From COVID-19 to climate change, scientists who speak out are facing a flood of hate mail, threats and harassment from conspiracy theorists who don't want to hear facts that contradict their beliefs.

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[Previous: The revolt against reality]

The pandemic years uncorked something ugly in the American psyche.

Donald Trump kicked off this trend. He courted and flattered racists. He sneered at decorum and civility. He gleefully trampled laws and norms. He shamelessly called for violence against his opponents. And he encouraged his loyal supporters to do likewise. He gave them permission to be their worst selves.

That was bad enough, but COVID-19 supercharged it. The fear, the emergency declarations, the mass deaths, the forced shutdowns—the disruption of everything comfortable and familiar—it broke something in some people’s minds. It fueled a deep reservoir of rage, mistrust and paranoia that still rises to the surface in bubbling pools and eruptions, like a geothermal hot spring.

The right not to hear inconvenient facts

Whether the issue is climate change, pandemic and vaccines, gun violence, reproductive health, or accurate recountings of history, America has never been so violently hostile to science and scientists. A swath of the population has decided it’s their right not to hear facts that make them feel upset, or that contradict what they’ve decided to do already. When scientists persist in airing those facts—doing their job by educating and informing the public—this enraged minority tries to shut them up in any way possible.

A study in the journal JAMA Network Open illustrates the problem. The authors surveyed scientists and doctors on social media to ask if they’d experienced harassment during COVID-19. Almost two-thirds said yes. That’s a sharp increase from before the pandemic, when it was about 23% (still far too high, to be sure).

This includes doxxing, as one respondent related:

I’ve been doxxed several times, including fake social media accounts using my unique name—on multiple accounts on social media (and even Pornhub with my photos mixed in w[ith] a nude model that has an uncanny resemblance to me); fake reports to medical board; fake reviews on physician rating sites claiming I’m racist against white people.

It includes sexual harassment and violent threats, both online and in person:

I have semi-routinely been harass[ed] with violent threats (including menacing messages (“we’ll see you soon,” “your time will come”), and pictures (such as images of individuals being hung) as well as sexual harassment (lewd images, advances, and threats). We have involved the police in some situations. What is most disturbing to me, is that many of these individuals are local and regularly show up to protest at my workplace…my hospital has allowed them to be on hospital property to protest and offered very minimal protection for me.

In some cases, it escalates to stalking and actual violence:

Repeated death threats to myself and coworkers for years posted online and sent in direct messages. Family including children threatened, leading to law enforcement intervention and limitation of activities at school for safety. Harassment at home and work, stalked at lectures across the country, and physically assaulted twice.

It’s not just scientists and physicians, either. Any expert who’s in the public eye can expect this kind of treatment.

Chris Gloninger, the head meteorologist at a Des Moines TV station, resigned after 18 years. He said the cause was a stream of menacing messages he received whenever he mentioned climate change on the air:

When Iowa meteorologist Chris Gloninger got an email notification last June, it read: “Getting sick and tired of your liberal conspiracy on the weather.”

“What’s your address,” another asked Gloninger a few days later. “We conservative Iowans would like to give you an Iowan welcome you will never forget.”

The emails arrived relentlessly in Gloninger’s inbox for another month, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported. The sender accused the award-winning meteorologist, who spoke frequently about the effects of climate change, of being a conspiracy theorist and a “worthless Biden puppet.” Another told Gloninger to “go east and drown from the ice cap melting.”

Meteorologist resigns, citing PTSD from threats over climate change coverage.” Daniel Wu, The Washington Post, 22 June 2023.

Gloninger isn’t the only meteorologist who’s been on the receiving end of hate, harassment and threats for reporting on extreme weather and how it’s linked to climate change. This is a widespread problem, and it’s not confined to America:

In April, meteorologist Isabel Moreno wrote a tweet saying “rain skips Spain,” with an image of a band of rain stretching across Europe but missing Spain almost entirely. She was completely unprepared for the response.

“It was one of the hardest experiences in social media in my life,” said Moreno, who appears on the Spanish TV channel RTVE. “I received HUNDREDS of responses to an (apparently) inoffensive tweet,” she told CNN in an email.

…In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology has been bombarded with criticism of its reporting of temperature records, with claims they have been inflated to make climate change seem worse.

…And in the UK, meteorologists reported unprecedented levels of online harassment during last year’s record-breaking heat wave, which led to the first-ever “red warning” for heat.

“As scientists communicated this information, they were accused of instigating a nanny state hysteria,” Liz Bentley, the chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, told CNN.

The Met Office was even accused of changing the color palette of its maps to make them look more dramatic. “We hadn’t, it was just really hot,” Oliver Claydon, a communications officer at the Met Office, told CNN.

‘Murderers’ and ‘criminals’: Meteorologists face unprecedented harassment from conspiracy theorists.” Laura Paddison, CNN, 27 May 2023.

As with COVID, conspiracy-loving conservatives have decided that climate science is a grand plot to oppress them personally. They’ve made up their minds and they don’t want to hear any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. In classic shoot-the-messenger style, they think they can make inconvenient truths go away by attacking the people who mention them.

Stand up for science

The frustrating part is that there’s little we as individuals can do to stop harassment of public figures. But we can, so to speak, provide fire support. The more of us who speak up, the harder it is for conspiracy theorists to shut down the conversation.

We can be vocal for science in our own lives, not just on social media but in conversations with coworkers, friends, family. People love to make small talk about the weather. When they do, you can use unusual weather events to bring up the importance of fighting climate change. When people talk about being sick, that’s a good segue into why you chose to get vaccinated, or to talk about some of the new vaccines in the pipeline. I’ve done both.

The key isn’t to bring up these topics defensively, as if you’re apologizing for yourself. Rather, we should mention them like the obvious common sense they are, as if you don’t expect to be challenged.

Anti-vaxxers, climate denialists and other conspiracy theorists benefit from the perception that they’re the silent majority. When no one is willing to speak out against them, it emboldens them. They feel freer to act out; they grow more certain that there’ll be no consequences.

Conversely, they’re less willing to speak up when they perceive that they’re in a social circle where it isn’t welcomed. Widespread public support of science is like a heavy blanket, smothering the flames of conspiracy thinking. And when conspiracy theorists feel more inhibited and isolated in their personal life, that may bleed over into the way they conduct themselves online as well.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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