Why ignorance isn’t funny, Part 2: Climate scientist gets death threats

I had been opening mail at my desk that afternoon in August 2010 when a dusting of white powder fell from the folds of a letter. I dropped the letter, held my breath and slipped out the door as swiftly as I could, shutting it behind me. First I went to the bathroom to scrub my hands. Then I called the police.

It turned out to be cornstarch, not anthrax. And it was just one in a long series of threats I’ve received since the late 1990s, when my research illustrated the unprecedented nature of global warming, producing an upward-trending temperature curve whose shape has been likened to a hockey stick.

From an essay in the Washington Post last month by Michael E. Mann, a climate-change authority and professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University.

It was easy to mock ignorance when it was just this guy.

Famous image of man with misspelled sign outside Boeing plant in Charles, Missouri, in 2003.
Famous image of man with misspelled sign outside Boeing plant in Charles, Missouri, in 2003.

But it’s a whole different story when millions of people not only think this way, but proudly embrace it, and lash out violently against those they’ve been manipulated into perceiving as enemies. Mann’s essay details not only the anthrax scare, but political and legal harassment, idiotic conspiracy theories, astroturfed “debates” over the validity of scientific data, email warnings, and death threats.

It isn’t hard to draw the connections between belligerent ignorance, manufactured resentment, and the deliberate cultivation of stupidity as a matter of policy. It goes back way farther than Trump, of course, and it goes beyond climate change as well. We’ll be looking at some of the other manifestations in the coming days. But as communication professionals, we need to look at how and why the channels of communication are being so profoundly warped, and whose interests are being served. Because it certainly isn’t ours.

More to come.


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