The principle of American democracy is rooted in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that public policies are best developed through the honest and open deliberation of a wide variety of ideas. But the “marketplace” has strained of late. Our national challenges have grown more complex and the voices opining on them more numerous. From health care to energy policy to net neutrality, resolving modern problems requires more than an application of philosophy – it demands scientific literacy and an understanding of our national scientific apparatus.
Unfortunately, instead of facilitating discourse there are many who are content to muddy the waters. One of the worst offenders is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. During his June 22, 2011 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show he spoke once again on one of his “pet peeve issues,” climate change. Limbaugh, who has long rejected the consensus scientific conclusion that that Earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are responsible, was offering a new explanation for climate scientists’ behavior.
“They’ve been paid,” Limbaugh argued. “Their entire lifestyles, their standard of living depends on their grants that they get to conduct the studies, and they only get the money if they come up with the right result.”
One might be willing to dismiss such an inflammatory statement as isolated bloviation from one of media’s biggest loudmouths, if only it were an isolated incident. It is far from that. Similar statements have been made by authors, pundits, politicians, and even a handful of disgruntled scientists. In a speech to New Hampshire businessmen, former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry echoed Limbaugh’s remarks referencing “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”
Statements such as these are not only slanderous, they are dangerous. Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our generation. It promises to deliver a warmer climate, droughts, floods, food and water scarcity, rising sea levels, and the death of 25-50% of Earth’s species (just to name a few) if not properly mitigated.
It is for these reasons that the profoundly misleading assaults on scientists’ basic integrity are so worrisome. The need to restore public faith in our scientific institutions warrants a substantive clarification about both the roles scientists play in society and the actual manner in which their research is funded.
In general, there are two classes of scientist – public and private. Public climate scientists are employed by government institutions like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA’s premiere climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, explains how public scientists are compensated saying, “Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours week, regardless of how long they work.”
Furthermore, to prevent against politically motivated terminations public scientists receive considerable protection from being fired. In such an environment scientists have little to fear from publishing results that cut across the grain since neither their compensation nor their job security depends on it.
Private climate scientists, on the other hand, are often employed by universities and must actively seek their own research funding. One common source is America’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities. Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so it is worth examining its appropriations process in greater detail.
Scientists apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal. According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative. Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work. This process is highly competitive. Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.
One noteworthy observation is that a plausible alternative to the theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria. According to the National Academy of Sciences, between 97% and 98% of climate scientists actively publishing in the field currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. Clearly, a plausible alternative would constitute a great scientific advancement, one which would likely have ramifications beyond climate science itself. So not only are “climate skeptics” not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.
There are other factors that weigh in a climate skeptic’s favor. First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn prestige and a likely place for his name in science textbooks. This is a huge incentive to challenge the status quo. Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer for conducting controversial research. Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which mitigates consensus groupthink. Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature. They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it. Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation. It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed. Scientists yearn for these moments. They do not penalize the search for them.
The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense. It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it is conducted. And even if you suspect incoming research proposals must tacitly accept anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist, an organization dedicated to explaining peer reviewed climate change research, reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions. Those missions in total have created the consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.
The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it. For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle. As the Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.”
Except in certain cases the prince comes to you. Mitigating climate change requires a reorganization of large sectors of our economy. Consequently, corporations that stand to suffer financially in the transition have a strong incentive to spread disinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.
In such cases, the exact opposite of Limbaugh’s argument is proven true. Scientists willing to research alternatives to anthropogenic climate change often receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
As Dr. Hansen argues, “Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.”
Once the public understands the true manner in which climate science is funded, it will ultimately need to ask itself which is more likely – that A) 97% of all active climate scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world’s eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading doubt and disinformation as a means to forestall action.
Given the current state of media in the United States, the condition in which we find ourselves is not altogether surprising. Thinner margins have driven many newspapers and other news outlets to lay off dedicated science reporters. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings reign supreme and viewers are more likely to tune into conflict and controversy than a nuanced discussion of the facts. Even when climate science is given the coverage it deserves, the media will often mistake journalistic balance with “hearing all sides of an issue.” Granting climate skeptics equal air time with members of the 97% majority is akin to presenting the opinions of an Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.
Ultimately, it will fall upon scientists to lift the haze of misunderstanding that surrounds their work. They will need to be more vocal in communicating not just the science, but the process of practicing science. Only when the public gains an understanding of the scientific process will the baseless claim of Limbaugh and his sympathizers be exposed be exposed as the myth that it is.
Featured image: “Dollar Sign in Space – Illustration” by DonkeyHotey, used under CC BY 2.0 / slightly modified and black borders added to original
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