Steve Schneider’s first letter to the editor

There was a time at NASA when writing a letter to the paper without your director’s permission could get you fired. And no, I’m not talking about the last Bush administration.

It was 1971. Steve Schneider at the time was a postdoc at NASA GISS, working for the then director, Robert Jastrow (later of the George Marshall Institute). He had just co-authored the high profile Rasool and Schneider (1971) paper in Science on the radiative forcing from increasing aerosols and CO2.

His letter, which appears to be his first letter in the New York Times, was printed Sept. 16 1971. It was sent in response to a rather lame op-ed by a Eugene Guccione, editor of a mining magazine [Incidentally, this Guccione is not the Bob Guccione who edited Penthouse (despite a confusion on this point in Steve’s last book)]. Because the publication of the letter came as a surprise to Jastrow, he fired Schneider over the phone while Steve was visiting NCAR in Boulder. He was rapidly reinstated after NASA management let it be known that they appreciated young scientists like Schneider doing public outreach.

This was a period when the role of MIlankovitch (orbital) forcing in causing ice age cycles was starting to be elucidated and some discussion was already occurring on whether a new ice age driven by orbital variations was foreseeable. Scientists had known for a while that CO2 was increasing due to industrial activity – but they didn’t know about the rise in methane or CFCs. They knew too that aerosols had increased and that this would imply a cooling (all else being equal). They were not predicting imminent ice ages though, despite what you might read elsewhere.

Reading the Guccione op-ed (right, click for full size), it is immediately obvious that the rules for writing mendacious anti-science were discovered a long time ago. First, find some metric that you can use to indicate something is getting better – a cherry picked weather report, a pollution index in a specific town – it doesn’t really matter what, and because of the large amount of natural variability and almost infinite choice of metrics, one can always find something.

In 1957, … the average particulate concentration was 120 mg. …. In 1969, the average was 92.

(which cheerfully ignores the fact that aerosol optical depth was increasing (implying a big shift towards smaller particles)). Second, extrapolate your metric wildly to cover all pollution types/regions/impacts (it doesn’t matter if this makes any actual sense). For good measure, set up a strawman argument that is so ridiculous that your readers can instantly see that no-one in their right mind would agree with it (though don’t mention that no-one actually does).

.. environmentalists cling to the notion that sulphur dioxide concentration increases annually. If that were the case, none of us would be here today because our parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents would not have been born.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page