“Swiftboating” is a new term for me – and for science, I guess. But it is part of US political jargon.

To quote Wikipedia:

“Swiftboating . .  is used as a strong pejorative description of some kind of attack that the speaker considers unfair or untrue–for example, an ad hominem attack or a smear campaign.

The term comes from the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formerly “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” or SBVT) and that group’s widely publicized campaign against 2004 US Presidential candidate John Kerry.

Originally, terms like “swiftboating”, “Swift Boating”, “Swift Boat tactics”, etc. were mostly used by people who disapproved of the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth. It is now in mainstream use. Some American conservatives have strongly objected (see below) to the criticism of SBVT implied by such negative usage.”

It appears, mainly, to be a tactic of political conservatives. So it’s not surprising they describe the process differently. This from Conservapedia:

Swift-boating is an idiomatic catchphrase generally taken to mean exposing hard truths about Democrats who have distorted the truth or lied about their own activities.

Here on Conservapedia, the term is used to mean exposing hard truths about liberal editors who censor, distort the truth, or engage in deceit.”

So – its a synonym for “character assassination” and “smear.” With particular connotations of calling into question one’s honourable status.

Swiftboating climate scientists

Paul Krugman may have been the first to use the term to describe political attacks on climate scientists. In his New York Times Op Ed Swift Boating the Planet he describes a situation which today is unfortunately very common:

“John Kerry, a genuine war hero, didn’t realize that he could successfully be portrayed as a coward. And it seems to me that Dr. Hansen, whose predictions about global warming have proved remarkably accurate, didn’t believe that he could successfully be portrayed as an unreliable exaggerator. His first response to Dr. Michaels, in January 1999, was astonishingly diffident. He pointed out that Dr. Michaels misrepresented his work, but rather than denouncing the fraud involved, he offered a rather plaintive appeal for better behavior.”

So today honest climate scientists are accused of fraud, of carrying out a hoax. Locally climate change deniers like the Climate Science Coalition, Ian Wishart and bloggers like Poneke and WhaleOil are swiftboating NIWA scientists.

There is an hysterical international campaign against climate scientists and specifically the International panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Phil Jones in the UK and Michael Mann in the US. Sure, Phil Jones and his university still face several inquiries – but no wrong doing, and particularly no violation of scientific ethics, has yet been proven. Michael Mann has been cleared of all charges investigated to data. Not that this makes a difference to the lynch mob mentality of the swiftboaters.

And the more hysterical elements of the current anti climate science hysteria and extending their swift boating to science in general.

Big backers

The political swift boating campaigns generally have big backers in the background. Think tanks, politcal parties and commercial interests.  And this is also true of the climate change swift boaters, despite their attempts to present a grass root image on the internet – a process known as astroturfing.

Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, recently wrote (see Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals):

“a.Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp/ Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media.

b. Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the US corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent rollodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc. in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media.”

The climate change, and anti-science, swiftboating in New Zealand is no different. It has its political links and big backers. The denier groups The Climate Science Coaltion and the Climate Conversation Group work very closely with the ACT Party. Parliamentary questions are staged to coincide with their anti-science attacks. These groups and the ACT Party are also closely connected to the local right wing think tank The Centre for Political Research. And the latter is linked to the usual overseas conservative organisations like The Heartland Insitute and conservative media like The American Thinker.

What can we do?

Well, scientist obviously won’t resort to the same tactics. They are not going to swifboat the nati-science lobby. If they did they would no longer be scientists.

But here is Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals by Juan Cole:

“Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research ‘legible’ to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves.”


“If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time.  . . . Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job).  . . . .  But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.”

Climate scientists and evolutionary biologists may currently be the main victims of this swiftboating. But soem of this hysteria does leak over into a general attack on science.

Juan Cole’s advice is relevant to all scientists.


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