On the intellectually empty, politically motivated attacks on NASA climate scientists by former astronauts


Earth image source: NASA

With the 2013 NASA budget endangered by upcoming votes in Congress, attacks on Earth Science (where climate research and observing systems are funded) are to be expected.  A denial machine letter signed by 49 former NASA administrators, astronauts, and engineers – i.e., folks who want to steer budget cuts away from human space flight – stoops to attacks on NASA climate scientists, essentially calling for them to be disowned and muzzled by their agency.  The letter signers collectively have zero climate science expertise or relevant publications, in contrast with the NASA climate scientists, who are leaders in climate change research with a mountain of peer-reviewed publications.  And endless impediments to honest discourse and meaningful action.

See April 8 post:  Hansen: Climate science and moral responsibility

The story was covered well in the UK Guardian (“Attacks on climate science by former NASA staff shouldn’t be taken seriously”) April 12, in a re-post from the indispensable Skeptical Science, which is part of the Guardian Environment Network.  Excerpt:

Almost exactly two years ago, John Cook wrote about the 5 characteristics of science denialism. The second point on the list involved fake experts. …

We have seen many examples of climate denialists producing long lists of fake experts, for example the Oregon Petition and the Wall Street Journal 16. Now we have yet another of these lists of fake experts. 49 former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees (led by Harrison Schmitt, who was also one of the Wall Street Journal 16) have registered their objection to mainstream climate science through the most popular medium of expressing climate contrarianism – a letter. As is usually the case in these climate contrarian letters, this one has no scientific content, and is written by individuals with not an ounce of climate science expertise, but who nevertheless have the audacity to tell climate scientists what they should think about climate science. …

This letter, as these letters always do, has gone viral in the climate denial blogosphere, and even in the climate denial mainstream media (Fox News). But why exactly is this letter being treated as major news? That is something of a mystery. Or it would be, if the behavior of the climate denial community weren’t so predictable. …

Contrarians for Censoring Climate Science

These 49 former NASA employees wrote this letter to the current NASA administrator requesting that he effectively muzzle the climate scientists at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). …

“We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject. At risk is damage to the exemplary reputation of NASA, NASA’s current or former scientists and employees, and even the reputation of science itself.”

If NASA administrators were to censor the organization’s climate scientists at the behest of a few of its former employees who have less climate science experience and expertise combined than the summer interns at NASA GISS, that would really damage NASA’s exemplary reputation.

Expertise Matters

Let’s be explicit about our choice here.

  • On the one hand we have a bunch of former administrators, astronauts, and engineers who between them have zero climate expertise and zero climate science publications.
  • On the other hand we have the climate scientists at NASA GISS who between them have decades, perhaps even centuries of combined professional climate research experience, and hundreds, perhaps even thousands of peer-reviewed climate science publications. …

This is not a difficult choice for NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. We would not be surprised if he gave the ‘skeptic’ letter one look and tossed it in the recycle bin.

Climate contrarians clearly disagree, but in the real world, expertise matters….

A graceful and no-nonsense response from NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati that puts the issue in perspective and the letter signers in their place:

“NASA sponsors research into many areas of cutting-edge scientific inquiry, including the relationship between carbon dioxide and climate. As an agency, NASA does not draw conclusions and issue ‘claims’ about research findings. We support open scientific inquiry and discussion.

“Our Earth science programs provide many unique space-based observations and research capabilities to the scientific community to inform investigations into climate change, and many NASA scientists are actively involved in these investigations, bringing their expertise to bear on the interpretation of this information. We encourage our scientists to subject these results and interpretations to scrutiny by the scientific community through the peer-review process. After these studies have met the appropriate standards of scientific peer-review, we strongly encourage scientists to communicate these results to the public.

“If the authors of this letter disagree with specific scientific conclusions made public by NASA scientists, we encourage them to join the debate in the scientific literature or public forums rather than restrict any discourse.”

Also see this illuminating take on it by our friend Eli Rabett, in terms of NASA budget infighting.

And this strong post by Shawn Lawrence Otto:  “From a boy who loved NASA: How 49 heroes lost the right stuff and sullied their names over climate politics.”  Excerpts (but read the full post):

49 former NASA employees fall from grace

Ironically, at the same time I was speaking to some of NASA’s climate scientists about how to counter these kinds of propaganda attacks, the denialsphere was abuzz with a new TILT [The Impressive Letter Technique] — this one signed by 49 former NASA employees. Like other letters of its kind this one, addressed to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, is signed by some prominent and semi-prominent names, thus is has the sheen of collective authority, but none of them are climate scientists or have any training in it. In fact when you break the letter down, it too evaporates into propaganda — in a way that sullies the names and credentials of these formerly respected individuals. …

49 more authoritarians abandoning science in favor of politics

Next this TILT makes the classic appeal of antiscientists – not to facts, not to data, but to authority – the sort of appeal that would have made any colonial Tory proud to support the authority of the King instead of the upstart self-determining colonists:

“With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts, coming particularly from the GISS leadership, it is clear that the science is NOT settled.”

