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Monday, July 24, 2006

On Global Warming: Censorship, or Diversity?

My Friday post about NASA scientist James Hansen's reported unwillingness to participate in a Congressional hearing on global warming because the Committee included what Hansen calls "contrarians" in its invitation list brought this thoughtful letter of disagreement:
Ms. Ridenour,

I just read your post on [the July 20] climate conference (you'll be happy to know it popped up on a Google search for "climate science"). I'm writing you directly because your blog doesn't seem to accept comments.

While I think Hansen's e-mail is politically dumb (I think he should have either attended despite his cold or not attended out of protest), I can't blame him for not wanting to attend. Given the Senate's recent attacks on his credibility (http://epw.senate.gov/pressitem.cfm?id=258440&party=rep) and a frustration with getting into the same debate for the Nteenth time, I probably wouldn't want to show up either.

I think you are overstating the matter in your blog's title and in the conclusion: "Had the House Government Reform Committee taken a page from Dr. Hansen's playbook and refused to invite Dr. Christy solely because of Christy's views, it would have been censorship."

Not inviting Dr. Christy would not have been "censorship" in any sense of the word. Not inviting him may have been politically unwise, but that's not the same as censorship. The Committee's constraints (time, relevance, etc.) force them to consider some standards when drawing its list of invitees. Not inviting an individual solely because of their views, if those views fall outside of a reasonable standard, is reasonable and necessary. Dr. Hansen's view is that Dr. Christy falls outside of this curve of reasonable beliefs. You and the Congressmen clearly disagree. That's fine, but had Dr. Hansen had his way, it still would not have been censorship.

The Committee can't and shouldn't consider all views. I think you would join me in objecting if the scriptwriter to "The Day After Tomorrow" was invited to give his or her take on things (tornadoes in LA and glaciers in New York as early as next Thursday). Hence, you need to carefully limit who gives testimony (and for the record I'm not saying that Dr. Christy's grasp of science is the same as Hollywood scriptwriters).

Considering some of the things that the Committee will be investigating, including manipulation of scientific documents for political purposes (AKA censorship) and muzzling of government scientists, suggesting that Dr. Hansen's sentiment is akin to censorship is hyperbole if not plainly untrue.

Respectfully,

Ian Hart

Director of Communications
Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security
www.pacinst.org
Research for People and the Planet
If "censoring" can properly be described as the act of suppressing or deleting things considered objectionable, and a variety of dictionaries assure me it can, then a decision by the Committee to exclude testimony from individuals who have not been convinced beyond reasonable doubt that human beings are causing significant global warming would seem to meet the definition.

I willingly concede to Mr. Hart that some censorship is desirable and unavoidable because of time and other constraints. Had the hearing's purpose been to elicit policy recommendations from firm believers in the anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming theory, even I might have agreed that it would make perfect sense to invite only those scientists whose minds are made up. This hearing was billed, however, as "Climate Change: Understanding the Degree of the Problem," and the Committee determined that it wanted to hear a range of views. It therefore made perfect sense for the Committee to invite persons whose views were not in broad general agreement with Dr. Hansen's.

Dr. Hansen, who is a government employee, first broached the issue of censorship in January by claiming of his employing agency to the national press, "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public." The agency has procedures in place for media interviews, public statements, statements on the agency website, etc. that are to be followed by agency employees. Dr. Hansen objected to these procedures and said, as described by the New York Times, that he "would ignore" them. (Dr. Hansen's views on employer-employee relations are definitely contrarian.)

If an employer telling an employee to coordinate his work-related interviews through a designated office is censorship, then what James Hansen wanted Congress to do -- stop letting "contrarian" scientists testify -- certainly is. And the agency's supposed "censorship" of Hansen, which is procedural rather than content-based, seems on its face to more swiftly meet any test of reasonableness than does Hansen's recommendation to the Committee.

I still believe what I implied Friday: Dr. Hansen is being hypocritical in this instance. I'm also surprised, frankly, that any governmental employee thinks it is proper to reject a request for testimony from Congress. In the private sector, do corporate employees blow off information requests from the board of directors?

As to Mr. Hart's comment that "I think you would join me in objecting if the scriptwriter to "The Day After Tomorrow" was invited to give his or her take on things...," a small side note. One of the people who did testify at the hearing is a Hollywood producer and scriptwriter. He was invited, apparently, because he plans to start a group that will "create the TV commercials, print ads, websites, editorials, events, daily sound-bites for the news media" to promote getting the federal government to "pay for" or "at least indemnify businesses against" the financial costs of getting America to "cut 80% of carbon emissions in ten to fifteen years."

To my knowledge, Dr. Hansen is not on record as objecting to an invitation to appear at a global warming event with a filmmaker who, whoever sincere, has yet even to begin the PR-related work he described to the Committee. Being physically present during this testimony by a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with qualifications such as these, however, was more than Hansen was prepared to tolerate.

Maybe this is just a case of a man who doesn't like being disagreed with, or, in the case of the dispute with his employer, being told what to do?

Posted by Amy Ridenour at 5:53 PM

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