The Guardian have reported that climate scientists in Australia have been moved into safer accommodation, after they received death threats. The Australia National University were quoted as saying that a number of its climate scientists had moved to a secure facility after they received a large number of threatening emails and phone calls. This isn’t the first time that scientists working in a field dealing with controversial issues have been threatened. As Paul Offit, among others, could tell them…
In 2009, the New York Times reported on the death threats Dr Offit (pictured on the right of H. Fred Clark, above) had received. Apparently, he is not alone in inspiring hatred among those who wrongly believe that vaccinations are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against. Dr. Gregory A. Poland, of the Mayo Clinic, says he has had threats against his children.
I’m glad that these vaccine researchers and climate scientists have not (so far) been deterred from continuing their work. I’m not sure whether I would show the same fortitude in such a situation. But then, I am a coward.
Aside from vaccination and climate change, those involved with the contentious issue of fluoridation have received death threats too. For example, in June 2009, an Australian MP faced death threats after plans were announced to add fluoride to the water supply. The message read “Thanks for the poison bitch, ready to kill you slowly”.
Oh yeah, politics… Charlie Brooker received threats following an article in which he’d recycled “a very old tasteless joke”, with George Bush as the butt of the joke. In his own words:
My inbox overflowed with blood-curdling death threats, and it was all very unfunny indeed – a bit like recounting a rude joke at a dinner party, only to be told you hadn’t recounted a joke at all, but molested the host’s children, and suddenly everyone was punching you and you weren’t going to get any pudding. I’ve had better weekends.
The above cases are clearly quite extreme. Death threats go beyond the mere unpleasantness that can be expected when one writes about, or is involved with, a controversial issue. Many will have had abusive comments or emails from those who disagree with them: scientists, journalists, mediocre bloggers (my personal favourite was the chap who referred to me as “a chicken-flavored nipple biscuit”).
Alan Dangour, who conducted research concluding that organic food is no healthier than conventional produce, “told The Independent that hundreds of people had contacted him since his work was published, with many accusing him of dishonesty and incompetence in emails peppered with swear words”.
Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, is apparently unperturbed by the badly-written hate mail he receives, even that containing the fervent wish that he “die slowly”, and can be seen here on Youtube reading out a selection that seems to greatly amuse his friends.
Update, 22nd August 2011
Chronic fatigue syndrome researchers face death threats from militants: Professor Simon Wessely and others have been targeted.
The full extent of the campaign of intimidation, attacks and death threats made against scientists by activists who claim researchers are suppressing the real cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is revealed today by the Observer. According to the police, the militants are now considered to be as dangerous and uncompromising as animal rights extremists.
More on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:
Advocates of the hypothesis that XMRV is linked to ME/CFS are currently struggling to reconcile their belief with the disconfirming evidence of Paprotka et al.
One online critic claimed that “…in Paprotka they describe two types of PCR. One is quantitative real-time PCR and one is a qPCR.” I wasn’t entirely sure how this would have supported their argument, but it turned out to be a misunderstanding in any case. The corresponding author stated (in an email) that “…our paper defined qPCR as quantitative real-time PCR, and when we say qPCR we are referring to the real-time PCR experiments”, but the critic seemed disinclined to accept that the corresponding author understood his own paper better than they did. It seemed to me that this was an example of somebody who had an unreasonably high degree of confidence in their assertions.
Dr Sarah Myhill, meanwhile consistently claims that vaccination is linked to CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), talking of vaccines “switching on chronic fatigue syndrome” and “triggering flares of CFS”. I’m always willing to be proved wrong, but I don’t think there is reliable evidence of an association between vaccination and CFS.
Appel, Chapman and Shoenfeld seem to think it is at least plausible that vaccination could be linked to CFS and call for further research, but state that: “Little is known about this issue. There are some reports on CFS occurring after vaccination, but few prospective and retrospective studies failed to find such an association” and point out that a working group of the Canadian Laboratory Center for Disease Control (LCDC) that was founded in order to examine the suspected association between CFS and vaccinations concluded that there is no evidence that relates CFS to vaccination.
A Norwegian study found “no statistically significant association between vaccination against meningococcal disease in teenagers and occurrence of CFS/ME”, and a double-blind, randomized study of the effects of influenza vaccination on the specific antibody response and clinical course of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome found that “no difference could be detected between immunized and placebo CFS patients in immunization side effects”.
Update, 2nd June 2012
The Guardian have published an article about pro-smoking lobbyists allegedly threatening and abusing academics and health campaigners: “Researchers say abuse and threats intensified first with the public debate on removing branding from cigarette packs and now a formal government consultation on the idea.” The tobacco control research group at Bath University apparently received around seven phone calls a day for two months, with the university increasing security in response to the harassment. An academic at Stirling University called police in response to threats, and ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) have also called the police following the publication of an article (hosted by the campaign group Freedom2choose’s website) which included the addresses of ASH offices and allegedly suggested shooting staff of ASH and Cancer Research UK.
Photo credit: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia