June 7, 2016

The Conduct of the House Science Committee Chair Should Horrify Climate Scientists

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:25 pm

It should be apparent that I’m an independent thinker and that, as a scientist, I stick up for the interests of scientists when they are being shamed and harassed by political leaders and activists.  That is why I called out progressive groups that are uninvolved in (and, I suspect, uninformed of) the extreme difficulties of acquiring funding for research and conferences when they attacked the American Geophysical Union for accepting a small amount of ExxonMobil money to help pay for its annual conference.  There undoubtedly are instances for which ExxonMobil, and others in the fossil fuel industry, can be attacked—for actually influencing research in an improper fashion—but that is not one of them.

That said, I also have mixed feelings about the large legal case that involves ExxonMobil potentially defrauding its investors and the public about climate change, because it also involves atmospheric scientists at certain institutions who are climate skeptics and have apparently been funded by the fossil fuel industry.  In the first place, as a scientist, there’s a part of me that is troubled by the thought of the legal system being involved in matters of scientific misconduct rather than the scientific peer process.  I realize that this case involves much more than that, and that ExxonMobil is the party actually in the hot seat, but this is a visceral “do not like” moment nonetheless.

I also don’t like the implication that any scientific researcher who takes money from certain industry sources is automatically suspect.  I was funded by the fossil fuel industry.  While working on my Master’s degree, I did a side project that was funded by money from BP in the Gulf oil spill aftermath.  The purpose was to determine the atmospheric impact, if any, of the oil spill along the coastal wetlands.  I was unable to find an effect.  I suspect now that the reason for this is that the dataset we had available was grossly insufficient for the purpose, and that we simply didn’t have enough money to set up a new, high-resolution network of sensors along the wetland areas.  Detecting atmospheric boundary layer changes in a small area is virtually impossible without a high-resolution sensor network, not that I knew that as a beginning Master’s student.  The work was “put in the file drawer.”  Is it possible that BP knew that we wouldn’t be able to find anything without that superior sensor network that we didn’t have?  I suppose it is, in retrospect.  However, if such a thing is the case, that does not implicate me or any other person working on the project.  I had no correspondence from anyone in BP and no pressure from anybody to find a negative result.  It is possible for someone to have funding from a “suspect” source and come up with negative outcomes and yet for no research fraud whatsoever to have taken place.

If I hadn’t had the BP money, I wouldn’t have been able to get my Master’s degree—or begin a doctorate.  (Although it didn’t fund any part of my doctoral research, without an existing degree, I wouldn’t have been eligible for the Ph. D. program.)  This is the part that, I think, many political activists don’t get.  Funding is hard to come by and we take it where it is to be found.  The overwhelming majority of atmospheric scientists do not allow their funding source to hurt their integrity.

So this is why I have misgivings about political figures questioning scientists about scientific research outcomes that they don’t care for, even when the scientists being questioned are diametrically opposed to me on an important research and policy issue.  I’m not going to comment on the substance of this court case, because I trust that the court can handle it, but if I didn’t have a visceral concern about a court case that involves climate-skeptic atmospheric scientists, I would have to consider myself the worst sort of hypocrite to object to what is being done to non-skeptic climate scientists by the Republican majority of the House Subcommittee on Science.

And that is the actual topic of this piece.

Atmospheric scientists who are not aware of what is going on should be, because it is chilling and could very easily involve them at some point.  There aren’t that many places that will employ atmospheric scientists to work in their actual field of study, but NOAA is one of them.  And the Chairman of the House Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), has been doing nothing short of libeling the agency, threatening its employees, and impugning the scientific integrity of every climate scientist who works for it.  That is not an exaggeration.

Last year, Smith sent threatening letters to NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.  He has also gone to right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and claimed that NOAA climatologists tampered with temperature data, presumably at Dr. Sullivan’s behest, to advance the Obama administration’s, quote, “extreme climate agenda” (his words).  Scientists have all sorts of valid reasons to revise early data, especially from sources such as satellites.  Satellite data calibration is literally an entire sub-field of meteorology, not that Smith understands or cares to understand that.  Needless to say, this despicable assertion places him in the category of climate skeptic that I can have no respect for whatever:  those who think that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to commit research fraud.  Like most making this baseless, slanderous assertion, Smith seems to either have no concept of the gravity of his accusation (proven research fraud is a career-ender in science), or he simply doesn’t care.

