Scientists Ordered to Keep Quiet During Hurricane Dorian to Help President Save Face

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | September 8, 2019, 10:43 am EDT
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The #Sharpiegate scandal just got considerably worse. The Washington Post reports today that in the midst of a major, life-threatening hurricane, National Weather Service staff were told not to speak publicly about what they knew about who was in danger and who wasn’t. In real time, NOAA leadership prioritized the president’s precious feelings and fragile ego over the health and welfare of the people who were in Dorian’s path.

The National Weather Service was told not to forecast the weather because of politics. It’s a classic example of where suppressing science for political reasons puts the public in harm’s way, and a demonstration of why we need laws that protect the ability of government scientists to publicly share critical information without political control.

The president had tweeted that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama, prompting the NWS Birmingham office to clarify that this was not true. On Friday, NOAA angered thousands of scientists and former Republican and Democratic agency leaders by attacking its own weather service bureau in a non-attributed statement. And it turns out that behind the scenes, NOAA public affairs officials were doing all they could to ensure that nobody else would contradict the president.

NWS scientists work tirelessly to protect the public. And censoring them will lead to death and injury. “People are able to avoid or prepare for tornadoes, hurricanes, heatwaves, and flood waters thanks to the dedicated experts in the National Weather Service who track severe weather into the night, sometimes even sleeping at the office to ensure they don’t miss a forecast,” wrote my colleague Gretchen Goldman.

Over the years, we have documented scores of examples of censorship of science. Officials suppressed a report on the dangers of PFAS chemicals, censored the climate change testimony of a State Department official, blocked the collection of air pollution data, dissolved critical science advice panels, and derailed or defunded multiple public health studies.

Ironically, NOAA has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies within government, policies that are supposed to insulate science from political manipulation and control. The censorship of weather forecasters during a major hurricane proves the need for laws that protect the ability of government experts to tell us what they know without political filters. Rep. Paul Tonko and Senator Brian Schatz have introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (which I testified about in July) to do just that.

Hurricanes don’t change direction because of political preferences. And we all suffer when federal science agencies like NOAA subvert the ability of scientists to do their jobs and tell us what they know. The public deserves a full accounting of why this happened and what steps will be taken to ensure this never happens again.

Photo: Christina Koch/NASA

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

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  • Menh this is really astoning…

  • gp

    NOAA’s administrators missed a GRAND opportunity to defend their non-political, fact-based, science-driven mission AND subtly school the President on misinterpreting their data, while ALSO still technically supporting the President’s questionable Dorian-Alabama tweet, as requested, with relevant data. (What they SHOULD’VE wrote, see below.)

    Instead, they published (likely prompted by–and perhaps cribbed from–a White House staffer’s email?) a terse, oddly data-free, unattributed, unconditional defense of the President’s hurricane tweet [all linked below]. Which now has people up in arms that NOAA is whitewashing Trump’s lies, when his tweet technically wasn’t wrong, just highly unlikely, exaggerated and based on out of date information. Yet again, argumentative subtlety and accuracy is pummelled by animosity and hyperbole.

    (His continued absolute defense of the tweet, dishonest doctoring of the chart, and administrative backroom strong-arming of NOAA officials has only fueled the outcry, of course.)

    What a shame. This is what happens when everyone from the President to the common citizen cannot (or will not) properly interpret data charts or understand scientific probabilities.

    (I do hope this is merely about protecting the ego of a president who cannot ever admit fault, rather than a more structured attempt at discrediting NOAA and seeding doubt about the organization and science generally, an intentional step before pitching the privatization of NOAA (and other scientific agencies) in the near future… Let’s hope not.)

    Here’s what the NOAA press release COULD and SHOULD have said:
    “At some points in earlier Hurricane Dorian forecasts, there was a 20-30% chance of ‘tropical storm force winds’ (defined as 39+ mph winds sustained over one minute) hitting a portion of SE Alabama. By 8 AM Saturday, the threat to Alabama had fallen to 5-10% chance, which continued to drop to 0-5% by 2 AM Tuesday.

    At no point during the storm was the tropical storm force winds risk to Alabama greater than 30%. On Friday and Saturday, the 4-5 day storm center path projections briefly touched the extreme southeast corner of Alabama. At no time did our 1-3 day projections show the center of the hurricane passing over Alabama.

    At the time of the President’s tweet, the risk to Alabama for tropical storm force winds was falling and had been at 5-10% for over 24 hours. Additionally, the storm center projected path had bent eastward by that time, with Alabama and western Georgia no longer in the potential 1-5 day storm track area.

    As such, rather than tweeting ‘Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian’, NWS Birmingham’s tweeted response more accurately should have stated: ‘There is only a 5-10% chance that Alabama will see winds above 39 mph from #Dorian. Tropical storm conditions in AL are possible but highly unlikely at this point.’

    Please refer to the linked animations of our thrice-daily storm impact tracking maps over the relevant period for details.

    NOAA regrets any confusion that arose from misunderstanding the likelihood of a low probability event, the misinterpretation of our mapped projections and probability bands, or the absolute nature of the NWS Birmingham’s tweet. NOAA will strive to increase scientific literacy among the public, ensure data-driven accuracy of our tweets, and facilitate accurate interpretation of our vital, life-saving data and projections by the administration and public in the future.”

    But they didn't. Opportunity lost. Division, falsehood, and animosity won. Data-averse governance continues. Independence of non-partisan, data-driven agencies eroded. Nuance is dead. Untrustworthiness and doubt reigns. Sigh.

    Ask your Congresspersons to support laws and speak out against scientific censorship and political threats to government agencies!

    One can only hope that the administrators in the next agency that finds itself at odds with the President's fabricated facts will find the courage and bravery to speak to truth and accuracy, regardless of consequences. As this article's author suggests, at some point soon, lives may be lost to lies if they don't.

    President's tweet:

    NWS Birmingham's tweet:

    Charts: 5-Day Probability of Tropical Storm Force Winds

    Charts: 5-Day Storm Center Projected Path

    NOAA's actual statement supporting the President's tweet:

  • chita chijioke

    Those people who tried to lie to the people about this storm should quit in disgrace. How dare they not stand up to the President. latest south african music on zahitsongs

  • JavaFizz

    Those people who tried to lie to the public about this dangerous storm should resign in disgrace. How dare they not stand up to the President. He’s not a god and he’s not a dictator. By appeasing him they are creating a dictatorship.

    What cowardice. How unpatriotic.

  • Outraged and appalled

    We are dealing with a very dangerous Category 5 president! His frivolous and false claims, his insecure and narcissistic-driven tweets, his cozying up to dictators while alienating allies, and his lack of common sense, lack of integrity, lack of boundaries – are bringing disaster, death and destruction to everything he touches. And the sycophants who surround him and excuse or defend the indefensible are aiding and abetting the fall of our great democracy. He is the Destroyer in Chief!