Scientists’ motivations

OK, mentioned that the bad reference letter thing for female scientists was either #1 or #2 in the most depressing things GG has seen this week.  Before some additional horror walks on to the public stage, let’s briefly mention the other candidate.

The Pew Research Center released a major poll about how Americans view climate change, and there are lots of positive things in it, from very strong support for solar and wind power to a fairly strong trust in scientists to saying climate scientists should have a major role in policy discussions about climate change.

No, this was the one that got GG’s goat:


Poll results on how scientists reach their conclusions. From the Pew Research Center.

This is a strange set of questions, but it says that Americans believe that research findings about climate change are most influenced most of the time by a desire to advance a personal career. Best evidence comes in number 2. The scientists’ political leanings comes in number 3.

Why is this depressing?  This isn’t like some suppression of drug trials that cast a new drug in a bad light, where industry uses the conditions of the trial to prevent publication, or the throwing of money at scientists whose views happen to coincide with industry’s–this is saying that a scientist sitting and trying to interpret their data will skew it in a manner most likely to reflect his or her politics and self-interest. Maybe this reflect Americans’ jaded views of their own behavior, but that just ain’t science.

Look, for a really long time, the best financial interest of a climate scientist would be to downplay climate change because there are fossil fuel companies with very deep pockets who might well be inclined to help keep a lab running. There was no industry constituency for a long time for clean power, and advocacy groups are not spending money on R&D. The insurance industry wants the best available information because climate outcomes are not political in that industry: to properly balance your risks and assets, you have to know the odds. Arguably the best way to make out financially was (and probably is) to work on being able to unravel medium term weather and climate to be able to get an edge in various agricultural pursuits, including investing in crop futures. Competing for research grants is not a way to riches or even glory.

And research has shown that political allegiance dies out once you get within a scientific specialty; it is about the last thing that might be affecting scientific results.  Plenty of Republican climate scientists have said that global warming is real.

Oddly, concern for the best interests of the public is not a real factor either,nor should it be. Well, it might be in advocating undertaking a line of research, but not in determining the results of that research. “Hey, if we cook the numbers on this project, it will make everybody do the right thing!” is NOT how this works.

Look, scientists are human and so there will be all kinds of blunders and biases that will creep into scientific papers. But it isn’t because scientists as a whole manipulate results to bend to a political wind or for personal gain (indeed, it is unclear that the public has a clear idea of what personal gain might be for a research scientist); that was what happened in the old Soviet Union, where all kinds of goofy scientific ideas viewed as more compatible with Communist ideology were pushed forward to the exclusion of other notions (and the potential imprisonment of those who might disagree).

So while it is nice climate scientists are respected more or less, would be even better if the way they reach the conclusions were more apparent to more people.


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