NASA admits Deutsch muzzled scientist

By Phil Plait | June 11, 2006 9:36 pm

NASA has publicly admitted that White House appointee George Deutsch inappropriately denied press interviews with global warming scientist James Hansen.

NASA internally reviewed what happened with Deutsch. A letter from Brian Chase, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Legal Affairs at NASA sent a letter to Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) briefly outlining the finding.

The full letter from NASA is posted as well. The money shot is this one:

… an internal inquiry has revealed that one recent media request to interview Dr. James Hansen… was inappropriately declined… in addition, several instances of inappropriate editing of scientific materials have been alleged. These allegations, if true, are unacceptable at NASA.

Just to remind you, Deutsch was appointed as a NASA public affairs officer by the White House, which is, ah, not friendly to the idea that the Earth is warming up due to human activity. So his denying the press an interview with a scientist outspoken about global warming smacks of — oh let’s not be coy, shall we? — is a blatantly political suppression of science.

The "inappropriate editing" mentioned in the letter was Deutsch’s attempt to add the word "theory" wherever the Big Bang was mentioned on NASA websites. That may sound innocuous, but like a tiny blemish can hide a vast infection, this was an indication that Deutsch, a White House political appointee, was a not-so-closeted creationist.

Unfortunately, from reading the letter, it looks like they’re just nailing Deutsch on denying the press an interview with a scientist, and not the website changes– although I’ll add that, weirdly, Deutsch is never mentioned by name in the letter. Anyway, it’s a start. And since they used the word "unacceptable" twice, it sounds like they mean it. I wish this would mean they would keep a jaundiced eye on political appointees, but I know better. Still, NASA is aware of the problem, and they are also aware of the series of PR hits they’ve been taking. Maybe they’ll take this to heart.

Lieberman has his comments on his website.

The NASA response to the Senators is an important concession that manipulation of scientific statements occurred and recognizes other allegations of inappropriate editing of scientific materials.

So is this over? Hardly. News of other agencies having political appointees muzzling science abound. As Lieberman’s continues:

In the time it took NASA to acknowledge that the censorship of Dr. Hansen was inappropriate, new charges of suppressing climate science have arisen at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Forest Service,” Lieberman said. “Reports of this disturbing practice have now arisen at four federal agencies: EPA, NASA, NOAA, and the Forest Service. It is time for the White House to stop suppressing important climate change information that the public has a right to know and needs to know.

The current Administration seems to make a habit of putting their people into places where they can suppress science they don’t like. I’ve written about this before. So, of course, have others. It’s not at all too much of an exaggeration to liken this to 1950s Soviet-style suppression of dissenting science (look up Lysenkoism on your favorite search engine). This must stop. Literally, our future depends on it. I’m glad NASA is taking steps to stop this in their ranks. I hope they continue down that path.

Hat tip to SpaceRef for this news.

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Comments (35)

  1. Dukrous

    Good for NASA to come out and admit this. I’ll freely admit to not being sold about human caused global warming (mainly cause I think our dataset is too small to come to such a conclusion), but the more scientifically minded material we have from both sides of the argument, the quicker we can come to an understanding about what is going on and what can be done about it, if anything at all.

  2. I too am skeptical that Global Warming is a threat (“An Inconvinient Truth” was so bad it was funny!) But Deutsch censoring Dr. Hansen was wrong, and I’m glad he was caught at it!
    What we need is a serious level headed discusion. Both sides of the G.W. argument are guilty of some less than honest tactics.

  3. idlemind

    Well, Harrison, I have to admit that there are two sides to the G.W. argument, just as there are to any argument. Maybe even more than two sides. But this isn’t geometry. Natural science is based on evidence and, frankly, the anti-global-warming folks ran their well of evidence dry a long, long time ago.

