Of Science and Money

Last fall I had a (very cordial) series of discussions with a co-worker of mine, on the topic of global warming.  The immediate instigating event was the news about GSFCs James Hansen, a major contributor to its study, who’s data became controversial when a major flaw in his methodology was uncovered.  My co-worker knows him personally.

Like I often do when in the midst of a discussion on this topic, I also deferred to authority.  I told him about my former classmate (someone I hope still considers me a friend) Sallie Baliunas, who is quite famous, um… infamous, in some circles because of her work on the topic with Willie Soon.  I was taken aback, at least a little, when my co-worker immediately made the claim that she had been paid by “big oil” to do her work (and thus, it was tainted science).

[…to which I say “bullsh*t”  Sallie is known personally to me to be to be, first, scientifically curious, second, personally courageous, third, someone who would never let anything stop her from “following the data” and fourth, someone with more far integrity than the allegation implies.  And more to the point, I easily imagine that if she had a “natural inclination” to be on one side or the other of the global warming/global scepticism divide, she would not be a sceptic.  Scepticism is where the data took her.  But that’s an aside.]

This week The Heartland Institute held a conference on Global Warming and, as expected, showcased the sceptics arguments.

At the end, the participants have endorsed the Manhattan declaration, recommending the world leaders to abandon all irrational policies and misinformation dictated by the global warming orthodoxy.

In the New York Times (again, apologies for using this weak source) John Tierney asked his readers to comment on the meeting and in particular, on the sceptics’ arguments.  He brought up an interesting point.

After I asked readers to focus on the substance of the skeptics’ arguments at this week’s conference on global warming, readers insisted that I should have focused on the financing of the sponsor, the Heartland Institute. Others objected to my (and my colleague Andy Revkin) even writing about a conference sponsored by this group. I’m used to this sort of criticism, but I still find it baffling. Do the critics really think there’s more money and glory to be won by doubting global warming than by going along with the majority?

Well, it’s the same thing sceptics do to those who know inconvenient truths, right? – question their integrity?  Uh… no.

If I write about prominent climate scientists like James Hansen of NASA, I don’t feel obliged to note how much research money they get — or how much extra money is going to their field because of the concerns they’ve raised about climate change. I don’t dismiss Al Gore’s warnings just because his campaign against global warming has been so good for his career. I don’t obsess about how much gets per lecture or what he does with the money. I’ve criticized some of his scarier predictions (like the shutdown of the Gulf Stream) on scientific grounds, but I’ve never suggested he’s venal.

Yet even before the program was announced for this week’s conference, even as Heartland was (without success) inviting Mr. Gore and scientists on his side to come debate, the event was dismissed as impossibly tainted by money.

Funny, that.  Okay, what’s the facts?  Isn’t is possible that global warming sceptics like my friend Sallie are getting much more money from, say Exxon-Mobile than, say, James Hansen is getting from the government?

[F]rom Joseph Bast, Heartland’s president: “Donations from energy companies have never amounted to more than 5 percent of our budget in any year, and there is no corporate sponsor underwriting any of this conference.

I don’t think that Sallie has been paid her entire salary by the government (since she’s has been in the employ of major universities, for the most part, for her entire career).

But Hansen is paid for by the government!” you say, “Not some [sputter]profit making company[resputter]“.  Tierney responds to that:

These criticisms remind me of what happened to scientists who dissented from the “consensus” on the dangers of dietary fat in the 1970s, which I wrote about in this column about Gary Taubes’ book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” The skeptics were eventually vindicated by studies casting doubt on the link between fat and heart disease and cancer, but not before some of them were marginalized by accusations that they’d been corrupted by research grants from food companies.

What made these smears especially unfair, Mr. Taubes writes, is that the money from food companies was trivial compared with the money being doled out by government agencies. One of the researchers who’d supposedly been bought off noted that he’d received $250,000 from the food industry in his career versus $10 million from government agencies — and wondered why this didn’t make him a “tool of government.”

Now, you may trust the government agencies more than you do private companies because the agencies are supposed to be serving the public, not increasing profits for shareholders. But the officials running the agencies have their own agendas — like increasing their budgets and power and prestige, which can be done by supporting research demonstrating that there’s a terrible problem for the agency to solve. These officials are also subject to pressure from politicians and from the research establishment, which by definition tends to be more interested in work that conforms with the prevailing wisdom.

Once the fat-is-bad theory became the consensus — and was being formally promoted in federal agencies’ recommendations to the public — the officials handing out money were much more interested in finding evidence about the evils of fat than in looking at alternative hypotheses (like the carbs-are-bad theory discussed by Mr. Taubes).

Bureaucratic inertia is an awesome thing, isn’t it?  We must remember that the next time some politician tells us that we must cut “gas emisions” for the good of the nation.  His (or her) motives are suspect.

Explore posts in the same categories: Global Warming

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