Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Monckton and Notre Dame: a case for free speech?

Is it wise to try to block a speech by Christopher Monckton? Are there other options? Monckton, a well known climate change sceptic, was invited to speak at Notre Dame University in Fremantle on 30 June…

Is stopping someone speaking ever the right approach? sjgibbs80/Flickr

Is it wise to try to block a speech by Christopher Monckton? Are there other options?

Monckton, a well known climate change sceptic, was invited to speak at Notre Dame University in Fremantle on 30 June. Some supporters of mainstream climate science opposed allowing him this speaking opportunity.

Monckton’s critics claim he is unqualified and has no credibility on climate change, making his speaking engagement an embarrassment to the university. The trouble is, this seems like censorship.

This is a recurring dilemma. Should those with outrageous or even dangerous views be offered platforms to speak? Or should Holocaust deniers, supporters of paedophilia, critics of vaccination, advocates of racial inequality - and climate sceptics - be censored in some way?

It is useful to examine the issue from three perspectives: the arguments for free speech, pragmatism, and alternative options.

What about the defence of free speech?

Dictatorial regimes regularly shut down critical media and muzzle outspoken opponents, sometimes through imprisonment, torture and murder. Free speech is a threat to tyranny and hence is worth defending.

Many large corporations are intolerant of free speech among employees: outspoken criticism, especially of management and when voiced outside the organisation, can lead to dismissal. Critics on the outside may suffer reprisals too. Scientists whose work challenges powerful corporations sometimes lose grants or are denied jobs.

What does this have to do with Monckton? His criticism of climate science serves a powerful vested interest, namely carbon-intensive industries. His livelihood is not at risk, so why should his right to speak be defended?

The argument is that free speech needs to be guarded as a general principle. If exceptions are made, these exceptions become avenues for censorship and are most likely to be invoked against those with less power.

If Monckton is prevented from speaking, why not all sorts of others?

Another argument for free speech is that it provides a basis for better informed decision-making. The idea is to let all express their views, even when they have little credibility with experts, and thereby enable an open engagement with and testing of ideas.

Are Monckton’s views really so persuasive that it’s necessary to prevent him speaking, at a university or anywhere else?

Any publicity is good publicity: censorship can backfire

Pragmatically, censorship is risky because it can give greater attention to the views being censored. Trying to block Monckton from speaking may lead to more publicity for his views.

Because free speech is seen as valuable, censorship is viewed negatively. Censors are seen as attacking a valued principle, sometimes creating sympathy for those censored.

Powerful groups engaged in censorship, such as repressive governments, use a variety of techniques to inhibit outrage from their actions.

They operate behind the scenes, to hide their efforts at censorship. They denigrate their targets.

They explain their actions as defence of higher principles, such as national security or public health. They use courts and agencies to legitimise policies. They intimidate opponents.

Sometimes, however, these techniques are not sufficient to dampen outrage, and censorship backfires.

McDonald’s sued two British anarchists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, over their leaflet “What’s wrong with McDonald’s?” and used all these techniques to inhibit outrage.

However, Steel, Morris and their supporters were able to frame the legal action as censorship, causing many more people to become aware of the claims in the leaflet. The result was a massive public relations disaster for McDonald’s.

Those trying to block Monckton can readily be labelled as censors. However, unlike governments, Monckton’s critics have few resources to inhibit outrage from their actions such as using intimidation or courts and agencies.

Instead of operating behind the scenes, through inside connections with Notre Dame, they used an open letter, virtually guaranteeing publicity about their efforts.

The case of David Irving is instructive. Irving, a well known historian, is widely seen as a Holocaust denier. He twice visited Australia in the 1980s, receiving relatively little public attention. Since the 1990s, the Australian government has denied Irving entry to the country, resulting in much more media comment than if he had been allowed to visit and speak.

What are the other options?

A speaking engagement by someone with contrary views can be used as an opportunity to present one’s own views; for example in leaflets, posters and tweets. Monckton’s striking claims provide an opportunity to present evidence about and dispel misconceptions about climate change.

It may also be useful to point out vested interests. Monckton’s visit is sponsored by companies with a vested interest in challenging climate science.

Yet another option is to ignore Monckton. If he really lacks credibility, why give him so much attention? And why risk turning him into a martyr by trying to censor him?

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Hansen

    Mr.

    I agree that it would have made more sense to call for a boycott of his speech rather than ask for it to be cancelled as it has allowed the climate change deniers to conflate the issue of freedom of speech with the real issue - Monckton's anti-science and anti-scientist views.

