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From a Boy Who Loved NASA: How 49 Heroes Lost the Right Stuff and Sullied Their Names

Ironically, at the same time I was speaking to some of NASA's climate scientists this week about how to counter denialist propaganda attacks, the denialsphere was abuzz with a new open letter signed by 49 former, now discredited NASA employees.
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Timing is Everything

When I was a boy, I loved NASA. So imagine how pleased I was to be invited to speak at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center this week -- where the kindly, soft-spoken and brilliant Willy Wonka of the place, astrophysicist John Mather, and his team are building the James Webb Space Telescope -- perhaps humanity's most ambitious engineering project -- and where scientists use satellites to study climate change in incredible detail.

My talk, on Wednesday, was about the subject of my new book, Fool Me Twice: fighting the assault on science in America, and ways NASA scientists, particularly NASA climate scientists, can communicate complex science in the face of antiscience attacks, such as those by global warming deniers.

At that very moment a living example was was unfolding around me. I started getting texts, tweets and emails about 49 former NASA employees who were taking the agency to task for publishing information on climate change -- something they didn't politically agree with.

The sweet and fetid stench of propaganda

One of the most common tactics deniers use is something I call The Impressive Letter Technique, or this being NASA, let it be known by the acronym TILT -- which is exactly what it tries to do to your thinking. A TILT is a letter signed by a lot of impressive sounding people who make a public statement or demand, and expect the gullible antiscience press (whose last science class was probably in high school), and the public, to lap it up because of their collective authority.

are not climate scientists (green).

The classic example of a denialist TILT is the OISM Petition Project, which claims to have the signatures of 31,487 scientists who question the scientific consensus on climate change. Pretty impressive, huh? That many scientists questioning something must mean there's a real scientific controversy about it. Until you break it down and then the petition project begins to evaporate into the fetid smoke and mirrors of propaganda. It turns out that the petition is open to anyone with a bachelor's of science degree, which is roughly 20.5 million Americans. Those are their "scientists." So it's perhaps not surprising that of the signers, 99.9% of them don't have any training in climate science. And out of a pool of 20.5 million, only 31.5 thousand, or 00.15%, have signed the petition. In other words, outliers.

49 former NASA employees fall from grace

Ironically, at the same time I was speaking to some of NASA's climate scientists about how to counter these kinds of propaganda attacks, the denialsphere was abuzz with a new TILT -- this one signed by 49 former NASA employees. Like other letters of its kind, this one, addressed to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, is signed by some prominent and semi-prominent names, thus is has the sheen of collective authority, but none of them are climate scientists or have any training in it. In fact when you break the letter down, it too evaporates into propaganda -- in a way that sullies the names and credentials of these formerly respected individuals.

A word about "unproven remarks"

For example, the letter demands that NASA

"refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites. 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."

Sounds like a reasonable request. Troubling even. Until you realize that science never proves anything. Ever. That would be math.

What science does is measure, compare those measurements to known quantities, make testable predictions, do experiments, and produce results that either confirm or refute the predictions. In this way it builds knowledge of the physical world that is separate from us as individuals and our opinions and beliefs about the way we wish things would be. After a while that knowledge begins to pile up and paint a pretty compelling picture. The jigsaw puzzle picture begins to come into focus. Then we can either accept it or begin to deny the reality of our own measurements.

by the Koch brothers, but it, too, verified the measurements of NASA.

That's the sort of hard-headedness that I used to love about NASA -- the idea that humans, if they just kept plugging away, could figure stuff out -- and that other humans -- astronauts and test pilots -- would stake their very lives on it. Not this hand-wringing by deniers that argue we can't figure anything out, we can't afford to do anything, it's all a vast hoax, and we shouldn't try. A far cry from the can-do of NASA. How could guys that once put their very lives in the hands of science be so dumb about it as they get old?

In the case of climate change, those measurements after measurements by thousands of scientists for over fifty years are adding up to an extremely compelling and robust argument because they all pretty much agree with each other: we can send people to the moon, and our excess CO is changing the climate.

Take for example, NASA GISS director James Hansen's 1981 prediction (pdf), which the climate scientists who blog at RealClimate have overlayed with a chart of what the temperature actually turned out to be:

That is an excellent example of good science: based on measurements of carbon dioxide and temperature, and on our understanding from basic physics of the interactions between carbon dioxide and light, Hansen made a bold prediction that could be tested and verified experimentally over time. He put it out there for anyone to tear apart. His career hung in the balance.

In the more than 30 years since, he's been proven correct -- sort of. It turns out Hansen was too conservative. He underestimated the temperature rise by about 30%.

Or consider Peter Sinclair's brief video comparing the statements of climate scientist Mike MacCracken in 1982 to what actually happened:

49 more authoritarians abandoning science in favor of politics

Next this TILT makes the classic appeal of antiscientists -- not to facts, not to data, but to authority -- the sort of appeal that would have made any colonial Tory proud to support the authority of the King instead of the upstart self-determining colonists:

"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."