I suspect it’s the latter.  Extreme climate-change deniers actually do want to put every scientist who disagrees with them out of a job and destroy them personally.  It’s gotten to that point.

Smith has also seen fit to insert himself into the aforementioned court case involving ExxonMobil, which is a state-level matter and over which the House has no jurisdiction.  He has demanded communications from state attorneys general that consulted with environmental and climate-realist nonprofit organizations (as if it’s somehow unusual or corrupt for political figures to talk to nonprofits), as well as from employees at the nonprofits themselves.  He has demanded communication from climate scientists.  For two years he has been conducting his own little version of the Benghazi Committee’s unending witch-hunt, but instead of it being about an event in which a United States ambassador was killed, he has been abusing his position to harass climate scientists—most of whom have had no involvement whatever in policymaking (not that that is an indicator of lack of integrity)—who produced research that has a conclusion he and some of his Committee majority don’t care for.

Think about that.  A Member of Congress who heads up a committee has been summoning scientists to testify and provide him with e-mail correspondence, simply because his committee oversees NOAA and he doesn’t like the conclusions that researchers within NOAA have been finding.  He apparently believes that his role includes making sure that NOAA produces data that the current Congressional majority likes.

If that doesn’t horrify you, it should.  And he is not the only politician to conduct himself like this and abuse his authority.  The former Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, did the same thing to climatologists at the University of Virginia while he was in office.

It’s pretty apparent why climate-change deniers don’t talk about the sun anymore, and don’t usually talk much about nebulous and undefined “natural cycles,” but instead accuse climatologists of producing fraudulent data to further a political agenda.  The thought process, such as it is, seems to go like this:

  1. Scientists receive salary and/or research funding from the government.
  2. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, which is in the executive branch.
  3. The President accepts the science of climate change and has promoted emissions reduction and clean energy throughout his term of office.
  4. Therefore, all climate science conducted by governmental agencies must be done expressly and exclusively to promote the President’s policy agenda.
    1. Corollary: Therefore, the only reason the scientists could possibly have to revise early data must be political pressure.

Obviously, the fallacy is in drawing a link between a source of funding and the outcome of a scientific research project (or, for that matter, its purpose).  This is why I don’t like it when activists from any side go after scientists’ integrity because of who pays their expenses.  If it seems that I go after my own side harder than I do my opponents, that is because I am more disappointed when my own side engages in shaming, and also because I know that people who already think my field is fraudulent aren’t going to listen to anything I say in defense of it.  Those who are indeed defending scientists from people like Lamar Smith might be willing to hear a scientist’s perspective.

Not all scientists are going to have the stomach for jumping into the maelstrom of politics.  I get that.  I get that viscerally.  It’s actually been a source of—not alienation, exactly, but something close to it, between me and many fellow doctoral students in my department.  They’re pure researchers who don’t want anything to do with politics or policy, while I am not.  But there is another class of scientists out there, scientists who do have an interest in the policy implications of their work, but who think that somehow it undermines their integrity as scientists—or that it presents a conflict of interest—to jump into the fray.

It doesn’t.  An opinion is not a conflict of interest (or if it is, then everyone has one), and an actual conflict of interest does not mean fraud.  Climate scientists who do want to have a say in this sort of thing need to stand up and be heard.  Their 3% of colleagues who are climate-change skeptics may largely be polite and respectful (or passive-aggressive, at worst—and scientists of all stripes have refined that into a fine art).  They may propose some combination of natural climatic cycles that partially account for one source of temperature data, while not really attempting to challenge the enormous mass of data supporting anthropogenic climate change.  But their adversaries in politics are not going to play nice.

They are going to disgrace the dignity of their offices by going to racist conspiracy-theorist media outlets, and baselessly accuse entire governmental agencies—and every scientist in them—of making up data, the very worst thing one could say about a scientist in the professional sphere.

They are going to demand private correspondence from government scientists for open-ended witch-hunts.

They are going to inject themselves into legal cases over which they have no jurisdiction and demand private correspondence from attorneys general and nonprofit organizations.

They are going to call scientists up to Congress and harass them for hours about their research findings.