    The reality however is that Monckton's freedom of speech has never been under threat. Based on his last tour he will be interviewed by shock jocks around the country and will appear regularly in the Murdoch press. It remains…

    Read more
  2. Ramapriya Ramanuja

    Avian Consultant

    I look forward to my invitation to speak at Notre Dame University. I'll be speaking on the model of the universe as described in the Fifth Canto of the Bhagavat Purana. I'm certain that all will be eager to learn about the mountain of gold in the centre of Bhumandala! Surely I have a right to be heard . . .

    report
    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Ramapriya Ramanuja

      Actually, that would make a change from the nonsense we get from the likes of Monkton and good old Douglas Cotton (who has added yet another of his yawn inducing wastes of space below) - at least the Vedic literature had a kind of metaphysical integrity and poetic quality which is completely lacking in the post-modern fairytales of denialism.

      report
  3. Mike Hansen

    Mr.

    Updating my previous post.

    I could not stop myself from laughing when Monckton appeared on tonight's SBS national news to tell Australians that a price on Carbon was not necessary.

    Are we a nation of idiots or at least a nation of idiot journalists?

    Monckton is considered a crank in his own country.

    He claims to be a member of the House of Lords - he is not.
    He claims to be an expert on climate change - he has zero scientific qualifications and has never done any scientific research.
    He claims…

    Read more
    1. John McLean

      logged in via email @connexus.net.au

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      I find it odd that despite all your criticisms of him you have not offered a solitary piece of evidence to show that his claims about man-made warming are wrong.

      report
    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to John McLean

      Being a bit deceitful again John.

      Given that you have been slagging climate scientists on this site for a while now, how did you miss these two posts.

      http://theconversation.edu.au/monckton-watch-interrogating-the-lords-science-1984
      http://theconversation.edu.au/the-chief-troupier-the-follies-of-mr-monckton-1555

      While we are on the subject of crank science, when are you going to explain your claim

      "it is likely that 2011 will be the coolest year since 1956 or even earlier"

      made here

      http://climaterealists.com/index.php?id=7349

      report
    3. Douglas Cotton

      B.Sc.(Physics), B.A.(Econ), Dip.Bus.Admin

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      This paper explains the connection between gravity and temperature.
      http://www.firstgravitymachine.com/temperaturedifference.phtml

      The IPCC did not take into account the component of temperature of every molecule on the planet that is affected by changes in potential energy as the distance of the Earth from the sun, Jupiter, Saturn etc varies. See http://earth-climate.com for more detail.

      How come temperatures this last 12 months have been lower than those for 2003 when CO2 levels continue to climb on a near linear trend? (See http://climate-change-theory.com/2003-2011.jpg ) Find out why on my site!

      report
  4. Oksanna Zoschenko

    logged in via Twitter

    Actually greenhouse scaremongering of all kinds, including that of advocacy scientists, gets a free run on the ABC's many outlets. Naomi Oreskes, for example, a globetrotting mudslinger for catastrophic warming, features four to five times a year if you include ABC radio and TV. The ABC's Science Show never features dissonant science voices on man-made warming, only warmists.

    Monckton's debunker's have been debunked, and he has been proven right on the glaciers, (they are by and large doing fine…

    Read more
    1. Ramapriya Ramanuja

      Avian Consultant

      In reply to Oksanna Zoschenko

      Oksanna, I guess you've written your little diatribe out of anger and for your own benefit, because no discerning reader here is going to swallow your anti-science hysteria, links to rehashes of rehashes which are printed in The Australian and other denier canards.

      report
  5. Gordon Smith

    Private citizen

    I am concerned that people will lump climate skeptics (or critics of vaccination) in the same group as supporters of paedophilia , advocates of racial inequality and holocaust deniers. I can not see any justification for this and it saddens me to see that so many find it acceptable,

    report
    1. John McLean

      logged in via email @connexus.net.au

      In reply to Gordon Smith

      DO you think people will be influenced by your indirect criticism?

      I'm inclined to think that you will be seen as a shrill person who resorts to masked ad hominem attacks because you have no other argument to make.

      report
  6. Stephan Lewandowsky

    Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

    Brian, those are all very interesting considerations, thank you. However, I believe you are mistaken in one important respect: I for one, being a signatory of the letter to NDU, never intended to censor Mr Monckton or keep his voice from being heard. Quite on the contrary, I strongly endorsed his right to speak as quoted in today's West Australian (http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/9756509/academics-want-climate-sceptics-lecture-cancelled/).

    What is at issue is simply whether a reputable…

    Read more
    1. Brian Martin

      Professor of Social Sciences at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Stephan,

      I understand your reasons for questioning the university's decision to invite Monckton to speak. However, given that the university has invited him, despite your view that he ought not to be, then to openly oppose the invitation can readily be interpreted or labelled as censorship.

