Yesterday I wrote about the difficulty of making decisions about risk because of increased complexity. Science has come to play an ever larger role in assessing risk and this often takes the conversation into levels of complexity and abstraction that most of us can not grasp. Since we can’t fully appreciate every nuance of the debate, we begin to look for other ways to evaluate the argument. We ask about the credentials and credibility of the experts.
Bob Woodward learned in his Watergate investigations to “follow the money.” Money does affect our perspective on the world. Centuries ago Renee Decartes wrote, “A man is incapable of comprehending any argument that interferes with his revenue.” Thus the lobbyist we will have with us. Almost any public policy change has financial consequences for multiple parties. Some stand to benefit directly, while others will lose. Some will see competitor’s fortunes aided, while some will see competitor’s fortunes reversed. Competing interests are going to pursue courses that maximize their positions.
Within the climate change debate, frequent mention is made of Exxon’s efforts to “muddy the waters” on climate change science as they seek to limit regulation on their industry. Whenever a scientist or policy wonk publicly questions climate change, bloggers and media sources are quick to identify that the contrarian receives grants from firms and institutions that would stand to benefit from a muddied climate change science. These are legitimate issues to investigate insofar as they go but it only answers part of the “follow the money” question. To answer the other part we need to look into the very human enterprise of science.
Forty-seven years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower made a prophetic statement in his presidential farewell address. In it, he talked about the Military-Industrial Complex. He was apprehensive about the corrupting influences of powerful corporations on society. However, if we read Eisenhower’s speech we also find this statement:
“The prospect of the domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal Employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet holding scientific research and discovery in respect as we should, we must always be alert to the equal and opposite danger that the public could itself become captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
The development of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project of World War II, had been such a successful partnership of government, science and business that President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned Vannevar Bush (no relation to George Bush), one of his White House science staff advisors, to develop a proposal for how this arrangement might be institutionalized to address other scientific problems in the future. Bush’s aggressive proposal made its way to President Harry Truman after Roosevelt’s death and was enthusiastically received. It resulted in the creation of the National Science Foundation working under the president and a host of other research arms in cabinet departments like Defense and later Energy. By 1960, Eisenhower was already having reservations. The problem is that the determination of what is a “problem” becomes less a scientific question than a political one. If you want to get funding you better study what the funders see as “the problem.”
The late 1970s were a time of focused efforts in studying and developing energy alternatives. It was during the 1970s that Energy Secretary James Schlesinger became interested in the possible impacts of fossil fuels on global climate change; or as it was known then, “global cooling.” The global temperature had been declining from the 1940s to the 1970s and it was feared that emissions were blocking the suns heating capabilities, thus putting us into an ice age.
Research funding continued to grow for studies on climate change through the 1980s when nature threw scientists a curve ball. It was determined that since the early to mid 1970s the global temperature had warmed up. Scientists then postulated that instead of blocking the suns heat, a greenhouse effect was trapping heat and creating global warming. James Hansen of NASA indicated in congressional testimony in 1988, that we could expect the temperature to increase nearly 3 degrees C (well over 5 degrees F) in the next fifty years. It was an exaggeration by about a multiple of four. He later justified his extreme scenario because he needed to get the attention of policy-makers who were largely unaware of the “problem” of global warming.
In other words, if you can get the policymakers to perceive a crisis, you have created a “problem” for scientists to “solve.” The coffers open up. Politicians want “scientific evidence” that they are funding efforts to address “problems” for their constituents.
So imagine you are a scientist. You do research and conclude that greenhouse gasses are not the problem. You conclude change is driven by variations in radiation from the Sun. You conclude that the impact of the warming is likely to be minimal. What are you going to say at the next federal funding hearings? “Good news. No significant anthropogenic global warming. My colleagues and I don’t need your money anymore. Thank you very much.” Not only are you de-funding yourself but also undercutting the funding for every other scientist who is studying the topic and you are denying political powers some political ammo about “solving problems” with taxpayer money.
Scientists advance in their fields by publishing in peer reviewed journals. The reviewers are people who have established a track record of publication and are believed to be experts in their fields. They are also people who have been competing for federal funding dollars with everybody else. They review your article that challenges the conventional wisdom about global warming and reject the article as flawed or in some way “unscientific.” The scientific community is a relatively tight knit community and suddenly you find you can’t get any of your research published. No publication eventually means no job; or at least no advancement.
When we talk about climate change issues we are not talking about purely objective scientific observers. Challenges to scientific paradigms in the late twentieth century are no longer just about science. It is also about politics and potentially destroying the livelihoods of fellow scientists with whom you must have a relationship to advance. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, MIT scientist Richard Lindzen wrote:
To understand the misconceptions perpetuated about climate science and the climate of intimidation, one needs to grasp some of the complex underlying scientific issues. First, let's start where there is agreement. The public, press and policy makers have been repeatedly told that three claims have widespread scientific support: Global temperature has risen about a degree since the late 19th century; levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased by about 30% over the same period; and CO2 should contribute to future warming. These claims are true. However, what the public fails to grasp is that the claims neither constitute support for alarm nor establish man's responsibility for the small amount of warming that has occurred. In fact, those who make the most outlandish claims of alarm are actually demonstrating skepticism of the very science they say supports them. It isn't just that the alarmists are trumpeting model results that we know must be wrong. It is that they are trumpeting catastrophes that couldn't happen even if the models were right as justifying costly policies to try to prevent global warming.
If the models are correct, global warming reduces the temperature differences between the poles and the equator. When you have less difference in temperature, you have less excitation of extratropical storms, not more. And, in fact, model runs support this conclusion. Alarmists have drawn some support for increased claims of tropical storminess from a casual claim by Sir John Houghton of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a warmer world would have more evaporation, with latent heat providing more energy for disturbances. The problem with this is that the ability of evaporation to drive tropical storms relies not only on temperature but humidity as well, and calls for drier, less humid air. Claims for starkly higher temperatures are based upon there being more humidity, not less--hardly a case for more storminess with global warming.
So how is it that we don't have more scientists speaking up about this junk science? It's my belief that many scientists have been cowed not merely by money but by fear.
Alarm rather than genuine scientific curiosity, it appears, is essential to maintaining funding. And only the most senior scientists today can stand up against this alarmist gale, and defy the iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers. (Richard Lindzen, “A Climate of Fear,” Wall Street Journal, April, 2006)
So if we follow the money we see that scientists often have a professional and monetary stake in climate change findings. Indeed, the reason that some scientist go into their respective field is a desire to right wrongs and make the world a better place with their scientific work. These are noble aims but it does mean that we are dealing with human beings who are not entirely objective, dispassionate observers giving us “just the facts.” And it is not that there is massive amount of fraud in scientific experiments but funding priorities and proclivities of the scientists does affect what gets studied and what questions get asked.
In the meantime, politicians benefit by being able to build themselves as protectors of the people against malevolent forces. The sensationalist media benefits financially by being able to feed a steady diet of news stories and “investigative” studies that create anxiety and increase the number of viewers. The UN, the parent institution of the IPCC that periodically publishes the climate science reports, stands to benefit much in terms of prestige and power by becoming a global manager of economies. Some large corporations would benefit from seeing their competitors saddled with heavy regulations.
The bottom line is that the adage of “follow the money” is an important one but it alone can’t answer the question of legitimacy. Science has become such a big industry that almost all research, not just climate change, is funded by someone and these “someones” all have their own interests. In the end, the attempt to discredit opponents by identifying funding sources ends up being a game of mutually assured destruction.
So what about consensus?