30 January 2014

Science and Politics with Henry Waxman

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) announced today that he will not be running for re-election in 2014. He has been a true role model as a public servant and member of Congress. The nation is better for his service. I wish him all the best in what comes next for him. 

I have had several opportunities to present Congressional testimony before Mr. Waxman. My favorite exchange occurred in 2007 when I was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the subject of the science shenanigans of the Bush Administration.

My testimony was focused not on the partisan fights of the day, but rather on the underlying institutional and political dynamics that led themselves to the abuse and misuse of science -- dynamics which are common across the political spectrum. Of course, back in 2007 a leading meme was that Republicans abused science and Democrats did not. Today, the notion that scientific integrity is a bipartisan challenge is much more widely accepted.

In my testimony, I was critical of the Bush Administration but I also illustrated the challenges of cherry picking science to support a political agenda with the pre-hearing memo that Mr. Waxman and colleagues had put together. In that memo they had selected a few studies on hurricanes and climate change to make claims which were out of step with the scientific consensus which existed at that time (and which has only gotten stronger since). The memo claimed that increasing hurricane impacts could be attributed to "global warming" and utterly ignored a recent consensus statement of experts from the WMO saying that such attribution was not possible. As readers know it is an issue I've been writing about for a long time.

So I wrote (here in PDF) the following in my testimony:
A memorandum providing background to this hearing prepared 26 January 2007 by the majority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight illustrates the cherry picking of science. Cherry picking literally mean “take the best, leave the rest.” The memorandum states, quite correctly, that “a consensus has emerged on the basic science of global warming.” It goes on to assert that:
“. . . recently published studies have suggested that the impacts [of global warming] include increases in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms, increases in wildfires, and loss of wildlife, such as polar bears and walruses.” 
To support its claim of increasing intensities of hurricanes and tropical storms the memorandum cites three papers. What the memorandum does not relate is that authors of each of the three cited studies recently participated with about 120 experts from around the world to prepare a consensus statement under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization which concluded:
“The possibility that greenhouse gas induced global warming may have already caused a substantial increase in some tropical cyclone indices has been raised (e.g. Mann and Emanuel, 2006), but no consensus has been reached on this issue.” 
With respect to two of the three papers cited in the memorandum, referring to possible trends in tropical cyclone intensities, the WMO statement concluded the subject “is still hotly debated” and “for which we can provide no definitive conclusion.” The WMO Statement was also recently endorsed by the Executive Council of the American Meteorological Society. The hearing background memorandum is absolutely correct when it asserts that “recently published studies have suggested that the impacts [of global warming] include increases in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms.” But this selective reporting does not tell the whole story either. Such cherry picking and misrepresentations of science are endemic in political discussions involving science.
Several members of the House Committee did not like the fact that I was accusing them of cherry picking science -- that was something the Bush Administration did, not them!

The task of taking me on was initially given by Mr. Waxman, the committee chair, to Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) who at that time was the lowest ranking Democrat on the Committee.  Mr. Welch took issue with my testimony, explaining that they had contacted Judy Curry and Michael Mann to get their input on my claims (the transcript is here in PDF):
I noticed in your written testimony, you made a claim that the memo that was prepared by the committee staff for this hearing is "exactly the same sort of thing that we have seen with heavy-handed Bush administration information strategies," and I take the charge that you make very seriously. You are, if I understand it, essentially accusing the committee of the conduct that it is investigating.

You took specific offense with the memo’s discussion of the state of science regarding the connections between global warming and hurricanes, where the memo notes, recently published studies have suggested that the impacts of global warming include increases in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms.

So, taking this seriously, we asked the committee staff to contact these leading researchers to followup to see if there is anything we should be concerned with in that memo. Dr. Judith Curry, as you know, a leading researcher, told us that all the research scientists working in the area of hurricanes agree that average hurricane intensity will increase with increasing tropical sea surface temperature. Theory, models, observations all support this increase. She tells us that the recent research indicates an impact of global warming is more intense hurricanes. The current debate and lack of consensus is about the magnitude, she says, of the increased intensity, not its existence.

