The House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology wants to know what government scientists say about climate change. Not what they say in public, of course—you don’t need a subpoena to read the many reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has published on the pressing problem of global warming. No, the congressional body tasked with overseeing the nation’s scientists thinks that climate change is some kind of elaborate prank the NOAA is playing on the nation, and that surely their internal emails look something like this:
From: Candace Climate, Ph.D.
To: Gary Greenhouse, M.Sc.
Re: Moo Ha Ha
I can’t believe those fools bought your methane report! I mean, cow farts changing the weather? That Al Gore will believe anything! ROTFL, man. ROTFL.
To uncover this tomfoolery, the committee has subpoenaed NOAA, asking for all emails and other records from United States scientists involved in a recent study showing that the so-called “pause” in global warming is a myth. The episode is obviously an embarrassment to Congress, and many journalists have pointed out as much. Phil Plait of Slate calls it a “fishing expedition” by politicians who don’t understand “even the most basic ideas about global warming.” Over at Vox, David Roberts calls the investigation “an effort to suppress inconvenient scientific results and score partisan political points.”
This is all true, but it’s worth stepping back a bit to recognize that this is pretty standard stuff from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which seems to draw people with extreme anti-science agendas. Earlier this year, it proposed a budget that would gut NASA’s Earth science funding by up to $500 million. Go back further and you’ll see that the group regularly tries to intimidate scientists who say things the members don’t like. Congress may as well change the name to the Committee on Bullying Scientists. (With the number of times the name has already changed, it’s only a matter of time before this one gets its turn.)
The clearest example is evolution. In 1970, the National Science Foundation earmarked $4.8 million for the development of a science curriculum called “Man: A Course of Study,” or MACOS. A part of the course used animal behavior to explore theories about the nature of human morality and ethics. The course also discussed euthanasia as it was practiced in some indigenous communities.
Furious over the content of the curriculum, members of the House science committee sought to rein in the National Science Foundation. Arizona Republican John B. Conlan, in particular, built his political career around fighting MACOS and putting NSF in its place. Conlan accused the course of depicting the “cruel murder of old people” and complained about how “evolution is being taught as fact.” He also claimed “sex education is being subtly taught.” (MACOS was intended for fifth- and sixth-grade students.) Thousands of science professionals had collaborated to generate the NSF budget; the House committee was essentially trying to remind the scientists that politicians controlled them.
Although efforts to subject every NSF grant to review by committee were defeated, the MACOS conflict had chilling effects on science funding. Sociologist Dorothy Nelkin said the controversy ended efforts to reform science curricula for more than a decade. Scientists were encouraged to avoid the word evolution in grant applications. It also seems that the NSF stopped promoting speaking events that contradicted creationist theories.
Perhaps the most notorious former member of the House science committee is Paul Broun, who represented Georgia’s 10th Congressional District until earlier this year. Broun said all kinds of nutty things that contradict basic science and research. He called evolution “lies from the pit of hell” and estimated the Earth is no more than 9,000 years old. (Scientists say it’s more than 4.5 billion years old.) He later claimed, “There are more people killed with baseball bats and hammers than are killed with guns.” (In fact, guns kill more people than blunt objects by a factor of 17.)
The tradition lives on. Last year, then-Representative Steve Stockman of Texas explained to presidential science adviser John Holdren that sea-level rise cannot be real because “if your ice cube melts in your glass, it doesn’t overflow. It’s displacement.” Stockton was apparently referring to an old episode of Mr. Wizard. Unfortunately, the theory fails to consider that glaciers and ice sheets are land based—they’re not floating in the water like an ice cube. When they melt, the water flows into the sea.
There is a role for congressional oversight in the funding and conduct of federal science programs, but this is not oversight. This is intimidation combined with delusion.