Conspiracy Theory Again

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.

Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat - rare as the scientist who doesn't want a Nobel Prize.

Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat – rare as the scientist who doesn’t want a Nobel Prize.

Common Wombat

Common Wombat, get between me and an award and I’ll pull your house down

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.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to Conspiracy Theory Again

  1. franbarlow says:

    Well said.
    Can I develop your point on the mechanics of conspiracy a little further?
    ‘Conspiracy’ is really just a derogatory word for ‘collaboration’. The strength of humanity lies in our capacity to collaborate — to create efficient, effective and maintainable divisions of labour to produce goods and services we’d like. Conspiracy is a kind of subset of collaboration, in that it is an attempt to game the system, in which the benefits of the parties are achieved at the (often subtle) detriment of some third party. This form of collaboration is typically criminal, or at the very least tortious.

    One can see immediately that a conspiracy always labours under a constraint that socially acceptable collaboration does not. The system environment is hostile, because you are harming others and those others aren’t going to be happy once they get a whiff of what is going on. Consequently, the increased risk of social disaster for the conspirators means the benefits of participation need to be greater (since they are in all likelihood unsustainable in the longer run). Of course, the greater the scale of the benefits, the more broadly (or more deeply) the detriment pool must extend. The parties to the conspiracy also have good reason to fear that their partners may not be trustworthy — they are after all, dishonest — and may start to hedge their bets or try redrawing the benefits, risks and burdens of the conspiracy while the game is in progress.

    So while it is true that conspiracies happen — sustainaining conspiracies over time is far less easy. As you note, while the growth in size of conspiracies (and diversity amongst the conspirators) may make it more technically feasible, it corrodes the bonds between the parties, increasing the likelihood that someone will go ‘off the reservation’ and give the game away through indiscipline, greed or incompetence. The more dishonest but disciplined and intelleigent and well-connected people you have to find and pay off, the harder it is to grow the size of the benefit pool to generate the benefits. Like a collapsing Ponzi-style scheme, the conspiracy will simply collapse under its own contradictions.

    Nobody who has ever tried to organise humans to do quite simple and socially approved things — run a sporting club, organise a classroom full of children or secure agreement on a committee or start and run a business will ever undersestimate how hard it is to line the ducks up and keep them lined up, even when almost everyone involved wants the project to succeed and there is nothing external bearing down with animus on the project. Conspiracies are far harder. I noted with amusement the other day a softly spoken chap debunking moon landing “truthers” who pointed out that faking the moon landings in 1969 was actually far harder than going to the moon. He was right.

    As you say, there is nothing like the benefit pool needed for scientists to fake research to support the IPCC-led consensus position of CO2-forcing. Certainly, it would be enormously difficult to fake the evidence in ways that could be reconciled in those hundreds of multiple lines of independent evidence — far more work than simply gathering the data professionally and reporting on it. And in this case, those working in climate science actually do have a hostile system environment for their collaboration — the desperate desire of opponents of climate mitigation policy to discredit scientists working in the field — who would happily throw tens of millions of dollars at any one who could refute Charney, or show that the planet’s energy budget was neutral. That the IPCC-led consensus remains and is affirmed with each new piece of salient data despite this corrosive political environment simply shows how ludicrous are claims of systematic pro-IPCC scientific malfeasance.

  2. That’s a really good point Fran. Getting scientists to co-operate is not always like herding cats, but it is hardly herding sheep. Getting them to engage in conspiracy is that much harder for the reasons you outline.

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