You are a scientists and you are doing two things.
First, you have finished a preliminary study and submitted a grant proposal based on your evolving idea about something, and you have just submitted a related paper to a peer reviewed journal. Well, OK, that’s a bunch of things, but they are all related to the temporal stream of the research you are expected to do as a member of the academic community.
Second, you are having conversations with your mentor, your colleagues, others, about this research in which you are traveling up and down various alleyways searching for answers to outstanding questions, ways to refine your methodology, approaches to explaining complex things. Most of the time, just when you think you might have cornered an answer, it turns out to be just another question briefly disguised as a result. But, the whole time, you are having this conversation and it is fruitful and productive, and helps your research move forward.
Suddenly, Nefarious Guy, who is the antagonist in this story, appears on the scene. The first thing Nefarious Guy does is to force you to release the data from your preliminary study, and to put a copy of the peer reviewed paper you’ve submitted on the internet. The result? Some bogus dood at another institution gets hold of your preliminary study, publishes the result under his own name. Meanwhile, the journal contacts you and says they are rejecting your paper. They want new, as yet undistributed results taking up the precious pages of their journal, and your paper is no longer new, since it is all over the internet. The last four years of work is now severely damaged. Your tenure committee is not impressed with your excuses. Your career is damaged. Later, when you give a talk to some high school kids on what is like to be a scientist, a youngster asks, “What advice would you give to someone like me, who really wants to be a scientist?” You are compelled, ethically, to tell her to start off by making friends with a lawyer and not having very high expectations for her career.
But Nefarious Guy did not end his antics there. He also got hold of many of those conversations you’ve been having with your colleagues. You see, those conversations, in conformity with the way the modern world works, have largely been via email, and these emails have been acquired and made public. Now, Nefarious Guy and his minions have been mining these emails and putting bits and pieces of them out there, stripped of their actual context and embedded in a stream of lies about how the research was done and what the motivations of the researcher “really” are.
This dishonest misrepresentation of the honest conversations you’ve had does not damage your career, because all the other scientists and academics, including the granting agencies, can see right through Nefarious Guy’s exploits. But his actions do something worse. They damage science itself, because they become part of the public discourse, and the public is generally gullible, often looking for a reason to complain anyway, and do not understand the nature of what has happened.
Nefarious Guy is a stand in for any number of politically motivated science deniers who wish to damage the scientific process, discredit the widely held scientific consensus on climate change, and punish individual scientists for being honest and truthful.
One such individual is Congressman Lemar Smith of Texas. Michael Mann, a climate scientist who has been subjected to some of this sort of nefarious activity, recently wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times that talks about Smith’s assault on climate science.
Mann notes that Smith “has long disputed the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing the climate. Now he is using his committee chairmanship to go after the government’s own climate scientists, whose latest study is an inconvenience to his views.”
Last month, Smith subpoenaed climate scientist Kathryn Sullivan of NOAA demanding the release of those honest convo emails and other similar documents pertaining to climate change related research published in Science. The study produced results most inconvenient. Essentially, it was a detailed look at the data showing that the famous #FauxPause in the rise of global surface temperatures was indeed faux.
NOAA told Smith to take a hike. Smith doubled down. More than once. It is important to note that no one is denying access to data, methods, or results. The entire scientific community is appalled at Congressman Smith’s requests and his implications that these scientists are up to something. The information Smith needs to prove himself wrong are available. This is nothing but an expeditionary move to damage science and some of the scientists who do that science.
Mann notes that Smith has tried to do this sort of damage before, sometimes with success.
While there is no doubt climate change is real and caused by humans, there is absolutely a debate to be had about the details of climate policy, and there are prominent Republicans participating constructively in that discourse. Let’s hear more from these sensible voices. And let’s end the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world. Our nation is better than that.
The New York Times gave Smith right of reply, in which he doubles down yet again, asserting that “federal employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have altered temperature data to try to refute an 18-year plateau in global temperatures…” He insists that satellite data refute the idea that warming has continued. That satellite data to which he refers is the cooked up unpublished and unreviewed, known-to-be-faulty bogus result of a couple of science deniers. Well, it is published, in a blog post, but not in the peer reviewed literature.
No wonder so many Americans distrust Congress. Both houses.