The Intersection

The Hansen Fallout

House Science Committee chair Sherry Boehlert–who has countered attacks on science before–isn’t going to stand for the current games at NASA that are being played to restrict scientists from speaking. In a letter to NASA administrator Michael Griffin, Boehlert writes the following:

It ought to go without saying that government scientists must be free to describe their scientific conclusions and the implications of those conclusions to their fellow scientists, policymakers and the general public. Any effort to censor federal scientists biases public discussions of scientific issues, increases distrust of the government and makes it difficult for the government to attract the best scientists. And when it comes to an issue like climate change, a subject of ongoing public debate with immense ramifications, the government ought to be bending over backward to make sure that scientists are able to discuss their work and what it means.

Hear, hear: Send Hansen on a taxpayer-funded national speaking tour!!! Sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Seriously, though: The principle articulated here by Boehlert is very much the same as the one that I myself would stand by. It is an unjustifiable blow to the integrity of science itself to constrain what scientists are allowed to say, how they can interact with their colleagues, where they’re allowed to travel–in short, to in any way impair ordinary scientific exchange (barring extraordinary reasons for doing so, which clearly do not exist in this case). Thank goodness there are some members of the governing party who still get this.

And Boehlert continues, showing that he really means business:

NASA is clearly doing something wrong, given the sense of intimidation felt by Dr. Hansen and others who work with him. Even if this sense is a result of a misinterpretation of NASA policies–and more seems to be at play here–the problem still must be corrected. I will be following this matter closely to ensure that the right staff and policies are in place at NASA to encourage open discussion of critical scientific issues. I assume you share that goal.

This is exactly what a congressional committee chairman, with jurisdiction over an agency like NASA, ought to be doing in the face of such allegations. Unfortunately, Boehlert is a rare breed in the current Congress. Let us not forget that there have been government-wide allegations, at a vast array of agencies, that are highly consistent with the current case involving James Hansen and NASA. Many of these case studies have been documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, by Henry Waxman, by myself, and by others. But few Republican committee chairs have been so eager to investigate these abuses as Boehlert seems to be.

Meanwhile, Hansen himself appeared on CNN yesterday morning to discuss (irony of ironies) how he is being censored. Here’s a sample of the exchange, which left me feeling pretty impressed with CNN’s Miles O’Brien [my italics are added]:

M. O’BRIEN: Now, you have been told to be careful about what you say. Why don’t you explain what you heard from public affairs people at NASA in particular about the comments you made?

HANSEN: Well, they were very unhappy about my presentation in December at the American Geophysical Union.

M. O’BRIEN: Why?

HANSEN: Well, I think because I’m connecting the dots, all the way from emissions to the future consequences and it’s — and it has — and I look at alternative scenarios, if we continue on this path or if we take other paths. And that is getting too close to policy, I guess.

M. O’BRIEN: Well, but there really isn’t much of a scientific debate anymore. So when you talk among scientific peers, there is tremendous agreement that global warming is real and it is hastened by human action or inaction.

HANSEN: Right.

Let me just stop here and thank Miles O’Brien–celebrate him, in fact–for doing science journalism right. O’Brien lays out what’s known, the scientific consensus. He doesn’t treat it as a matter of controversy; he treats it as what it is, i.e., well established.

Comments

  1. #1 Moment of Science
    January 31, 2006

    Yikes! This is beginning to remind me of the Soviet Union. Substitute historians for scientists and we’re looking at the same thing. The best line from the letter:

    “Political figures ought to be reviewing their public statements to make sure they are consistent with the best available science; scientists should not be reviewing their statements to make sure they are consistent with the current political orthodoxy.”

    Dare to dream….

  2. #2 Mark Paris
    January 31, 2006

    I was surprised to see that Hansen’s boss is Franco Einaudi, who was on my reading committee when I was at Georgia Tech. I certainly respected him, so I hope he gives Hansen some support.

  3. #3 Ericnh
    January 31, 2006

    As the science/space “expert” at CNN (he also possesses a pilot’s license) I’ve always found O’Brien good at covering such events as the Mars probes and Shuttle program. He’s one journalist who actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to science. Personally I think the CNN morning show is beneath him (the usual morning media fluff that anyone with a personality can do).

  4. #4 Fred Bortz
    January 31, 2006

    I’m not worried about any similarity to Soviet style group-think. The blogosphere is doing a great job of keeping that under control. In my latest blog article, I note that the backlash to censorship has increased Hansen’s visibility on this issue.

    What we need to worry about is how we continue to fight the powers that distort science for political gain. Science is winning this skirmish, but we can’t claim victory in the larger battle over climate change or the larger war on science, of which Chris’ meme, the Republican War on Science, is but the latest example.

  5. #5 SqueakyRat
    January 31, 2006

    Your link is dead, Fred. Hey, it rhymes! Anyway, group-think starts as soon as speaking up can cost you your job. Maybe Hansen is too eminent to be vulnerable, though I wouldn’t count on it; and lots of other people don’t have that status.

  6. #6 Fred Bortz
    January 31, 2006

    My link is alive, Squeaky. Click on my name and you’ll find it.

    Speaking up can always cost you your job. But not speaking up can cost you your character.

    I don’t presume to make the choice for anyone else, especially since I am self-employed and speaking up is likely to my advantage, especially when I can plug my websites (like in the next sentence). Seeing my name makes some people want to discover my books for young readers at http://www.fredbortz.com and my science book reviews at http://www.scienceshelf.org.