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

September 8, 2019 | 10:43 am
Photo: Christina Koch/NASA
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

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.