Attacks on climate science by former NASA staff shouldn’t be taken seriously

Attacks on climate science by former NASA staff shouldn’t be taken seriously

A letter from former administrators, astronauts, and engineers at NASA expressing climate change scepticism does not deserve parity with the agency’s peer-reviewed climate scientists

  •, Thursday 12 April 2012 11.21 BST
  • Article history
  • Prof James Hansen

    Attacks on climate science by former NASA staff should not be considered equal to the work of NASA climate scientists such as James Hansen, pictured. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

    Almost exactly two years ago, John Cook wrote about the 5 characteristics of science denialism. The second point on the list involved fake experts.

    “These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry who developed a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.”

    We have seen many examples of climate denialists producing long lists of fake experts, for example the Oregon Petition and the Wall Street Journal 16. Now we have yet another of these lists of fake experts. 49 former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees (led by Harrison Schmitt, who was also one of the Wall Street Journal 16) have registered their objection to mainstream climate science through the most popular medium of expressing climate contrarianism – a letter. As is usually the case in these climate contrarian letters, this one has no scientific content, and is written by individuals with not an ounce of climate science expertise, but who nevertheless have the audacity to tell climate scientists what they should think about climate science.

    It’s worth noting that when the signatories Meet The Denominator, as is also always the case, their numbers are revealed as quite unimpressive. For example, over 18,000 people currently work for NASA. Without even considering the pool of retired NASA employees (all signatories of this list are former NASA employees), just as with the Oregon Petition, the list accounts for a fraction of a percent of the available pool of people.

    This letter, as these letters always do, has gone viral in the climate denial blogosphere, and even in the climate denial mainstream media (Fox News). But why exactly is this letter being treated as major news? That is something of a mystery. Or it would be, if the behavior of the climate denial community weren’t so predictable.

    The Signatories

    Obviously this letter first gained attention because the signatories are former NASA employees. They are being touted as “top astronauts, scientists, and engineers” and “NASA experts, with more than 1000 years of combined professional experience.” Okay, but in what fields does their expertise lie?

    Based on the job titles listed in the letter signatures, by my count they include 23 administrators, 8 astronauts, 7 engineers, 5 technicians, and 4 scientists/mathematicians of one sort or another (none of those sorts having the slightest relation to climate science). Amongst the signatories and their 1,000 years of combined professional experience, that appears to include a grand total of zero hours of climate research experience, and zero peer-reviewed climate science papers. You can review the signatories for yourself here.

    Contrarians for Censoring Climate Science

    These 49 former NASA employees wrote this letter to the current NASA administrator requesting that he effectively muzzle the climate scientists at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).

    “We, the undersigned, respectfully request that NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites.”

    Since nothing in science is ever proven, apparently these individuals simply don’t want NASA GISS to discuss science in their public releases or websites anymore. What specifically do they object to?

    “We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated, especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data. With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts, coming particularly from the GISS leadership, it is clear that the science is NOT settled.”

    Ah yes, the ever-more-popular goalpost shift of “catastrophic climate change”. The letter of course provides no examples of NASA GISS public releases or websites claiming that CO2 is having a catastrophic impact on climate change, and of course provides zero examples of these mysterious “hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists” who disbelieve these unspecified catastrophic claims. As is always the case with these types of letters, it is all rhetoric and no substance.

    “As former NASA employees, we feel that NASA’s advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study of the possible overwhelming impact of natural climate drivers is inappropriate.

    As Skeptical Science readers are undoubtely well aware, the impact of natural climate drivers has been very thoroughly studied, and they simply cannot account for the observed global warming or climate change, especially over the past 50-65 years (Figure 1).

    HvA 50 years

    Figure 1: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

    The contrarians continue:

    “We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject. At risk is damage to the exemplary reputation of NASA, NASA’s current or former scientists and employees, and even the reputation of science itself.”

    If NASA administrators were to censor the organization’s climate scientists at the behest of a few of its former employees who have less climate science experience and expertise combined than the summer interns at NASA GISS, that would really damage NASA’s exemplary reputation.

    Expertise Matters

    Let’s be explicit about our choice here.

    • On the one hand we have a bunch of former administrators, astronauts, and engineers who between them have zero climate expertise and zero climate science publications.

    • On the other hand we have the climate scientists at NASA GISS who between them have decades, perhaps even centuries of combined professional climate research experience, and hundreds, perhaps even thousands of peer-reviewed climate science publications.

    Amongst those individuals at NASA GISS are some of the world’s foremost climate scientists. They include James Hansen, who created one of the earliest global climate models in the 1980s, which has turned out to be remarkably accurate (Figure 2).

    Hansen Actual Prediction

    Figure 2: Observed temperature change (GISTEMP, blue) and with solar, volcanic and El Niño Southern Oscillation effects removed by Foster and Rahmstorf (green) vs. Hansen Scenario B trend adjusted downward 16% to reflect the observed changes in radiative forcings since 1988, using a 1986 to 1990 baseline.

    This is not a difficult choice for NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. We would not be surprised if he gave the ‘skeptic’ letter one look and tossed it in the recycle bin.

    Climate contrarians clearly disagree, but in the real world, expertise matters. The fact that these 49 individuals used to work at NASA does not make them experts in everything NASA does. If the issue at hand were another moon landing, then by all means, the opinions of many of these individuals would be well worth considering. But we’re not talking about space shuttle launches or moon landings here, we’re talking about climate science. This is a subject which, to be blunt, these 49 individuals clearly don’t know the first thing about.

    To those who are making so much noise about this letter – the next time you are at a medical center in need of major surgery, will you go see a pediatrician? Or as a more relevant analogy, will you visit your neighbor, the retired dentist, and ask him to perform the surgery for you?

    Somehow we suspect you will insist that the surgery be performed by a surgeon with relevant expertise. The reason is of course that expertise matters. Perhaps you would be wise to consider that fact the next time a group of climate contrarians with little to no expertise publish another of these letters.

    As we suggested to William Happer, if climate contrarians want their opinions to be taken seriously, they should engage in real science within the peer-review system that works for every scientific field. That is how science advances – not through letters filled with empty rhetoric, regardless of how many inexpert retirees sign them.

    Note that NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati has issued a response with very similar points and suggestions as our post:

    “NASA sponsors research into many areas of cutting-edge scientific inquiry, including the relationship between carbon dioxide and climate. As an agency, NASA does not draw conclusions and issue ‘claims’ about research findings. We support open scientific inquiry and discussion.

    “Our Earth science programs provide many unique space-based observations and research capabilities to the scientific community to inform investigations into climate change, and many NASA scientists are actively involved in these investigations, bringing their expertise to bear on the interpretation of this information. We encourage our scientists to subject these results and interpretations to scrutiny by the scientific community through the peer-review process. After these studies have met the appropriate standards of scientific peer-review, we strongly encourage scientists to communicate these results to the public.

    “If the authors of this letter disagree with specific scientific conclusions made public by NASA scientists, we encourage them to join the debate in the scientific literature or public forums rather than restrict any discourse.”

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