    I’m old enough to remember when the tobacco companies put booklets in newspapers giving their “side” in the “cigarette controversy”: no evidence for cancer, and nicotine was actually healthful. One such booklet had nearly 100 citations to various obscure “scientific papers.” (I wish I had saved it; it would be fun to see if any of them came up in Google today.) It was nonsense. But you know why they did it. M-O-N-E-Y.

    Of course, the anti-global-warning folks have gotten smart to the “follow the money” idea. There are all these climate scientists who need money, the story goes, and they only get it when they produce evidence for global warming. Well, they do need to eat, but there isn’t much evidence for the claim that they need to produce certain results to get grants. But they do need to do good science. And that means finding evidence, excluding bias from that evidence (e.g. did a radiosonde 30 years ago produce data comparable to one today?) using statistical measures to determine significance, building models and testing them against new data, and on and on, building up and tearing down bit by bit, study by study. Sometimes the results disagree, especially those incorporating historical data. Eventually either the climatic models have to change to fit the data, or bias in the data found and corrected. And this has happened, and keeps happening. They’re making a pretty impressive case, now.

    There is no equivalent process in politics. Or marketing. (Or theology.) Maybe politicians who support action against global warming have been as dishonest and misleading as the “other side.” Maybe not. But we’re talking about the science, here, and that argument is decidedly lopsided in favor of anthrogenic global warming.

    Anti-global-warming folks have some of the deepest pockets in the world — deeper even than tobacco companies. So why are they reduced to taking potshots at the science from the sidelines? Why haven’t they been able to draw those supposedly money-hungry climatologists to their side? Of course, the anti folks would much rather spend their money on politicians than scientists, on marketing and not on research.

    The global warming argument has had many sides, for many years, and those various sides have been collecting and marshaling their evidence, building up and tearing down each other’s cases, trying to reach at least some consensus on what is happening to Earth’s climate and why. And they have. But someone doesn’t want you to know that. Why? Follow the money…

  4. Evolving Squid

    While I agree that the global warming side is building a better case, I have to agree with an earlier poster – I’m not convinced it’s a fact yet, primarily due to the short term over which the concept has been examined and comparatively small amount of evidence supporting it.

    There’s not a mountain of evidence like, say, evolution. It’s more of a small hill, more of a large bump really, of evidence. And while there’s certainly logic to it, I just don’t find it totally convincing. It’s unfortunate that by the time research can demonstrate some truly convincing, conclusive results, it may be too late if they are correct.

    I also find the whole idea a bit moot. It’s my belief that we’ll run out of fossil fuels long before we can do serious, long-term damage from global warming. Once we’re out of fossil fuels (or the price has skyrocketed due to dwindling supply) global warming due to pumping C02 into the atmosphere, if it really is occurring, should abate.

    When I was a kid in the early 70’s, the great panic was that an ice age was coming. Then killer bees. Now it’s global warming. Honestly, even if global warming is true, I think there are more serious issues facing humanity: wars, deforestation, hunger, disease… whether or not there’s global warming, those things do and will continue to affect quality of life.

  5. Squid, I’m sorry to see you go so far off the rails at the end of this last post. We’ve got plenty of coal to push CO2 levels way, way past the present ones. We’ve got oil sands– here in Alberta we burn the equivalent of 2 barrels of oil (in the form of natural gas) to produce 3 barrels of oil sands oil. This is the main reason why Canada’s emissions are up so much– we’re feeding your oil market with some of the most GHG intense fuel there is. And we’ve only worked our way through about 1/2 the conventional oil. It will get expensive, but we’ll pay a lot more to keep on trucking (Europeans have been paying way more for a very long time– they drive smaller cars, but they still drive!). The ‘ice age’ thing was never big on the science side– there was some speculation (and it was about the long-term, not the short-term) & the press picked it up and made a splash with it. Global warming is a very real risk, and we’ve got everything we need to run the experiment through to a conclusion. Just how severe the impact will be is hard to say, since droughts & ice cap melting are harder to predict in detail than overall temperature rise. But if things work out on the ugly side, the Pentagon’s scenario is a pretty good guess. Not pretty.

