Let’s see … It’s been a little less than three years since George Bush left office and about four years since I published Censoring Science. How quickly we forget–especially when we’re helped to forget.

Last week’s issue of Science magazine included a letter I had written to them a couple of months ago.  The letter is pretty much self-explanatory; I’ve appended it below. It’s about an attempt to revise history that I found in the magazine’s obituary of John Marburger, the former science adviser to Mr. Bush.

Although I thought the record ought to be corrected (and am gratified that Science has agreed), I saw no need to bring up the widespread criticism that Marburger faced during his tenure, as some obituary writers have (links here and here). On the other hand, it probably is worth pointing out that Nature, which is published in Britain and which did allude to the criticism in its obituary, also did a much better job of covering the censorship while it was taking place than Science did. Science is based in Washington and is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One wonders whether the editors felt constrained by the fact that, historically, Republican administrations have reacted to bad news from the scientific community, be it in their findings or in their policy or political statements, by cutting science funding.

It is true that John Marburger staunchly defended the indefensible acts of the Bush Administration when it twisted, suppressed, and censored scientific findings, on his watch. However, most of the insiders I interviewed for the book told me that he was probably one of the good guys, one of the many “governors of occupied territories” in that administration who tried their best to do the right thing under very difficult circumstances. Another was Dr. James Mahoney,  Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Commerce Department. Commerce oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where the suppression of climate science was institutionalized. Mahoney was additionally placed at the head of the US Climate Change Science Program, an organization that Bush (or, most likely, Dick Cheney) set up, ostensibly to coordinate climate science across the many agencies that conduct it, but in fact to control, spin, and suppress it. I was told that Mahoney, like Marburger, chose to work from the inside to limit the damage, rather than to turn in his badge. I don’t know what I would have done had I stood in either of these men’s shoes; but, as I say in the letter, it is not my place to second guess them. They may very well have been doing the bravest and most ethical thing.

When the editor from Science got in touch with me a few weeks ago, mainly to ask for references, I came across another case of history being rewritten–or, in this case, erased altogether. The first reference in my letter is to a report on political interference with climate science that was prepared by the House Oversight Committee–which was controlled, admittedly, by Democrats at the time. It is a solid report, nevertheless, based on extensive documentary evidence and fact-finding. The Oversight Committee is now controlled by Republicans. When I searched its Web site for the report, I found that it had been expunged, along with the transcripts of testimony that had been given at the congressional hearings that provided much of the basis for it. My guess would be that this is illegal.

Furthermore, it was quite depressing to skim over the titles of the most recent reports by the Republican majority, since this brought me face to face with the toxicity and childishness of the present discourse in Washington. They read like headlines from the editorial page of a right-wing tabloid, or press bulletins from a Tea Party public relations firm. Here are the four most recent:

Report: “Uncovering the True Impact of the Obamacare Tax Credits: Increases the Deficit, Expands Welfare through the Tax Code, and Implements a New Marriage Tax Penalty” – October 27, 2011

Report: How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs – September 22, 2011

Report: Broken Government: How the Administrative State has Broken President Obama’s Promise of Regulatory Reform – September 14, 2011

Report: Doubling Down on Failure: Before Asking for a New Stimulus Package, Will the Obama Administration Admit that the First One Failed? – September 8, 2011

This puts me in mind of a remark I came across in a column in our local newspaper up here in Vermont, written by one of our local treasures, outdoor writer Gary Moore. (This is the first time I’ve ever seen him stray into politics.)

I have been frustrated, embarrassed and angered by what has been happening in Washington as our Senators and Congressmen pontificate and obfuscate and do little of worth.

I am reminded of what Henry Ward Beecher wrote in the late 19th century.

“The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.”

I’d prefer not to contemplate the level of scientific censorship we will see if any of the current choices on the Republican side are elected president. We may look back on the Bush/Cheney years as the good old days.

Anyway, here’s the letter. The links to Science and Nature may be problematic since they’re behind paywalls. If you wish, you can find additional details on the “resources” page of the Censoring Science Web site–Paul Thacker’s Freedom of Information Act documents are especially interesting–or in the book itself.

The one thing I wish I had added to the letter was that, before James Connaughton became Bush’s most trusted advisor on climate and other environmental matters, he worked as a lobbyist in Washington for major industrial polluters. His firm helped General Electric and ARCO, for example, skirt responsibility for their Superfund waste sites.

 

Science Adviser Faced Tough Political Climate

Raymond Orbach’s retrospective on the life of John Marburger contains an astounding statement that deserves a rebuttal. After observing that, in his role as science adviser to George W. Bush, Marburger dealt with “formidable scientific issues…including stem cell research and climate change,” Orbach asserts that “those who differed with Administration policy during his tenure often injected politics into the scientific debate.  They would resort to intimidating attack, mixing their ideology with scientific argument.”

This is at best arguable and at worst a gross distortion of fact and history. A vast amount of documentary evidence and congressional testimony (15) demonstrates that Orbach has it exactly wrong. From its inception, the Bush Administration injected politics into scientific issues, evoking outrage in scientists, both in the United States and abroad (68).

From what I could tell as I interviewed numerous government scientists and other public servants in the course of  writing a book about the censorship of climate science under the Bush Administration (9), John Marburger was a fine man who fought the good fight under very difficult circumstances. He made his own decisions on how to deal with the widespread distortion, censorship, and suppression of science that took place on his watch, and it is not our place to second-guess him. He was, as Orbach writes, “the longest-serving presidential science adviser in U.S. history,” but we should also remember that President Bush did not seek much advice about science. He waited an unprecedented 10 months before even appointing a science adviser, and he stripped away the title “assistant to the president” as he did so (10, 11). Thus, Marburger never had direct access to the president. Bush’s top adviser on climate was James Connaughton, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, who was a lawyer (12).

Mark Bowen

1.     U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Political interference with climate change science under the Bush Administration (2007).

2.     Union of Concerned Scientists and Government Accountability Project, Atmosphere of pressure: Political interference in federal climate science (2007).

3.     T. Maassarani , Redacting the science of climate change: An investigative and synthesis report (Government
Accountability Project, Washington, DC, 2007).

4.     A.C. Revkin, NASA’s Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet, The New York Times, 22 July 2006.

5.     Union of  Concerned Scientists, ExxonMobil report: Smoke, mirrors, and hot air (2007).

6.     C. Macilwain, G.  Brumfiel, US scientists fight political meddling, Nature 439, 896 (2006).

7.     A. C. Revkin, Bush vs. the Laureates: How Science Became a Partisan Issue, The New  York Times, 19 October 2004.

8.     Union of  Concerned Scientists, “2004 scientist statement on restoring scientific
integrity to federal policy making
” (2004).

9.     M. S. Bowen, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack
on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming
(Dutton, New York, 2007).

10.  Breakthrough of the Year, “Bush mystery science theater,” Science 294, 2446 (2001).

11.  G. Brumfiel, “Mission Impossible?Nature 428, 250 (2004).

12.  The White House,  Ask the White House, James L. Connaughton.

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