Dr. Michael Mann, also a prominent researcher, tells us that in his view, you have misinterpreted the WMO report in arguing that it somehow contradicts information provided in the scientific background of the hearing memo that you had a chance to review. He says, the current state of play with the science on this is accurately summarized in the hearing memo. . .

In light of today’s testimony and the information provided to the committee by Drs. Curry and Mann, is it still your belief that the committee’s hearing memo is, "exactly the same sort of thing" the Bush administration has done?
In my response I explained to Mr. Welch that Curry's comments were off point as there is an important distinction between what has been observed and attributed versus what is projected for the distant future:
I will stand by exactly what I said, and I am happy to talk about the science and impacts of hurricanes as long as you would like because it is an area I have been researching for about 15 years. The memo includes the statement, "recently published studies have suggested that the impacts of global warming include increases," and it cites three papers that look retrospectively back in time. So it is not talking about projections in the future. So the statement by Dr. Judy Curry who is a great scientist, who I have a lot of respect for, isn’t on point here.
I then compared the cherry picking of hurricane studies to the cherry picking of a study (Soon/Baliunas) contrary to the so-called "hockey stick" which had been discussed earlier in the hearing. My point was that if one is going to argue from the authority of scientific consensus, then it doesn't look good to say that you accept the consensus when you like it and reject it when you don't.

I explained:
Now I am not a climate scientist and just like I accept the consensus of the IPCC, I am compelled to accept the consensus of the hurricane community. Now it is very easy to pick out a Soon and Baliunas paper or selectively email a scientist and say, what is your view?

I respect Dr. Mann and Dr. Curry have their views about what the statement says, but I am absolutely 100 percent certain that the statement that is in your background memo does not faithfully represent the science. It selects among the science perspectives, and that is inevitable, and we have to recognize that, and no one is immune from it. It doesn’t excuse the Bush administration from their actions, of course, but let us not pretend that somehow we can separate out scientific truth from political preferences. The reality is they are always going to be intermixed.
That went on for a bit, and the Mr. Waxman came to the rescue:
Mr. WAXMAN. Mr. Welch, will you yield to me?

Mr. WELCH. I yield to the chairman, yes. Thank you.

Mr. WAXMAN. Doctor, you are a doctor, but you are not a scientist. You are a political scientist.

Mr. PIELKE. I am a political scientist. That is accurate.
Boom! Authority card played. It gets better. Mr. Waxman turns to Drew Shindell, a NASA climate scientist, one who has never to my knowledge done any work on hurricanes.
Mr. WAXMAN. And you [Dr. Pielke] said you are absolutely certain that you are right on this issue and that Dr. Curry and Dr. Mann are wrong in their statement. Isn’t that quite a statement for you to make? No scientist here has been willing to make any statement that there is absolute certainty because the process of science continues to evaluate things. Dr. Shindell, you are familiar with Dr. Curry and Dr. Mann, is that correct? Dr. Shindell, are you familiar with those two?


Mr. WAXMAN. Are they somewhat isolated in the field with their own theories at odds with the majority of scientists?

Mr. SHINDELL. No. They are quite within the mainstream.

Mr. WAXMAN. In fact, isn’t Dr. Mann one of the leading scientists in global warming issues.

Mr. SHINDELL. Yes. Yes, he is.

Mr. WAXMAN. And Dr. Curry as well?


Mr. WAXMAN. So I am just wondering whether we should believe them or the certainty of Dr. Pielke that they are wrong.
Man, Mr. Waxman is good. Very good. And Shindell was playing the part of straight man to perfection.

I asked for a chance to clarify:
Mr. PIELKE. Let me clarify again. I did not say that they are wrong. I said that their views are not consistent with the mainstream consensus in the community. I am 100 percent sure of that statement.

