Technology president Bill Destler released a statement saying Torcello had “a right to free speech” and that universities and colleges should be forums for the discussion of “controversial issues”.

But the treatment meted out to Torcello is just the latest in a long list of attacks on climate scientists and other academics that accept the risk of human-caused climate change and speak publicly on the issue.

Scientists in Australia have similar experiences with bursts of threatening hate mail, not forgetting the hacking of email accounts, regular public vilification by mostly conservative commentators and steady streams of Freedom of Information requests asking for correspondence, raw data or working documents.

Most recently, the journal Frontiers in Psychology withdrew one climate change paper after contrarians made a string of complaints and claimed the research was defamatory towards them. The journal said it had withdrawn the paper even after a “detailed investigation” had found no academic or ethical issues with the study.

Torcello told me his experience had taught him a “vitally important lesson”:

Those of us who write on climate change need to be prepared for just this sort of harassment. Our universities and other organizations need to be prepared to support their employees during such assaults, and they probably need training in how to do that.

Academic journals and the other news outlets have to be prepared to stand with their authors against abuse, and they may need to be urged in that direction.

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