Monday, April 23, 2012

"Scientists and Astronauts" criticizing NASA's global warming policy

I follow the climate change debate a lot and, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I follow a variety of blogs on both sides of the debate. One of those blogs, Watts Up With That by Anthony Watts, posted this article yesterday:

In that article, Anthony posts a press release entitled:
Joint letter to NASA Administrator blasts agency’s policy of ignoring empirical evidence

The letter in question is signed by "49 former NASA scientists and astronauts" who admonish NASA for "it’s role in advocating a high degree of certainty that man-made CO2 is a major cause of climate change"

In the following post, I will lay out my criticisms of the letter. Just to be clear before you read any further, let me state that I am a strong advocate of the general consensus that human actions are leading to global warming.

My first criticisms will focus on the press release itself. The press release begins by pointing out that the letter was signed by seven Apollo astronauts (and one other astronaut) and two former directors of NASA JSC in Houston. This might sound impressive, and in another context it certainly could be, but let's be clear: these are retired personnel who worked on rocket and exploration related projects. These guys (yes, all men) are no more qualified to assert criticism of NASA's stance on climate change than all the other highly qualified engineers in public institutions and private companies all across the US. Also, the press release, by pointing out the importance of the signatories, is trying to argue from authority, a method of arguing that is often criticized by climate deniers themselves. I'm somewhat a fan of argument from authority because I believe that when looking for clarity on a scientific subject, we should look to the consensus among scientists. What I notice here is that there are only eight astronauts and only two former directors of JSC. If I'm not mistaken, there have been over 350 American astronauts, probably up tp 386 if I believe Wikipedia (, so the question is why couldn't they get the signatures of the other 379 astronauts? There have been a total of ten JSC directors, of whom I believe nine are still alive. The two directors on the list are the oldest directors still alive (1972-1982 and 1982-1986). While we're at it, let's take a look at the astronauts on the list:
1 Dr. Phillip K. Chapman Age: 77, Ph.D. in science and instrumentation
2 Walter Cunningham Age: 80, M.A. Physics
3 Charles Duke Age: 76, M.Sc. Aeronautics
4 Ed Gibson Age: 75, Ph.D. Engineering
5 Richard Gordon Age: 82, Test pilot
6 Dr. Joseph Kerwin Age: 80, medical doctor
7 Dr. Harrison (Jack) Schmitt Age: 76, Ph.D. Geology
8 Al Worden Age: 80, M.Sc. Astronautical/Aeronautical Engineering

We are dealing with something call "gone emeritus". These guys were great in their day, but are now trying to argue their positions based on pass glories. This may seem like an ad hominem analysis, and it is, but I make no apology: it demonstrates clearly that none of the younger, more recently educated personnel are on the signatory list.

Okay, that's enough of the press release. Now for the letter, a very weakly written letter. They want NASA and GISS to refrain from making certain claims "especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data". Which thousands of years, the ones that suit them? And what data are they talking about? Don't they realize that data can only be considered useful if it is analyzed, and that it's the analysis that should be questioned? In fact, I'm not even sure I understand what they're trying to argue here. Are they trying to say that data trumps models? That's a non-sequitor, as historical data can only be interpreted by an analysis involving physical models. Their point just isn't clear.

"With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts"
The first part is just plain wrong and a lie. They conveniently forget to give examples of all those hundreds of climate scientists, but those who follow the issue know that they are virtually non-existent. The second part, referring to the tens of thousands of other scientists, is misleading at best and a lie at worst. It's misleading because the US has hundreds of thousands of scientists who do not declare disbelief. The statement is possibly a lie because, like the first part, they give no information on how they came to their figure of "tens of thousands".

"we feel that NASA’s advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study... is inappropriate."
NASA has been thoroughly studying the question for over 30 years. How much more thorough do they want? Of course, it's a silly question I'm asking: they want it to be thorough enough until it magically fits their views.

"We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject."
Here is NASA's stance on the subject:
It would be nice if the people who wrote this letter would be so kind as to point out what facts they feel are unproven and unsupported. Instead, they have chosen to remain vague and to puff out their chests with this silly, pathetic letter. It really is a shame to see such fine historical figures releasing such tripe.

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