Sunday, May 05, 2013

An Asteroid Warning is Now Considered "Advocacy??"

This is hard to believe but...last week, for an article (on a different topic) I'm working on, I was talking to someone in management at a national lab, and they told me on the QT that there is a white paper going around high-levels in Washington, written by a space scientist (unnamed) at another national lab (also unnamed), that warns of a 99+% chance of an 240-meter asteroid strike on Earth in 2029.

(That's 10-12 times the estimated diameter of the recent Chelyabinsk meteor in Russia, which had 20-30 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.)

This space scientist is quite sure of his calculations and has been trying to warn everyone in his management, but he was recently fired for "advocacy" -- if you can believe it -- because his paper includes policy prescriptions to address the threat, which he estimated could cost up to $800 billion, a number no one in Washington wants to hear.

Even worse (yes, it gets worse), there is a sealed court-imposed gag order on him brought by a House committee, whose Republican chairman insists more research is needed, and with the sequester there's no money in the budget to address the problem anyway and he'd prefer it just go away.


Of course, I made this story up. It's not true.

I made it up after reading a quote in Eli Kintisch's article about the retirement of James Hansen in this week's Science magazine, which includes this quote:
"It's disheartening that he has to [now] remove himself from a federal position to advocate on climate change. Government exists, in theory at least, to serve the public's best interests," says Emmy Burns, a student activist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
I recently found these letters (below) from Science of 20 years ago, written by Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson, about being "blacklisted" by a science journalist named Christopher Anderson because of their "advocacy" on the threat of nuclear winter and species extinction, respectively.

Sagan wrote:
"Suppose you had found that the global consequences of nuclear war were much worse than had been generally understood and that military establishments worldwide had overlooked those consequences, especially in a time of a swiftly proliferating strategic arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and when allegedly responsible officials were talking about nuclear war being "survivable" and "winnable." Wouldn't you be concerned? Would you think it your responsibility to keep quiet about this because the results were not absolutely certain, or because the full-scale experimental verification had not yet been obtained?

"Or would you consider it your obligation to your children and the children of everyone else to speak up? Keeping quiet under such circumstances seems bizarre and reprehensible to me.

"Because our technology has achieved formidable powers, and because we sometimes can be careless in its application, this issue is of broad importance. If scientists will not speak out when they see such a danger to the human species, who will?
Or, as E.O. Wilson put it succinctly:
"It is reasonable then to ask what scientists are expected to do when they hit upon a serious environmental problem. Whisper in the ear of a journalist? Entirely and chastely refrain from publishing outside technical journals, hoping the results will be discovered by nonscientists?"

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