Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The Guardian has posted an article defending climate scientists against accusations they’re just grant money grubbing liars.
The idea that climate scientists are in it for the cash has deep ideological roots
Author and academic Nancy MacLean says cynicism about the motives of public servants, including government-backed climate scientists, can be traced to a group of neoliberals and their ‘toxic’ ideas
You’ll have heard that line of argument about cancer scientists, right?
The one where they’re just in it for the government grant money and that they don’t really want to find a cure, because if they did they’d be out of a job?
No, of course you haven’t. That’s because it’s ridiculous and a bit, well, vomit-inducing.
To make such an argument, you would need to be deeply cynical about people’s motives for consistently putting their own pay packets above the welfare of millions of people.
You would have to think that scientists were not motivated to help their fellow human beings, but instead were driven only by self-interest.
Suggesting that climate scientists are pushing a line about global warming because their salaries depend on it is a popular talking point that deniers love to throw around.
But why do so many “sceptics”, particularly those who form part of the organised machinery of climate science denial, feel comfortable in accusing climate scientists of only being in it for the money?
Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean suggests some answers in her new book Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
The book documents how wealthy conservatives, in particular petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch, teamed up with neoliberal academics with the objective, MacLean says, of undermining the functions of government in the United States.
There are some intriguing examples of rapid enrichment through climate grants, such as the Shukla’s gold story, in which Shukla and his wife made hundreds of thousands of dollars every year working part time for their climate foundation. But the overall impression I received from reading the Climategate emails is one of out of control groupthink – a frenzied effort to shut down opposing points of view, tone down adverse findings, to keep the narrative “tidy”.
For example, Climate Scientist Keith Briffa’s infamous 1999 letter to Micheal Mann and others;
Climategate Email 0938018124.txt;
… I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple. We don’t have a lot of proxies that come right up to date and those that do (at least a significant number of tree proxies ) some unexpected changes in response that do not match the recent warming. I do not think it wise that this issue be ignored in the chapter.
For the record, I do believe that the proxy data do show unusually warm conditions in recent decades. I am not sure that this unusual warming is so clear in the summer responsive data. I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1000 years ago. …
The medical analogy chosen by The Guardian author is interesting. Medical research is riddled with scandalous cases of scientific misconduct. D.G Altman’s famous study of medical research failures is still as applicable today as it was when Altman wrote his critique in 1994.
The following from the British Medical Journal;
Richard Smith: Medical research—still a scandal
January 31, 2014
Twenty years ago this week the statistician Doug Altman published an editorial in the BMJ arguing that much medical research was of poor quality and misleading. In his editorial entitled, “The Scandal of Poor Medical Research,” Altman wrote that much research was “seriously flawed through the use of inappropriate designs, unrepresentative samples, small samples, incorrect methods of analysis, and faulty interpretation.” Twenty years later I fear that things are not better but worse.
Most editorials like most of everything, including people, disappear into obscurity very fast, but Altman’s editorial is one that has lasted. I was the editor of the BMJ when we published the editorial, and I have cited Altman’s editorial many times, including recently. The editorial was published in the dawn of evidence based medicine as an increasing number of people realised how much of medical practice lacked evidence of effectiveness and how much research was poor. Altman’s editorial with its concise argument and blunt, provocative title crystallised the scandal.
Why, asked Altman, is so much research poor? Because “researchers feel compelled for career reasons to carry out research that they are ill equipped to perform, and nobody stops them.” In other words, too much medical research was conducted by amateurs who were required to do some research in order to progress in their medical careers.
Ethics committees, who had to approve research, were ill equipped to detect scientific flaws, and the flaws were eventually detected by statisticians, like Altman, working as firefighters. Quality assurance should be built in at the beginning of research not the end, particularly as many journals lacked statistical skills and simply went ahead and published misleading research.
“The poor quality of much medical research is widely acknowledged,” wrote Altman, “yet disturbingly the leaders of the medical profession seem only minimally concerned about the problem and make no apparent efforts to find a solution.”
Despite the problems with medical research, there is a key difference between medicine and climate science; medical science is falsifiable. Medical research results can sometimes be reproduced. People notice if patients keep dying. The worst examples of medical treatments based on defective science are ultimately exposed.
Some courageous doctors have risked their own lives to overturn the consensus, to expose medical mistakes which kill patients. Medical researcher Barry Marshall famously drank a petri dish of H. pylori and gave himself an ulcer, to prove that bacteria cause peptic ulcers. Prior to Barry Marshall’s heroism, efforts to convince the medical community that they were wrong about ulcers were largely ignored. The overwhelming consensus was that ulcers were caused by a high stress lifestyle.
Climate science is not falsifiable in a conventional sense. There is no scientific methodology available to correct mistakes in a reasonable timeframe. The only test of climate models is to wait several decades, to compare model projections with observations.
As Australian climate scientist Sophie Lewis helpfully explained a few weeks ago, It is difficult to propose a test of climate models in advance that is falsifiable. Not that Sophie seems to mind – she thinks Science is complicated – and doesn’t always fit the simplified version we learn as children.
Of course, when those climate models are finally falsified – James Hansen’s 1980s models spectacularly failed to perform – the falsified models are the old models; the new model projections will work better, we promise. After all, they were produced by a more powerful computer.
Given the horrendous state of medical research, despite the availability of scientific checks and balances, there is no mystery why ungovernable climate science is prone to wild flights of fancy.
Update (EW): Pat Frank points there is a means to falsify climate models without waiting several decades. Climate models drastically fail error propagation tests, tests to determine the impact of model errors on the reliability of the climate projections. More information here, Pat Frank’s video presentation of the issue available here