Sep 15 2016

Congressman Lamar Smith and the Union of Concerned Scientists

smith-house-science-committee-1200Lawrence Krauss recently wrote an editorial in The New Yorker about how Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is harassing scientists who are providing data on global warming.

The story that Krauss tells is very clear – Smith is a Republican who receives more money from the oil industry than any other industry, he is a Christian Scientist, and he is a global warming denier. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper in Science in which they show data that indicates there never was a global warming pause and that the world is continuing to warm.

The response of Lamar Smith was to accuse the scientists of lying, of altering the data to suit the political agenda of the administration, and to subpoena their internal communication (they had already turned over their data). In the subpoena Smith writes:

It was inconvenient for this administration that climate data has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades. The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want. . . . NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.

Bias and Science

As I discuss frequently here, the scientific evidence tells a very consistent story that cognitive bias is subtle, pervasive, and powerful. It is difficult for anyone, even a dedicated scientist, to look at all the data objectively without any bias.

At least most scientists know they should do this and make some effort to minimize the effects of bias. Most scientists also fail, which is why the system is set up the way it is, with peer review and a community of scientists to keep each other’s biases in check. The hope is that in the end the biases will average out and the truth will peak through as a detectable signal.

The challenge is that science is complex. All data is imperfect, has strengths and weaknesses, only looks at a slice of a question, and has the potential for bias. Data also needs to be interpreted in the context of specific theories, which are themselves likely to be incomplete and may be looking at the world from a biased perspective.

With any complex question there is going to be conflicting evidence. There is no way to eliminate the need for simply making scientific judgments. Scientists need to decide which data is more robust, which evidence is more compelling, and which evidence is more likely to be misleading or flawed. This is really hard, which is why scientific organizations often create panels of experts to look over all the evidence and hash out a consensus. No one scientist’s opinion can be definitive, and various points of view need to be considered.

In order for this process to produce a meaningful result, the scientists, the panel, and the organization they represent need to have a dedication to science and to the process of science above all else.

Agenda Driven Science

With this perspective it is easy to see how having an ideological or other agenda can easily bias the process and push the results in one direction or another. People are really good at rationalization and motivated reasoning, and by default filter information to support what they want to believe.

In science you can find a reason to dismiss any evidence you don’t like, and you can find evidence to cherry pick that seems to support your position.

This is why, when an individual or organization has an agenda, it is virtually impossible for their scientific assessments to be unbiased and reliable.

Lamar Smith, however, goes beyond subtle bias. He is an example of what happens when you embrace bias fully, without reservation. Then you can engage in blatant denialism and conspiracy theories. You don’t have to examine data and find fault with it – just dismiss it out of hand as a conspiracy. You don’t have to argue with scientists using data, just intimidate them with subpoenas (if you have the power) and freedom of information act (FOIA) requests (if you’re a private citizen).

You can even form your own journals, your own alternate press, your own echochambers of social media. You can also form organizations that sound scientific but really are just advocacy groups.

The Union of Concerned Scientists

I was a little surprised to see Krauss support the UCS without reservation, writing:

Throughout the past year, Smith has focussed his attentions on a new target: the Union of Concerned Scientists—of which I am a “card-carrying” member. The U.C.S. is not an academic science organization, per se. Instead, it’s an advocacy group.

He is correct – it is an advocacy group (there is no “per se” about it). Over the years I have read many statements by the UCS. My opinion of them is that they are an environmentalist group, not a scientific organization. Their evaluation of the evidence is consistently biased towards a liberal environmentalist ideological agenda.

There is nothing wrong with an advocacy group pushing an agenda, but the UCS often writes reports that are presented as if they are objective scientific reviews of the evidence by scientists.

One’s dedication to unbiased science is not tested when the science agrees with your ideology. The UCS embraces the scientific consensus on global warming – that does not mean they are pro-science, because that position is in line with their political agenda.

One’s dedication to science is tested when the science conflicts with your agenda. Then you have to be able to adapt to what an objective review of the science says. If you only accept the scientific consensus when it agrees with your ideology, then you are not pro-science. You just selectively use science to support your ideological agenda.

Along the left-right political axis, there are two index issues that will often reveal if a person or group is ideological, or truly pro-science whatever the science says – global warming and genetic modification (GMOs). Liberals and environmentalists tend to embrace global warming and be anti-GMO, while conservatives and free market libertarians are the opposite.

What does the UCS have to say about GMOs?

While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.

This is biased anti-GMO fearmongering. There hasn’t been a single case of a new allergen or toxin cropping up in an approved GMO, while the same cannot be said for traditional breeding and hybridization techniques. In fact, because of the level of control of the genetic changes in GMOs, they can be screened for proteins that are known allergens or toxins, or even for amino acid sequences that are likely to be allergenic or toxic.

Further, GMOs have been a net benefit for the environment. The worst thing that can happen is pesticide resistance, which happens from farming not using GMOs also. This is a function of farming practice, not genetic modification.

There is also no compelling evidence that any animals have ever been harmed by any GMO, and in fact there is a mountain of evidence spanning 20 years of no harm from switching quickly and almost completely over to GMO animal feed.


Krauss is correct that Lamar Smith is engaged in a politically motivated attack on science and scientists, ironically using his position as chair of the House Science Committee.

But he should take a closer look at the UCS. They are also an ideological group who, in my opinion, have a biased view of evidence that is always slanted toward their particular environmentalist agenda.

There are many such groups, unfortunately. For a time I agreed to be an adviser to the American Counsel on Science and Health, primarily because of their anti-tobacco and anti-health fraud activity. Over time, however, I came to realize that they had a pro-industry bias that tainted their science-advocacy.

Like the UCS, they are a mixed bag, and do some good work. But I did not want to be even loosely affiliated with a group that was not 100% pro-science first and foremost, so I ended my association.

Minimizing bias in science is hard and takes dedication and vigilance. Putting any other agenda ahead of the scientific process makes it almost impossible.

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