The Bush administration has been repeatedly criticized for its disdainful approach to scientific information. But Bush's Republican allies in Congress are at least as empirically challenged as the administration, if not more so. Not only does Congress turn a blind eye when the White House interferes with the activities of scientists in the federal bureaucracy; even worse, Republican members of Congress themselves are doing their part to harass and intimidate members of the nation's scientific community.
Exhibit A: Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, recently selected as chairman of the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee. For those unfamiliar with Barton, his campaign-finance profile provides a good introduction. During the 2004 election cycle, Barton received more than $ 200,000 in campaign donations from the oil/gas industry as well as from the electric utility industry, his two top sources of funding.
But Barton isn't just your typical industry-friendly GOP congressman. He's also industry's pal on matters of science. In April, for instance, he received an award from a group called the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, which celebrated his support of "rational, science-based thinking and policy-making." Previous recipients of this award (which seems invariably to go to Republicans) include global-warming denialist Senator James Inhofe. The Annapolis Center's president, Harold M. Koenig, shares sentiments similar to those of Inhofe; in a November 5, 2003, letter to The Washington Times, he wrote: "Many environmental activists contend that CO2 is the prime culprit in global warming. However, a letter signed by 17,800 scientists contends 'there is no convincing scientific evidence' that human activity is causing 'catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.'"
In short, the president of the Annapolis Center questions the indisputable human role in global warming. So if Barton represents Annapolis' ideal of "rational, science-based thinking and policy-making," the rest of us ought to worry. And sure enough, Barton has recently taken a disturbing action, abusing his powers as Energy and Commerce Committee chairman to harass and intimidate a team of scientists involved in the global-warming debate.
On June 23, presumably as a first step toward holding public hearings, Barton's committee dispatched five letters: one to the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one to the head of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and one to each of the three authors of a now-famous 1998 scientific study published in the journal Nature -- the "hockey stick" graph, showing sharply spiking global temperatures during the twentieth century and especially the 1990s. The "hockey stick” has been widely attacked by the political right both because of the striking evidence it provides for an alarming rise in temperatures in recent years and because it was prominently featured by the IPCC in the panel's Third Assessment Report (2001).
Barton's letters, in essence, announce a congressional inquisition into the validity of the "hockey stick" graph. Framed in an accusatory tone, and selectively citing "hockey stick" critics rather than the study's defenders, the letters note that "questions have been raised" concerning "the significance of methodological flaws and data errors" in the research. The letters also charge that researchers "have failed to replicate the findings of these studies, in part because of problems with the underlying data and the calculations used to reach the conclusions. Questions have also been raised concerning the sharing and dissemination of the data and methods used to perform the studies."
On this basis, and citing concerns about "the quality and transparency of federally
funded research and of the IPCC review process," Barton's committee letters demand an alarming array of both pertinent and not so pertinent information from the scientists who produced the original "hockey stick" graph -- Michael Mann of Penn State University, Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona, and Raymond Bradley of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Here's an abbreviated list of what Barton demands:
1) A list of all financial support for research that these scientists have received, even including "honoraria" (note that this sweeping request is not limited to information pertinent to the actual "hockey stick” study);
2) A list of all conditions relating to the scientists' federal and other grants, including whether these grants include stipulations relating to "the dissemination and sharing of research results" (a not-so-subtle hint that the scientists may be accused of misusing federal funds, especially as the original "hockey stick" study received funding from the NSF);
3) Information as to the location of data archives for "each published study for which you were an author or co-author" (again not limited to the "hockey stick"), as well as an explanation of "when this information was available to researchers," how the information may have been modified since study publication, and how someone else can attempt to replicate the work--essentially, a detailed auditing of the scientists' entire careers;
4) Provision of the "exact computer code" used to generate the "hockey stick" results;
5) A list of any requests the scientists have received for data and information, as well as explanations of how they have responded to such requests "and why";
6) A "a detailed narrative explanation" of supposed errors in the scientists' work and responses to specific questions raised by critics;
7) A detailed account of the scientists' contributions to the work of the IPCC (insinuating that there may have been improper behavior behind the scenes in creating the report).
You can read the rest of the gory details yourself here. This is, in short, the kind of request that could take literally months to comply with. Barton gives the scientists until July 11.
Moreover, the entire request is premised on the notion that Barton's congressional committee provides a suitable venue in which to undertake a detailed inquiry into the validity of controversial scientific results. That's downright comical. The scientific peer-review process, not a politicized congressional investigation, is the proper means to resolve any debates over the validity of previously published studies. Moreover, while the sharing of data represents a norm in the scientific community, it's not a norm that ought to be enforced by the federal government -- certainly not in the context of threatening letters and congressional scandal-mongering.
Indeed, Barton's letters betray a deeply naïve notion of how scientific debates can be resolved--the idea that as one can simply "get the data" and thereby discover an objective answer. In fact, it can be difficult to divorce data themselves from the methodological framework in which they are embedded, and controversies over methodology cannot simply be resolved by an "audit" process.
And on top of everything else, the so-called debate over the "hockey stick" is a pseudo-spectacle that has been largely generated by global-warming doubters, who have singled out a study to nitpick and attack even though the scientific case for human-caused global warming is built upon multiple strands of evidence and would not be significantly compromised even if the "hockey stick" were to be invalidated. That the Republican Congress has now announced its intent to investigate this matter -- and done so in the context of intimidating and burdensome requests for information from scientists -- is stunning. If such requests are allowed to stand, the precedent set could have a chilling effect on research in controversial areas such as climate change, and could also make the NSF more hesitant about funding such work.
In short, Barton has launched a highly inappropriate attack on the field of climate-science research. If he persists in his ways, we can only hope that the scientific community as a whole, and climate researchers in particular, will stand up in defense of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes.
In the meantime, Mann provided the following comment: “I am pleased that the U.S. Congress has shown in interest in the issue of climate change. I am confident that when Congress takes a look at the science, they will join with the consensus of the world's scientists that the earth is indeed warming, and that human activity has played a primary role in the warming observed in recent decades.
“It is my intent to comply with the committee's request. They have asked for a substantial amount of material, and it will take some time to compile this.”
As of this writing, Mann has one more week until his deadline. As a scientist, you would think he probably has something better to do. But of course, as a member of Congress, you would also think the same of Joe Barton.
Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a TAP Online columnist. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.