Political and Policy Implications of Science: A Cause for Rewriting Science?

Since late 2004, Dr. James Hanson, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been prevented from speaking out about the implications of years of research on Global Warming. Hanson, a 30-year veteran NASA scientist, “fell out of favor with the White House” after giving a speech complaining that climate scientists were being muzzled (he also said he was going to vote for Sen. John Kerry in the upcoming presidential election). The New York Times published an article, Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him (Jan. 29, 200) which detailed the nature of the muzzling going on in NASA and being directed by the White House.

CBS’ 60 Minutes program featured Hanson in one of their pieces entitled Rewriting Science. Hanson, who took a risk in going public said on the program “In my more than three decades in the government I’ve never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public.” CBS provided documents showing the extent to which scientific reports were re-written by White House lawyers (not scientists) to undermine the credible research showing that the Earth is warming, and that it is caused by the creation of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). This was not an editing job, it was a calculated re-write of papers in which the White House made global warming research appear to be full of too much uncertainty to be used to make policy decisions. It was revealed that the White House staff member doing the re-writing was a Phil Cooney, a former lobbyist of the American Petroleum Institute. Cooney recently left the White House and is now employed by a large oil firm!

Hanson and his colleagues at NASA have accumulated evidence to support the fact of global warming, and are expecially alarmed at the serious increase in the melting of glaciers, especially in Greenland. Of particular note is that Hanson suggests that CO2 emissions need to be reduced in the next ten years, or the increase in melting of glaciers (resulting in the rise of sea level) will contribute to more catastrophic results. The graph below shows how atmosheric co2 has changed over the past years ice core and atmospheric data.

What results? Hurricanes for one! In a study reported in Science by researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Carlos D. Hoyos and others have shown that the increasing trend in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes for the period 1970 – 2004 is directly linked to the trend in global warming. One of the specific varibles that they looked at was sea water temperatures, which have increase about 1 degree celcius over this period. Hurricanes get their “energy” from warm ocean water, and if ocean temperatures are increasing its clear there will be more energy for future storms. Hurricane Katrina, grew from a category 1 storm before passing over 90 degree water in the Gulf of Mexico (as shown below) becoming very quickly a category 5 storm.

And the past few days, Hurricane Larry, which was more powerful than Katrina, hit the Queensland Coast of Australia.

Science should be used to help formulate policy. However, when government lawyers re-write science to fit a particular political ideology, then the public is done a major disservice. The U.S. government has had a disturbing record in terms of how it has viewed the results and theory of global warming, irrespective of political party. Bush 1 and 2, and the Clinton administration have not only mis-read science results, but interpreted them to fit their own political views. Years ago, Jacob Bronowski recommended that scientific research NOT be funded by the government, but by some other organization. He never went on to formulate this suggestion in any specific way. I am not sure an a non-government agency would be able to convince politicians who are bent on a particular view or ideology. Perhaps what is needed is better science education at the K-12 level. But that has been the theme of government and non-governmental CEO’s for decades, and sadly, science education has not changed very much. In the state that I reside, only half of the students who start school, graduate from high school.

Comments

  1. says

    The bizarre element in this latest report — as in earlier ones of Hanson complaining about science being squashed — is that he’s allowed to tell people about it. Not just in a hasty chat amongst friends at a conference, but on the national news. If I were part of an administration determined to hide/soften his conclusions — whether it’s “war on science” or simply playing for a bit more time for a choice between “shut down the economy” and “melt the icecaps” — I think I’d be a bit more thorough about it.

    As it is, a scientist repeatedly telling the public that “scientists aren’t being allowed to speak to the public” just comes off as a bit surreal. Then again, perhaps I’m just not that devious.

  2. says

    Hello Orange, Good to hear from you again. I tend to agree, Hanson is out there speaking his mind. Global warming has however brought out the fanatics in their view of science—I remember a national radio talk show host—referring to global warming scientists as “environmental wackos.” The deeper issue here is a fine line between censorship and openness in reporting science via the channel of government. When papers are submitted to scientific journals, they are reviewed by peers, and either accepted (often after suggested changes are made) or rejected. In this case, the paper in question was edited with recourse to challenge by the author.

    In the case that I referred to here, apparently the findings of Hanson and colleagues do not support the present administration’s policy on carbon dioxide emissions, and Hanson’s research flies in the face of this policy. So, here at the interface of science research findings and government science-related policy decision-making, political filters in the form (in this case) of a White House lawyer are used to I suppose apply a form of censorship to findings to make them either look too weak to support the initial view, or changed to show that the administration’s policy is supported by science.

    There is a level of filtering of information in every organization—-private corportations, universities, local, state and federal governments. I remember when I first started working in the Soviet Union (when it was the USSR), many of psychologists that I worked with had to show in their research papers how their theory or idea related to Lenin. This might be viewed as one extreme. At the same time this was going, scientists would meet on Sundays in their homes to discuss science in private, secret seminars for fear of government retaliation. The censorship that Hanson has experienced sends a message to all government and corporate scientists that they must be cautious in how they “interpret” their data, and what kinds of recommendations they make that would impinge of policy decisons.

  3. Orange says

    That’s interesting about the psychologists “having” to relate everything to Lenin, whether the connection was natural or not. I’ve heard there’s a similar phenomenon in science still, but the required connection is to evolution rather than to Lenin. (Side topic that I couldn’t resist.)

    The problem of scientists’ results being vetted by those who fund the experiments is hardly a new one, as you point out. Many more examples could be cited, ranging from computer benchmarks on the latest CPU, to the persistence of PFOA or other materials in the “we’re not absolutely sure it’s NOT safe, so we’ll allow it” category. That’s why singling out presidential administrations as being especially irresponsible seems slightly unfair. (Not that I’m defending the idea of lawyers making radical changes to the substance of a scientific report.)

    We all do it. We watch the news channel with the anchors/commentators we agree with; we read the paper that gives things the spin we like (which we naturally perceive as no spin at all). Experimental results that don’t agree with our expectations get more scrutiny than those that do. Papers we review that take potshots at our pet theories are more harshly criticized. We don’t choose to spend time with people we can’t stand.

    The difference, of course, is that when we do it it doesn’t typically impact the whole country. This particular problem seems to have no clear and easy solution, and a politician’s natural instinct is to avoid considering such problems as long as possible. It’s not difficult to see how action would be taken to “soften things up” a little, or make the wording a little less drastic, a little more ambiguous, maybe we don’t really need to make a decision on this just yet… surely not…

    Again, not saying it’s the right thing to do. But it’s not necessarily a Republican “war on science” or a calculated conspiracy to rape the earth to line Big Oil’s pockets (as I’ve seen other people suggest). And it’s not just government/corporate scientists that need to watch out for this; it’s all of us.

What do you think?