Why Buy a Climate-Skeptic Cow When Milk is Cheap?

By Sean Carroll | February 6, 2007 2:09 pm

There’s been a bit of blogospheric buzz about this story in the Guardian that accuses the conservative American Enterprise Institute of offering $10,000 to scientists who will contribute articles to a collection responding to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC report pins the blame for global warming squarely on human activity, and warns that the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are growing has been accelerating in recent years. The AEI, meanwhile, is known for such sober assessments as The Global Warming Joke. So there is some concern that the AEI is simply bribing scientists to go along with Big Oil’s party line. Personally, I think the Guardian article is getting a lot of attention because the polar bear picture is really cute.

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler digs up the actual letter from AEI scholars Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green, as well as a note to AEI employees from President Christopher DeMuth. The argument of those on the We Call It Life side of the climate-change fence is that the AEI isn’t offering a bribe to scientists to distort their positions — they’re just collecting a bunch of articles from voices that might be skeptical anyway. Adler:

In these letters AEI was certainly seeking out prominent analysts willing to participate in a critical examination of the IPCC report, but I don’t think the letter suggests AEI wanted Professor Schroeder or anyone else to tailor their views to AEI’s agenda. Rather it looks to me like an effort to encourage those who have been critical of climate projections in the past to provide a detailed assessment of the new IPCC report.

All of which is completely true. Think what you will of the practice, but this is how the game is played (as Jack Balkin points out, more sarcastically). The point is, there’s no need to bribe scientists to be skeptical about climate change, or to hold any other industry-friendly minority position. There are enough scientists out there that there will inevitably someone who sincerely holds that view, as small as the minority might be. All you have to do is ferret them out, and then use your money to give them a megaphone in the public arena. The role of ExxonMobil’s cash isn’t to buy people off, it’s to dramatically amplify the voices of a small number of skeptics, so that the political discourse about the environment is dramatically different in tone and balance from the professional scientific discourse. And at that, they’re doing a fantastic job.

When I was an undergraduate (bear with me here) I spent a summer working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I worked with Sallie Baliunas, a CfA scientist who was a fellow Villanova astronomy grad, and was running an ambitious project to track chromospheric activity on a large sample of Sun-like stars. Sallie is an outstanding astrophysicist, and was a great advisor, as well as a friend. It’s no coincidence that I ended up going to grad school at Harvard’s astronomy department; the physics department didn’t like people from smaller schools and wouldn’t let me in, and Sallie helped convince the astronomy department to accept me.

Sallie also was, and continues to be, very right-wing, of the libertarian variety. Letting the free market do it’s job was the best strategy in nearly any circumstance, she firmly believed. Her interest in stellar variability led her to contemplating the role of Solar variability in the Earth’s climate, and she became convinced that changes in the Sun were essentially the only important factor in explaining changes in the Earth’s temperature. In particular, that human-produced emissions had nothing to do with it. Nothing about this belief was influenced in any way by large piles of cash offered by oil companies. But, once her views became known, they were more than happy to provide platforms from which to spread them; she’s now an editor at Tech Central Station, as well as a fellow of the George C. Marshall Institute.

Nobody could be more sincere in their views about climate change than Sallie is. I also happen to think that she’s dramatically wrong, as do the vast majority of (much more expert) scientists working on the question. But this is how the game is played — no need to bribe people when you can influence the public debate much more easily, and without fear that your targets won’t stay bribed. Unfortunately, oil companies have a lot more cash to spend on this purpose than the atmosphere does. Which is why public-minded scientists who agree with the carefully researched views of the IPCC need to keep hammering on the importance of doing something to fix this problem, before the damage is irrevocable.

I did want to highlight this bit from AEI President Chris DeMuth’s note to his employees:

Third, what the Guardian essentially characterizes as a bribe is the conventional practice of AEI—and Brookings, Harvard, and the University of Manchester—to pay individuals at other research institutions for commissioned work, and to cover their travel expenses when they come to the sponsoring institution to present their papers. The levels of authors’ honoraria vary from case to case, but a $10,000 fee for a research project involving the review of a large amount of dense scientific material, and the synthesis of that material into an original, footnoted and rigorous article is hardly exorbitant or unusual; many academics would call it modest.

I would like to go on record as not thinking of $10,000 for a review article as modest at all. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder why I’ve been doing it for years now without any honorarium whatsoever. If the AEI would like some review articles on the cheap, call me! I promise to be original, footnoted and rigorous.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Science and Politics
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  • thereisnorule6

    how much did the scientists who contributed to the IPCC report get paid? Did the polar bears pay as well as Exxon?

  • Robert

    Reminds me of the lines by Humbert Wolfe:

    “You cannot hope to bribe or twist
    Thank God, the British journalist.
    But, seeing what the man will do
    Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

  • Belizean

    Assuming a salary of $100k per year. $10K only corresponds to 36.5 days. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t turn out a reasonably thoughtful paper much faster than this.

