Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?

The New York Times recounts muzzling by the Bush administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of scientists who attempt to publicize unfavorable climate information. Dr. James Hansen reportedly had his communications with the public and press stifled when he elucidated the realities of global warming and urged the public to call for the reduction of carbon fuels that contribute to the phenomena.

Some of Dr. Hansen's talks are available for download at Columbia University. Despite the pressure, Dr. Hansen still managed miscellaneous speaking and writing engagements such as: "Is There Still Time to Avoid 'Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference' With Global Climate? A Tribute to Charles David Keeling".

Dr. Keeling studied carbon dioxide contributions to global warming before he passed away last year. He worked to provide ground-breaking atmospheric research and had monitored atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since 1958. The Keeling Curve" shows progressively higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that correlate to human activity. It is this activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, that contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming that we have only just begun to experience. Keeling received the 2001 National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush for lifetime science research achievement.

In his tribute to Dr. Keeling, Dr. Hansen outlines research on global warming and polar melting as well as the predictable impacts on ecosystems. He stresses that aggressive action must be taken now in order to marginally reduce emissions and stabilize the climate. The Bush administration's stance on emissions depends on voluntary reductions rather than regulation. This position is widely criticized by politicians and scientists who span the political spectrum, including these six EPA chiefs. On its face, Dr. Hansen's most 'radical' observation is rather ordinary:

"There is little merit in casting blame for inaction, unless it helps point toward a solution. It seems to me that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers. The special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren or the long-term economic well-being of our country.
The public, if well-informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests, and the public has shown that they feel a stewardship toward the Earth and all of its inhabitants¹. Scientists can play a useful role in they help communicate the climate change story to the public in a credible understandable fashion."

If this is "inflammatory", then from a democratic perspective, the Bush administration seems pathologically sensitive to mundane observation. Some other day we might frame this as good news, but not today. Hansen also relayed to the New York Times that an interview with PBS was denied, that he was threatened and advised that 'his supervisors would stand in for him in media interviews'. Dr. Hansen's experience is not unique, the Times reports, media contacts with many scientists are now chaperoned.

Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at NASA does not see this as censorship. He said to the New York Times:

"'We promote openness and we speak with the facts'".

He added:

'The restrictions on Dr. Hansen applied to all [NASA] personel'... 'policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesman'.

The article is the sort of "he said", "she said" type of expository that leaves the reader somewhat challenged to sort out precisely what's going on. However, moving into the sixth year of this administration, the montage is familiar if at the same time rationally foreign and alarming.

The idea that scientists should stay out of politics is not foreign, many who claim to be reasonable folks argue similarly. They assert (when being forthright), that scientists don't know enough about ethics, history or politics to be involved with public policy. It's bunk, but when it crops up it signals the inevitable subversion of science to an agenda that necessitates such a distorted caricature. In the portrayal scientists are better left in their labs waiting for the signal to do another experiment. They're cloistered away where according to the portrayal, they scribble their inscrutable formulas on blackboards while wearing formless white coats, their thick, thick glasses sliding heavily down their noses, with their pocket protectors, their old shoes and painstakingly circumspect explanations for absolutely everything.

Scientists are not, nor ever have been automatons - though the caricature is periodically revived for convenience. When scientists are removed from policy decision-making, caricatured as unfit for the public, geeky, or one-off, when their ideas are labeled politically disruptive, it has historically signalled a governments' wanton distortion of reality for their own agenda. The public should first demand that the scientists be heard, not subsumed by a committee toeing a political agenda that doesn't serve their interests.

Is what we are currently seeing "the politicization of science"? I argue that it's not. The "politicization of science" is euphemistic label for a political movement that is perhaps alien to those in the U.S. We are more familiar with notions of free speech and first amendment rights. It's sinister view perhaps, but the scientists and intelligentsia are routinely banished from participating in the political process. They're often the first to go, sometimes it has been a temporary political fix, other times it has been a more permanent or lethal muffling. There was "bourgeois biology" in Russia, psychology in China, doctors in Cambodia...

This is not the politicization of science because science is naturally and unavoidably political. In the U.S., science is arguably more independent of government then some countries, but it is still highly political. Grants historically come from the government. Grants are competitive and the stringent approval process is purportedly based on science but inculcated and ruled by politics. Achieving the vaulted position that is needed by scientists before they even vie for grants necessitates years of clambering over other scientists. By the time one reaches the prestigious post of Assistant Scientist, the average researcher has run around so many circles and jumped through so many flaming political hoops that even well-trained circus animals would be tired.

Science and politics have always been entwined. Politicians have historically coauthored science progress. This is not a bad thing. The reason that the U.S. has been successful in science is because politicians have enabled the infrastructure that supports science. Science needs politicians just as the world needs science. Moreover, the world needs citizens, politicians and scientists who are part of the political and processes, who truly understand scientific processes. Process is not always facile but we can't afford for it not to be excluded from understanding.

Was Dr. Hansen making "policy statements" or was he commenting about his observations of politics, as we do, as is any citizens right? The challenge to the public servants is if they're denied their role as servant to the "public" and told instead to serve some ideology. This subverts any professional, but especially scientists. What we are seeing now is a new type of government. New for us perhaps, but not new to world history. We need to recognize it as such.


¹ We don't necessarily agree that "the public, if well-informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests." Why? One reason -- the interests of "the public" are not aligned that's why we have a representative government.

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