The anti-science committee in Congress

There has always been tension between scientists and Congress. But Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has escalated that tension into outright war.
Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has escalated the tension between scientists and congress into outright war.

It is indeed wholly appropriate for congress to have a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. However, what currently makes the entire endeavour a complete fiasco is that it needs to be renamed to something more like “House Committee on Anti-Science, Religion, and Superstition” because that is the direction the current chair appears to have taken. The Republicans dominate and the chap selected to lead is Lamar Smith of Texas (R), so it should come as no great surprise to discover that it reflects their prevailing disconnect with reality.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a name that many of you might be familiar with, has written a wholly appropriate article within the New YorkerHe is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and director of its Origins Project, so it is no surprise for him to be highly concerned that some wilfully ignorant political lunatics are in essence crapping all over his metaphorical back yard. However, such concerns should not be the sole remit of working scientists, and should perhaps be an issue that involves all of us.

First, let’s cover the basics. This is something you will all (hopefully) know. Science is not a body of knowledge, instead it is a methodology that can be applied to discover things that are incredibly useful. It has carried all of us forward into a far greater understanding of the world around us, and has also enabled us to both build highly beneficial technologies and also deploy that understanding in truly meaningful ways that benefits vast numbers of people, so why would anybody ever possibly object to this?

The answer is that when other agendas come into play, specifically ones that can deploy vast sums of cash to ensure that nothing disrupts the status quo, then good robust empirical evidence based conclusions will come under attack.

Climate change is a myth

The behaviour of the committee has been quite frankly appalling by any measure. As explained by Mr Krauss …

Last year, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the “climate change hiatus” myth to bed. They published a paper in Science that showed, using new and more definitive data, that the claimed “pause” hadn’t taken place.

Not long after the paper was published, something odd happened. Kathryn Sullivan, the head of N.O.A.A., received a subpoena. It came from Lamar Smith, the Texas congressman who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and it demanded that the N.O.A.A. scientists turn over records and internal communications. They had already turned over their data in response to previous requests but refused to turn over scientists’ correspondence. In a statement, Smith accused the N.O.A.A. scientists of falsifying their data:

It was inconvenient for this administration that climate data has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades. The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want. . . . NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.

It perhaps reflects an astonishing degree of ignorance to reject the overwhelming evidence that we are warming the planet, and utter paranoia to be capable of seriously embracing the idea that all those that work for NOAA are involved in some grand conspiracy and actually fudge their data. This is perhaps what happens when other interests trump evidence.

What could possible be motivating Mr Smith to behave like this?

Well, it turns out that the adage of “follow the money” yields some rather interesting insights …

Smith, who has been in Congress since 1987 and assumed the chairmanship of the Science Committee in 2013, has escalated that tension into outright war. Smith has a background in American studies and law, not science. He has, however, received more than six hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from the oil-and-gas industry during his time in Congress—more than from any other single industry. With a focus that is unprecedented, he’s now using his position to attack scientists and activists who work on climate change. Under his leadership, the committee has issued more subpoenas than it had during its previous fifty-four-year history.


What motivates Mr Krauss to write his article is the war that Mr Smith has launched against the U.C.S. by leveraging and abusing his current status as chair of the committee …

Throughout the past year, Smith has focussed his attentions on a new target: the Union of Concerned Scientists—of which I am a “card-carrying” member. The U.C.S. is not an academic science organization, per se. Instead, it’s an advocacy group. It was established in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, by scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were concerned about the misuse of science for military purposes. Its founders proposed “to initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance” and to create an organization to assist “scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.” Since that time, the U.C.S. has become one of the most focussed and highest-profile organizations speaking out in favor of sound science and environmental policies based on empirical evidence.

Around eight years ago, the U.C.S. began an ambitious research project about the fossil-fuel industry. U.C.S. researchers wanted to know how long oil companies had known about climate change. In 2015, the U.C.S. published a report suggesting that, even while it knew about global warming, the fossil-fuel industry had produced public disinformation campaigns about the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate.

… Beginning in May of this year, Smith began what can only be described as a campaign of intimidation against the U.C.S. and other environmental organizations involved in researching Exxon’s actions. He demanded that the president of the U.C.S. turn over his organization’s internal e-mail correspondence about the research, as well as correspondence with the attorneys general. The U.C.S. rejected his requests multiple times until, on July 13th, Smith issued a subpoena demanding the documents in question.

… Smith’s subpoenas are a direct attack on the rights of scientists and others to conduct research independent of government interference.

The Key concern is this

Mr Krauss sums up as follows …

By attempting to intimidate government scientists and environmental organizations that are simply trying to communicate their results, Smith and his committee are demonstrating that the healthy functioning of our democracy is less important to them than the advancement of their ideological agenda.

Yes, Mr Smith is religious, but so also are most members of congress in both parties. The Democrats, who are mostly religious as well in their personal lives, did not behave like this when they held the chair, so it does lead you to wonder what is going on.

I’m sure that the $600,000 that Mr Smith received from the Oil and Gas Industry has played no part in any of this, has not influenced him in any way at all, and came with no strings attached.

It is perhaps not just the money, there are other factors also in play as well. One is that amongst his tribe (Republican conservatives) Climate Change denial is a vote winner and so this is also an additional motivation for maintaining that position. Another is that opposing anything advocated by President Obama, no matter how rational or how good it might be, results in an almost automatic and very negative emotional response. No other US president has ever had to endue such a degree of vitriol and hostility, and so clearly racism is an issue as well. One other factor is also Mr Smith’s specific variation of religious belief. He is a Christian Scientist, a sect that embraces the idea that reality as we understand it is an illusion, and so his rather bizarre religious beliefs most probably does also play a part.

In summary, Mr Smith has clearly articulated the idea that scientists are substituting politics for evidence, but the truth is the other way around. It is Mr Smith and his congressional inquisition that have clearly permitted politics to displace empirical evidence.

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