Smithsonian officials altered Arctic climate change exhibit to cut link with human-induced warming


Smithsonian Institution executives ordered a politically motivated rewrite of science in a 2006 exhibit on climate change in the Arctic, says Robert Sullivan, who was associate director in charge of exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Associated Press reported that Sullivan, who resigned, says that, among other things, the text of the exhibit was edited to minimize the relationship between global warming and humans. Our own review of the exhibit finds that, in fact, it discusses climate change and its impacts on the Arctic but, with evident evasiveness, avoids ANY mention of human-induced global warming as a driver. 

The exhibit can be viewed online.

This particular climate science scandal appears to be of the “anticipatory self-censorship” type, rather than a case of direct White House intervention. The Associated Press reported that Sullivan said that “Smithsonian leaders acted on their own. ‘The obsession with getting the next allocation and appropriation was so intense that anything that might upset the Congress or the White House was being looked at very carefully.’”

However, the AP reported that Sullivan said the changes in the climate-change exhibit were requested by the highest Smithsonian Institution executives, including then-museum Director Cristian Samper and former Smithsonian Undersecretary for Science David Evans. Samper essentially acknowledged high-level intervention, while Evans refused to comment.

The AP reported that Sullivan said several scientists whose work was used in the exhibit objected to the changes, and that some curators and scientists involved in the project said it was apparent that science was not the only concern.  “I remember them telling me there was an attempt to make sure there was nothing in there that would be upsetting to any politicians,” said John Calder, director of the NOAA Arctic Research Office, who consulted on the project. “They’re not stupid. They don’t want to upset the people who pay them.”

Rick Piltz comment:

This squares with my experience with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Only a limited amount of direct White House intervention and manipulation is required to induce in science program managers a degree of anticipatory surrender, in which reports and other public statements are tailored to steer around potential problems from the political level of the administration (and its allies on the Hill). Thus the Washington story, in which senior career professionals distort their work, or have it distorted for them, and fall silent in failing to push back against political manipulation, mediated for the White House by high-level agency executives. Observing this process close-up and over time was a discouraging and disappointing experience.

The Credits pages that accompany the on-line presentation of the exhibit list a number of scientists and curators as contributors.  We believe it would be a public service if any of these individuals who has the exhibit text as drafted by scientists would make the draft text available to compare with the text as finally exhibited after the alleged intervention by Smithsonian executives, so the science community and the public can evaluate the specifics of the intervention to determine the significance of text changes. We can do this in such a way as to protect your confidentiality.  [redacted]



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