      As a result, it's possible for this - censorship or whatever you prefer to call it - to backfire, namely be counterproductive. Hence I suggested some other options.

      report
    2. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Professor Lewandowsky, by establishing a hierarchy of venues and then saying that Monckton should be allowed to speak only at the lessor venues is a very subtle form of censorship and self-attribution.

      It also contradicts an approach you took in a former article written by you and published at the ABC in which you sought the verdict of public opinion and not the verification of academia; this is a sort of reverse process of vindication that you offer to Monckton, in that Monckton should be constrained to the masses while you have access to both the Hoi Polloi and the ivory tower.

      In any event Dr David Stockwell and I were banished from the ABC's gleaming towers when we attempted to reply to your article and had to be content to have it published at a lessor venue:

      http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2011/01/david-stockwell-and-anthony-cox-reply-to-lewandowsky-and-his-lies-dam-lies-and-statistics/

      report
    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Anthony Cox

      Anthony I see you are secretary of The Climate Sceptics.

      Being a sceptic myself, when I read on Monckton's CV

      "responsible for invention and development of a broad-spectrum cure for infectious diseases. Patents have now been filed. Patients have been cured of various infectious diseases, including Graves’ Disease, multiple sclerosis, influenza, and herpes simplex VI. Our first HIV patient had his viral titre reduced by 38% in five days, with no side-effects."
      http://www.ukip.org/content/latest-news/1675-christopher-a-man-of-many-talents

      Read more
    4. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      It's true Mike, if I wanted to discredit Monckton I would be checking on the patents he has claimed to have filed; filing a patent is a bit of an obstacle course I can tell you; I confess I haven't done that; I tell you what, there may be some glory here for some 'sceptic' such as yourself to unmask Monckton; so can you research on whether patents have been filed and report back?

      While you're doing that I'll take your advice and think about what you mean by "certifiable crank".

      report
  7. Paul Richards
    Paul Richards is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Thank you Gina Rinehart.
    Lord Monkton being wheeled out in public serves to highlight the extremist right wing view.

    Monkton is so transparent and clown like it works for acceptance of GCC.

    Which sadly in her insular world, Gina Rinehart she has failed to grasp.

    report
    1. John McLean

      logged in via email @connexus.net.au

      In reply to Paul Richards

      I'd like to thank Mr Paul Richards for his erudite scientific argument. I said that I'd like to .. but since he presented none then I really can't.

      report
    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to John McLean

      yesterday's sunrise was considerabl;y less predictable than one of your little spits, John.
      Exactly how mich is the IPA paying you to waste everyone's time? I know they have nothing better to do.

      report
  8. Reuben Wells

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Thanks for the article. I would like to support the point made by Prof. Lewandowsky. Monckton chooses the content of his speeches. That is free speech. NDU chooses to invite him to talk - that is not an issue of free speech, but of NDU's decisions on what information should be broadcast. There are many people who would love to be given the opportunity to tell the world of their views who are not invited by NDU, but this in no way imposes on their right to speak in general.
    An advertised seminar is always an event curated by the organisers. They choose what to promote. Monckton's views are well known. He is free to make them (and we free to judge him for those views). NDU is also free to invite who they like to talk - similarly we are free to judge them for their choice of content.

    report
    1. John McLean

      logged in via email @connexus.net.au

      In reply to Reuben Wells

      You miss an important issue. NDU's invitation to Monckton can be seen as allowing open debate and all views to be heard.

      In fact isn't that the opposite of your dictatorial notion that NDU should decide what information should be braodcast?

      What would you reaction be if people denied you the right to hear all opinions on any subject in which you had an interest but was undecided?

      report
    2. Reuben Wells

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to John McLean

      Not sure on how an organised seminar can be anything other than NDU deciding the information to broadcast, regardless of whether they are inviting Monckton or anyone else. Wouldn't them not deciding mean it was an open forum with no organised speakers?
      I am all for open debate and all for hearing many opinions. I have also not presented my opinions here, since I am not a climate change expert. However, on the topic of open debate, as I read through your posts here I can't help but wonder - are YOU open to views that oppose your own? Could YOUR mind be changed by evidence that contradicted what you have elected to believe?

      report
  9. Greg Smith

    Unit lecturer, e-PR, University of Notre Dame Australia

    Excellent article, Brian. Give the guy a go and let him make an idiot of himself. And who's the VC of UWA to "distance" himself? Monckton isn't appearing at UWA.

    report
  10. Douglas Cotton

    B.Sc.(Physics), B.A.(Econ), Dip.Bus.Admin

    Monckton hasn't quite got it right.

    The consensus says "we caused climate change" for the simple reason that it takes time for a majority to come to grips with the "New Theory." But the correct new theory is NOT Monckton's theory.

