Criminalizing Scientific Controversy: Climate Change, Galileo, and Our Modern Inquisition

The proposed federal investigation into those who question man-made climate change is more dangerous to science than the Inquisition.

Thus, the proposed RICO investigation is more dangerous to science than the Inquisition’s theological demands. The latter opposed a claim of knowledge of reality on the part of science, an opposition which is today taken for granted, whereas the RICO letter appears to advocate limiting independence in scientific thinking.


The proposed federal investigation into those who question man-made climate change is more dangerous to science than the Inquisition.

In a remarkable letter to President Obama, twenty climate scientists have called for a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation into “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” They support their position by claiming that “an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity.”

The RICO letter has drawn the interest of Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, who is concerned about “the continuing freedom to pursue lines of inquiry in public debate that the government may find unwelcome or unreasonable,” andWalter Williams of George Mason University, which is home to six signatories of the letter, who has derided it as part of “a desperate effort to gain greater control over our lives.”

In this essay, I discuss another problem with the letter: it aims to subvert the integrity of science. In this way, it is similar to—but, in an important way, worse than—the famous and often misunderstood case involving Galileo.

Science and the State

The notion that a criminal investigation should be used to arbitrate a scientific dispute is antithetical to the proper norms of scientific inquiry. Whether or not there is intended deception is irrelevant, because the validity of a scientific theory is independent of one’s motivation for affirming the theory. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of scientists favoring a particular position does not provide scientific support for that position. There was universal support for Newton’s laws for over two centuries, but it only took one dissenter to supersede them.

Human-induced climate change is much less universally accepted than some previously generally accepted theories that were eventually rejected. Indeed, there are many prominent scientists who are not convinced that human-induced changes are significant. If the authors wish to make a case for acceptance, they should state their model, state their conditions for significance, and provide predictions that validate their theory—at least until future observations invalidate it (see my Public Discourse article on the war on science). Simply put, the authors should behave as scientists. A RICO prosecution will do nothing to support their viewpoint or vanquish their opponents—except perhaps to silence them.

Worse than the authors’ nonscientific approach to scientific disputation is their effort to bring down the machinery of the state on their opponents. It has taken centuries for science to free itself from domination by the state. It was not long ago that the opponents of Trofim Lysenko were crushed by Stalinist oppression. The authors might argue that they only want an investigation. If so, do they really expect that potential criminal investigations would not have an adverse effect on free inquiry?

The RICO authors defend their assault on the independence of science by pointing out the risks involved if they are correct about the severity of climate change. As scientists, they should also point out the risks of taking draconian action, but they do not. Clearly, constraints on free enterprise carry economic, social, and political risks. And what of the cost to society resulting from placing scientific disputations under the shadow of criminal prosecution?

Learning from Galileo

It is instructive to compare the RICO letter to a letter written 400 years earlier by Tommaso Caccini and delivered to the Congregation of the Holy Office (the Inquisition) on March 20, 1615.

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