The Intersection

The Big Climate News

Well, folks, Andy Revkin has done it again. Previously I have written about how Revkin has basically broken every major story about abuses of climate science, and climate scientists, by the Bush administration. And I must say, it’s quite a litany of abuses. That’s why I’m glad that so many bloggers (here, here, and here) have realized that Revkin’s latest story provides yet another point of evidence of the “Republican War on Science.”

The meme is spreading, my friends.

In any case, the latest news reported by Revkin–about more attempts to silence NASA climate expert Jim Hansen–reveals an attack on science in the sense that it’s an attack on an individual scientist’s freedom to voice his opinions and to share information with the media and public. Using Jim Hansen himself as an example, I defined this kind of abuse in my book as follows:

Targeting Individual Scientists. Obviously, we don’t want our scientists teaching terrorists how to make bombs or chemical weapons. But such extreme cases notwithstanding, the blocking of ordinary scientific exchange has no justification. Such interference intrudes upon the integrity of science as a process in which independent investigators share ideas in an open quest for knowledge.

Political actors should never place unreasonable gag orders on what scientists in government can say or with whom they can communicate. Neither should they force government scientists to state conclusions that they don’t actually accept or believe, or otherwise prevent them from presenting their honest scientific opinions. During the administration of president George Herbert Walker Bush, for example, the White House budget office broke this rule, deliberately altering the scientific testimony of NASA climate expert James Hansen to weaken his conclusions.

Hansen isn’t exactly new to this stuff, then, is he?

Regarding the latest instance provided by Revkin, defenders of the administration’s actions will surely try to argue back that Hansen is going beyond mere science and talking about matters of policy, and that he shouldn’t be making such statements because he’s not a policymaker. I don’t buy that argument, for a number of reasons. First, it’s dubious that Hansen took any policy position in anything but the most trivial sense. But more importantly, taxpayer funded scientists shouldn’t be muzzled, period. We want to hear what they have to say about possible future dangers. There is a long and hallowed tradition of American scientists providing important warnings, going back to Einstein and Szilard writing to FDR about the Bomb. We are definitely better off if we know what it is that scientists want to warn us about, even if their warnings go slightly beyond peer reviewed information and err in the direction of presenting some opinion that might in turn imply the need for political action.

Moreover, it’s clear from Revkin’s article that the harassment of Hansen has interfered not only with his presentation of what are arguably policy opinions, but with his normal scientific activities and his ability to present science itself to the public:

…James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists…

…After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be “dire consequences” if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.

Among the restrictions, according to Dr. Hansen and an internal draft memorandum he provided to The Times, was that his supervisors could stand in for him in any news media interviews.

And here’s more, from the Washington Post, also demonstrating that Hansen’s ability to present scientific information itself is being constrained:

When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

“They’re trying to control what’s getting out to the public,” Hansen said, adding that many of his colleagues are afraid to talk about the issue. “They’re not willing to say much, because they’ve been pressured and they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble.”

This is harassment, plain and simple. I’m glad Hansen won’t stand for it, but you really do have to wonder how many junior scientists, subject to precisely the same restrictions, are more afraid of speaking out. The Bush administration can’t fire a legend like James Hansen–that would only create even more unfavorable media coverage–but it might well try it with a lesser known government scientist.

Most revealing about Revkin’s article, to me, is how sinister the Bush administration is when it comes to telling a scientist what can and can’t be said:

[Hansen] said he was particularly incensed that the directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents.

Dr. Hansen’s supervisor, Franco Einaudi, said there had been no official “order or pressure to say shut Jim up.” But Dr. Einaudi added, “That doesn’t mean I like this kind of pressure being applied.”

Why are they avoiding a paper trail? My guess is to make sure that no reporter can ever use the Freedom of Information Act to get his hands on an email trail in which NASA administrators or PR folks are found to be bitching about what to do about Hansen. All of which suggests that the Bush people may just be paranoid. They think that if they can just peer over enough shoulders, they’ll prevent negative media coverage of the administration’s inaction on global warming. Yet in fact, their meddling only seems to generate added media coverage.

Still, we have ample evidence that this has been the mindset from the very beginning of the administration, and there’s no indication that it will change anytime soon. Which means that Revkin will, assuredly, have plenty more front page articles to do.