  6. Squid, I’m sorry to see you go so far off the rails at the end of this last post. We’ve got plenty of coal to push CO2 levels way, way past the present ones. We’ve got oil sands– here in Alberta we burn the equivalent of 2 barrels of oil (in the form of natural gas) to produce 3 barrels of oil sands oil. This is the main reason why Canada’s emissions are up so much– we’re feeding your oil market with some of the most GHG intense fuel there is. And we’ve only worked our way through about 1/2 the conventional oil. It will get expensive, but we’ll pay a lot more to keep on trucking (Europeans have been paying way more for a very long time– they drive smaller cars, but they still drive!). The ‘ice age’ thing was never big on the science side– there was some speculation (and it was about the long-term, not the short-term– this is an inter-glacial period, after all). The press picked it up and made a splash with it. Global warming is a very real risk, and we’ve got everything we need to run the experiment through to a conclusion. Just how severe the impact will be is hard to say, since droughts & ice cap melting are harder to predict in detail than overall temperature rise. But if things work out on the ugly side, the Pentagon’s scenario is a pretty good guess. Not pretty.

  7. Bryson Brown

    Sorry for the duplicate- I was getting a strange error message on posting…

  8. Faithful reader

    Evolving Squid says “Honestly, even if global warming is true, I think there are more serious issues facing humanity: wars, deforestation, hunger, disease… whether or not there’s global warming, those things do and will continue to affect quality of life.”

    How can climate change impact deforestation, hunger (via agriculture), and disease (via spread of animal vectors)? Probably more ways than we can think of which is why it should be factored in to many future scenarios.

  9. We have thousands of years of ice cores that tell us the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The cores CLEARLY indicate that the amount of CO2 has increased dramatically since 1800. That is, since we began burning fossil fuels as part of the industrial revolution, we have altered the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Secondly, we KNOW that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Thus, a greater concentration of CO2 would automatically equate into a warmer climate. Which is born out in the records.

    The scepticism on global climate change is a direct result in the suppression of data. It is NOT a result in the lack of data.

  10. Sylvanite

    Not to mention the global retreat of glaciers. If it were localized to just one region, doubters may have a point, but the retreat of glaciers and reduction of icecaps is an measurable, global phenomenon, and certainly the one that makes me think that there’s something up. One of the biggest problems, if the Earth is indeed getting warm enough to melt the polar ice, is the shutting down of some oceanic currents which are currently keeping certain high-latitude countries (like Great Britain) relatively temperate. Yes, the world has been warmer in the past, but our large, mostly coastal, sedentary populations, will make the effects of global warming potentially quite harch.

  11. dukrous

    DouglasG, yes, CO2 levels are absurdly high, and the temperature has risen in the same period. But we do not know if the temperature rise is a breaking of a cycle, or part of the natural cycle. There is no overwhelming proof for causation, just as there has been no real proof for coincidence.

    If climate cycles are correct, we’re in the middle of a glacial retreat during a mild ice age. This was a common occurance during previous ice ages and was followed by another cooling cycle. This line of logic would lead us to believe that this warming trend is normal.

    The danger, for me, is in jumping the gun. If we go ahead with the idea that humanity caused global warming and moved to stop it, how much damage might we cause the normal climate cycle of the Earth? We’re a species known for arrogance and this is one area where emotion and hyperbole should be completely left out of both sides.

  12. J. D. Mack

    Somewhat on this topic – do you all listen to the Penn Jillette radio show, or its podcasts? If you don’t, I recommend going to http://www.pennradio.com/ and listening to the interview with Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one that may send me down new paths in regards to my thoughts on enviromentalism. And global warming is discussed towards the end.

    The link to this episode will only be active for a week, though if you subscribe to the podcast through iTunes, you can get it for longer.

