Perspectives of Scientists Who Become Targets: Sarah Myhre
This series profiles scientists who have been threatened with legal attacks or harassed by politically and ideologically motivated groups. What these researchers experienced, how they responded, and the lessons they learned provide valuable guidance for other scientists, and will help all readers understand the issues climate scientists may encounter because of their work.
Sarah Myhre, a research associate at the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington, is an advocate for addressing climate change and a champion of women’s rights. A paleoceanographer, Myhre studies marine sediment records to understand how abrupt warming periods of the past compare to the changes scientists are observing today: increased levels of carbon dioxide, rising global surface temperatures, and sea level rise. She is also a founding board member of 500 Women Scientists, an organization dedicated to building a more inclusive scientific community.
In recognition of her work, Seattle Magazine named Myhre one of the Most Influential Seattleites of 2017. Seattle Met included her in its 2018 issue on the 50 most influential women in Seattle.
In the last two years, Myhre has frequently appeared in the media due to her field of research, commitment to speaking about her findings, and public advocacy. This has made her a target of climate contrarians, and as a woman scientist, both Myhre’s research and her authority are often questioned. She has been the target of harassment from both climate contrarians and some individuals within the male-dominated scientific community.
Myhre experienced significant harassment, which affected how she was regarded at her university, after giving testimony on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the Washington State House Environment Committee in January 2016. Following her testimony, one lawmaker asked Myhre about Cliff Mass’s views on climate change. Mass is a senior tenured atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington; Myhre maintains that Mass conflates weather with climate and uses attribution uncertainty around weather events to undermine public confidence in the science of climate change and the need for action. Myhre told the lawmaker, “Many of us at the University of Washington do view his views as coming from a denialist or contrarian place.”
In reaction, Mass sent angry emails to Myhre’s supervisors at the university touting his own credentials and accusing her of being unprofessional. Myhre said her job was not threatened due to her strong reputation and alliances. However, “Because the academic institution is so risk averse and conflict averse, it reframes me as a problematic voice rather than someone trying to do due diligence in public. I wasn’t being problematic, I was being honest.”
Myhre has also been attacked by climate contrarians associated with think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Washington Policy Center, and the Heartland Institute.
After giving her testimony before the House Environment Committee, Myhre received misogynistic emails from Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center, who had also testified before the Committee. Following the release of a video by Yale Climate Connections in May 2017, about the data and evidence supporting the scientific consensus on climate change, Ross McKitrick of the Cato Institute disparaged comments Myhre made in the video.
Myhre views harassment as a consequence of being both a scientist unafraid of public speaking and an untenured young woman scientist, despite her ten years’ of experience and strong publication record. “I still don’t have the viewed authority in some academics’ opinions to publicly articulate my dissent from the powerful men in my field.”
In February 2017, Myhre published an op-ed in The Seattle Times with two other women scientists urging Scott Pruitt, Administer of the Environmental Protection Agency, to accept the science of climate change and act to protect the public. In the comments section, Mass wrote, “We have three idealistic young scientists (none of them really are climate scientists, by the way).”
Myhre said this comment fed directly into the thinking in our society that “women are not arbiters of information and that young women are unqualified to participate in public discourse.”
Another incident occurred in December 2017 when Myhre was interviewed for “Our Warm Regards,” a podcast on climate and culture; she spoke about the #MeToo movement in science, the harassment of women scientists, and her own experiences with sexual assault while doing fieldwork.
When the podcast went live, Judith Curry, a former Georgia Tech climate science professor whom many consider a climate contrarian, tweeted, “Sarah Myhre I am calling you out. You are one of the biggest online climate bullies out there. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a ‘woman in science.’”
Curry was referring to a tweet from Myhre after Curry gave testimony in March 2017 to the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, chaired by noted climate contrarian Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Myhre had tweeted, ”Judith Curry is absolutely a climate denier. Climate contrarian. And irresponsible.” Curry’s tweet accusing Myhre of being a “climate bully” unleashed hundreds of Twitter attacks on Myhre, including misogynist insults and direct rape threats. Anthony Watts, the publisher of a contrarian blog who has received support from the Heartland Institute, also called her a harasser and made misogynistic comments.
Myhre went through a gamut of emotions as this played out—she said she was initially shocked, then angered, then intimidated, and finally resigned and depressed. After reaching out to 20 women scientists for advice, Myhre apologized to Curry for the tweet, but reaffirmed her concern about Curry’s “incorrect scientific position,” Myhre told her that women can disagree with one another and still be feminists.
These experiences have led Myhre to conclude that young scientists are not properly trained to deal with the hostile polarization that exists around climate science.
“We arm scientists with tools: tell a story, be personable, reduce jargon, and practice sound bites,” Myhre said. “But none of that prepares you to function in the environment that exists in the public right now.”
Myhre wishes she had had a better understanding of how women scientists are regarded. “If a woman is confident, her detractor will reframe her as angry, and angry women are viewed as being incapable of evaluating evidence when they are angry. Women who articulate their love for family or the natural world are going to be reframed as being hyperemotional—and hyperemotional means they can’t evaluate evidence or be a public resource for authority over subject matter. And for women of color, there is compounding discrimination because of the intersections of both racism and misogyny.”
The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund helped Myhre understand best practices and gave her tips for knowing where the boundaries of speech need to be to avoid litigious risk. “I really appreciate the assistance,” she said. “It helped me be more sophisticated in viewing where the risks are in public discourse.”
Myhre advises young women scientists to read feminist literature and to think critically about how the conventional expectations about public science communication do a disservice to the voices of women and people of color. She says it’s also important for women scientists to understand how their experiences are parallel to those of women in other businesses and institutions.
Myhre tells students that there will be strong responses to their work and that this is a necessary and expected outcome from functioning in public as a scholar. All climate scientists should expect harassment, she said. To deal with it, they need to build strong networks and skill sets beyond communication—they should learn how to be expert witnesses in legal settings. They should also arm themselves with the tools to defuse tactics commonly used by climate contrarian—false dichotomies, impossible expectations, use of false witnesses and red herrings—to defend their own intellectual public discourse.
Myhre now considers herself a “strident public feminist,” an antiracist voice, and an advocate for diversity in her field.
“Any time women are at the table, entities become healthier and function better. This is why diversity is so key. It increases our ability to solve our own problems and to do better work for the public.”
— Renee Cho is a blogger for Columbia University’s Earth Institute