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NASA Climate 'Skeptics' Respond with Science! Just Kidding.

Posted on 12 April 2012 by dana1981

Note: this post has been re-published by The Guardian and Climate Progress and cribbed by The Huffington Post

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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Comments 51 to 59 out of 59:

  1. Per usual, Andrew Revkin tries to occupy the “middle ground” with this post: “On Astronauts, NASA, and Climate Concerns” by Andrew Revkin, DOT Earth/New York Times, Apr 12. 2012 According the grapevine, Revkin is taking a considerable amount of flack from the residents of Deniersville over this one.
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  2. It's too bad that this letter to NASA couldn't be construed as advertising, it would have run afoul of the US FTC's Endorsement Guides. The most recent FTC Endorsement Guides, has the following relevant example: Page 8 of the PDF file: § 255.3 (b) Example 1: An endorsement of a particular automobile by one described as an “engineer” implies that the endorser’s professional training and experience are such that he is well acquainted with the design and performance of automobiles. If the endorser’s field is, for example, chemical engineering, the endorsement would be deceptive.
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  3. LaughinChance, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to show why you're off the deep end on this one. Can you defend the claims made in the letter? Or are you just blindly accepting the views of 49 non-experts? (and, further, suggesting that everyone reading your comment do the same)
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  4. LaughinChance appears to be asserting that an open letter written by a tiny handful of administrators, engineers, and non-climate scientists is intellectually equivalent to the consilient, interlocking lines of evidence from physics theory, laboratory & model experiment, and empirical observation as collected and analysed by thousands of scientists and endorsed by virtually every major scientific organization in the world. Suffice to say, LaughinChance is unequivocally incorrect in such a case. Having just skimmed through this post (never fear, I did read it in detail upon its publication) again I don't recall that it touched on the point I am about to make, but since it was in the "highlights" highlighted by LaughinChance, I feel it is worth noting. The 49 letter-writers state:
    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 [Emphasis mine.]
    While dana does take the letter-writers to task for failing to show that NASA is being unnecessarily alarmist, I would like to take the letter-writers, and hence LaughinChance, for pretending that belief, in science, is the equivalent of evidence. It's not, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. Evidence is what the IPCC, NASA GISS, and advocates for action against climate change have backing them up. Belief is the empty shell supporting denial and inactivism.
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  5. Composer99, as is the style of the drive-bys...after data, facts, and rational thought was laid out, from LaughinChance we .. hear....
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  6. It's strange how the TOS say that ad hominem attacks are not allowed and (-sloganeering and inflammatory snipped-).  (-sloganeering snipped-). Now that is all I stated. But stop for a second and be honest about what you feel about me. You have me pegged as a skeptic and a denier, but in fact I believe that CO2 is warming the planet based on the data I have seen. (-inflammatory snipped-). (-inflammatory tone snipped-).
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Unless you provide specific examples to support your contentions then your comment has no signal and constitutes sloganeering noise. If you wish to be solution-oriented then provide those examples. Or continue to be part of the very problem you unsupportedly assert exists.
  7. Which terms do you have a problem with, freddy?
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  8. "that makes all sorts of adjustments to a data set to deny that global temperature is declining and yet the HadCRUT data says exactly that: global temperature is in a decline over the past ten years." I think a bit of clarity here is important: HadCRUT doesn't measure global temp, it measures global surface atmospheric temp. That's one small slice of the earth's total heat content. No one is denying that a trendline drawn through the past decade of Had4's temps is negative. What the majority of climate scientists dispute is that that is evidence that the earth's total heat content has reduced.
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  9. Freddy you seem to be confused as to what an ad-hominem argument is. It amounts to saying "such and such are bad people who eat little babies for breakfast so what they say is wrong." It is obviously a logical fallacy, since the breakfast habits and moral standards of such and such have no bearing on the validity of their argument. There are objective ways to evaluate the validity of an argument, especially when it pertains to physical reality. I quickly re-read the post, I fail to see where an ad-hom fallacy takes place. The competence of the protagonists is disputed, ndn rightly so, since they show signs of not being familiar with the science that they pretend to dismiss. That is not an ad-hom argument. It does not say anything against me as a person if someone says that I don't know squat about quilting (especially if I demonstrate it by putting my foot in my mouth without even realizing). However, it is relevant when analyzing any opinion about quilting that I would decide to put forth. I could still be right, so my opinion should be examined on its own merit, with the caveat that I don't know squat about the subject. If it turns out to be right, I could be praised for my instinctive understanding, or just called lucky. If it is wrong, it won't be much of a surprise and not of much consequence anyway. In any case, I should be reminded that I don't know squat about the subject and that spouting an opinion is somewhat misplaced. It would be epecially misguided of me to dismiss the findings of real experts in the matters. Anyone reminding me of that would state a very reasonable fact, not make an ad-hom. Someone venturing to question my motive for doing so would still not make an ad-hom argument, since my argument has already been examined for its merit and my competence has been established. So, in the light of this clarification, where in the article above is there an ad-hom argument?
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