The climate change McCarthyists

Never in the history of think-tanks has a research proposal received so much publicity. Starting, so far as I can tell, in The Guardian, it spread through the world, including the front page of this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. The problem (according to The Guardian):

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).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.

Professor Q, who has joined the chorus of criticism, has also tracked down a copy of the original letter (pdf) the AEI sent to prospective authors.

It really is hard to see what the fuss is about. There is a political consensus that something needs to be done about climate change, not because we are necessarily 100% certain about the science, but because policymakers cannot do nothing in the face of potentially catastrophic risks. Few decisions are made with perfect information. But I cannot see that there is anything to be lost from continuing to hear from the sceptics, and that the sponsoring body once took some money from Exxon or has staff that once worked for Bush tells us little that is useful.

Like most of the right-wing think-tanks the AEI does not do hired gun research and does not get itself in the position of leftist NGOs of having a dominant funder that can influence their public statements. It only gets 17% of its annual funding from corporations, suggesting that the capacity of any one company to have an influence would be very limited even in theory, and probably near zero in practice.

As I have said in many posts, arguments stand or fall on their merits, and the claim that (as the AEI letter asserts) the IPCC process has biases or that the AEI has taken Exxon money alerts us to potential issues with each, but does not spare us the effort of actually listening to what they have to say. The AEI was not offering $10,000 for quick spin. It was offering $10,000 for 7,500- 10,000 words by December 2007. It’s hardly a huge sum for a long paper from an expert.

The charge of McCarthyism is terribly over-used, but launching such a prominent and widespread attack on research that hasn’t even been written is resonant of Senator McCarthy’s attacks on those he suspected – sometimes correctly, often not – of being communists.

15 thoughts on “The climate change McCarthyists

  1. I actually think its good that someone makes sure the other side is heard. It may well be that the best arguments possible are exceptionally poor, and this therefore allows a nice comparison of model testing which is far easier for the average person to understand (“our model good, your model bad”) than “our model good at XX% confidence based on assumptions X,Y, and Z”.

    I also think that $10,000 is diddleys — I also suspect that the likely claimants may well have written the same thing anyway.


  2. Except that it’s not an invitation to do ‘research’ though, is it? It’s an invitation to ‘write an essay’ … ‘The purpose of this project is to highlight the strengths and weaknesses OF THE IPCC PROCESS’ (my emphasis). In other words it’s an exercise in switching focus from the findings to the process. The specific item mentioned is ‘the limitations of climate model outputs as they pertain to the development of climate policy”.

    In other words it’s a rearguard action to sustain the line that Bush and Howard used until recently: “Hey let’s not go off half-cocked, we don’t know enough about this stuff yet to make policy.” Howard, revealing a hitherto-unknown background in geophysics, said of the Stern Report that he was ‘dubious about some of the science’ or words to that effect.

    If academics want to play ball that’s their business but let’s not pretend the AEI is offering to sponsor empirical research. Clearly it isn’t. It’s offering to buy an argument in favour of a pre-determined conclusion.


  3. I think it *is* empirical research — its just that the question isn’t a scientific one like “what is the most reasonable bounds of model X”, the questions is “Given model X, what potential problems are there with interepretation Y or what data cannot be explained”. That seems like reasonable model testing to me, and I think such questions are reasonable to make of any decent model. Perhaps the worst people can think of is trivial, and that would be good to know.

    In addition, suggesting that it, and any other such work, is a rearguard action against Bush and Howard (no doubt some is) is paranoia. Its good to push the bounds of models and see where they start falling apart. The main danger in my books is that the general public are not good at evaluating different conflicting arguments and the scientific validity of them, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of scientific testing/verification.


  4. Totally agree, Andrew. As an employee of an economic consulting firm, I find it kind of amusing that someone thinks there is something terribly wrong with economists undertaking research or for that matter writing submissions, essays or opinions for fun and profit. Certainly, our clients are willing to pay for our services and presumably that’s because the ultimate audience for the work is willing to consider our work on its merits. Transparency of funding is relevant but I don’t think it is the be-all and end-all. Quality of the research or argument and the reputation of the economist/scientist are the key.

