Outrage at attacks on NASA science

Bad Astronomy
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Feb. 4 2006 5:56 PM

Outrage at attacks on NASA science

Note (added February 6): due to this being linked from a lot of major sites (digg.com and slashdot, for example), the server was getting hammered. You can comment on this entry, but it won't get displayed right away; I have to add them by hand to prevent server overload. The permalink to this page is a static HTML page instead of a dynamic PHP page, so that server load is reduced that way too. Sorry about this; I’ll put everything back to normal when things calm down!

I'm slow to anger, I really am. I deal with infuriating attacks on science by the anti-science shysters all the time, so I have learned not to let my anger get the better of me.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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But I have never, ever been as angry scientifically as I am right now. Never.

In this blog I have complained about the anti-intellectual, anti-science machinations of the current government (for example here and here). I have also said that creationists would be attacking astronomy soon.

Man, I hate being right sometimes.

I'm so livid I can hardly type straight about this. Because of that, and because of the seriousness of this issue, I am writing a disclaimer:

I want to be clear that what you are about to read is my personal opinion and not necessarily anyone else's. I have based this blog entry on what I have read in newspapers and blogs. I have also had many discussions with other scientists about related issues, and so I have been able to form what I think is an informed and reasonable position on this.

You may have read the New York Times article on January 29 about a NASA scientist who was gagged by the government about his reports on global warming (the link requires a free registration). Dr. Jim Hansen, a top NASA scientist, had interview requests about his work with global warming denied by a NASA public affairs officer by the name of George Deutsch. While Deutsch works for NASA, he is actually a presidential appointee who worked for President Bush and Vice President Cheney during the 2004 elections.

Got this so far? Deutsch had this position as NASA public relations specialist given to him by the current administration, and according to Dr. Hansen he used it to suppress information about global warming. This issue was important enough to NASA officials that Mike Griffin, NASA's Administrator, sent an email on Friday, Feb. 3 to all NASA employees (and which is now posted on the NASA website) saying that "It is not the job of public-affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."

I agree wholeheartedly, of course, and I also want to make clear that I think that scientific suppression is not representative of the demeanor in general at NASA, nor of NASA's Public Affairs Office as a whole. In fact, the NYT article makes this clear, stating "[Hansen] and intermediaries in the agency's 350-member public-affairs staff said the warnings [of "dire consequences" if they talked about global warming] came from White House appointees in NASA headquarters" (emphasis mine; in the article Dr. Hansen clearly also strongly disagrees with policy statements by the other PAO political appointee, Dean Acosta).

But now let's get to the next part. In the February 4 issue of the NYT, the plot thickens (all the following quotations are from that article). Other scientists have come forward and talked about how political appointees have tried to suppress or alter other information from NASA in order to make it conform to the President's party line.

Here's the money quote, folks, the part that has me so outraged. Sitting down? You'll need to be.

In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.

Maybe, just maybe, you're thinking, Deutsch is just being pedantic over what to call the Big Bang, since it is in fact a scientific theory. Maybe you're thinking this has nothing at all to do with a perversion of science.

But you'd be wrong.

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose resume says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen's public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

Emphasis, once again, is mine.

Now gee, why would that statement make me angry? Why would a NASA politically-appointed employee suppressing science, gagging a scientist, and trying to insert a narrow religious (and demonstrably wrong-- the Big Bang is most certainly not a matter of "opinion" ) viewpoint into government educational activities get me so angry I could hop in a plane right now, fly to DC, and testify before Congress about these insane actions against the core of what we know to be true?

Yet, incredibly, it gets worse:

[Deutsch's email] continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

"Factual information"? A "religious issue"?

Did you just hear a funny noise? It was my irony gland exploding.

According to reports from many NASA scientists in the NYT article quoted above, political appointees have suppressed real science, and now one wants to teach children specific religious beliefs on the taxpayers' dime -- then tries to claim the higher moral ground. And then, after all that, he admits to the issue being religious! As Judge Jones, the federal judge who ruled over the Intelligent Design case in Dover, Pennsylvania last year, said, ID is "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory." If we take Deutsch at his word, then what he said himself condemns his own actions: NASA is not in the business of teaching religion. They should be teaching science, and the Big Bang is definitely science.

This may simply be an instance of one naive person (Deutsch is green, after all, fresh out of college and appointed to a relatively powerful position) grossly overreaching his authority, but I wonder. Reading the NYT articles, and hearing about this happening at more agencies across the government, it seems to fit a pattern of dedicated suppression of science. And this is coming from someone at NASA.

NASA sent 12 men to the Moon. NASA has a probe which is right now taking mind-blowing images of Saturn and its moons. In less than fifteen years, NASA may well put people back on the Moon. To most people, NASA means advancement, means innovation. To many, NASA is science.

So I'll be very, very clear here. What we're talking about here is scientific McCarthyism; the pressuring of scientists to toe the party line. Anyone in the government who does this to someone else -- especially to a scientist, whose goal is open discourse and the uncovering of truth -- should be removed from their position, immediately.

NASA can ill-afford this at any time, let alone right now (the NASA budget comes out on Monday, and the Inspector General of NASA -- another presidential appointee -- is under serious fire as well). Therefore NASA administrators should seize this moment. Griffin's email was a good start, but it's only a start. An attack on science as described in the New York Times articles is an insult not just to scientists at NASA, but to all government employees, and to all Americans.

We must not tolerate this.

I have more to say, plenty more. I will be very eager to see what happens in the next few days.

But man, I hate being right sometimes.

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