The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


January 31, 2007

Much of my academic scholarship is concerned with the idea of deliberative democracy. Nayef Samhat and I have argued, for instance, that norms of transparency (or openness) and participation (or inclusion) promote public deliberation.

By contrast, secrecy and exclusion distort public debate.

Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists, together with the Government Accountability Project, told a House Committee about their survey of nearly 300 government climate scientists. The results, as reported by AP, are far from ideal for those interested in deliberation:

At the House hearing, two private advocacy groups produced a survey of 279 government climate scientists showing that many of them say they have been subjected to political pressure aimed at downplaying the climate threat. Their complaints ranged from a challenge to using the phrase “global warming” to raising uncertainty on issues on which most scientists basically agree, to keeping scientists from talking to the media.

The survey and separate interviews with scientists “has brought to light numerous ways in which U.S. federal climate science has been filtered, suppressed and manipulated in the last five years,” Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the committee.

Apparently, at least one scientist testified about his experience:

Drew Shindell, a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that climate scientists frequently have been dissuaded from talking to the media about their research, though NASA’s restrictions have been eased.

Prior to the change, interview requests of climate scientists frequently were “routed through the White House” and then turned away or delayed, said Shindell. He described how a news release on his study forecasting a significant warming in Antarctica was “repeatedly delayed, altered and watered down” at the insistence of the White House.

Representative Henry Waxman pointed out that this isn’t exactly a question of traditional “high politics,” which is sometimes offered as a reason for keeping secrets:

`We know that the White House possesses documents that contain evidence of an attempt by senior administration officials to mislead the public by injecting doubt into the science of global warming and minimize the potential danger,” said Waxman, adding that he is “not trying to obtain state secrets.

Nope. This appears to be a clear case of the executive branch trying to limit the public (and perhaps even scientific) debate for their partisan political advantage.

The hearing itself demonstrates the value of checks and balances, which Dan welcomed back after the November elections.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.