Gravity's Rainbow

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Figures Lie and Liars Figure – Who can you trust?


This is part two in a series based on questions, concerns, and misconceptions that my aunt (and many other people) have about climate change.  Last week, I posted about money concerns – that many people think scientists are making up this data to get rich or famous (a view perpetuated by the lovely senator from Oklahoma).

Despite the evidence I discussed or linked to in the last post, my aunt was still not convinced that scientists could be trusted.

The Main Stream Media

Before I get into the nitty gritty of the trust issues, I want to point out two comments in particular from my aunt:

I know scientists aren’t getting rich from this–at least not as exposed yet.


[S]cientists may not get it [money] in salary but some do have “consulting firms” set up which receive payments for various things like data analysis, etc.  So it may not directly be from salaries, but there are ways that they can get rich.

I’m not falsely juxtaposing these statements or taking them out of context – they’re right next to each other in her original response.  Notice the cognitive dissonance here – she’s simultaneously arguing that scientists DON’T get rich from climate change research and that they DO get rich from climate change research.

When I first read those comments, I was annoyed and a little angry.  It’s easy to be dismissive when people say things like that – it makes me feel like they aren’t actually interested in what’s really going on, that they’ll use any argument – no matter how nonsensical or conflicting or based in fantasy – to support their position.  But I don’t think she’s being disingenuous.  I think her conflicting comments reflect the very genuine confusion most people feel about climate change research based on the absolute nonsense framework of  “controversy”  the MSM generally uses to present climate change.

Which brings me to the second of my aunt’s concerns (Climategate) and back to my first concern (the MSM):

[M]y news source is the general media (as it is for most lay people).   [Link to ABC Climategate story that misconstrues email content.]  This is kind of like if you have a restaurant and the food is great, some people will mention it and pass that on to friends, but suppose someone finds a dead fly in the soup—they tell everyone.  May not be the fairest way for people to make final decisions but the fly was found in the soup nonetheless.

copyright Joel Pett

Based on MSM coverage of the hacked emails, my aunt thinks that there are at least a few really influential scientists that lie, lie, lie about climate change.  This colors her entire opinion of climate science.  The reality is that all of the scientists in the hacked emails were cleared of any and all scientific misconduct.  Not only was the coverage of the scientists being cleared so much worse that my aunt didn’t even know about it, the ABC stories that did discuss it didn’t bother to correct the misconceptions their own stories spread about climate change.

It’s really frustrating to me as a scientist to know that so many people don’t trust my entire field, that the work I do has a very good chance of being unfairly disregarded.  Even when other fields screw up (a bridge falls down, a medication has surprisingly lethal side effects, the entire freaking economy collapses), trust doesn’t get as low as it does for scientists who do work related to climate change.  It’s not much comfort to be right either, when the consequences are so catastrophic.

Falsifying data

Ok, on to the trust issues!  First, take a look at this passage:

Scientists most often falsify data to get famous, not rich.  Politicians get rich along with corporate cronies but they influence scientists by giving them research funds with “expected” outcomes.  Scientists are not all pure–remember the guy who I think painted spots on the mice or something like that to prove his research?

I think this paragraph in particular demonstrates the uphill struggle scientists face when trying to communicate their work to the public.  This paragraph just assumes that scientists lie all the time.  It also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how science (and science funding) works.  (Does anyone know what scientific misconduct case she could be referring to when she says “the guy who I think painted spots on the mice or something like that to prove his research”?)

Yes, sometimes scientists do falsify data.  But it’s really, really stupid to falsify data in science because you will almost certainly get found out.  I’m also going to argue that it doesn’t actually matter that much (to the science as a whole) if you don’t get caught.  People who think scientists just make up data willy-nilly don’t understand how science works:  if another scientist can’t follow your methods and get the same results, the conclusion is that either you made up the data or what you observed was a fluke.  With climate change data, this means that if you made it up, regardless of whether you’re ever found out, your study doesn’t end up influencing what we think about climate change.