And sitting back and hoping that they won’t touch you because you’re a pure researcher, not involved in policy, no “conflict of interest”—so very good—won’t stop them from doing it.  It just tells them you won’t fight back.

July 30, 2015

Yes, It’s Advocacy. So?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:34 pm

I follow a number of television meteorologists on social media.  I’m not a broadcaster myself and have never had the slightest interest in undertaking that career path, but I’ve found that they are good sources for up-to-the-minute information about ongoing weather events and disasters.  On Twitter, for instance, they will tend to retweet any report from a person who is in a town that has been hit by a tornado.  Other than chaser accounts (which I also follow), it’s really the best source of information about what is going on in such events immediately after the disaster has occurred and before the major news reporters pick it up.

As one would expect, I also receive retweets and shares from them in my feeds that are not about disaster updates.  Like anyone else, they’ll share pieces they find interesting or agree with.  And, given that I primarily subscribe to TV meteorologists in the Southeast, and that (for some reason that hasn’t been fully explained—perhaps a good background in weather but limited education in climatology?) broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics in the majority, one would also expect some of these “general” shares to be about climate change.  Many of the shares, in fact, are not even originally from other broadcast meteorologists, who perhaps realize that it’s less credible for the “TV weatherman” to go on about the subject than for a researcher to do so, but instead are from research meteorologists and the occasional skeptic climatologist.  These people do indeed exist.  No scientific hypothesis has 100% agreement, not even gravity (but don’t take my word for it; look up the controversy in physics about the existence of the hypothetical graviton particle).  There are approximately 3% of climatologists and climate-specializing atmospheric scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change.  They seem to have quite a loud mic for their numbers, with the same three or four people always being cited as “climatologists who deny climate change,” but when a scientific topic becomes political, the media will want to find “balance for both sides.”

There is a hashtag that has become increasingly common for these people and their supporters regarding the 97% of climatologists who do accept the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change:  #Advocacy.  It is the snarky, disdainful sort of hashtag rather than a purely descriptive one, posted at the end of a link in which a research scientist who studies the topic is also quoted as making policy suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or if a research study about it is being supported by a think tank.

When I first started seeing this on social media, it irritated me deeply.  Attempts to discredit scientists who study this subject are extremely personal to me, one of the most guaranteed ways of irking me.  I tried to think of a defense and comeback, an explanation of how the “objectionable” statements are not advocacy.  And then I realized:  You know what, they’re right.  It is advocacy.  But that doesn’t discredit anything.

The #Advocacy hashtag—used in this context—is indeed an attempt to discredit the work of climate scientists.  It does need to be countered, but not by a denial that advocacy is taking place, because obviously it is.  It’s not even the most effective counter to mention that, by this same standard, climate-change-denier atmospheric scientists who speak to the media (or work with right-leaning think tanks) are also “advocates” and that it is therefore hypocritical for them to object to the other side doing it.  It’s certainly worth pointing out the hypocrisy from a narrative-control perspective, but I cannot support implicitly agreeing with this notion that it is somehow a bad thing for scientists to engage in “advocacy” because it “contaminates their research.”  The fact is, it doesn’t.

What is needed is an education campaign about the scientific method.  The sneering hashtag is another instance of a profoundly anti-scientific populist political trend of claiming conflict of interest about research when the researchers have political opinions on the policy implications of the study.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now:  Wanting research to have certain results does not discredit it.  Having research funded by an organization wanting certain results does not discredit it.  The only thing that can discredit research is its methodology.  It doesn’t matter who does the project, merely how it is done.  That’s how the scientific method works.  If you want to criticize or attack scientific research with which you disagree, you have two options:  Find a flaw in the methodology that undermines the claimed conclusions, or prove fraud.  That’s it.

Yes, it’s advocacy when a climatologist in “the 97%” is quoted in the media as offering policy suggestions.  It’s advocacy when a think tank commissions a study about climate change or hires its own in-house scientists to do it.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

September 9, 2014

Why I’m Against Privatizing the National Weather Service

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:18 pm

Note:  This was an essay for a seminar.  I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.


The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today.  Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance.  Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously:  the National Weather Service.  Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced.  The proposal has taken two primary forms:  the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.

History of the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system.  For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately.  The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible.  In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms.  The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools.  The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast.  In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer.  Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere.  In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.

(Read more…)

June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

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