Uh, wait a minute. Haven't we seen that? Tens of thousands of scientists? Really boys? I thought you guys all had the "right stuff." Would you really let just anyone with a BS run mission control when your butts were up in orbit?

If yes, you're not so bright after all, and if no, well, don't try to fool us with your OISM "tens of thousands" of scientists. That's not the kind of thing I want from a guy I used to look up to -- to take advantage of that to try to fool me? Come on. If that makes the science unsettled when compared to the billions of data points accumulated by thousands of real climate scientists working over fifty years, then nothing will ever be settled enough for you. The hypocrisy of this is astounding and saddening.

If you ain't got the data, you can always use smear

Considering this, I guess it shouldn't have surprised me these gentlemen -- 49 out of tens of thousands of former NASA employees (more than 18,000 people currently work for NASA, so this is about 0.27% of current employees) would next move into the emotional language. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it disappointed me just the same.

that observe the Earth and measure climate change.

Often deniers portray themselves as reasoned, cautious, and conservative scientists, while the real scientists working in the field are described with emotionally charged adjectives like "alarmists," "warmists," and the like to weaken the public's respect for their work and to fool journalists about who's who. If you can degrade, mock or destroy the individual, then it's easier for the public to dismiss everything that individual said.

"The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA's history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements."

So here we see fifty years of science manipulatively described instead as "unbridled advocacy." As in wild, emotional, and not objective, but rather subject to the passions of an unbroken horse -- just the opposite of the careful collection, calibration, and verification of billions of data points, which last I checked, don't have feelings, unbridled or otherwise.

Some of those data points can be seen in this incredible video prepared at Goddard that layers sea surface temperature data on top of ocean current data to create a powerful representation. For instance, it's easy to see why England, which is much farther North than most of the US, is still fairly temperate. This is the kind of thing these guys should be standing up and applauding.

Heartland Institute propaganda outfit ties

Former Apollo astronauts Walter Cunningham and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt are listed as the main contacts for the letter, and both of them have a public history of advocacy against climate change science. This casts doubt on the scientific validity of any of their statements.

For example, in 2009 Schmitt appeared on the talk show of 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and said that he believed that the environmental movement was a front for Communism.

"I think the whole trend really began with the fall of the Soviet Union. Because the great champion of the opponents of liberty, namely communism, had to find some other place to go and they basically went into the environmental movement."

Sadly, Schmitt's got it backwards -- he's the evidence-denying authoritarian, akin to the communists of the old Soviet Union, not the climate scientists he's complaining about.

Walter Cunningham wrote against climate science in a pamphlet (pdf) published by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank fighting climate science.

Schmitt, a former Republican senator from New Mexico, is a current board member of the Heartland Institute, and was a speaker at a conference arranged by the Heartland Institute to deny climate change.

"The Heartland Institute provides the most coherent and consistent articulation of and source of information on basic American approaches to the resolution of major issues of our times," said Schmitt.

ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers, who stand to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in profits from the denial of climate science, have been major funders of the Heartland Institute in the past.

Recently leaked documents show Heartland is drafting a national science curriculum created by a non-climate scientist database technician, designed to undermine traditional science education and promote climate change denial by teaching school children that there is a scientific controversy when in fact there is not -- the controversy is political. That's a long way from the kind of science NASA greats used to inspire, when kids gathered in cafeterias to watch moons shots.

Hail to the chief (scientist)

NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati handled this propaganda attack with the grace and aplomb of a leader who's come up through the trenches and seen this sort of shameful ploy before. Of course he has -- NASA exists at the intersection of this debate.

"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...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."

That is the key point. Abdalati has graciously skewered these denialist propagandists by reminding everyone that they haven't produced any scientific evidence to back up their claims -- no data, no peer-reviewed research. Just smears and emotional ploys in a TILT letter. They are seeking to restrict discourse -- like the authoritarians of the old Soviet Union Schmitt deplores.

If you disagree, he's telling them, let's see what you got. Step up to the table like real men or women and subject your work to the withering scrutiny of peer review. Can't do it? Thought so. Because it's not based in reality.

Two questions: why, and why?

In the end, these 49 signers sought to ... what? Embarrass NASA into abandoning real science? Pressure director Bolden into firing James Hansen? Probably just to give Republican climate deniers some more ammo in the propaganda war to go after NASA's budget in the upcoming review on Capitol hill. Watch for it and see which Members trot this letter out as if it were some sort of evidence, and try to use its collective authority effect on new gullible audiences. Odds are on Inhofe, Shimkus and the like.

But what these old timey NASA heroes really did is tarnish their own names. And that's a sad thing for a boy who loved NASA.

Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Visit him at Like him on Facebook. Join to get the presidential candidates to debate science.

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