This pretty much covers a piece I have been trying to write for a while and failing in. As Nicole says, the reason we know scientists are not in a conspiracy to promote global warming is that they couldn’t organise it if they tried.
Getting three people to sign up to a conspiracy is easy, although ineffective unless they have power. Getting thirty on board is hard. The danger that one will, either accidentally or deliberately, spill the beans goes up more than ten-fold, because inevitably you are drawing in people who are less committed to the idea than the original three. Three hundred is basically impossible unless many of the conspirators are people used to taking orders from above, except in cases like prisoner of war camps, where there is clear hostility to those who mustn’t know.
The idea of getting 3000 people who all really like to argue, mostly have families and sometimes even friends outside the scientific community and are generally really bad at acting to keep something like this going for decades is so farcical it’s barely worth thinking about. And that is without counting all the scientists in related fields who would need to be in on the deal as well. For example, today I wrote a brief on a study of a major species of seaweed off the coast of Western Australia. High water temperatures, 5º above normal at some locations, caused a huge die off in early 2011, leading to the species contracting 100km south and leaving large areas of rocks bare of all vegetation. The effects on animals that depend on the seaweed beds were severe. The marine biologists who observed these events and could not find signs of something so stark previously would presumably need to be part of the conspiracy, taking the numbers out to tens of thousands.
Yet, as far as I know, not a single scientist has claimed to have been offered a piece of this giant scam. Even the handful of scientists (mostly retired or working for the fossil fuel industry) who dispute the IPCC have not, to the best of my knowledge, claimed that anyone got them in a backroom and said “if you just keep your mouth shut we can all make out like bandits”. If anyone does claim such a thing I hope they kept detailed records, or better yet secretly taped the offer.
After work today I attended a talk by Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse (or at least some of it, having been stuck between Richmond and Flinders St stations for a goodly chunk, and having got there late spending more time trying to find the back entrance). None of what I heard was news to those who have followed discussions on science communication and evidence-based decision making for any length of time, but it was probably a good introduction for those who are new to the topics.
However, one member of the audience asked a question in which he argued that scientists were producing research to support the IPCC because they could get grants this way. It’s kind of the soft version of the conspiracy theory. “Oh I’m not accusing them of dishonesty, they’re just fooling themselves because otherwise they would be out of a job.”
It’s nonsense for three reasons, two of them relatively obvious but one more obscure. The first is that any scientist who had the slightest chance of producing evidence that might put a serious hole in the consensus on global warming only has to walk into the offices of Exxon or Gina Rinehart to be showered with money. Lets face it, if these organisations are willing to spend millions financing organisations like Heartland or tours by Monkton, think what they would offer someone who wouldn’t embarrass them.
The second reason is that anyone who could actually disprove human induced global warming might bear some opprobrium for a while, but would be a dead cert for a Nobel Prize once the idea carried the day. Sure there are a few scientists who would take a quite life now over a trip to Sweden in a couple of decades, but they’re more rare and endangered than the northern hairy-nosed wombat. The ones who would sacrifice pretty much anything to win those sorts of accolades in the end – they’re more like common wombats. Not only are they rather numerous, they’re also hugely stubborn and will keep on digging until they bring the whole house down around them.
Nurse also noted that he had more faith in the organisations giving grants than the man who asked the question, but I think there is another aspect that usually gets missed. When applying for grants to the Australian Research Council or its international equivalents it’s unlikely many climate scientists say, “I am setting out to prove/refute human involvement in climate change”. Rather they would say something like “I am seeking funding to study the climate history of East Antarctica by examining ice cores laid down over the last 2000 years. This may shed light on recent climatic trends.” The scientist may well have an expectation of what they will find in these cores in terms of temperatures in the area, but they are unlikely to spell that out.
Certainly no one says “We want to study ice cores from East Antarctica because we think this will back up AGW, while West Antarctica will call it into question.” So if a scientist really did think that a temperature from a particular place would challenge the consensus, they’d have no need to mention this in their application. They could apply, have a reasonable prospect of getting the grant, and if successful throw their spanner in the works once they had their results. Its not like their funding could be withdrawn because the ARC didn’t like the findings.
The idea that all scientists not only go into their research planning what they will find, but tell everyone about it beforehand is utterly stupid once you hold it up to the light. It may happen if you’re chasing the cure for a disease, but it is the very antithesis of basic research, which leaves plenty of room even for those who think they know what will come out not to reveal it.
Hat tip (again) to Chris Watkins for the link, and to Krystal Evans for telling me about the talk.