    J. D.

  13. Geoff

    Natural changes in climate have natural CAUSES. No ‘natural’ mechanism for an increased forcing of C02 has been found. I wish the AGW skeptics would at least try to find one instead of attacking the currently accepted, consensus view.

  14. Stefan Jones

    “When I was a kid in the early 70’s, the great panic was that an ice age was coming.”

    Sorry, I have to call you on that.

    I was a teen at the time. The ice age scare wasn’t a “panic.” It amounted to little more than a silly season news item good for a few TV documentaries. The concern came from analysis of past trends; ice ages came in cycles, and we were statistically overdue for one. There was no palpable evidence, like growing seasons changing or animals migrating sooner or later.

    On the other hand, we have lots of just such evidence for global warming.

    I’ve been following the fossil fuel industry’s F.U.D. campaign for over a decade. The sudden “discovery” of the 70s ice-age flap by pundits reeks of a planted Talking Point designed to muddy the waters.

  15. Stefan Jones

    “The danger, for me, is in jumping the gun. If we go ahead with the idea that humanity caused global warming and moved to stop it . . . ”

    Wait a minute . . . are you saying that the emission of gigatons of a known greenhouse gas into atmosphere at unprecedented rates is part of the natural trend, and that cutting back this pollution amounts to risky interference with this cycle?

    Huh?

  16. JL

    Can someone on the global warming side explain to me what caused the numerous ice ages the world has gone through to retreat?

    The world has gone through plenty of warming and cooling cycles…and they last thousands of years. The relatively small amount of scientific data we have accumulated (relative to the age of the planet) really isn’t that great of an indicator in this instance.

    Sure, we add to the warming…or cooling…err warming…I forget, which one are we touting now? But, I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s made out to be.

  17. Evolving Squid

    Cutting back pollutants is never a bad thing, that much requires no explanation.

    I just don’t think that, at best 100 to 150 years of climate data is adequate to declare that a massive climate change is going on that is directly attributable to fossil fuel consumption. Do I believe that pumping crud into the atmosphere is helpful or healthy? of course not… but I’m not convinced it’s bringing about the end of the world either, and I do think that there are issues that are at least as pressing. My issue isn’t with the idea that human activity is polluting the atmosphere, it’s with the idea that human activity is catastrophically warming the planet on human time scales (instead of geological ones).

    In time, perhaps I will be convinced, but right now, the arguments are interesting, but they’re not thoroughly convincing.

  18. Getting back to the main point here away from the side track of climate change, we have a saying over here

    “He who pays the piper calls the tune” If the US government is allocating taxpayers money to the various organisations, then it will expect those organisations to play ball and sing from the same hymn sheet (to mix metaphors)

    Whatever administration you have, this will happen and if you have a commander in chief that holds to ID, then his officials will want these organisations to hold to that too or at least not contradict it.

  19. Sylvanite

    Well, yes, the world has been warmer in the past. Sometimes much warmer. The problem is the fact we have a large, sedentary population located mostly on the coasts. Even if the warming trend were entirely natural (and, like I said, there’s current worldwide melting of glaciers, which is being measured now, in real time), we have a problem with what to do about those coastal populations. I’m a geologist, not a climatologist, so I don’t know how difficult it is to parse anthropogenic influences from natural trends. Ice is melting right now. This is going to cause problems on the coasts. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution, with respect to emissions of greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources? Even if the trend is natural, or there is no real trend, and the glaciers start readvancing in two years, will it really cause harm? We are pumping a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere that was locked away in fossil fuels. The Earth will eventually scrub it out of the atmosphere, but the concern is in the short term.

    I’m glad right now that I’m not a Bangladeshi. If this discussion isn’t just academic, they’ll be among the first to know.

  20. Murff

    On a trip to the Portage Glacier in 2000, the guide showed us how the Glacier started a rapid recession about 60-100 before man started pumping ridiculouos amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. They even had a cool little model that lit up at each stage of recession.