    And yes, while $10k might get me out of bed, I’d still be in my PJs. Conrad is right in saying that at most it could result in someone modifying an existing piece of work.


  5. I think you’ve missed the point here. AEI has a long and well-publicised track record of publishing and promoting dishonest anti-science research on global warming (as do other thinktanks that have been funded by ExxonMobil). It is equally bad in other areas (for example, it kept John Lott on long after his many unethical activities had been exposed). Doing research for a thinktank involves taking on, in part, the reputation of that thinktank, so if you do contract work for a disreputable outfit like AEI you will shred your own reputation. The fact that the required outcome is stated so clearly in advance only makes this clearer.

    To use your analogy, you appear to be emulating the kind of leftist who used the term “McCarthyists” to apply to anyone who criticised organisations as Communist fronts even when they were in fact Communist fronts.


  6. John’s right – the AEI has dreadful form as a shill for vested interests in recent years. I cannot imagine they did this hoping for a balanced essay as they made it pretty clear the nature of the hatchet job they wanted, even giving strong hints on what they wanted said.

    This is an attempt to muddy the waters, not clarify them. It’s all too typical of the denialist’s tactics, which have already cost us dearly in lost time (the later we address the problem, the tougher the action needed).


  7. Just because a company/interest group has a bad record, I don’t see why that precludes taking money off them, especially when it is completely out in the open as to what this money is for — there are innumerate companies that sponser research that have bad records (whole industries of them), and I could also mention that there are certain governments that are not much better (one of whom pays my salary indirectly, and pays some of the other commentators here directly).

    I also don’t see anything wrong with paying for a conclusion. This is done all the time. In less controversial areas, we wouldn’t think twice about accepting it (e.g., Please find me the solution to mathematics problem A; Please tell my why theory X leads to symptoms Y). If the result of that is some poor quality research that then gets used by a government with an entire team of people thinking of policies and evaluating the research (as is the case in Australia), or, for that matter, poor quality work that wasn’t sponsered, then surely the attribution of blame should either go on the government for incompetence in interpreting all of the results from what amounts to a huge body of work, or for corruption, for deliberating using dodgey work.


  8. Conrad, the problem lies when you start with a conclusion and then start looking for “evidence” to support it. This may be ok for lobbyists, lawyers and the like, but it is disgraceful for scientists or anybody else who is interested in an honest debate.


  9. Ken, isn’t it really a matter of degree? Most (empirical) scientists don’t go around trying to falsify random hypotheses, but start with an intuitive belief or theory and then look for evidence to support it. After all, that’s typically what gets published! But does it matter? Not if the analysis is robust.

    Also, the number of climate scientists out there in the public sphere advocating greenhouse policy prescriptions suggests that many scientists have problems maintaining a strict separation between positive and normative positions.

    To take an example closer to home, it doesn’t bring me great comfort that John Quiggin is not paid to come to a particular conclusion. Everyone who is familiar with his work knows (and he advertises) that he comes from a left wing perspective. His readers bear this in mind and consider his work on its merits. Why can’t you apply the same approach to the work of privately-paid scientists?

    In fact, I would argue that the minute someone’s background or funding matters more than their black and white output is the minute science dies.


  10. Ken,

    I think we need Rafe to give us some quotes from the history of science, but there isn’t anything wrong with starting from a conclusion (imagined or based on real data) and seeing whether your model can predict it. This is *good* not *bad* science. There are essentially two ways models can be tested:

    1) We can see whether our model predicts observable behavior
    2) We can see whether our our model predicts behavior that isn’t observed.

    The second of these is equally as important as the first, since it tells us whether our model is over-parameterized i.e., can simply fit any pattern. This is essentially what you are doing by saying “Given model X, is there a way to reach conclusion Y”. There may be no way of doing this (e.g., “there is no way of reaching the conclusion global warming does not exist based on the data”), which is good to know, since it tells us that our model is not overparameterized. If you are using distributional models, you may end up with something like (“Based on our model, the chance of global warming not occuring is ridiculous negligible”).

