Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology believes that those who spread misinformation about climate change should be found criminally negligent and punished. By misinformation, of course, he means views disseminated by climate change skeptics, like LU’s own Jeff Dunetz. Lawrence Torcello, the teacher in question, never gets around to passing sentence on people who misinform the public in the other direction — the name Al Gore comes to mind — but we’ll come back to that later.
Writing at The Conversation, Torcello observes that “accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death.” As an example, he cites an earthquake that rocked L’Aquila Italy in 2009, which “left more than 300 people dead and nearly 66,000 people homeless. In a strange turn of events six Italian scientists and a local defence minister were subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.” [Emphasis added]
The ruling is popularly thought to have convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. On the contrary, as risk assessment expert David Ropeik pointed out, the trial was actually about the failure of scientists to clearly communicate risks to the public. The convicted parties were accused of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information.”
And there in a nutshell is the good professor’s argument, which can easily be grafted onto the climate change debate — which in his opinion has been settled. Not only are temperatures and weather patterns shifting as a direct consequence of human activity, he submits, but these phenomena have already claimed lives:
More deaths can already be attributed to climate change than the L’Aquila earthquake and we can be certain that deaths from climate change will continue to rise with global warming.
The link in the above paragraph takes you to a page at the World Health Organization’s Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI), which contains the disquieting map shown below:
Climatic changes already are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually.
That estimate includes deaths as a result of extreme weather conditions, which may be occurring with increased frequency. Changes in temperature and rainfall conditions also may influence transmission patterns for many diseases, including water-related diseases, such as diarrhoea, and vector-borne infections, including malaria. Finally, climate change may affect patterns of food production, which in turn can have health impacts in terms of rates of malnutrition. There is further evidence that unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions would increase disease burdens in the coming decades. The risks are concentrated in the poorest populations, who have contributed the least to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.
Notice that HELI has jumped to the conclusion that the “extreme weather conditions” that led to some of those deaths were necessarily caused by climate change. This is part of accepted doctrine — gospel, if you will — among climate change alarmists, who frequently commit the logical fallacy of confusing correlation with causation.
Later on in his spiel, Torcello writes, “My argument probably raises an understandable, if misguided, concern regarding free speech,” but here he’s giving himself too much credit. He hasn’t yet satisfied the condition for his claim that those who hold “contrarian” views (viz., other than his) should be found criminally negligent.
The are two fundamental problems with his claim. First of all, science is a field characterized by open-ended and open-minded inquiry. This is not to suggest that the scientific community has never stumbled and ended up wearing egg on its face. One famous example will suffice. When physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren posited in 1982 that peptic ulcers, long treated by surgery, were actually caused by a bacterium, H. pylori, and could be treated with antibiotics, the medical community laughed. It took ten years for Marshall and Warren’s hypothesis to gain acceptance.
The second problem is that the punishment for misinformation cuts both ways. This brings us back to Al Gore, former Vice President and climate change alarmist. Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” made a number of claims and predictions about global warming that have already proven false. Regardless, the film grossed $50 million worldwide, making Gore a very wealthy man. His net worth today is estimated at around $200 million. Torcello writes that criminal charges should be brought when “science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain.” How about when science communication is intentionally exploited for political and financial gain?
Torcello’s ideas on punishing misinformers is nothing new. Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno was thrown in jail and ultimately burned at the stake for his heretical views. Bruno, who lived in the 16th century, had the audacity to claim that the earth was not at the center of the universe.
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