  • Jack

    I’m sure Sean would agree with this proposition: always be extra skeptical about claims in which large numbers of people passionately *want* to believe. That certainly goes for religion, and equally it applies to global warming. There are many people who are as neurotic about money as evangelicals are about sex; as somebody pointed out to me, they even use the same terminology [Isn’t it OBSCENE….OBSCENELY wealthy, etc]. For those people, global warming is a [so to speak] God-given opportunity to pursue their animus against people who too openly enjoy sex, err I mean money. Hence the focus on trivial things like SUVs. Their actual contribution to CO2 is negligible, but they are in your face, a constant reminder of those sinful types who are not ashamed to spend money and have fun. If you really care about warming, you should be pressing Congress to institute an all-out nuclear energy program, not whine about obscene SUVs and Porsches. But that would not yield that delightful frisson of self-righteousness.

    None of this proves that there is no human contribution to global warming, just as the fact that people *want* to believe in life after death doesn’t prove that there is no such thing. I just want to explain why so many of us are reluctant to jump on the global warming bandwagon. I don’t like puritans. I don’t like the way sexual puritans talk about AIDS, and I don’t like the way money-puritans talk about warming.

  • http://astrocath.blogspot.com Joe Buckley

    Sean,
    I too knew Sallie Ballunas, as an undergrad at Villanova (she was two years ahead of me). Although I agree that even as an undergrad she was an excellent astophysicist (well, actually she was an amazing student and lots of fun, too – the title came a little later) she could hardly be categorized as ‘right-wing’. This was circa 1972 after all, and if we had any politics at all, it was pretty reflexively left wing in those days.
    Now Sallie, like most of us (and you too, I’m sure) was kept pretty busy – perhaps too busy to think all that much about anything except the next physics assignment and where the next cheese-steak was coming from. Politics was not real high on the agenda. But it wouldn’t be right to say that her politics was right-wing back then.

    People change. But the one constant with her is integrity. She’s always had the integrity to follow the data anywhere it lead, even if that was a hard place to go.

    Hey! That’s my definition of a scientist, Gregor Mendel style.

  • Dr.BDH

    AEI pays people to produce “scholarship” that supports a conservative, free market ideology. It was founded to be an alternative to universities, freed of any desire to promote open inquiry and debate. Its products should be viewed with the same skepticism as Madison Avenue’s.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Joe, I hope that I made it clear that I would never question Sallie’s integrity. She’s an honest scientist and a great person — I just disagree with her about global warming.

    Jack, I can’t always tell whether you are being serious or sarcastic. Yes, people often believe what they want to believe, or what makes their lives more comfortable. In fact, that’s probably a major motivating factor for people who want to pretend that we’re not ruining the environment.

  • Thomas Larsson

    Aha. For a while I thought that AEI was the Albert Einstein institute.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    When a scientist is committed to an ideology, then is he/she still open to changing her mind?

    I think one reason the ivory tower was invented was to avoid any conflict of interest.

    Anyway, it was this one article that turned me off techcentralstation.com
    http://www.techcentralstation.com/biobaliunassallie.html%22

    Why I think so, is e.g, captured here:

    http://physicsweb.org/articles/world/13/12/8/1

    “If a revolution occurred in physics in December 1900, nobody seemed to notice it. Planck was no exception, and the importance ascribed to his work is largely a historical reconstruction.”

    “After 1900 he increasingly recognized Boltzmann’s probabilistic law of entropy as grand and fundamental, but he stopped short of accepting its central message, that there is a finite (if exceedingly small) probability that the entropy of an isolated system decreases over time. Only in about 1912 did he give up this last reservation and accepted the truly statistical nature of the second law. ”

    “Only in about 1908, to a large extent influenced by the penetrating analysis of the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, did Planck convert to the view that the quantum of action represents an irreducible phenomenon beyond the understanding of classical physics.”

    You see, anyone can find out very easily that it is **at least arguable** Planck himself was not “revolutionized” by his own results, why should O,H,M be any different?

    Yet to dis’ climate science, Baliunas gives rather dubious example of the danger of “consensus of scientists”.

    Integrity/shmintegrity!

  • David

    Sean you said at the beginning of your piece:

    “There’s been a bit of blogospheric buzz about this story in the Guardian that accuses the conservative American Enterprise Institute of OFFERING [my emphasis] $10,000 to scientists who will contribute articles to a collection responding to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

    A little later you say:

    “So there is some concern that the AEI is simply BRIBING [my emphasis] scientists to go along with Big Oil’s party line.”

    and a little later after that you say:

    “The point is, there’s no need to BRIBE [your emphasis] scientists to be skeptical about climate change, or to hold any other industry-friendly minority position. ”

    Now I have looked up the exact definition of “bribe” and it is:

    # make illegal payments to in exchange for favors or influence; “This judge can be bought”
    # payment made to a person in a position of trust to corrupt his judgment

    But “Big Oil” and AEI did not bribe anybody, they merely, as you say in the first quote above (of AEI) “offered” scientists money.