The climate change conspiracy

Scientific conspiracy

You could argue that all the climate scientists are in it together.  Disregarding the absolute lack of motivation scientists have to do this, let’s consider what this would mean if we assume that climate change data is falsified.  The conspiracy would be unbelievable vast.  Data collected (and published) by scientists and nonscientists alike at academic, military, nonprofit and government institutions around the world, a great deal of it to study things other than global warming, and much of it before most people had even heard of global warming, was all made up or altered to support climate change.  Pretty fucking unlikely.

Even if one day we find out that a particular temperature data set was tweaked or that the carbon dioxide measurement instrument at a particular research station wasn’t calibrated correctly or an entire set of bird migration data was completely made up, it wouldn’t change in any significant way our understanding of climate change.  The amount of evidence and the number of lines of evidence supporting climate change is so overwhelming that problems with a few individual data sets just don’t matter to the big picture.

Those problems do matter to scientists though.  Scientists try to be as correct as possible and some (maybe most …) of us take particular delight in proving other scientists wrong.  When scientists look at research, they look for – and point out – problems and weaknesses.  We like to argue.  We get more attention for strong results that disagree with the common wisdom.  These aspects of the scientific process and science culture make it even less likely that climate change is some made up conspiracy.  If there was a real controversy, the scientists would be all over it, competing loudly to prove the other side wrong.  [UPDATE: for a great example of this, go read this Scicurious post] But there is scientific consensus – essentially NO ONE disagrees that climate change is happening and people are the reason.  Consider those indicators from the EPA slide show.  Each one of them by itself wouldn’t be enough to convince a scientist that global warming was happening, but together they are quite convincing.

Fat cat scientists

Despite the evidence I presented last week, my aunt still thinks that plenty of scientists are lying about climate change for the money:

[S]cientists may not get it [money] in salary but some do have “consulting firms” set up which receive payments for various things like data analysis, etc.  So it may not directly be from salaries, but there are ways that they can get rich.

It’s true that climate scientists can work in consulting or might even have a separate business on the side.  I know one scientist who is part of a business that helps people make their homes more energy efficient.  I don’t know of anyone who’s gotten rich off of being a climate scientist, but let’s pretend that there are lots of fat cat climate scientists who got rich doing climate change research.  What would this mean for what we think about climate change?

I do want to point out that this just isn’t happening.  Who would pay scientists gazillions of dollars to make up climate change?  I can think of a few industries it would benefit today – maybe wind power, for example.  But we’ve known about climate change for a long time now.  So who would have benefited from climate change being made up in the 50s, 60s, 70s?  I have no idea.  Plus, whoever paid for it would have to have fixed all the data around the world over more than 100 years, as discussed in the “conspiracy” paragraph above.  The evidence, in fact, is that money hasn’t influenced climate change science.  However, fossil fuel interests made sure to cast doubt on climate change in the public mind.

I said I was going to pretend we scientists were getting rich doing consulting, but then I got carried off on a tangent about how stupid that is.  But I said I would, so on with the stupid thought experiment.

What kind of blogger would I be if I resisted the impulse to include a cat picture?

I’m a (dishonest) climate change researcher and I’m part of a consulting firm.  Wind Power Company wants to build a wind farm outside of Small Town, but Small Town thinks wind farms are ugly and they’ve got plenty of coal anyway.  So Wind Power Company pays me to downscale global climate model (GCM) predictions for the town 20, 50, and 80 years out.  Wind Power Company will pay me double my normal fee if Small Town allows the wind farm.  I only use the worst case emissions scenario and instead of presenting results from multiple GCMs and their likelihoods, I only consider the most extreme case.  Then I present the worst case scenario as the most likely scenario to the town.

Small Town thinks this is pretty bad news and that if this is true, maybe they should invest more in alternative energy.  But I also had to disclose that I work for Wind Power Company, so they take my report with a grain of salt.  The predictions from GCMs are publicly available through many sources and Small Town looks them up and tells Wind Power Company to take a hike.

This is probably not a very realistic scenario (feel free to put your own in the comments), but the point I’m trying to make is that if I have an environmental consulting firm that isn’t independent with transparent procedures, no one will take my results seriously.  If I provide Wind Power Company with results other scientists can’t replicate, no one will take me seriously.  That’s why the scientific community dismisses these guys paid by fossil fuel interests.

