Mike the Mad Biologist

More from the dog bites man files: political interference in a Smithsonian exhibit–about climate change. Having viewed the exhibit, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this Washington Post story (italics mine):

Some government scientists have complained that officials at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History took steps to downplay global warming in a 2006 exhibit on the Arctic to avoid a political backlash, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The museum’s director, Cristián Samper, ordered last-minute changes to the exhibit’s script to add “scientific uncertainty” about climate change, according to internal documents and correspondence.

Scientists at other agencies collaborating on the project expressed in e-mails their belief that Smithsonian officials acted to avoid criticism from congressional appropriators and global-warming skeptics in the Bush administration. But Samper said in an interview last week that “there was no political pressure — not from me, not from anyone.”

Samper put the project on hold for six months in the fall of 2005 and ordered that the exhibition undergo further review by higher-level officials in other government agencies. Samper also asked for changes in the script and the sequence of the exhibit’s panels to move the discussion of recent climate change further back in the presentation, records also show.

The Post obtained a hand-scrawled note by a curator on the project indicating there was “concern that scientific uncertainty hasn’t come out enough.” Edits to a “final script” show notations about where to add “the idea of scientific uncertainty about climate research.”

In the interview, Samper said “one of his main concerns” was that the exhibit was indicating a level of certainty that he thought went beyond the contemporary science. “I think as scientists we present the information, but we let the people draw their own conclusions,” said Samper, who was promoted earlier this year to serve as acting secretary of the Smithsonian.

[Mad Bioloigst: Teach the controversy?…]

….The effort to tone down the Arctic presentation offended other scientists involved in the project, according to an e-mail written by NASA scientist Waleed Abdalati to his superiors in June. “Something strange happened,” he said in the e-mail. “For the focus to be shifted from scientific content to political content, I found disturbing for a museum.”

The additional review was prompted by “political sensitivities as opposed to content,” Abdalati wrote.

“You know that I am not an alarmist,” Abdalati noted, “but I will say that a museum can’t do an honest exhibit about what is happening in the Arctic without causing people some serious concern.”

Where there’s political idiocy, there’s Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska; italics mine):

The idea for the Arctic exhibit emerged in 2001 as the museum was developing its “Forces of Change” series that had included an El Niño exhibition. Bill Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, suggested the idea, writing in an e-mail, “It seems silly not to include the arctic, where climate research has been so productive and so prominent, and where the impacts of change also include humans.”

In an interview, Fitzhugh said that from the beginning, the exhibit was meant to focus on anthropology, not the climate.

“We were not doing an exhibit on modern climate formation,” Fitzhugh said. “There are some things we can’t do easily because we’re in the political limelight. We have to walk a difficult line.”

Fitzhugh added that the scientists knew they needed to avoid upsetting lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is a skeptic about human causes of climate change. “He’s out there, we know he’s out there, but it hasn’t influenced what we’ve done.”

Before the exhibit opened in the spring of 2006, a NOAA official referred to “the HQ push to appease the senior senator.”

“Arctic Meltdown,” the original name of the show, was designed to “explore dramatic changes during the past half-century in the Arctic environment,” according to a June 2003 statement of purpose. The exhibit would show “global changes can have local consequences and local changes can have global consequences,” the statement read.

Igor Krupnik, a Smithsonian scientist who reviewed the initial statement, called it a “very good start,” but said it was important to find “a new title (or better title).”

And, of course, the Bushists were involved:

The project was also scrutinized by politically appointed officials in the administration, records show….

“The issue of climate variability and change in the Arctic is a key part of the exhibit and everybody wants to ensure that the exhibit is ‘fair and balanced‘ and not likely to cause excessive feedback from the politicos,” Calder wrote, adding that the reviewers were to meet “at the Smithsonian with senior officials of the museum and go over any contentious issues.”

Who knew Fox News would be involved? (kidding) Back to our story…

In his e-mail reply, Spinrad said he wanted “one or two who are connected to the political side of life (e.g. Stephanie Bailenson),” who at the time was a senior policy adviser to the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and who shortly thereafter went to work for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s environmental protection agency.

A few days later, Samper drafted a memo to Calder saying that the museum would be unable to “replicate” work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “or any other science document oriented towards general public. Our main audience is school groups and family visitors, which impacts formats and graphics and restricts the complexity of what we can produce.”

In his interview with The Post, Samper acknowledged taking a cautious approach “because it had the words ‘climate change,’ which is a politically sensitive issue.”

In May of this year, Robert Sullivan, the Natural History Museum’s former associate director for public programs, told the Associated Press that the purpose of the delay was to tone down the Arctic exhibit for fear of political backlash.

The Smithsonian issued a news release saying that Samper “denounced” Sullivan’s allegations, noting that Sullivan “is neither a scientist nor a curator.” In the release, Samper said, “We would never alter an exhibition on global climate change that would contradict our own knowledge and research, and that of other leading scientists around the world.”

An e-mail exchange obtained by The Post and not previously made public shows that Samper told the exhibit’s developer, Barbara Stauffer, to add a discussion of uncertainty in the science behind climate-change modeling.

He also asked her to change the “order of the questions in the introductory panel.” He suggested that the exhibit begin with the earlier history of climate changes in the Artic. He asked that the more dramatic temperature changes in the past 50 years be moved farther back in the exhibit.

Samper said in the interview that the changes he was recommending were meant to reflect the current debate about the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As far as most scientists are concerned, the problem with the IPCC findings is that they were too conservative. The climate ‘debate’ is as legitimate as the ‘evolution controversy’–which is to say, not at all.

Having said that, I remember seeing this exhibit, and, while I obviously can’t compare it to what was planned before any political interference, I came away with a strong impression that the Arctic ecosystem, including the human population, was screwed. Of course, I do follow climate change*, so I might have connected dots that available to other people. I also distinctly remember a couple of jarring passages where I thought, “That was inserted for political reasons”, so there definitely was a noticeable political influence.

If you saw the exhibit, what do you think?

An aside: If this is true, this could really damage Samper’s credibility within the Smithsonian. When Samper first became director, that there were high hopes that the science would come first.

*And many moons ago, even studied a little bit of climatology. Unlike Bobby Jindal, I do retain some information from college science courses.