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Jonathan I. Katz, a professor of astrophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, “will no longer be involved in the [Energy] Department’s efforts” at addressing the oil spill continuing to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, a department spokesperson relayed on Monday night, May 17.
The news came after what that department employee, Stephanie Mueller, termed “controversial writings” – which included a “defense of homophobia” – spread out over the Web on Monday, writings of which she said the department was unaware when it sought his assistance.
On May 12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu “assembled a group of top scientific experts from inside and outside of government to join in today’s discussions in Houston about possible solutions,” according to a department news release. Katz was one of five outside scientists noted in the release. Bloomberg News reported about the group of scientists on May 14, reporting Chu “signaled his lack of confidence in the industry experts trying to control BP Plc’s leaking oil well by hand-picking a team of scientists with reputations for creative problem solving.”
Once news of the team spread, some of Katz’s writings were discovered at his university website, including one titled, “In Defense of Homophobia.” In the essay, dated May 13, 1999, he wrote about the “rationalist” and the religious person’s views of homosexuality.
“The religious believer may see the hand of God, but both he and the rationalist must see a fact of Nature. The human body was not designed to share hypodermic needles, it was not designed to be promiscuous, and it was not designed to engage in homosexual acts. Engaging in such behavior is like riding a motorcycle on an icy road without a helmet,” Katz wrote. “It may be possible to get away with it for a while, and a few misguided souls may get a thrill out of doing so, but sooner or later (probably sooner) the consequences will be catastrophic. Lethal diseases spread rapidly among people who do such things.”
More than 10 years later, Energy Department spokesperson Stephanie Mueller was announcing on Monday night – less than a week after being described as “our best scientific minds” by Chu – that “[s]ome of Professor Katz’s controversial writings have become a distraction from the critical work of addressing the oil spill.”
Writing that Chu “has spoken with dozens of scientists and engineers as part of his work to help find solutions to stop the oil spill,” she referenced the writings and stated, “Professor Katz will no longer be involved in the Department’s efforts.”
In response to an inquiry from Metro Weekly about whether Chu or the Energy Department was aware of Katz’s additional writings before he was selected to help with the oil spill, Mueller responded, “No, the Secretary was not aware and disagrees with them. The Department wasn’t aware either.”
Another essay pointed to by Katz’s critics – “Cold Thoughts on Global Warming” – has been cited as proof that he is a “climate change denialist.” Despite that, Katz actually states, “The conclusion that anthropogenic emissions [those derived from human activities] of these gases will likely warm the climate has been generally accepted for a century. It is a consensus, but it is not emerging or new. It has been there all along. Only a panicky fear of the consequences is new.”
AmericaBlog’s John Aravosis, who had been leading the criticism of Katz on Monday, wrote that “[o]ver 2,300 people” signed his blog’s petition asking President Barack Obama to “fire” Katz. Neither the White House nor the Energy Department responded to requests asking if the White House had requested the decision announced by the department Tuesday.