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Rep. Lamar Smith Continues His Harassment of Scientists

By Phil Plait

The saga of The Man in Congress in Charge of Science but Who Doesn’t Understand It continues.

For those new to this, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas—chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee—doesn’t think global warming is real. He thinks it’s a huge conspiracy by climate scientists who fudge the data to make it look like the planet is heating up, because Obama.

I wish I were being hyperbolic. But this is literally true.

In Part 1 of our tale, Smith subpoenaed Kathryn Sullivan, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, claiming that scientists in her agency were “altering the data.” Smith got this idea after a paper was published in Science showing that the global warming “pause” so lauded by climate change deniers didn’t, in fact, exist. This research was done by a team of NOAA scientists and, I’ll note, is correct. The “pause” isn’t real.

That didn’t stop Smith. He also demanded the data, methodology, and emails of NOAA scientists be released (despite the first two already being publicly available). We also learned that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas—who is the senior Democrat on the committee—sent Smith a letter accusing him of harassing and second-guessing scientists, and also pointed out he’s not qualified to assess the data or methods. This, too, is correct.

In Part 2, Smith made public his conspiracy theories about scientists fiddling with the data (they did this, Smith claims, “to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda”, in case you were wondering just how far removed from reality Smith is on this), and I showed why these ideas are nonsense (to be very very very very polite). In Part 3 I went into more detail, showing that Smith doesn't understand even the most basic principles of scientific data measurement.

And now here we are, at Part 4 of a presumably infinite series. His new claim? That the NOAA Science paper in question was rushed into publication, and that Smith has “whistleblowers” who will attest to it.

However, that’s at odds with the facts. Rep. Johnson wrote yet another letter to Smith, outlining where his claims are clearly wrong. She lays out a timeline, showing that the paper was submitted to the journal in late 2014, and took months to publish. Not only that, it relied on data from papers submitted to the journal in 2013—hardly a rush job.

I’ll note that these alleged whistleblowers had ample opportunity to file a complaint with NOAA itself. Yet no complaints have been registered (even though NOAA has an obvious and easy-to-find scientific integrity policy). 

Update, Nov. 23, 2015: A Washington Post article makes the case that not only was this paper not rushed, it actually underwent more scrutiny than usual.

On top of all this, Smith has sent several letters to NOAA and other groups—seven in total—with his demands, but only just now, in his most recent one, did he mention whistleblowers. That’s curious; Johnson has asked him repeatedly why he thinks the scientists have fiddled with the data, but he’s been silent on that.

It’s also curious, as Johnson notes, that Smith has declined to share any of the information about his alleged whistleblowers with any of the Democratic minority on the committee. If he’s not purely politically motivated, why wouldn’t he give this information to them? Who are these whistleblowers? What are their specific claims? Why has Smith waited so long to mention them?

I strongly urge you to read Johnson’s letter; it really shows that Smith’s actions are the results of political grandstanding. NOAA had been complying with his requests, as silly and wasteful as those requests were, but Smith ignored this and kept making more and more unreasonable demands. Finally, NOAA put its foot down; NOAA Administrator Sullivan has refused to comply any further.

I’ve been saying that Smith is harassing scientists, and he’s abusing his power of congressional subpoena. Now we have even more evidence: He’s been pressuring Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker over all this, trying to get her to in turn pressure NOAA to turn over the scientists’ emails.* If NOAA doesn’t comply, he’s threatened to subpoena the secretary herself.

Not only that, but his threats of Sullivan are atrocious. As Johnson points out, in what may be my favorite part of her letter:

I think it might be informative to take note of whom you are threatening. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan is PhD [sic] geologist, former naval reserve officer, former three-time NASA astronaut, former chief scientist of NOAA, and former member of the National Science Board. As an astronaut, Dr. Sullivan became the first American woman to ever “walk” in space. Dr. Sullivan is the very definition of service to country, and she is a role model for us all. I highly doubt Dr. Sullivan is intimidated by your threats, but it is an indication of how low the Majority is willing to stoop to perpetuate their anti-science agenda when a legitimate American icon is dragged through the mud in furtherance of an ideological crusade.


Smith is out of control. I earlier likened him to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, in the 1950s, went on a huge and reckless witch hunt, looking for Communists in government, ruining people’s careers and lives in the process. That likeness grows ever clearer into focus.

I don’t see any reason to change my assessment of Smith now. He is a demagogue, using and abusing his power to stifle scientific research, to create a climate of fear and pressure for those scientists, and to obfuscate and further cast doubt in the public’s mind about the reality of climate change and its effects (an effort that has of course found purchase with the usual right-wing media suspects).

This behavior is as appalling as it is damaging and clearly based on falsehoods. The world is warming up. We are seeing the effects of that now. And we know that it’s because of the damage humans are doing, pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. These are facts.

But the majority of Republican senators and Congress members in charge of critical committees reject these facts, replacing them with their own fantasies of conspiratorial scientists. These people are putting our nation’s security at risk. It’s good news that some of the GOP in Congress are willing to be swayed by facts, but the sad and embarrassing truth is the ones in key positions are not. And while they fiddle, the world burns.

*Correction, Nov. 23, 2015: This post originally misspelled Penny Pritzker’s last name.

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