” … the rewards and perils of scientific writing in the political realm …”

This coming Friday, I’ll be joining a panel at Netroots Nation in Austin, Texas, to discuss Restructuring U.S. Science Policy.

Seems like a good idea to post the recent interview I did with the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), since it bears directly on some of the ideas I intend to talk about:


As the holder of bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and as the author of Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (2008, Dutton), Mark Bowen is uniquely qualified to discuss writing about the intersection of politics and meteorology. He also wrote Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains (2005, Henry Holt and Company). Bowen recently took the time to answer some questions about the rewards and perils of political writing in the scientific realm.

BAMS: What motivated you to write about the interaction of politics and science?

BOWEN: My motivation was simply to write about Jim Hansen. His work had attracted my interest when I was writing my first book, Thin Ice, which is about Lonnie Thompson, the paleoclimatologist from The Ohio State University. While Lonnie’s science is superb, it became clear to me as I was writing that it doesn’t tell a complete story on its own. His ice cores and his observation of the widespread retreat of mountain glaciers provide compelling and unequivocal evidence that the planet is warming and that the scope of the warming is unprecedented in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, and perhaps even millions of years — but it does not tell us why. Jim’s work answers that question. I met and interviewed Jim when I was writing Thin Ice. He is probably the most important character in the book outside the members of Lonnie’s group.

In the fall of 2005, right around the time Thin Ice was released, an editor and I began discussing the idea of doing a book about Jim. The editor made the odd suggestion that it might be “less awkward” if he, rather than I, were to present the idea to Jim; but I heard nothing back for a couple of months. Then, at the end of January 2006, Jim’s censorship story hit the headlines. Turns out the editor had never called him. So, at the end of February, I got in touch with Jim myself, and he immediately agreed to work with me. He gave me open access, but I did all the writing. He has no financial interest in the book.

BAMS: What are the most fulfilling and most difficult aspects of writing on this topic?

BOWEN: The most fulfilling things were to be able to work closely with Jim and to harbor the hope, at least, of helping him wake the world up to this impending catastrophe and maybe even affect policy. The difficult aspects both had to do with politics: It’s hard enough to write a substantive nonfiction book without having to deal with sources who will lie, either openly or not so openly, and others who are afraid to speak, out of fear of recrimination. Based on the notion that the censorship story was timely and tied only to the Bush/Cheney administration (the latter being an erroneous assumption), my publisher also set ridiculously short deadlines-and, in the end, took the book out of my hands before I felt it was ready. Although I am reasonably happy with how it turned out, I would have liked to have had more time to simplify the storytelling and structure and to have been able to take a longer view of Jim’s career, his science, and his proposed solutions.

BAMS: What does it mean to be a scientist in a discipline that has become so politicized? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

BOWEN: One thing it means is that your work is most likely meaningful — that is, relevant to the average person — and that’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, it thrusts you into the hurly-burly of public debate, where the rules don’t even extend to being truthful, so it tests your equanimity, along with your ability to remain truthful yourself and to convey scientific knowledge in plain, everyday language. Being in the public limelight forces you to shed the armor of scientific professionalism, which can be a way of avoiding clear thinking — hiding behind your discipline — so, ultimately, I think, it is good for a scientist to have to defend his or her work in public every once in a while. It is stimulating, it requires courage, and it forces you to get the science right.

BAMS: How do politics ultimately affect the way science is conducted?

BOWEN: Well, the big thing is always funding, of course, and we have seen that go both ways in the global warming area. For the most part, conservative legislators and presidential administrations have cut funding to the bearers or discoverers of bad climate news. Ironically, however, George Bush Sr. was responsible for the largest increase in climate science funding in history. It seems that he figured he could shut the scientists up by giving them money to go off, do research for a while, and keep arguing among themselves — and his tactic seems to have worked.

In this case, I think politicization has also led to a misplaced emphasis on finding a so-called consensus. This has allowed people — and this includes some scientists — who aren’t necessarily well-informed or even capable of understanding the science to weigh in, not to mention those vested interests whose agenda is simply to muddy the waters or “teach the controversy.” The fact is that the scientific connection between human activity and a dangerously warming climate was well-established by 1988, when Jim Hansen made his legendary testimony to Congress. By that time, the scientific case for limiting greenhouse emissions was at least as strong as the case for limiting chemicals that harm the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol, which has phased out the production of chlorofluorocarbons and so on, was signed in 1989, yet we are still a long way from establishing an effective international mechanism for limiting the greenhouse, some 20 years later.

BAMS: What do you think the relationship should be between science and politics?

BOWEN: It seems obvious that politicians should seek impartial advice from the scientific community on issues that have a scientific component — and most issues facing society nowadays do have a scientific component. Even if that component isn’t obvious, many seemingly intractable policy issues yield well to the paradigm of rational examination that is exemplified by the scientific approach. Jim often alludes to an admonition by the physicist Richard Feynman: “The only way to have real success in science . . . is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians approached policy-making that way? Think of W.M.D.’s in Iraq.

It seems to me that our Founding Fathers attempted to build this rational, rather than ideological, approach into our governmental framework. But, unfortunately, things have been going the wrong way for at least the past 50 years. There was an excellent article in Physics Today this past summer [John S. Rigden. Eisenhower, scientists, and Sputnik. Vol. 60, pp. 47-52.] that argued that the last U.S. president who honestly sought and valued scientific advice was probably John F. Kennedy, and that the gold standard was probably set by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who set up the first President’s Science Advisory Committee in response to the Russians’ launching of Sputnik. A few months before his death in 1969, as he lay on a bed in Walter Reed Hospital, Eisenhower told his former science advisor, James Killian of MIT, that that “bunch of scientists was one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seemed to be there to help the country and not to help themselves.”

Scientists have been moved farther and farther from White House decision making ever since that time. George W. Bush, for example, waited nine months into his first term before even appointing a science advisor, and he stripped off the title “assistant to the president” as he did so. Thus, John Marburger, who has held the post ever since, does not have direct access to the president.

BAMS: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Censoring Science?

BOWEN: I have to say that I was shocked both at the level of corruption among the political appointees at NASA — and the people in the White House who were directing them — and at their arrogance, which really translates into stupidity. I mean, didn’t they realize that they would eventually get caught? I am not speaking here of the agency’s career people, whom I found to be honest, intelligent, committed, qualified, and good at what they do, almost without exception.

BAMS: What is the most important message you hope readers will get from Censoring Science?

BOWEN: That global warming is real, it’s bad news, and we ought to do something about it right now. There has been enough talk. Let’s start with Jim’s proposal to ban any new coal-fired power plant that doesn’t sequester carbon dioxide. Robust sequestration technology is probably about 10 years off, but if we focus on efficiency, we won’t need any new coal-fired plants until the technology is here.

BAMS: How do you see the relationship of politics and climate science evolving in the near future?

BOWEN: I think it will get a little bit better (it can hardly get worse), but I am not entirely optimistic.

BAMS: Do you have any book/writing projects on the horizon?

BOWEN: Not really. I have a couple of magazine articles in mind. Books are big things, and I have learned that you can’t force them; they happen to you. I feel very thankful that Lonnie Thompson and Jim Hansen have provided me with stories that have been worth dedicating years of my life to. I hope I’ll find another one.

© 2008 American Meteorological Society