Sunday, February 05, 2006

Censorship and Information Manipulation

Marie Newman on this blog had posted a very interesting comment about Wikipedia banning certain Capitol Hill aides from modifying entries on either their own or opposing political figures on the online encyclopedia. They had been engaging in either buffing up and manipulating the entries or in "having a little fun" at the expense of the opposition. Fortunately, the Wikipedian masters watch carefully over the encyclopedia and caught the mis-information, corrected and banned the perpetrators. Marie's excellent entry got wiped out in the current Blogger hiccup. I hope she will re-post as it was a thoughtful piece considering evaluation of online information.

Folks with a longer memory may recall when George W. Bush took office there was a minor to-do. The story went that Clinton's aides had suppposedly removed the W keys from every keyboard in the Whitehouse offices as they vacated the premises. Well, it all turned out to be a lie, a bit of mis-information spread by those fun-loving Bush aides who thought it would be entertaining to smear Clinton's crew as they left. Another case of information manipulation.

And here is another, longer term situation, a combination of attempted censorship and information manipulation. Jim Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies has been working since the 1980's to get out to the world at large the idea that global warming is real, and we must change our ways -- NOW. The political establishment and often, the scientific establishment as well, have not been happy with him. That he has persisted, and done a masterful job of using their attempts to silence him or manipulate his information into pablum is to his credit. I include a link to a NY Times online article, but I am not sure it will work. Here are key excerpts from the article:

Dr. Hansen, 63, a physicist who joined the space agency in 1967, directs efforts to simulate the global climate on computers at the Goddard Institute in Morningside Heights in Manhattan.

Since 1988, he has been issuing public warnings about the long-term threat from heat-trapping emissions, dominated by carbon dioxide, that are an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels. He has had run-ins with politicians or their appointees in various administrations, including budget watchers in the first Bush administration and Vice President Al Gore.

In 2001, Dr. Hansen was invited twice to brief Vice President Dick Cheney and other cabinet members on climate change. White House officials were interested in his findings showing that cleaning up soot, which also warms the atmosphere, was an effective and far easier first step than curbing carbon dioxide.

He fell out of favor with the White House in 2004 after giving a speech at the University of Iowa before the presidential election, in which he complained that government climate scientists were being muzzled and said he planned to vote for Senator John Kerry.

But Dr. Hansen said that nothing in 30 years equaled the push made since early December to keep him from publicly discussing what he says are clear-cut dangers from further delay in curbing carbon dioxide.

In several interviews with The New York Times in recent days, Dr. Hansen said it would be irresponsible not to speak out, particularly because NASA's mission statement includes the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet."

He said he was particularly incensed that the directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents.

Dr. Hansen's supervisor, Franco Einaudi, said there had been no official "order or pressure to say shut Jim up." But Dr. Einaudi added, "That doesn't mean I like this kind of pressure being applied."

The fresh efforts to quiet him, Dr. Hansen said, began in a series of calls after a lecture he gave on Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the talk, he said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth "a different planet."

The administration's policy is to use voluntary measures to slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions.

After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.

Among the restrictions, according to Dr. Hansen and an internal draft memorandum he provided to The Times, was that his supervisors could stand in for him in any news media interviews.


The fight between Dr. Hansen and administration officials echoes other recent disputes. At climate laboratories of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.

Where scientists' points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing.

One example is Indur M. Goklany, assistant director of science and technology policy in the policy office of the Interior Department. For years, Dr. Goklany, an electrical engineer by training, has written in papers and books that it may be better not to force cuts in greenhouse gases because the added prosperity from unfettered economic activity would allow countries to exploit benefits of warming and adapt to problems.

In an e-mail exchange on Friday, Dr. Goklany said that in the Clinton administration he was shifted to nonclimate-related work, but added that he had never had to stop his outside writing, as long as he identified the views as his own.

Librarians are information professionals. We try to train our patrons and students to evaluate the information they find in print and online for how trustworthy it is. This is an important development in the level of government interference in scientific communication. We need to be aware of it, even if we do not think we ought to protest it.

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