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Environment

The Big Climate News

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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.

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