Letters to the Big Three: Don't De-Platform Scientists

Peter Wood

Last week the National Association of Scholars became aware of a new "blacklist" created by three academics at the University of California, Merced. The list was published by Springer Communications and NAS responded with a public letter. The list has since been removed but NAS is continuing to ensure that this blacklist is not enforced. Below are three letters NAS has written to Google, Facebook, and Twitter on the importance of intellectual freedom as it relates to this incident. 


August 19, 2019

Mr. Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer
Google, Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

Dear Mr. Pichai,

I write to urge Google and other digital media platforms to reject an emerging campaign to de-platform scientists and other writers characterized as “climate change contrarians.”

The journal Nature Communications published an article on August 13 that called for such action. The article, “Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians,” by Alexander Michael Petersen, Emmanuel M. Vincent & Anthony LeRoy Westerling, has occasioned considerable notice in the United States and abroad. As first published, the article included a list of 386 “prominent contrarians,” along with a strong argument that responsible journalists should refrain from publishing the views of these people. The “blacklist” was subsequently removed by the publisher (Springer) but remains in wide circulation.

Two of the article’s authors, Mr. Westerling and Mr. Peterson, added to their arguments in a press release issued by their home institution, the University of California, Merced. The press release says in part:

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” Professor Alex Petersen said. “By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale.”

This is a flat-out call for censoring views that the authors disagree with. Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling present no arguments against the substance of the view they would suppress, or any evidence that those views are mistaken. They simply take as given that disagreeing with their views on climate change is irresponsible and should be stopped. The tactic they prefer is public pressure on “media outlets.”

I write as the president of the National Association of Scholars, which is a body that stands for academic and intellectual freedom. NAS has no position on climate change as such, but we strongly support the importance of the open expression of dissonant, heterodox, and non-conforming ideas in important intellectual debates. The effort to suppress “contrarian” views in climate science is an outstanding example of the problem. Writers such as Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling claim to address a problem of “false balance” in reporting of the debate on climate science. By “false balance” they mean that those who hold views they disagree with are accorded the opportunity to present those views in the public press as though they might have the same degree of scientific authority as the views Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling favor.

In truth, the scientific debate is fierce and neither side has established its views as provably accurate. Only one side, however, is eager to take a shortcut to victory by attempting to stigmatize the views of the other as not deserving to be heard.

Google stands in a pivotal position in this situation. Recent examples give many people pause over whether Google will stand back and let the battle of competing scientific hypotheses work itself out with rigorous empirical testing. In short, we fear that Google will succumb to the invitation to censor climate change skepticism.

We urge Google not to do so. Whatever short term gain might come from appeasing the faction that seeks censorship, the loss to science of open communication will be greater, and the loss to Google of its reputation for fair play will be incalculable.

The best remedy, and the only one available to those who live in a democratic society, is for all sides to present their clearest arguments, best evidence, and most testable hypotheses, and engage in free and open debate.

We urge Google to state publicly that it has not and will not in any way adjust the content visible to users to reduce the visibility of, or otherwise censor, any communication for or against the climate change consensus. Indeed, we urge Google to broaden this guarantee to all matters of public and/or academic interest.

Social media ought to foster openness, not undermine it. We encourage Google to withstand the pressure to play favorites and instead let the scientific process of hypothesis, testing, and peer review do its work.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood

CC:
Lawrence Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt


August 19, 2019

Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO
Facebook Headquarters

1 Hacker Way

Menlo Park, CA 94025

Dear Mr. Zuckerburg,

I write to urge Facebook and other digital media platforms to reject an emerging campaign to de-platform scientists and other writers characterized as “climate change contrarians.”

The journal Nature Communications published an article on August 13 that called for such action. The article, “Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians,” by Alexander Michael Petersen, Emmanuel M. Vincent & Anthony LeRoy Westerling, has occasioned considerable notice in the United States and abroad. As first published, the article included a list of 386 “prominent contrarians,” along with a strong argument that responsible journalists should refrain from publishing the views of these people. The “blacklist” was subsequently removed by the publisher (Springer) but remains in wide circulation.

Two of the article’s authors, Mr. Westerling and Mr. Peterson, added to their arguments in a press release issued by their home institution, the University of California, Merced. The press release says in part:

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” Professor Alex Petersen said. “By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale.”

This is a flat-out call for censoring views that the authors disagree with. Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling present no arguments against the substance of the view they would suppress, or any evidence that those views are mistaken. They simply take as given that disagreeing with their views on climate change is irresponsible and should be stopped. The tactic they prefer is public pressure on “media outlets.”