Uh, wait a minute. Haven’t we seen that? Tens of thousands of scientists? Really boys? I thought you guys all had the “right stuff.” Would you really let just anyone with a BS run mission control when your butts were up in orbit?

If yes, you’re not so bright after all, and if no, well, don’t try to fool us with your OISM [Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, infamous for its denialist Petition Project],  “tens of thousands” of scientists. That’s not the kind of thing I want from a guy I used to look up to — to take advantage of that to try to fool me? Come on. If that makes the science unsettled when compared to the billions of data points accumulated by thousands of real climate scientists working over fifty years, then nothing will ever be settled enough for you. The hypocrisy of this is astounding and saddening. …

If you ain’t got the data, you can always use smear

… Often deniers portray themselves as reasoned, cautious, and conservative scientists, while the real scientists working in the field are described with emotionally charged adjectives like “alarmists,” “warmists,” and the like to weaken the public’s respect for their work and to fool journalists about who’s who. If you can degrade, mock or destroy the individual, then it’s easier for the public to dismiss everything that individual said.

“The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.”

So here we see fifty years of science manipulatively described instead as “unbridled advocacy.” ….

Heartland Institute propaganda outfit ties

Former Apollo astronauts Walter Cunningham and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt are listed as the main contacts for the letter, and both of them have a public history of advocacy against climate change science. This casts doubt on the scientific validity of any of their statements.

For example, in 2009 Schmitt appeared on the talk show of 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and said that he believed that the environmental movement was a front for Communism.

“I think the whole trend really began with the fall of the Soviet Union. Because the great champion of the opponents of liberty, namely communism, had to find some other place to go and they basically went into the environmental movement.”

Sadly, Schmitt’s got it backwards — he’s the evidence-denying authoritarian, akin to the communists of the old Soviet Union, not the climate scientists he’s complaining about.

Walter Cunningham wrote against climate science in a pamphlet (pdf) published by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank fighting climate science.

Schmitt, a former Republican senator from New Mexico, is a current board member of the Heartland Institute, and was a speaker at a conference arranged by the Heartland Institute to deny climate change. …

Hail to the chief (scientist)

… Abdalati has graciously skewered these denialist propagandists by reminding everyone that they haven’t produced any scientific evidence to back up their claims — no data, no peer-reviewed research. Just smears and emotional ploys in a TILT letter. They are seeking to restrict discourse — like the authoritarians of the old Soviet Union Schmitt deplores.

If you disagree, he’s telling them, let’s see what you got. Step up to the table like real men or women and subject your work to the withering scrutiny of peer review. Can’t do it? Thought so. …

Two questions: why, and why?

In the end, these 49 signers sought to … what? Embarrass NASA into abandoning real science? Pressure director Bolden into firing James Hansen? Probably just to give Republican climate deniers some more ammo in the propaganda war to go after NASA’s budget in the upcoming review on Capitol hill. Watch for it and see which Members trot this letter out as if it were some sort of evidence, and try to use its collective authority effect on new gullible audiences. Odds are on Inhofe, Shimkus and the like.

But what these old timey NASA heroes really did is tarnish their own names. And that’s a sad thing for a boy who loved NASA.

Get Shawn Lawrence Otto’s new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.

[UPDATE] And this, by John Abraham, just posted at DeSmogBlog:  49 Cliff Clavins Walk into a Bar and Talk Climate Change.

[UPDATE] Phil Plait, at Discover Magazine:  Breath-taking climate denial nonsense, this time aimed at NASA.

I’d be surpirsed if any of the letter signers could give a technically competent exposition or critique of Hansen’s scientific analysis, nor that of his NASA colleages Gavin Schmidt, Drew Shindell, Cyntia Rosenzweig, and many others too numerous to mention here.  If they are trying to protect the Johnson Space Center budget, this is a terrible way of going about it.

Personally, I have nothing in principle against human space flight, though I think its foreseeable future is seriously limited by distances – starting with Mars.  But I wouldn’t spend another dollar on astronauts and human space flight if it in any way compromised funding for the NASA Earth Science program, in particular the remote-sensing satellite global climate observing system and associated data systems and scientific research.  I’ve long believed the most important 10 percent of the NASA budget is what the agency used to call the Mission to Planet Earth. That part captured my imagination in a way the astronauts never did.



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