NYT's Tierney awakens from his slumber to question use of science in the Obama administration

In yet another example of what County Fair's own Eric Boehlert described as the press awakening from its slumber “just in time to aggressively press the new Democratic administration,” the NYT's controversial science reporter John Tierney --American Progress' Joe Romm called him “easily the worst science writer at any major media outlet in the country” -- has written a column and two blog posts in the last couple of weeks fretting about the kind of advice President Obama might receive from some of his science advisors, most specifically John Holdren (Obama's pick for Science Advisor) and Steven Chu (Obama's Secretary of Energy). If you find it odd that a journalist who did little to no reporting on the widespread and well documented distortion of science and the scientific process during the George W. Bush administration would suddenly find it important to write about the politicization of science in Washington, you are not alone.

After his January 23 column, “Politics in the Guise of Pure Science,” Tierney noted that he was asked by critics "[w]hy start worrying now about scientists pushing a political agenda" and isn't it disingenuous “to worry about the politicization of science now instead of during the Bush administration?” In his own defense he writes: “I agree that there were lots of attempts to use science for political ends during the Bush years. I wrote about some of the questionable claims by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House drug czar's office.” So, while the Bush administration was busy placing unqualified political appointees in scientific positions, muzzling agency scientists, ignoring scientific findings when making federal health and environmental rules, manipulating the scientific advisory system in favor of ideology and industry, and editing reports in way that distorted scientific data, Tierney wrote about some “questionable claims” by the DEA and White House drug czar. Got it.

And just why is Tierney now concerned about "honest science"? Have Holdren or Chu been accused or found guilty of distorting scientific evidence or manipulating the scientific process for political purposes? No, Tierney is “concern[ed] about some of the debating tactics used by Dr. Holdren and his allies” early in Holdren's career, back in the 70s and 80s. Tierney's also concerned that Holdren, as Tierney sees it, has a “tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions.” According to Tierney, “There are other ways to cope, and there's no 'scientific consensus' on which path looks best.” Of course, Joe Romm -- an actual scientist, as opposed someone like Tierney, who “always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through,” -- has noted that the idea that climate change science does not suggest the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is just absurd.

As for Chu, Tierney cites one comment that Chu made in an interview with the Los Angeles times where he suggested that the effects of climate change could reduce the snow pack in the mountains of California to such an extent that there could be “no more agriculture in California,” making it difficult to “keep their cities going.” While Chu's comment may strike some as going beyond what the available science would allow us to predict with any degree of certainty, Tierney failed to mention that Chu reportedly was describing a worst case scenario or that the LAT reported that "[a] pair of recent studies raise similar warnings." Moreover, Chu's singular comment hardly provides evidence that we should be worried about whether Chu and other advisors give Obama “realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats.” But it's good to see that Tierney has his watchful eye on the use of science in Washington, this time around.