I write as the president of the National Association of Scholars, which is a body that stands for academic and intellectual freedom. NAS has no position on climate change as such, but we strongly support the importance of the open expression of dissonant, heterodox, and non-conforming ideas in important intellectual debates. The effort to suppress “contrarian” views in climate science is an outstanding example of the problem. Writers such as Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling claim to address a problem of “false balance” in reporting of the debate on climate science. By “false balance” they mean that those who hold views they disagree with are accorded the opportunity to present those views in the public press as though they might have the same degree of scientific authority as the views Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling favor.

In truth, the scientific debate is fierce and neither side has established its views as provably accurate. Only one side, however, is eager to take a shortcut to victory by attempting to stigmatize the views of the other as not deserving to be heard.

Facebook stands in a pivotal position in this situation. Recent examples give many people pause over whether Facebook will stand back and let the battle of competing scientific hypotheses work itself out with rigorous empirical testing. In short, we fear that Facebook will succumb to the invitation to censor climate change skepticism.

We urge Facebook not to do so. Whatever short term gain might come from appeasing the faction that seeks censorship, the loss to science of open communication will be greater, and the loss to Facebook of its reputation for fair play will be incalculable.

The best remedy, and the only one available to those who live in a democratic society, is for all sides to present their clearest arguments, best evidence, and most testable hypotheses, and engage in free and open debate.

We urge Facebook to state publicly that it has not and will not in any way adjust the content visible to Facebook’s viewers to reduce the visibility of, or otherwise censor, any communication for or against the climate change consensus. Indeed, we urge Facebook to broaden this guarantee to all matters of public and/or academic interest.

Social media ought to foster openness, not undermine it. We encourage Facebook to withstand the pressure to play favorites and instead let the scientific process of hypothesis, testing, and peer review do its work.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood


August 19, 2019

Jack Dorsey, CEO

Twitter Headquarters

1355 Market St. Ste. 900

San Francisco, CA 94103

Dear Mr. Dorsey,

I write to urge Twitter and other digital media platforms to reject an emerging campaign to de-platform scientists and other writers characterized as “climate change contrarians.”

The journal Nature Communications published an article on August 13 that called for such action. The article, “Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians,” by Alexander Michael Petersen, Emmanuel M. Vincent & Anthony LeRoy Westerling, has occasioned considerable notice in the United States and abroad. As first published, the article included a list of 386 “prominent contrarians,” along with a strong argument that responsible journalists should refrain from publishing the views of these people. The “blacklist” was subsequently removed by the publisher (Springer) but remains in wide circulation.

Two of the article’s authors, Mr. Westerling and Mr. Peterson, added to their arguments in a press release issued by their home institution, the University of California, Merced. The press release says in part:

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” Professor Alex Petersen said. “By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale.”

This is a flat-out call for censoring views that the authors disagree with. Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling present no arguments against the substance of the view they would suppress, or any evidence that those views are mistaken. They simply take as given that disagreeing with their views on climate change is irresponsible and should be stopped. The tactic they prefer is public pressure on “media outlets.”

I write as the president of the National Association of Scholars, which is a body that stands for academic and intellectual freedom. NAS has no position on climate change as such, but we strongly support the importance of the open expression of dissonant, heterodox, and non-conforming ideas in important intellectual debates. The effort to suppress “contrarian” views in climate science is an outstanding example of the problem. Writers such as Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling claim to address a problem of “false balance” in reporting of the debate on climate science. By “false balance” they mean that those who hold views they disagree with are accorded the opportunity to present those views in the public press as though they might have the same degree of scientific authority as the views Petersen, Vincent, and Westerling favor.

In truth, the scientific debate is fierce and neither side has established its views as provably accurate. Only one side, however, is eager to take a shortcut to victory by attempting to stigmatize the views of the other as not deserving to be heard.

Twitter stands in a pivotal position in this situation. Recent examples give many people pause over whether Twitter will stand back and let the battle of competing scientific hypotheses work itself out with rigorous empirical testing. In short, we fear that Twitter will succumb to the invitation to censor climate change skepticism.

We urge Twitter not to do so. Whatever short term gain might come from appeasing the faction that seeks censorship, the loss to science of open communication will be greater, and the loss to Twitter of its reputation for fair play will be incalculable.

The best remedy, and the only one available to those who live in a democratic society, is for all sides to present their clearest arguments, best evidence, and most testable hypotheses, and engage in free and open debate.

We urge you to state publicly that Twitter has not and will not in any way adjust the content visible to users to reduce the visibility of, or otherwise censor, any communication for or against the climate change consensus. Indeed, we urge Twitter to broaden this guarantee to all matters of public and/or academic interest.

Social media ought to foster openness, not undermine it. We encourage Twitter to withstand the pressure to play favorites and instead let the scientific process of hypothesis, testing, and peer review do its work.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood

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