Lamar Smith’s Absurd Defense of His Harassment of Legitimate Science

US Rep Lamar Smith R-TX-21 a few weeks ago in the Memorial Day parade in Kerrville TX, which is gerrymandered into the same district as South Austin, making him my representative as well. From Smith’s Facebook timeline.

Lamar Smith’s defense of his harassment of NOAA scientists that appeared recently as an op-ed in the Washington Times with the contentious title NOAA’s Climate Change Science Fiction is as much absurd as it is offensive.

If you’re not familiar with the story, please read the background section below as well as Smith’s Op-Ed.

The core of his defense is simply this:

NOAA often fails to consider all available data in its determinations and climate change reports to the public. A recent study by NOAA, published in the journal Science, made “adjustments” to historical temperature records and NOAA trumpeted the findings as refuting the nearly two-decade pause in global warming. The study’s authors claimed these adjustments were supposedly based on new data and new methodology. But the study failed to include satellite data.
Atmospheric satellite data, considered by many to be the most objective, has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades. This fact is well documented, but has been embarrassing for an administration determined to push through costly environmental regulations.

Many have rushed into the minutiae of how reliable the satellite data really are for these purposes. This is unfortunate.

The lower atmosphere satellite temperature series is an interesting matter for science, and for the larger questions of science policy and other long-term strategic planning. It’s also a matter of some social interest whom the “many” are who put so much weight on the last shred of data that show little or no global warming. But it has no direct bearing on Smith’s or his committee’s actions, and getting into the weeds on this subject is a red herring.

Imagine if your scale is telling you you are putting on weight, and your doctor’s scale says the same, but your belt is still on the same notch it has long been on. Your belt is certainly a measure of your weight — heavy people have longer belts than lighter people. But it doesn’t measure exactly the same thing as your scale does. It’s a discrepancy that may need to be worked out. Perhaps you are gaining muscle tone. Perhaps your belt is stretching.

Suppose, though, that you are adamant about not changing your diet, and you decide to resolve the discrepancy by lawyering up and issuing subpoenas to the manufacturer of your home scale. (You also choose to ignore that your doctor’s scale agrees.) Is this an “investigation”?

Clearly, it is not an investigation in any reasonable sense. If you were fairly investigating the question you’d be as interested in the internal workings of the belt’s manufacturer as of the scale’s.

Most relevant of all, you would not accuse the scale’s manufacturer of fraud on the grounds that the scale does not account for your belt.

Karl et al’s purpose in the disputed publication is to analyze the surface record. Analyzing the satellite record is somebody else’s job. Reconciling the two if they are inconsistent is yet other people’s job in turn. The idea that the surface record is politically motivated because it isn’t the satellite record is hopelessly indefensible.

Essentially Smith attacks the people releasing the surface record on the grounds that it is not the satellite record. Does Lamar Smith actually believe this makes sense?

One is left with the impression that he has passed the task off of defending his behavior to dyed-in-the-wool internet deniers who really don’t much care whether the drivel they are spouting could even possibly hold together in the real world. Maybe Smith is not smart or well-informed enough to know better, but the idea that nobody on the majority side of the House Science Committee can figure this out is enormously discouraging.

BACKGROUND

There have been so many outrages coming from the American right these days that it’s little wonder most of the public hasn’t noticed yet another one. It is a bit of shabby political gamesmanship that has the scientific community very concerned.

I wrote about it here. David Roberts at Vox compared it to the Benghazi “investigations”, an analogy which occurred to me as well. The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee. Phil Plait at Slate writes more recently that Rep. Lamar Smith Continues His Harassment of Scientists

Smith is chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which is “investigating” an ordinary bit of scientific research out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which has come out with results which are modestly inconvenient for those so eager to cast doubt on the policy implications of climate science that they are quick to allege fraud. Despite the complete transparency of the study in question, and the willing testimony of the scientists involved, vague talk of a “whistleblower” has been used to justify a very broad subpoena of the communications among the researchers and between them and others.

This strikes many as an abuse of power.

The timing of this fishing expedition just before the Paris “COP” international climate negotiation is also suspiciously reminiscent of the so-called “Climategate” event, where a huge trove of climate scientist emails was illicitly published and trawled for (mostly out-of-context and misinterpreted) snippets to embarrass the scientific community, just prior to the Copenhagen COP meeting for which many had high hopes. That meeting failed. Whether the whiff of fake scandal from the emails played a role in it is hard to tell.

One suspects that the timing of these ludicrous allegations and excessive demands is motivated by a desire to similarly disrupt negotiations in Paris, and is consequently not a legitimate pursuit of the committee.

A letter circulated by the American Associati0n for the Advancement of Science, the leading interdisciplary science interest group in the US (and publishers of the leading journal Science) was cosigned by he American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Statistical Association, the Ecological Society of America, the Geological Society of America, and the Society for Conservation Biology. It says:

Scientists and policymakers may disagree over the implications of scientific conclusions on climate change and other policy-relevant topics. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial. Science cannot thrive when policymakers — regardless of party affiliation — use policy disagreements as a pretext to attack scientific conclusions without public evidence. These broad inquiries threaten to inhibit the free exchange of ideas across scientific disciplines not only for NOAA, but for other government experts and the academic and industry scientists with whom they collaborate.
We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy relevant scientific questions. The repercussions of the committee’s actions could go well beyond climate science, setting a precedent to question other topics such as genetically modified organisms and vaccines that have controversial regulatory and policy implications.
As we stated previously, we recognize the oversight responsibility of Congress, however, the inquiry should not be used as a tool to inhibit the ability of federal scientists to fulfill their agencies’ science missions and of agencies to attract world-class scientific talent.

Those are strong words coming from the entire scientific community. As an individual who is not grant-funded, my words can be even stronger, and I’ll repeat them here:

Smith is being flagrantly and transparently abusive, and it would be good if the rest of society did not turn away.

UPDATE: Another useful read on this topic is professor Michael Mann’s New York Times Op-Ed.

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