Consider the Source but Study the Science

| February 2, 2007 | 8 Replies

Horrible capitalists trying to muddy science with money!

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Here’s a dumb question.

Do you think scientists and economists work for free or that they are all funded by happy impartial governments?

Let me boil down this offer to you in non-loaded language free from sinister overtones. The IPCC has put our a report on climate change. The AEI believes there may be some holes in that report. They are willing to pay people to find those holes and write reasoned and solid papers revealing what they have found.

There, isn’t that simply evil of them?

I suppose it would come as a shock to the reporter, but scientists and economists don’t all work for “the government. They’re not all on the UN payroll just churning out reports bereft of bias or agenda in big white sterile labs. Science costs money and most scientists don’t care about where that money comes from. So long as they can do their work, they’re pretty darned happy. That’s as it should be. The problem is that there is a stigma that can be quickly attached to any science that’s funded by someone not the government.

I once had a professor who dismissed a raft of papers put out by the Competetive Enterprise Institute that spoke in opposition to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. He dismissed them not because the science was bad or because the conclusions were flawed. He dismissed them because the CEI is largely funded by Big Oil. The obvious belief at work is that what companies fund are so flawed they do not deserve even out most fleeting consideration while studies done by governments are holy writ.

The truth about government-funded science is that the government – in this case, the United Nations – is not an objective actor. The UN has its own agenda and its own goals, as does any government. It is lobbied by outside organizations. Officials are wined and dined. This stuff happens in every government and the UN is certainly no exception. Those little transactions between individuals and officials create biases in the system, eddies around which the bureaucracy flows, little things that give the big machinery a nudge in this direction or that. This is something the reporter didn’t quite mention, though. Everyone has biases. Even newspaper reporters and college professors.

I follow a very simple rule when it comes to stuff like this: Consider the source, but study the science. It could very well be that the science of the IPCC report is rock-solid but I won’t know until I see the report. I can tell you that I’m suspicious of anything the UN produces but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of producing a solid study. Same goes for the AEI, except that I’m not quite as suspicious of them.

The reason I’m not quite so suspicious of the AEI is because you get to see their biases right out in the open. They do not hide that they get funding from ExxonMobil and other companies and individuals. It’s an easy thing to find out. They make no big secret about where their money comes from nor where it goes.

The UN on the other hand…well…come on. Claudia Rosett has made it nearly her life’s work to unravel the Oil for Food scandal, which was but one program supervised by the UN for not even ten years. Its books are not open. Their motives are not clear. There is no transparency that lets us see who influences their committees and study groups. There are no public records we can examine to see who is funding what science. To the contrary, the UN exerts great effort to keep their records and finances hidden from the likes of you and me.

The AEI is open and the UN is not. That also informs my decisions. I’m suspicious of the UN because the UN acts suspiciously. It hides most of its inner workings. I cannot trust its motives. I can have some trust in the AEI because I know who is paying the bills and what their “slant” is.

Nevertheless, I’ll read both studies because it’s always important to consider the science regardless of how we got it. That’s the beautiful thing about data. It doesn’t care who is using it. It is simply there. It’s up to us to evaluate what data is used and in what ways. I welcome the studies the AEI will pay for because they will put more data into the discussion – more science into a scientific matter. You can disregard what will come as right-wing mercenary hackery, as I’m sure the left will do anon, but if you do, you cut yourself off from learning and understanding. Me, I can’t afford to be purposefully ignorant because of my political biases.

This story just seems a bit of frippery to me – a way to undercut any science done by AEI-funded scientists and journalists without actually dealing with any work they will produce. It’s easier to impugn their motives than it is to contend with their science when it comes out.

It’s not a surprise, though. Too many on the left hold climate change as a political issue to be managed and not a scientific matter to be analyzed nor a problem to be evaluated and solved. I suspect this is just another attempt to cast anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy as a “denier”.

Category: Oh the Climate, It is A-Changin'

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