I also want to point out that the pharmaceutical and biomed industries have some very serious conflicts of interest and a LOT of money is at play.  Yes, scientific misconduct is uncovered in those fields, but we don’t deny pregnancy occurs because someone lies about their research on ectopic pregnancies.

So let’s summarize:

  • Falsified data doesn’t influence the big picture on climate change even if scientists get away with it.
  • It’s impossible for climate change to be a conspiracy.
  • Money isn’t influencing climate change scientists, it’s influencing the public debate on climate change policy.

In the next part of this series I want to address some of the specific questions my aunt had about the data from the EPA slideshow.


A note on Wikipedia:

I link to Wikipedia quite a bit and a couple people feel that they can’t take my arguments seriously because of my source.  I like Wikipedia because even if you don’t believe what the article itself says, their articles are generally very well sourced.  If you can follow a link, you can get all the information you need to make your own decision.  It’s more efficient to link to Wikipedia than to individually link to many of the same sources the Wikipedia article uses.

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  1. Great post. Seriously, wow.

    “Scientists try to be as correct as possible and some (maybe most …) of us take particular delight in proving other scientists wrong.”

    If laypeople knew just how acrimonious and argumentative the practice of science can be — and the great, great joy many scientists take in disproving one another, most of the “it’s all a conspiracy” ideas would dissipate like smoke in a gale.

    If one scientist found definitive disproof of global climate change you’d literally have to kill that person to avoid her or him telling the world about it. And that wouldn’t even be enough, as I’m sure they’d have arrangements to publish posthumously.

    Other than just having no science background, and the whole “I don’t want to change my lifestyle, so climate change must be fake” thing, I think a lot of the enmity to the whole idea now has become a personality issue.

    That is to say, Al Gore believes in climate change, therefore there is no way the average conservative can. And since the average “hippie” believes it too, that makes it even harder. The culture wars, far from being over, will be fought for a very, very long time still. Climate change is another aspect of those culture wars that haven’t been written about in that way, but it’s pretty obvious (at least to me) when you think about it.

    Also, people who think linking to Wikipedia somehow invalidates your ideas — first of all, what? Second, independent studies have confirmed that Wikipedia’s error rate matches that of printed encyclopedias pretty closely.

    Wikipedia is a great human achievement, despite its flaws, and no I wouldn’t build a nuclear weapon from instructions found on that site, but for general information purposes it’s pretty damn good.

    The Wikipedia hatred is a brand of elitism that I particularly detest.

  2. Pingback: Michael Alan Miller » Gored the opposition

  3. Great post! I especially liked this: “we don’t deny pregnancy occurs because someone lies about their research on ectopic pregnancies.”

    I’ve been following a couple of anti-climate change blogs recently because I always want to hear both sides of a debate. For now, the impression I get is that climate change deniers gladly go out of their way to avoid seeing the obvious. It was especially annoying to read how the recent heat wave in Russia never really happened and was a figment of the imagination of crazy Russian people. Yes, it all must be a huge conspiracy by the Russians who are probably bribed into it by greedy scientists.

    I also agree that this let’s-dump-on-Wikipedia tendency is silly. With all its flaws, Wikipedia is a great source of information. I use it pretty much every day to check a date of publication, a fact, or find some numbers I need for my classes. So the idea that linking to Wikipedia articles somehow invalidates one’s posts sounds very wrong to me.

  4. One little tidbit to consider – if there were some enormous conspiracy between hundreds of scientists, it would have been a breeze for hackers to find much much more damning evidence than the misleading emails that sparked such controversy.

  5. I just read on a climate-change denier’s website that the reason that I “believe” in climate change is actually my gender. Women, who are by nature more gullible (read stupid) are more likely to believe things not supported by data. Men, however, are more logical and reasonable, so it’s harder for them to believe Al Gore’s lies. According to this theory, Al Gore himself should be a woman. But who cares about a small thing like that.

    So you see, it’s all a gender thing.

  6. It’s long been “known*” on the Right that Al Gore is gay.

    To those people, it’s just like calling him a woman.

    The string “Al Gore is gay” produces 77,800 hits on Google:

    Al Gore is gay.

    And the thing is, even if he were gay (who cares?) that still wouldn’t change the science one little bit.

    *For idiotic interpretations of known.

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