Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming

by Mark Bowen

(Dutton, $25.95, 272 pages, January, 2008)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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People who have been following the politics and science of climate change know the name of NASA climatology expert James Hansen well. Since testifying at a famous Senate hearing in the blistering summer of 1988, he has been a leading voice among scientists warning that the Earth's average temperature is rising, that global warming can have consequences that threaten civilization, and that international and national policies can mitigate the threat.

Until recently, Dr. Hansen never advocated specific policies, but it was always clear that the political solution would entail burning less fossil fuel. That has made Dr. Hansen a threat to the coal and oil industries, which have been key supporters both Bush administrations.

By the middle of the current decade, with global temperature regularly setting records, the fossil-fuel-industry-supported global warming denial machine needed to change its tactics. It was no longer sufficient to muddy the waters. They needed to rein in the public pronouncements of Dr. Hansen and a growing number of scientists within and supported by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

It was time for, as Ph.D. physicist and author Mark Bowen writes in new book of the same name, Censoring Science. Fortunately for the big money fossil fuel interests, and unfortunately for the world at large, the George W. Bush administration was more than willing to ignore the science when they could, and put a different "spin" on it when they couldn't.

The administration's tactics came to light in a front-page New York Times article by Andrew Revkin on Sunday, January 29, 2006. The "fall guy" for the story was a 24-year-old political appointee named George Deutsch, who, without training in the sciences, was editing NASA news releases to fit his evangelical Christian views of the Big Bang and his denialist views of climate change.

Bowen makes the not unsurprising case that the policy of censorship and distortion went all the way up to Vice President Dick Cheney's Council on Environmental Quality. He also paints an unflattering picture of NASA head Michael Griffin, who comes off as duplicitous and conniving.

Clearly, this is an important story, and Bowen's professional background qualifies him to present the science and provided him access to the central figures in this drama. But as a piece of journalism, this book is weak in several respects. Bowen had in his hands the facts around which he could have woven a strong narrative thread about political bull-headedness and dangerous disregard of scientific reality on one side, and on the other, the recent transformation of Jim Hansen to someone who saw it as his duty to speak out on policy as well as science.

Instead, the book begins with 100 pages filled with mind-numbing details of the George Deutsch story, though he is ultimately a minor character in the drama.

Then, when he finally gets to the science, Bowen is frequently incautious. He fails to label clearly the worst-case scenarios, which opens him up to criticism as an alarmist rather than as one sounding a needed warning. He frequently overstates the scientific case, for example writing: "So it would seem obvious that if the oceans heat up, we should expect more intense hurricanes. (When all is said and done the physics of this question is probably about as simple as that.)"

Since hurricanes result from a complex interaction between oceans and the atmosphere and are easily disrupted by phenomena such as wind shear, few atmospheric physicists would call that conclusion obvious.

Ultimately, the book feels more like a paean to Jim Hansen than a probe "inside the political attack" on him. This will be disappointing to readers who pick up the book looking for good journalism as well as good science.

Ph.D. Physicist and author Fred Bortz blogs about science and books from slightly to the left of the middle of the road.