Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hansen's Solution

Yesterday, I got an email from one of our climate change writers, D Tattershall. He has been exchanging email with Jim Hansen over the last few months. David opens his message with:

I received this email link from Jim Hansen last week and was astonished by his obvious open frustration - it is well worth a little effort to read. And it deserves our attention and action.

Here is my edit of Hansen's piece:

The Shadow on American Democracy

I just did an interview with CNN (Miles O’Brien) re "censoring science". The point I emphasized is that overreaching by the Executive Branch, trying to make government science submit to political command and control, is a threat to our democracy, and, as a result, a threat to the planet.

The scary part about this story is that seeds have been sown, and a playbook has been codified (although not written!), that will make the situation much worse unless the American public recognizes the problem and makes an issue of it. This is a bi-partisan problem – and neither party is trying to fix it.
It is remarkable how wimpish Congress has become in accepting subjugation to the Executive Branch, contrary to designs and intents of our Founding Fathers.

Congressional testimony.

Do you know that before a government scientist testifies to Congress his/her testimony is typically reviewed and edited by the White House Office of Management and Budget? When I asked for a justification, I was told that a government scientist’s testimony"needs to be consistent with the President’s budget".


There have never been any budget numbers in my testimony or in the testimony of most scientists. And OMB’s editing of the scientific content is invariably designed to make the testimony fit better with the position of the political party in power. (yes, it is a bi-partisan problem).

Where is it stated or implied in the Constitution that the Executive Branch should have such authority? (Actually, does the Constitution not vest control of the purse strings to Congress?)

Why does not Congress get incensed about this and fight back?

Offices of Propaganda.

The Public Affairs Offices (PAOs) of science agencies have become mouthpieces for the Administration in power. This, too, is a bi-partisan problem. Top people in the Headquarters Offices of Public Affairs can and often are thrown out in a heart-beat when an election changes the party in control of the Executive Branch.

The Executive Branch has learned that the PAOs can be effective political instruments and, with some success, they are attempting to turn them into Offices of Propaganda, masters of double-speak ("clean coal", "clear skies", "healthy forests"…) that would make Orwell envious.

Again it is a bi-partisan problem, the control of PAOs being exercised by top political appointees who are replaced rapidly with a change of administration. It is these political appointees that are the problem – the career civil servants at the NASA Centers, e.g., are professionals of high integrity, as are most people at Headquarters.

One may wonder: why doesn’t the media object to this situation? I believe that I learned the reason: it is encapsulated in the phrase "that’s hearsay!". I heard that phrase over and over again in 2004 after I stated publicly that NASA press releases were being spirited from NASA HQ to the White House for either editing or deep-sixing, when they concerned "sensitive" topics such as global warming.

Even NPR did not seem to want to touch that story unless there were multiple pieces of proof on paper.

How to fix it?

There is an article "Freedom of Speech in Government Science" in the currentIssues in Science and Technology, Winter 2008, pages 31-34, by David Resnik. Presumably, Resnik is well-intentioned, but I take vehement exception to one of his bottom lines. The article sounds fine for the most part, but keep in mind the common technique of telling you ten things that are true followed by slipping in the whopper, the very questionable point or conclusion concerning the main point of interest. (clip)

What Resnik is saying, which PAO would latch onto in a heartbeat, consists of "prior restraint", as he suggests review prior to a testimony or statement being made, not correction after the fact by the government. If prior approval for scientific opinions are required, a scientist does not have a snowball’s chance in Hades of providing his unadulterated opinion on a "sensitive" subject.

Here is Resnik’s whopper:

"…when a government scientist communicates with the media, the public (or even journalists) may mistakenly assume that the scientist is speaking for the government, when he orshe is expressing only a personal opinion. If the scientist expresses an opinion that goes against official policy, this can creates (sic) confusion in the public mind.
To minimize confusion and to enable an administration to convey consist (sic) policy messages, it is appropriate to allow public relations officers to review a government scientist’s communications with the media."

Perhaps I am taking his statement out of context, but he seems to mean "review the statement before it is made". (clip)

The presumption of democracy is that the public is informed, honestly informed. Government scientists work for the tax payer and should be allowed to report their research results without political interference. Elected officials can use scientific information as they see fit – they must consider all factors in making policies, not just scientific data.

But they should not be allowed to torque the scientific data, or choose what information is allowed to be presented and what information is deep-sixed. Such filtering, which is a recipe for bad decisions and poor management, has never been as intense as in the past several years, in my opinion. (clip)

The main problems could be fixed as follows:

(1) Public Affairs Offices should be staffed by career professionals protected by civil service rules, not headed by political appointees,

(2)The practice of the White House OMB reviewing scientific testimony should be dropped.

These changes would be simple to make, they would allow the public to be better informed, the government would have a more complete picture for making decisions, and the tax payers would get their money’s worth.

What is needed is a bi-partisan agreement that these changes would be in the interest of the nation." more

If Super Tuesday makes McCain the nominee of the Rs, an interesting moment in the politics of climate change will be upon the geographic state of the United States. All of the candidates will be on record for being seriously concerned about the danger of climate change, and they will have all promised to deal with it in one way or another.

Perhaps the best way to start will be to ask each of them in the debates and press conferences that follow, if they will allow our scientists to say what they believe. And specifically, will they abide by Hansen's solution to the problem.

If they don't,

They are still blowing smoke.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"neither party is trying to fix it."

Duhhhh. There is only ONE PARTY. Wake the (*&% UP!

8:53 AM  

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