Rep. Lamar Smith Misunderstands Science

March 16, 2018 | 5:07 pm
Photo: Ryan J. Reilly
Andrew Gunther
Executive director of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, and a board member at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) states that as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology he seeks facts about climate change, and that his Committee follows “the scientific method.” These are welcome and vitally important positions for a powerful Congressman to take on a topic of such vital national interest. It is essential that scientific evidence be the foundation for legislative action about climate change.

Unfortunately, in his article Mr. Smith does not seek facts or apply the scientific method. Instead, he makes claims that are contrary to established facts, and provides no evidence or analysis to support his assertions as the scientific method requires.

For example, Smith claims “United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that they have “low confidence” in climate change contributing to extreme weather.” Actually, the IPCC stated that “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

Smith notes that “U.S. wildland fires are decreasing in frequency,” which is a trend under investigation using the scientific method of proposing and testing alternate hypotheses. For example, the decrease could represent an impact of a change in climate, but it could easily be the result of successful fire prevention strategies. But Mr. Smith does not consider alternate hypotheses as the scientific method requires. Instead, he concludes that reduced fire frequency proves climate change does not increase the frequency of such extreme events.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith completely ignores the data demonstrating the total acres burned in wildfires is going up, which is the fact that constitutes the major threat to people around the world. The most recent assessment for the US states, “The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.” Ignoring data is a luxury that only politicians can indulge in, as any scientist who does won’t get manuscripts through peer review.

This is reminiscent of when Mr. Smith accused NOAA scientists of “altering the data,” calling their published scientific analyses of atmospheric temperatures “skewed and biased,” a claim made with no accompanying analysis or evidence. In fact, NOAA scientists were using the scientific method to identify the bias that exists in temperature measuring instruments and making their data more accurate by taking this bias into account. We all apply this same process when we compare the results of different bathroom scales, time pieces, meat thermometers, or fuel gauges in cars. This is an example of Mr. Smith practicing intimidation, not science, as noted by the American Meteorological Society.

Smith claims in his article that he is called a “climate denier” because he “questions assertions,” which again demonstrates a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The reason Mr. Smith is called a “climate denier” is because he questions scientific conclusions without providing an alternate explanation for existing observations. A true skeptic would propose an alternative, testable hypothesis for observations.

For example, our release of greenhouse gases has raised the average temperature of the ocean by a little over half a degree Fahrenheit, which represents an amount of energy (1023 joules) that is 10 billion times the amount of energy (1013 joules) released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A true skeptic of global warming must propose an alternative explanation for how all of this energy has accumulated if greenhouse gases are not responsible. Skeptics have suggested changes in the sun’s energy output as an alternate explanation, but it is now well established that the sun’s energy output has actually been declining over the last few decades. In fact, the brightness of the Sun is at a record low right now.  True skeptics would also propose an explanation for why greenhouse gases are not causing the earth to heat up, given that we know these gases trap heat.

Mr. Smith cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. Instead, as we see from the examples above, he attempts to misrepresent or ignore existing evidence. This is deeply unfortunate given Mr. Smith’s position in Congress. Those who seek nonpartisan, evidence-based policies to address the impacts of climate change must demand that their representatives based their positions on facts supported by the scientific method.

While Smith states that “climate alarmists just won’t let the facts get in the way of their science fiction,” analyzing his own claims demonstrate that the fiction is being propagated by Mr. Smith.

Andrew Gunther is executive director of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, and a board member at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has published research in the field of ecotoxicology and has extensive experience in applying science to the development of air, water, and endangered species policy. Dr. Gunther served as the assistant chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Program from 1991 to 2002, and is currently the executive coordinator of the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium.

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