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The House Committee on Pseudo-Science

Chairman Lamar Smith has turned the House Science Committee into the staging grounds for his anti-science inquisition.

Photo: AP Images

It’s 8:00 on a balmy spring morning in Washington, D.C., and the last place I want to be is in a dingy hotel ballroom pretending the event taking place there isn’t my personal hell.

So I stroll across the street, get a large coffee, and pull up a livestream.

The event, billed as the 12th International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC), is the latest in a misleadingly titled annual conference series hosted by the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based “think tank” known for its controversial views — and for the way they align with the interests of its major corporate donors.

Back in the 1990s, the Heartland Institute’s first public campaign was bankrolled by tobacco giant Philip Morris, which commissioned reports from Heartland to challenge the growing consensus that smoking is a health hazard. In a 1996 essay convincingly titled “Joe Camel is Innocent!,” Heartland president Joe Bast argued that conservatives were “leading the fight against the use of ‘junk science’ by the FDA and its evil twin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)” in opposing regulation of the tobacco industry.

Two decades later, not much has changed. Heartland continues to vigorously defend the tobacco industry, while cigarettes continue to be the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. But since the early 2000s, the group has taken on another controversial cause: climate science denial. Which brings us to this D.C. coffee shop while Heartland acolytes gather across the street.

The ICCC series is one of the by-products of Heartland’s climate crusade. And here’s a surprise: Heartland’s climate agenda has attracted some lucrative investments. Fossil-fuel giant ExxonMobil contributed at least $600,000 to the Heartland Institute through the mid-2000s before announcing that the company would no longer fund groups rejecting climate science. Heartland’s first ICCC was held not long after that, in March 2009, and culminated in the “Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change” — a strange document citing compelling scientific conclusions like “carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant but rather a necessity for all life,” and “warmer weather is generally less harmful to life on Earth than colder.”

This is not an event where you’d hope to find the chair of the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Current chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has keynoted this event twice.

Lamar Smith is remarkably soft-spoken for a man determined to discredit the majority of the world’s climate scientists.

The 69-year-old Texan is an avowed Christian Scientist, a group perhaps best known for their belief that prayer is more effective than modern medicine. Smith often references an interest in physics that prompted him to consider studying the subject in college, only to be deterred by the fact that he wasn’t the smartest kid in his introductory physics course during his first year at Yale, in 1966. Smith graduated with a degree in American studies instead.

In 2013, when Smith tossed his hat into the ring for a shot at being named chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, he actually seemed like the most moderate of the three men vying for the role. He was up against Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), two men who already had long public records of rejecting climate science. Rohrabacher is notorious for his quip that people don’t know what caused climate cycles in the past (we actually have a pretty good idea), and that the cause “could be dinosaur flatulence, you know, or who knows?” Sensenbrenner has argued that rising temperatures on Mars mean that the “internal combustion engine” can’t be responsible for any warming on Earth. Both men believe that global temperatures have declined (this is blatantly false). And Rohrabacher, like the Heartland Institute, is fond of repeating the claim that carbon dioxide “makes things grow” and therefore can’t be “toxic to humans.”

But in the four years since being tapped for the chairmanship, Lamar Smith has outdone them both.

I sat watching the slightly lagging livestream as Rep. Smith delivered his keynote address at the Heartland climate conference, keeping his head down and reading directly from his notes. There’s a glaring contrast between Smith’s meek demeanor and monotone delivery and the degree of confidence with which he challenges entire areas of research in which he has no expertise. As Smith reached the end of his prepared remarks, though, he perked up.

“You may be hearing pretty soon about a hearing we’re going to have next Wednesday, and it’ll be a full committee hearing,” Smith announced, now looking out at the room and shuffling his papers. “It’s going to be on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which is repeatedly ignored by the so-called, self-professed climate scientists.”

“So-called, self-professed scientists” is a wonderful, oxymoronic turn of phrase that sums up Smith’s worldview pretty spectacularly: reducing years of advanced study, specialized training, and the rigors of peer review to “self-professed” expertise — which, of course, makes scientists’ credentials fair game for a man like Smith, with his degrees in American studies and law.

It’s a worldview clearly reflected in Smith’s record at the helm of the House Science Committee, where he has repeatedly launched campaigns to demand new standards for judging government-funded scientists and their work. If he gets his way, grant applicants’ research would be judged not by its scientific merits but by whether it’s “in the national interest” — whatever Smith and politicians of his ilk decide that means.

One of Smith’s favorite theories is that government agencies, particularly the EPA, are basing their regulations on “secret science” that researchers are deliberately withholding from the public, allegedly for political reasons. He has even attempted to pass a Secret Science Reform Act multiple times without success, though a rebranded version of the bill, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act), was passed by the House Science Committee this March.

But if any there’s anything Lamar Smith enjoys more than drafting bills with bizarrely Orwellian titles, it’s issuing subpoenas whenever reality doesn’t conform to his worldview.