Comments

  1. #1 jackd
    January 30, 2006

    More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

    Am I the only one thinking of the “minders” that repressive governments around the world assign to journalists and other visitors? The thought that we’ve descended to that level is just chilling.

  2. #2 M1EK
    January 30, 2006

    Until you can get that dishonest shill Ron Bailey to write about this, it’s all just echo-chamber stuff. And reason.com ain’t gonna do it, trust me.

  3. #3 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    January 30, 2006

    Chris-

    You are absolutely correct when you write, “the blocking of ordinary scientific exchange has no justification.”

    More here:

    link

    As you might expect, my view on this is that there is no need for a vast conspiracy theory focused on a “war on science” but simply more ham-handed politics by the Bush Administration on climate. Trying to supress inconvenient or undesireable information is certainly more systemic than just the current Administration or just Republicans.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    January 30, 2006

    I leave it up to Reason.com to decide whether to write about this, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they did so.

  5. #5 Fred Bortz
    January 30, 2006

    Thanks, Chris. I was eager to see how you treated this.

    I’m blogging about this also at scienceblog.com (no “s” after blog), with the main purpose of getting people to read Revkin’s article and this entry in your blog. I’m getting many more reads than usual, so it seems to be working.

    I’ve been reviewing all kinds of science books for years (click link by my name for the weather and climate subset), and I try to keep my focus on the science. I’ll leave the political writing to you.

    I’ll boost The Republican War on Science again when the paperback hits the shelves.

  6. #6 M1EK
    January 30, 2006

    Chris,

    I refer to their decision not to blog about the EPA chiefs’ comments, nor about Hansen; but instead to blog about skeptic ‘science’ whenever it comes up.

    They aren’t impartial middle-of-the-roaders; they’re perpetuating the ‘he said, she said’ fallacy.

  7. #7 FishEpid
    January 30, 2006

    Oh no, Hansen won’t be fired. There are much, much easier ways to get him than that. Don’t forget that he who controls the gold rules. Wait until the hubub dies down and simply divert NASA funds to “higher national priorities”. Like Mars missions. Gotta make choices in this budgetary environment, you know. Shifting funds to the very expensive and long term process of developing technology for getting man to Mars will cut way back on all that noise from those pesky scientists. Starve those modelers of their funding and they will loose their soap boxes and have to find real jobs. He’ll still be director but of a facility with only enough govmnt funding to cover a broom closet. Competition for space and resources is keen within universities and, again, he who has the gold rules. Notice what just happened to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory? Think the administration will have a harder fight justifying cuts to the GISS than the NREL? I don’t think so.

  8. #8 JBrad
    January 30, 2006

    This is the part that I found most interesting:

    “Where scientists’ points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing.

    One example is Indur M. Goklany, assistant director of science and technology policy in the policy office of the Interior Department. For years, Dr. Goklany, an electrical engineer by training, has written in papers and books that it may be better not to force cuts in greenhouse gases…

    “One reason why I still continue to do the extracurricular stuff,” he wrote, “is because one doesn’t have to get clearance for what I plan on saying or writing.”

    How nice for Dr. Goklany! Good reporting by Revkin…

    So much for the “Hansen is going beyond mere science and talking about matters of policy and he shouldn’t be making such statements because he’s not a policymaker” argument.

  9. #9 Gary Farber
    January 30, 2006

    Thanks muchly for the link, but more for your book and work. Latest followup here.
    Sherwood Boehlert has written a Stern Letter, which I’d hope can’t hurt.

    The Rep WOS is one of many topics I’ve followed and blogged about for a long time. (I’m not a niche blogger, I hit on various interests and passions.)

    Somehow I’d not gone and looked for your blog before; the blogosphere is vastly too big these days. (I do read Tapped fairly regularly.)

  10. #10 Gary Farber
    February 1, 2006

    Generally speaking, Chris, and I mention this only because you’re apparently quite new to blogging, and perhaps unfamiliar with what’s considered polite and impolite, it’s considered polite to link to a blogger you get an item for a post from, and impolite not to. Links are the currency by which we spread the good work about each other, and part of how we wind up getting more attention in return for our good stuff and our effort. It’s what encourages us to bother telling other people news of which they may not have heard that they might be interested in.

    Just saying. Apologies for being off-topic.