Mr. WAXMAN. Do you know whether that is true, Dr. Shindell?
Drew Shindell obviously did not want to be in the middle of all this so he said some inscrutable stuff that gave the appearance of siding with Mr. Waxman, but which really supported the substance of my claim of cherry picking.
Mr. SHINDELL. I believe that their views are consistent with the mainstream consensus, and I think that we are having a slight semantic argument over what the mainstream consensus is. Is it that hurricanes have increased in severity in the past? Will they increase in the future? I think it is an interesting issue, this one, because unlike some of the other aspects of global warming that are better understood, there is some legitimate controversy, and so it can lead to these kinds of discussions. . . 
Having stepped in to save the discussion from my trouble-making, Mr. Waxman turned things back to Mr. Welch:
Mr. WELCH. What I want to know, after we have been through this, is this, are you standing by your position that this memo that cites mainstream science is exactly the same kind of conduct as what we have heard occurred in the Bush administration where there was direct interference with independent conclusions reached by scientists following the scientific method?

Mr. PIELKE. I will repeat exactly what I said in my written testimony. In microcosm, this shows how in political settings, which the preparation of Government reports is, how easy, enticing it is to selectively present scientific results to buttress a political perspective.
What did I learn?
  • Complex issues like the role of science in politics are not easily discussed is a partisan hearing format. It is much better to discuss empirical data or policy options. You can see this in the framework of The Honest Broker.
  • Members of Congress who cherry pick expertise (which is to say most every member of both parties) always have the trump card in such discussions as they can always find another expert whose views they like better.
  • This hearing (earlier parts of which appeared in The Honest Broker) helped me to clarify my thinking about "stealth advocacy" and how easy it is to be forced into such a role in political settings. 
  • Henry Waxman is one bad ass dude. Politics ain't beanbag.
I do wonder, however, after 7 years have gone by, does Mr. Waxman still like the scientific views of Judy Curry? Does he still think that hurricane impacts are a sound example of the consequences of human-caused global warming?

Good luck to Mr. Waxman, and thanks for the lesson in politics. I did (and do) appreciate it!


  1. scientific integrity is a bipartisan challenge

    I can accept that.

    Consensus of people is a social concept. Consensus of physical and trial evidence is scientific.

    That said, it is competing interests which keep the honest people honest, and others from running amuck. I wonder if two parties with convergent interests are sufficient to preserve stability and engender positive progress (e.g. mitigate corruption).

    Professor Pielke, thanks for your effort to be an honest broker.

  2. Fascinating narrative.

    So at the time you cited the best reference for the hurricane consensus, and forewarned the of your concerns they were doing the same as Bush, they merely answered by literally cherry picked two people to support their desired opposition to that consensus.

    They couldn't see how that would illustrate their hypocrisy.

    I admire your equanimity, if I was in the position of seeing that it would p*** me off.

    Then again, now I think on it, after finishing that, I think what I initially thought was glowing praise about Waxman as "a true role model as a public servant and member of Congress" ends up being pretty much the opposite about the whole set up ;)

  3. Roger,

    You might be interested in Burt Prelutsky's take on Waxman. Prelutsky was a friend of Waxman while both were in college. http://www.burtprelutsky.com/2009/10/blowing-whistle-on-waxman.html

    JD Ohio

  4. TLITB

    "Then again, now I think on it, after finishing that, I think what I initially thought was glowing praise about Waxman as "a true role model as a public servant and member of Congress" ends up being pretty much the opposite about the whole set up ;)"


  5. I find your first paragraph in conflict with the rest of your piece.

  6. Roger -

    Is passing on making critiques of the science of "skeptics" who testify before Congress, and offering an explanation that the reason is they lack scientific credentials (paraphrasing) a form of "appeal to authority?"

  7. It must be very hard to maintain one's composure when attacked on both flanks by defenders of liberal hyperbole. It is true that Henry Waxman had a solid career in public service which is enviable indeed. This reminded me of the Acid Rain Control hearings on Dec 1&9, 1983 and Feb and Feb 10, 1984 before the Health and the Environment subcommittee of the House Committee of Energy and Commerce, 98th Congress. Waxman (and Sikorski) spoke of the daily emissions of SO2 - NOx "shot into the air over the North American Continent" being equivalent to 170,000 tons of acid or over 4,000 railroad boxcars pouring down on the heads of the American people in the form of acid precipitation. Come to think of it, this is not much different than the hyperbole we have been hearing lately from the politicians.