    Although I am sure we have not helped it out any, I don’t think the glaciers are receding solely due to man burning fossil fuels.

    Just a thought…

  21. Bad Albert

    To add to Murff’s post:
    I have read exerpts from the journals of several Europeans who explored the the coast of what is now western Canada and southwestern Alaska in the 18th century. By their accounts the glaciers in those fjords were receding even then, and that was long before the Industrial Revolution began.

    On a related note, if you’ve ever lived in northern Canada, you would probably agree global warming is not such a bad thing.

  22. I suppose I’m coming late to this conversation, but I thought I would point out that, at least in some parts of the world, the weather is changing radically.

    Take Seattle (and nearby areas). Used to be, back in my Grandfather’s day, it snowed a whole hell of a lot, every winter.

    Now, it doesn’t snow. Maybe a dusting, if we’re unlucky. In fact, it doesn’t even rain much in Seattle any more – or even stay gray very long. (Weather’s worse in Massachusetts.) Most of what used to be snow is now rain, and what used to be rain doesn’t come by any more.

    Plotted out, there has been a continuous steady rise in temperature for several generations. That much, at least, is not a myth. It might not be due to “global warming”: deforestation seems like one likely alternative.

    But nobody should pretend massive environmental changes are a surprise, or are myths.

  23. First of all, let me say we have several THOUSAND years of CO2 data. Not just a couple hundred. IIRC, it goes back to the about 10,000 years or so. This data clearly indicates that the amount of CO2 in the air is caused by humans. That is, the levels were relatively stable until the beginning of the industrial revolution. The plants were able to keep up with the CO2 production until we started burning fossil fuels in the 1800’s.

    Secondly we know that CO2 will cause an environment to warm. This has been experimentally known for 150 years or so.

    Putting just those two things together point to man made global climate change. Just those two things. It doesn’t matter what caused the last ice age. That is like saying, we don’t know what blew the fuse, but I’m still sticking the fork in the toaster.

    Even if this is a natural cycle of things, we are making it worse! What are we doing about it? Nothing because we aren’t a part of the problem…

  24. Panops

    One small correction:
    “A letter from Brian Chase, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Legal Affairs at NASA sent a letter to Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) briefly outlining the finding.”

    Should be “Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Affairs” – not Legal Affairs.

  25. This might come as a surprise to many of you, but we really don’t know if the melting оf glaciers is a global trend.
    At the last count, there were over 150,000 glaciers in the world, and fewer than 80 have been studied in any level of detail. The science has found that not all of these 80 glaciers are melting, some are, some aren’t.
    People talk about global warming as if it’s a fact, but global warming is not understood as well as Al Gore would like you to believe. Global warming at the moment doesn’t even constitute a theory, in the scientific context. At the moment it should be correctly labeled a hypothesis. For Global warming to be promoted to theory, it must be able to make testable predictions. So far, most major predictions made by global warming advocates, including Dr. Hansen, have not hit their mark. In the near future, I believe climate science will reach a point where it can make correct predictions about global warming. But not yet.
    For the time being, Global warming is a hypothesis, and it seems like a mistake to base our environmental policy on a hypothesis.

    P.S. (I agree with Harrison, “An Inconvenient Truth” was comedic.)

  26. WASHINGTON — Two federal agencies are investigating whether the Bush administration tried to block government scientists from speaking freely about global warming and censor their research, a senator said Wednesday.

    Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he was informed that the inspectors general for the Commerce Department and NASA had begun “coordinated, sweeping investigations of the Bush administration’s censorship and suppression” of federal research into global warming.

    “These investigations are critical because the Republicans in Congress have ignored this serious problem,” Lautenberg said.

  27. It is not wonder the public is confused about global warming when the press is denied access to good scientists!

    We certainly can’t wait for the press or the government to act, but with the internet and the rise of movies like Gore’s, the time seems ripe for a change!

    Nathan Brown
    Learn how to prevent global
    warming
    before it is too late.

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