    I realize that the current debate is more political, but in many areas there are sophisticated methods for determining what a model can and can’t predict where you are basically trying to find the borders of the predicatble function. This is done via the generation of representative points from the *entire* possible state space and then you see whether the models parameters allow them to be predicted. I don’t see why the question at hand is any different to this. A good example of this comes from people looking at the discount rate in the Stern report. This is basically a free parameter within a certain range. However, apart from fairly idiotic estimates of the where range ends, you find out that doing something about global warming is worthwhile. If we had asked a question like “Given we don’t want to pay anything now, what is the best way to attack the Stern Report”, we would have found out that the model *cannot* predict doing nothing is the best alternative. This is because we have worked out what the model *cannot* predict via testing on data points from the entire possible state-space.

    There is in fact a third way that we might like to test our model. In case some of the global-warming deniers happen to come up with a model that doesn’t show warming versus just I don’t believe it ranting, then we can compare that model with the more reasonable ones proposed. In this case, we could look at the overlap in the distribution of data that each model is predicting, and then see how well the non-overlapped predictions relate to real data.


  11. Rajat and Conrad, as Ken Lovell points out, it isn’t a grant to do original research, but rather a payment to write about how bad the IPCC is. The AEI is pretty clear about what they want written.

    If it was a grant for original research, and the AEI cared about reality, they wouldn’t tell their writers what to write to in advance. They may commission them to examine the IPCC and then publish what ever conclusions come out of it.

    More generally, while a scientist may hope their hypothesis is correct, they should never cherry pick data too support it. That way lies creationism, HIV denial and the “smoking doesn’t cause cancer” tobacco researchers.

    That sort of rubbish might be fine for employees of think tanks and other advocacy bodies, but for scientists, it’s disgraceful.

    As DD points out, it’s simply shilling for vested interests, and consequently, has absolutely no place in science.


  12. Well, let’s see if the AEI ends up paying for and publishing a report which says the IPCC is correct after all.

    If they are genuinely interested in the objective truth, there has to be a chance that this will happen


  13. Ross’s blog entry and the logic of this thread is flawed.

    If AEI’s revenue from Exxon was 5% of their total, and, say, they got another 5% from Big Tobacco, and another 5% from the arms manufacturers etc…

    Does it follow that any report they write on smoking is not influenced by their funding, simply because they received also received money from Exxon – while SIMULTANEOUSLY arguing that their position on fossil fuels is not influenced by Exxon, because they also received money from Big Tobacco?

    Surely they don’t mean that their detractors think they solicit donations from Big Tobacco to write positive spin for arms manufacturers? Or solicit donations from Microsoft to pay for criticisms of gun control laws?

    It seems to me the ‘bad guys’ are one big team – they know it, hence the need for think tanks, lobby groups to provide the figleaf.

    I know the retort – “The AEI like Liberty and Freedom. So do Big Tobacco, the Oil Majors etc…hence they are generous with their funding…what’s so amazing about that?”

    It denies that Think Tanks are just an empty shell, a vessel to pour money into and to employ lobbyists and disgruntled academics. They have no raison d’etre other than their role to channel corporate dollars into spun words.

    Think Tanks need money – the ‘supply’ comes from Bad Business.

    What product is ‘demanded’ in return by Bad Business? Biased reports, research, what more can they deliver to their backers?

    Remember a Think Tank is not a grassroots committee meeting at someone’s kitchen table, or painting the placards in the backyard.

    It is not the ‘second nameplate’ on some academic’s office door.

    It is an expensively staffed organisation, which could not survive on goodwill or orthodox research funding.

    I agree AEI hasn’t blown the ‘transparency’ angle as such, their detractors will point out their crime when this ‘research’ is quoted in future.

    What worries me more is what this ‘research’ is used for.

    It will get demolished in the NY Times, but what about years later when some hick Lib/Nat Candidate from Dubbo is quoted in the Rural Times at the CWA meeting saying that “Wasn’t it proven that Climate Change was a hoax/communist plot/satanic influence?”


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