Nature Communications Creates a Scientist Blacklist

Peter Wood

Below is a letter from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to the editors of Nature Communications. The controversial article, written by Alexander Peterson, Emmanuel Vincent, and Anthony Westerling seeks to "juxtapose 386 prominent contrarians with 386 expert scientists by tracking their digital footprints." (Emphasis added). The authors hope that by listing these contrarians journalists and editors will instead choose expert scientists for stories on climate change. They essentially seek to deplatform and censor all 386 climate change contrarians.

Nature Communications

To the Editor,

I am alarmed to find a call for censorship promoted in the pages of Nature Communications.

In their article, “Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians,” Alexander Michael Petersen, Emmanuel M. Vincent, and Anthony LeRoy Westerling, repeat the widely heard demand for “rapid public action” on climate change. To this end they propose steps that would help to ensure that “communicating authoritative information about the risks of inaction” would not have to compete with the views of skeptics. “Achieving global action” is their priority, which plainly differs from providing the most accurate and best-assessed scientific inquiry on climate science.

To achieve this “global action,” Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling argue for censoring scientific opinions with which they disagree.

Their article offers a roadmap and a rationale for suppressing opinions they deem not to provide “trustworthy information.” The 386 “prominent contrarians” they list by name constitute a black list. Their names were drawn from the speakers at annual Heartland Institute conference; individuals profiled by the DeSmogblog project; and from the authors of the 2015 Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. Some of these “contrarians” are scientists; many represent other professions; some are elected members of the Federal government. All of them have a legitimate right to express their views and argue for those views as best they can. The public can only assess whether their views are “trustworthy” by the quality of their arguments they make and the evidence they put forward.

Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling used media Cloud API to “download media article records associated with each individual,” and found “roughly ~100,000 individual media articles.” These they claim to have “analyzed.” But their analysis had nothing to do with the quality of the arguments their targets made or the evidence they put forward.

The 386 people on their contrarian list are relegated there not as a result of faults in their work. Rather, the authors write, “It was unfeasible to apply the content analysis to the entire dataset, and so we turn to network analysis to identify additional relational patterns of co-visibility within groups and across their media interface.”

The research design of Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling thus amounts to guilt by association. The “contrarians” speak to one another and pay attention to one another’s work. They worry that contrarian views are “crowding out” the views they would rather see dominate public discourse. By their calculations, about half of the “visibility” of climate change in “mainstream media” goes to the views expressed by contrarians.

It is common sense that this should be so. When opinions on a subject are broadly divided into two camps, one would expect mainstream media to pay roughly equal attention to both camps. Such even-handedness, however, impedes those who seek immediate “global action.” Rather than seek more convincing arguments and better evidence for their views, however, Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling suggest erecting barricades to the expression of the views of the climate contrarians. Their explanation of why those views get so much attention is that the press is engaged in “false balance,” i.e., falsely suggesting “that there is a balanced debate between equally sized groups.” They also suggest that the public is just not smart enough to grasp the validity of climate change science: “Understanding Earth’s coupled human–environmental systems requires broad and deep knowledge of processes occurring across a range of scales—from microscopic chemical processes to macroscopic thermodynamic flows and human consumption and land-use trends that span the entire global system.”

Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling see a solution to these difficulties in efforts to persuade journalists to ignore the contrarians. They write: “Thus the time has arrived for professional journalists and editors to ameliorate the disproportionate attention given to CCCs [Climate Change Contrarians] by focusing instead on career experts and relevant calls to action.” How will the professional journalists and editors know which people to ignore? As it happens, Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling have their list of 386 CCCs, as well as an algorithm for catching others in the “contrarian echo chamber.” Nature Communications has published an article which forwards the technology of censorship in pursuit of political activism, but which does not even pretend to forward scientific knowledge.

Echo chambers are no doubt an impediment to open-minded scientific inquiry. But so are black lists. And so too is the assumption that one side of a debate has all the legitimate authority and the other side none. And so too are efforts to stampede the public to take “action” on matters on which the science is far from settled. Peterson, Vincent, and Westerling’s article is a fancy-dress version of book burning.


Peter Wood, President
National Association of Scholars

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