    They did not make an illegal payment (since they have the right to free speech) nor are they responsible for corrupting people’s judgement (since people have free will).

    Have you equated an offer with a bribe?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    No, I have not. If I had wanted to, I would have said “The AEI is trying to bribe scientists,” which is sort of the opposite of what I actually did say.

  • Barry

    A few comments – first, that AEI has discredited itself enough, just on the Iraq War propaganda, so that nobody should take it seriously. Add in Charles Murray (hired *after* he wrote ‘The Bell Curve’), James ‘Dow 36,000’ Glassman, and John Lott (let go only when it was clear that he was pursuing suicide by lawsuit), and it’s clear that AEI has no interest in honest work.

    Second, Dr. Baliunis (sorry for spelling; I can’t copy and paste) is only honest if she’s become an editor at TCS with no knowledge of what the place is – unless she was hired in the past few months. It was *founded* by a PR organization as an astroturf outlet, DCI; the PR guys didn’t even work hard on covering their tracks. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tech_Central_Station for a background. If Dr. Baliunis merely wrote a few articles for them, she might have been duped, but it strains credibility that they’d have made her an editor.

    BTW, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sallie_Baliunas doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of her.

  • I. Solem

    Well, a few points are in order:

    The AEI letter (pdf) claims that they are interested in “an author who can write a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate
    modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy”.

    While they claim to be interested in a ‘balanced view’, what they will do, based on their previous behavior, is widely promote ‘those elements with less levels of predictive utility’ and ignore all others.

    Scientists should stick to the facts if they want to be trusted. On the issue of solar forcing, consider what Professor Nigel Weiss, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, past President of the Royal Astronomical Society had to say:

    “Weiss was so offended by this mischaracterization that he issued a news release, saying “Professor Nigel Weiss, an expert in solar magnetic fields, has rebutted claims that a fall in solar activity could somehow compensate for the man-made causes of global warming.”

    “Although solar activity has an effect on the climate, these changes are small compared to those associated with global warming,” Weiss said in the news release. “Any global cooling associated with a fall in solar activity would not significantly affect the global warming caused by greenhouse gases.””

    This is in great contrast to Professor Sallie Baliunas, who is still apparently pushing the ‘global cooling’ issue, which dates back at least the National Center for Public Policy Research and their public relations campaign of the late 90’s; see this press release by , Talking Point#40: Sun Is Real Culprit Responsible for Global Warming

    As of 2003, Sallie Baliunas is still saying that The scientific history drawn from nature and man’s observations over the last millennium suggests that a strong trend of human induced warming does not exist

    As that link demonstrates, she does have a long history with right wing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the George C. Marshall
    Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute – not exactly models of ‘objective scientific integrity’.

    Given the fact tha the solar maximum was back in 2001, and that no ‘global cooling trend’ has been observed (as Professor Baliunas predicted), it seems that she should retract her comments, unless she’s decided to forsake science in favor of politics.

  • changcho

    “Scientists should stick to the facts if they want to be trusted”

    And a corollary of that should be:

    “Scientists should NOT take money from the AEI if they wish to be trusted.”

  • Barry

    I’d like to second that post – when an organization has a track record of such a large amount of repeated, deliberate and unpunished lying and fraud, such as AEI does, the presumption should be that they are lying. Anybody who signs on with them is either ignorantly or knowlingly taking on that reputation.

    Sean, it’s got to hurt – a person who helped you out and mentored you has turned dishonest. But endorsing their good character, when they’ve disproven it, puts scientists in the same position as the elite MSM, where ‘journalists’ can lie or BS as they please, and not suffer any bad consequences.

  • Belizean

    [AEI] was founded to be an alternative to universities, freed of any desire to promote open inquiry and debate.

    Let’s not forget that universities are hardly the bastions of free intellectual inquiry that they might once have been. They’ve become instead one of the least hospitable places to free speech and open debate in American life. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’d face far less incivility as an atheist addressing a typical Christian church than as a conservative addressing a typical college campus. I should know, I work in one. I don’t mean to be offensive, but the leftists here seem typical — they are frighteningly rabid. Perhaps the younger ones will grow out of it.

    It also seems as though it is only a matter of time before questioning the prevailing orthodoxy in climate science will become a violation of university speech codes punishable by forced indoctrination sessions.

  • http://www.aceorganicchem.com Organic Chemistry

    I never got $10,000 to review an article. I figure I can spend a couple of days a month, review one article, rake in my 10 large, and spend the rest of the month playing video games and shouting on street corners…..NICE.

  • caerbannog

    How many of those AEI-funded papers do you suppose will ever be published in refereed journals?

  • rishi

    Reminds me of the evolution vs creationism debate.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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