Smith’s first subpoena crusade began in 2015, when NOAA climate scientists published a paper directly contradicting one of the climate change deniers’ pet theories — that there was a “hiatus” in the rise of global temperatures from 1998 to 2012. NOAA’s findings, made possible by a newly expanded database of land-based weather stations and improved research into sea surface temperature measurements, confirmed that there had been no such hiatus, which has also been reaffirmed by research indicating that the ocean has been responsible for trapping greater amounts of heat than scientists previously realized.

What Smith saw, however, were climate scientists fudging data to sabotage one of his favorite talking points. So he started issuing subpoenas to expose a cover-up — one that didn’t exist.

Even more controversial has been the inquisition Smith launched in summer 2016, after state attorneys general from Massachusetts and New York announced that they would be investigating Exxon’s willful decision to not disclose business risks posed by climate change, as a potential violation of their states’ respective securities and consumer protection laws. But Smith isn’t having it.

Since July 2016, Smith has issued subpoenas to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, both of whom say they will not comply, and to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, which has launched a similar investigation into Exxon. Subpoenas were also issued to eight nongovernmental environmental advocacy organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and 350.org, related to the Exxon investigations.

Like the Heartland Institute, Smith is a longtime beneficiary of the oil and gas industry’s generosity; over the course of his congressional career, he has received more campaign contributions from oil and gas companies than from any other industry. All told, Smith has received more than $700,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including Exxon. In 2014, Smith’s first election after being tapped for chairman of the House Science Committee, Exxon was one of his top industry contributors.

Fifteen state attorneys general issued a letter to Smith earlier this year urging him to cease and desist with the subpoenas. “The AGs’ letter makes clear that chairman Smith has no authority to interfere with our investigation,” said a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Maura Healey. “He should read it and stop this harassment.”

Meanwhile, Smith called a full committee hearing featuring hand-picked experts— including a legal scholar affiliated with the Heartland Institute — to “affirm the legitimacy” of his subpoenas.

Before Smith, the House Science Committee had issued just one subpoena since its founding in 1958, because its purview hardly calls for subpoenas. Smith is up to “25 and counting” — a fact he noted with pride during his keynote address to the Heartland Institute.

“He’s taken the science committee to a new level,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), a freshman committee member told the Washington Post, “We’re challenging the status quo… You’re talking about very significant regulations imposed by [the Obama] administration. We’re asking, ‘Is the science behind them valid?’”

Loudermilk, like Smith, has no scientific training or experience of any kind.

The only thing stranger than Lamar Smith’s obsession with discrediting scientists — and climate scientists in particular — is his conviction that he is the one facing persecution.

That full committee hearing Smith eagerly announced in front of his audience at the Heartland Conference, on climate change and “the scientific method,” was held at the end of March. Four witnesses were invited to testify — three well-known climate change skeptics called by the Republican majority and one lone voice of dissent called by the committees’ Democrats.

After nearly two excruciating hours of politicians butchering fundamental science, a member of the Republican majority spoke up against a perceived injustice. It was Rohrabacher — Smith’s former rival in the race for committee chair.

People should be ashamed, declared Rohrabacher, that “those who disagree with the mainstream are being brutalized into silence.” He was speaking, of course, of those who believe as he does — in other words, he meant the House Science Committee’s current Republican majority, its Committee Chairman, and three out of the four witnesses given the opportunity to testify before members of the U.S. House of Representatives that morning.

But then came the real twist.

“That’s the type of thing they did to the scientists in Russia…you can bet nobody except those who agree with Lysenko are going to be able to get a government research contract in Russia.”

For starters, I was surprised that Rohrabacher even knew who Trofim Lysenko was.

A Soviet agrobiologist largely remembered for convincing Stalin to ban the study of entire fields of biological research that contradicted his own work, Lysenko isn’t exactly a household name in the United States, much less a common point of reference in the halls of Congress.

But the outraged declaration perfectly captures the spirit that both Rohrabacher and Smith, along with their compatriots at the Heartland Institute and in climate science denying circles everywhere, bring to their persecution of science and scientists. Conservative politicians and interest groups, backed by some of the most profitable industries in the history of the planet, with the power to hold congressional hearings where they get to air their grievances and hand-pick their “experts,” are somehow being “brutalized into silence.” The Heartland conference Smith headlined this March similarly billed its speakers as “courageous men and women who spoke the truth about climate change during the height of the global warming scare.”

What Rohrabacher failed to mention is that the majority of scientists didn’t agree with Lysenko. He wasn’t representative of the general scientific consensus. Lysenko was trying to deny mainstream science —specifically, classical genetics — and used his political influence and authority to censor entire fields of experts when their work didn’t conform to his worldview, which had no grounding in facts or data. Stalin, figurehead of the political establishment, supported Lysenko, allowing him to investigate and persecute thousands of mainstream scientists. Lysenko’s crusade crippled Soviet scientific research in the field of genetics for decades.

Lamar Smith and Dana Rohrabacher aren’t the persecuted. They’re Lysenko.

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