Tuesday, November 19, 2019

#2269: Lamar Smith

US representative for Texas’s 21st congressional district for 16 terms until 2019, and for several years the head of the House Science Committee, Lamar Seeligson Smith was for several years perhaps the most dangerous loon in the US (in part because he was far from the only loon on said committee). A notable climate change denialist, Smith received ample funding from oil and gas companies (and built his own fortune partially on oil and understood nothing of the science he criticized and rejected. Before joining the science committee in 2013, Smith was chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where he for instance proposed the 2011 Stop Online Piracy Act (which did not go particularly well for him). Smith has also had a career e.g. as contributor to Breitbart and as a business and financial writer at The Christian Science Monitor. He has no science background.

Perhaps Smith’s main goal during his tenure on the Science Committee was to put all climate research on ice, e.g. by slashing NASA’s budget for earth sciences, subjecting grant reviews at the National Science Foundation to “extra scrutiny” and trying to rewrite the funding standards to replace peer review with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress, and railing against environmentalists and the media for buying into the “climate-change religion” (a Christian Science follower himself, Smith might not have exactly been disposed to grasp the distinction). 

His strategy as head of the science committee was nicely laid out at a Heartland Institute conference in 2017: “Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists.” Of course, by “scientific method”, Smith didn’t mean scientific method. Smith doesn’t have the faintest grasp of scientific methodology. He meant my politically motivated conclusions. A key element of his strategy, however, has obviously been to try to redefine common scientific terms to rig the rhetorical game for public opinion. He also supported writing legislation that would punish scientific journals publishing research that doesn’t adhere to standards of peer review, which might sound reasonable until you realize that the standards in question would be those crafted by Smith and his committee. It might be instructive, in that regard, to note that Smith has claimed that the journal Science is “not known as an objective” journal. His favored sources for science-related talking points, on the other hand, are primarily misguided criticisms of science from climate change denialists and conspiracy theorists that are notably not, at present, published in peer-reviewed journals – clearly, then, there is something wrong with peer review.

As an illustration of his strategies as head of the Science Committee: In 2015, Smith accused federal scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of colluding to doctor data in a global warming study that refuted the long-held denialist misconception – “myth” is probably more accurate – that the planet’s warming had “paused” on the grounds that he didn’t like the answers. In particular, Smith accused the scientists of tampering historical global temperature data to advance Obama’s “extreme climate agenda” and promptly subpoenaed the scientists and other NOAA staff, demanding that they turn over the data as well as internal emails related to their research in a rather explicit attempt at bullying and intimidation; neither Smith nor his crew would of course have the expertise to review the data, all of which were already publicly available to review anyways, making it rather abundantly clear that his efforts never had anything to do with the data or the analysis of them. And yes, it really is the head of the science committee engaging in InfoWars-style delusional and baseless conspiracy theories, though we admit that the fact that the administration engages in such may not strike people as that surprising anymore. (The documents, needless to say, contained no support whatsoever for Smith’s allegations.) To see how ridiculous this particular conspiracy theory actually is, this one might be helpful. 

And with regard to Smith’s publicly funded political witchhunt of scientists: as chair of the House Committee Smith issued more subpoenas in his first three years than the committee had done for its entire 54-year history – the NOAA case was certainly not an isolated one; no organization supporting research into climate change would apparently be safe if they didn’t come up with the answers Smith likes. To justify his practice, Smith cited the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s as valid legal precedent for his investigation, no less. And of course, Smith continued to use the talking point that the “global warming has stopped” as if that and other studies soundly refuting the claim had never happened. 

Other favored tricks include lying, misconstruing scientific studies and cherrypicking, and under Smith’s leadership the House Science committee held hearings that featured the views of prominent climate change deniers in an attempt to provide false balance. In response to the 2014 release of the fifth version of the IPCC assessment, Smith apparently tried to play bored, saying that the report “says nothing new,” which, if true, is somewhat difficult to construe as a criticism. Perhaps more tellingly, he also said that “[s]imilar to previous reports, the latest findings appear more political than scientific” – telling, because it actually does illustrate Smith’s inability to tell the difference. He also said that “it’s time to stop fear mongering and focus on an honest dialogue about real options.” It is safe to say that Smith wasn’t really interested in an honest dialogue.

In 2016 Smith hosted an event where noted climate expert Sarah Palin was invited to promote the denialist film “Climate Hustle,” which dismisses global warming as part of a conspiracy to help government takeover and claims that rising carbon emissions are, in fact, beneficial. 

In 2017, after praising the physical and mental powers of president Trump, Smith encouraged people to get their “unvarnished” news directly from the president, not from the media. Smith has long been worried about “liberal media bias, accusing Google of blocking “references to Jesus, Chick-fil-A, and the Catholic religion” and thanking Fox News for being “the only balanced coverage out there.” It’s instructive that balance is the core value here rather than truth and accuracy, but then, as his Google accusation amply shows, Smith has little time for such old-fashioned virtues; he is hip and post-truth. Otherwise, Smith has expressed deep concern for the free speech of spambots.

Diagnosis: For a while Smith was possibly the most dangerous man in the US. Though officially retired, he still wields plenty of influence, and the standards he set – conspiracy mongering and post-truth – seem to remain firmly in place. 

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