    Some people probably still think that the sun's solar radiation is the Earth's main source of energy. It is not. Its gravity is, with further minor contributions from all the planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus having the greatest effect. If we only had solar insolation…

    Read more
  11. Kevin Judd

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I think Brian Martin misses the point of the open letter. It not that Mr Monckton should not be allowed to state his views, its that he should not be making with the backing of the University of Notre Dame. His arguments, like all denialists, are unscientific and by allowing him to speak with a University's backing this legitimatizes his deceit and lies. This is what prompted me to sign the open letter and speak to the media about it. Unfortunately, this message was not communicated clearly to the public and Brian, who I hope would agree with our position.

    report
    1. John McLean

      logged in via email @connexus.net.au

      In reply to Kevin Judd

      He is not making them with the backing of NDU. I believe that NDU is merely providing the venue or the forum in which his views can be heard.

      I also fail to understand your sweeping claim "His arguments, like all denialists, are unscientific ..." Do you have any proof of that?

      If you go to http://icecap.us and look down the right hand side you''ll find links to web pages that list over 800 published peer reviewed papers that are sceptical of the notion that CO2 has a signifiant and dangerous influence on climate.

      Are you saying
      (a) that without reading them you know that they are not scientific?
      (b) that papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals are not scientific?
      (c) that the journals are not scientific?

      report
    2. Brian Martin

      Professor of Social Sciences at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Kevin Judd

      Kevin, I do understand the purpose of the open letter. My point is that the open letter is readily labelled as censorship, and therefore can backfire, giving greater attention to Monckton.

      The framework I've used for analysing censorship tactics is general: it has been applied to all sorts of injustices (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/backfire.html). You should be able to figure out how to apply it to climate change politics. Global warming can be seen as an injustice, so it's worth looking at tactics that fossil fuel interests use that inhibit outrage over their contribution to global warming. Then you can work out ways to counter those tactics. I don't think protesting against Monckton speaking at a university is likely to be effective compared to many other options.

      report
  12. Douglas Cotton

    B.Sc.(Physics), B.A.(Econ), Dip.Bus.Admin

    If you care to visit http://earth-climate.com you'll learn why adding extra CO2 has no further effect on temperatures. You'll also learn that the IPCC completely disregarded the component of temperature contributed by gravitational energy. And you'll learn that temperatures have not risen since 2003 despite increasing CO2 levels. So why will they increase in the next 10 years? They won't until about 2027 or 2028. Then they will increase for 30 years (as in 1970 to 2000.) It's all in the stars.

    report
  13. Douglas Cotton

    B.Sc.(Physics), B.A.(Econ), Dip.Bus.Admin

    To say, when the force of the sun's gravity accelerates the Earth (F = ma) including its atmosphere, that no heat is generated would be as absurd as saying that when the moon circles the Earth no energy is transmitted to the oceans. Now wouldn't it?

    The issue is whether the amount of heat generated VARIES.

    It wouldn't if there were no planets and the Earth's orbit was perfectly circular and the Earth didn't spin. Now would it?

    And when the variations that were observed in temperatures between 1880 and June 2011 can be FULLY explained by such variations in gravity (from the sun and planets) and when NO ADDITIONAL VARIATION correlates with CO2 levels it reduces the IPCC arguments to totally unscientific garbage. There is far more CO2 up there than is needed to convert all the available photons. Their "science" was based on laboratory experiments which did have enough photons - in the lab that was - hardly a real-life emulation!

    It's so obvious you wonder how the IPCC missed it.

    report
  14. Meryl Dorey

    Public Officer at Australian Vaccination Network, Inc.

    I feel that many of the commenters here have missed the point of Dr Martin's article completely. It doesn't matter if Monckton is right or wrong about climate change. What matters is that people with opposing viewpoints be allowed an opportunity to speak -even if the majority disagrees with them.

    Many years ago when I was living in the United States, a group of skinheads wanted to march through Downtown Chicago and mask speeches in one of the parks there. A great debate took place within the media and the community about whether people who held such extreme racist views should be allowed to hold a gathering and air those views in a city with such a large Jewish population and a place where there was also a large ethnic diversity.

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was vocal in their support of this gathering - a support which i did not understand at the time.

    The issues are twofold to my mind:

    1- can we really claim to support freedom of communication

    report
  15. Meryl Dorey

    Public Officer at Australian Vaccination Network, Inc.

    My apologies - I was nit finished when I hit the post button :-)

    To continue - can we claim to support freedom of communication when we try to determine who freer to speak and where they can and cannot talk? Are climate change skeptics to be relegated to the 'back of the bus' with all those others whose opinions we disagree with?

    2- are we so sure that the population cannot be trusted to hear both sides of the argument for fear they will make the 'wrong' decision if they do? Public debate has always…

    Read more