Survival of the Unfit

You could (perhaps) be forgiven for misunderstanding the scientific process if you were Chairman of some obscure Congressional committee dealing with say, taxation or waste management. But it is surely not too much to expect that the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology -Congressman Lamar Smith -- should understand how science works. To recap, scientists carry out their research, discuss results with colleagues, write up their results and submit them for publication. The editor of the scientific journal then sends the paper to (generally anonymous) referees who evaluate the research, provide critical comments and return the paper for any required revisions. If these are addressed adequately, the journal editor may decide that the paper is acceptable and then it is eventually published. It's not rocket science.

Well, actually -- it could be rocket science... but then it would still fall under the purview of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. But apparently, Rep. Smith does not grasp the complexities of this process (despite the fact that there are none). He seems to think that it can be somehow fixed, manipulated or rushed for political reasons. He is fixated on the notion that scientists are water carriers for the White House, crushing dissent and forcing editors to publish Obama-friendly screeds. The possibility that some authors might be Republicans who disagree with the current administration policy has apparently not crossed his mind.

Not content with sending subpoenas to NOAA climate scientists who published an update on global warming (in Science, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) Rep. Smith has polished off his own climate science credentials and advised NOAA scientists what they should have done to make their study acceptable. Writing in the Washington Times, he argues that satellite data should have been used rather than surface observations, since "satellite data are considered by many to be the most objective". Can this be the same Lamar Smith who introduced a spending bill to cut the NASA earth observations satellite budget by $300m? And who proposed to cut the NSF Earth Sciences budget by 30%? Yes, indeed it can, which demonstrates that hypocrisy is an essential trait to be a successful politician (in case you did not know that). Given that Lamar Smith was trained as a lawyer, his extensive background in climatology amounts to...well, nothing actually.

All this is a very sad commentary on the fact that the Republican leadership House of Representatives does not have the testicular credentials to remove those who clearly demonstrate complete ignorance about the very topics that they are supposed to oversee. U.S. science and technology is not well-served when scientists are harassed by unqualified bullies in Congress. But getting rid of such incumbents is not easy because they have often gerrymandered their electoral districts to ensure that they are almost unchallengeable. You could call this, "Survival of the Unfittest," a disturbingly non-Darwinian concept. But then, those Republicans on the Science Committee who dismiss the overwhelming evidence for global warming probably don't accept evolution either.