"ArticGate" - When is a Mistake a Lie?

What did Harrison Schmitt Know? And When?

In the ongoing controversy over whether former astronaut and New Mexico Senator Harrison Schmitt intentionally misled NASA with his 2009 white paper on climate change, we come to the age old questions: What did Schmitt know? And when did he know it?

Schmitt says in that paper that “Artic (sic) sea ice has returned to 1989 levels of coverage.” When Dr. Mark Boslough, a physicist and computational modeler at Sandia National Laboratories brought to Schmitt’s attention that this was incorrect, Schmitt failed to correct it. Well, not everyone likes to admit making a mistake.

But was it a mistake? Joseph Bast, President of the tobacco and oil-stained Heartland Institute, of which Schmitt is a Director, wrote in a snarling defence of his boss that, “In fact, National Snow and Ice Data Center records show conclusively that in April 2009, Arctic sea ice extent had indeed returned to and surpassed 1989 levels.” And you can see from the little graph at the left that, for a week or so in April and May, that’s correct.

But Schmitt submitted his paper in September, and a colleague who has seen an electronic copy of that document reports that it was last edited on August 29, 2009. And here is a comparison of Arctic sea ice in 1989 and 2009 on that day.

So, we know the information on sea ice extent was wrong on the day Schmitt pushed the button. We know that the error was called to his attention and that he failed to correct it. We know that when that factual abdication was brought to public attention, Joe Bast, the president of Schmitt’s smokey organization jumped to his defence and we know that Jim Lakely, the communicat­ions director for Heartland, has spent a fair amount of time dissembling further on the Huffington Post story on this issue written by Dr. Peter Gleick.

But I still have questions for Mr. Schmitt:

Do you think this is an acceptable standard for reporting on science?

Is this the kind of rigour you’ll bring to the job if you actually get confirmed as Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources?

Are you willing to assure us that this was an act of incompetence and not dishonesty?

And if so, is that supposed to make us feel better?