The House Science Committee’s anti-science rampage
Unfortunately a great many in Congress are quite foolish, which doesn’t seem to slow them down a bit as they use their power to muck things up. Lawrence Krauss reports in the New Yorker:
If you know the answers you want in advance, you can always find them by cherry-picking your data. That’s what climate-change deniers have tried to do in recent years in arguing that there’s been a “pause” in the global-warming trend over the past two decades—suggesting, thereby, that global warming is just a temporary anomaly unrelated to human industrial activity. Last year, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the “climate change hiatus” myth to bed. They published a paper in Science that showed, using new and more definitive data, that the claimed “pause” hadn’t taken place.
Not long after the paper was published, something odd happened. Kathryn Sullivan, the head of N.O.A.A., received a subpoena. It came from Lamar Smith, the Texas congressman who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and it demanded that the N.O.A.A. scientists turn over records and internal communications. They had already turned over their data in response to previous requests but refused to turn over scientists’ correspondence. In a statement, Smith accused the N.O.A.A. scientists of falsifying their data:
It was inconvenient for this administration that climate data has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades. The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want. . . . NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.
From climate change and evolution to sex education and vaccination, there has always been tension between scientists and Congress. But Smith, who has been in Congress since 1987 and assumed the chairmanship of the Science Committee in 2013, has escalated that tension into outright war. Smith has a background in American studies and law, not science. He has, however, received more than six hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from the oil-and-gas industry during his time in Congress—more than from any other single industry. With a focus that is unprecedented, he’s now using his position to attack scientists and activists who work on climate change. Under his leadership, the committee has issued more subpoenas than it had during its previous fifty-four-year history.
Smith, a Christian Scientist, has steadfastly campaigned against other scientific findings that cut against his a-priori beliefs—he’s opposed efforts to allow marijuana use for medical purposes, for example, which he has argued do not exist.
Some of his interventions seem to misunderstand the very nature of science. Last year, for example, Smith introduced legislation requiring that all scientists applying for federal grants guarantee, in a special section of their grant applications, that their work is in “the national interest.” It’s hard to know exactly what Smith means by this, but whatever it means it sets a dangerous precedent, because fundamental research should be driven by curiosity—by the simple desire to generate new knowledge—rather than by anyone’s political agenda. The real national interest is always served by the generation of new knowledge; Smith seems to think that only some knowledge is appropriate. The House passed his bill in February.
Throughout the past year, Smith has focused his attentions on a new target: the Union of Concerned Scientists—of which I am a “card-carrying” member. The U.C.S. is not an academic science organization, per se. Instead, it’s an advocacy group. It was established in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, by scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were concerned about the misuse of science for military purposes. Its founders proposed “to initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance” and to create an organization to assist “scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.” Since that time, the U.C.S. has become one of the most focussed and highest-profile organizations speaking out in favor of sound science and environmental policies based on empirical evidence.
Around eight years ago, the U.C.S. began an ambitious research project about the fossil-fuel industry. U.C.S. researchers wanted to know how long oil companies had known about climate change. In 2015, the U.C.S. published a report suggesting that, even while it knew about global warming, the fossil-fuel industry had produced public disinformation campaigns about the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate. Since then, at least two teams of reporters, including a group at Columbia University’s journalism school and another at InsideClimate News, have uncovered evidence that ExxonMobil’s own scientists wrote internal reports warning about the impacts of carbon emissions from fossil fuels on their own business model; during that same period, the company was making the opposite case to the public and to investors. Using material obtained from the ExxonMobil Historical Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as other archives and interviews with former employees, they found evidence that Exxon was monitoring CO2 concentrations as far back as 1978, and, in the nineteen-eighties, hired scientists and mathematicians and worked with outside researchers to confirm models showing that greenhouse gases would result in climate change. As a result of these reports, attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts, and the Virgin Islands have begun investigating ExxonMobil for fraud.
Beginning in May of this year, Smith began what can only be described as a campaign of intimidation against the U.C.S. and other environmental organizations involved in researching Exxon’s actions. He demanded that . . .