In our modern world, we have a strange phenomenon. When polls are conducted about which professions the public considers most trustworthy and useful to society, scientists nearly always come out at or near the top. This poll by the Pew Research Center of 4006 American adults placed them just below the military, doctors, and teachers in terms of trust and their contribution to society. (To no one’s surprise, lawyers were considered the least trustworthy and contributed least to society). This poll by Ipsos of 1018 adults in the UK placed scientists just below doctors and teachers. (Lawyers were not included, so bankers and politicians came out at the bottom in the UK).
Historically, this has long been true. Most people appreciate the huge benefit that science brings to society in terms of the technological advances that make our lives longer and better. And despite the stereotypes, apparently most people still regard scientists as objectively seeking the truth, working hard in their labs, and trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. Unfortunately, the most common stereotypical myth, Hollywood’s “mad scientist out to destroy/ dominate the world” is still pervasive as well.
Thus, as a scientist who has published in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, I find it really upsetting and disturbing to hear the smear campaign by right-wing climate deniers that scientists are “in a big conspiracy”, that we are creating a “hoax” to make big money from government grants. Not only is this bizarrely untrue, but it angers me that people call me and my colleagues liars and frauds, yet they don’t know the first thing about how science works, or what scientists really do and what motivates them.
Yet the right-wing effort to demonize scientists has apparently been working. This 2013 poll suggests that 78% of Americans think scientists twist their results to fit their ideology. This 2014 poll says that 71% of Americans think that scientists are often dishonest. And this 2014 poll showed 31% of Americans are skeptical of climate scientists in particular, and think that they base their results heavily on the previous year’s weather. I’m sure there are some issues with how these polls were conducted, who they asked, how the questions were phrased, and how big the sample sizes were, but if they are even close to representative, this represents an alarming erosion of trust in scientists—and is completely contradicted by the polls I cited at the beginning of this article. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway fully documented in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, this mess can be laid squarely at the feet of the huge PR campaign by the climate deniers and energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers who have funded them. Already there are not enough scientists being trained for these oil giants to find qualified employees, so they are soon going to regret their short-sighted attack on the profession that nourishes and sustains them.
As astrophysicist Adam Frank describes it:
This is not a world the scientists I trained with would recognize. Many of them served on the Manhattan Project. Afterward, they helped create the technologies that drove America’s postwar prosperity. In that era of the mid-20th century, politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone. The disaster of Lysenkoism, in which Communist ideology distorted scientific truth and all but destroyed Russian biological science, was still a fresh memory. The triumph of Western science led most of my professors to believe that progress was inevitable. While the bargain between science and political culture was at times challenged — the nuclear power debate of the 1970s, for example — the battles were fought using scientific evidence. Manufacturing doubt remained firmly off-limits.
Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels. Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.
Climate deniers point to the “Climategate” emails stolen from the server at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit as “proof” that it’s all a conspiracy. As many people have shown, those quotes are falsely taken out of context to mean something the authors never intended, a despicable tactic that creationists always use. If you doubt me, there have now been six thorough independent investigations of the whole affair (three in the US, three in the UK), and no wrongdoing or conspiracy was found—just careless use of scientific language. This attempt to smear the hard-working scientists is one of the slimiest and most dishonest tactics of all, because the quote-mining climate deniers are either deliberately trying to mislead their audience by distorting the evidence, or they are not intelligent enough to understand the quote and its context in the first place. Even if there had been some conspiracy on the part of these few scientists, there is no evidence that the entire climate science community is secretly working together to generate false information and mislead the public. If there’s one thing that is clear about science, it’s about competition and criticism, not conspiracy and collusion. Most labs are competing with each other, not conspiring together. If one lab publishes a result that is not clearly defensible, other labs will quickly correct it. Only when the evidence is so overwhelming that it can no longer be denied, and every scientist in a community comes to the same conclusion independently would you arrive at the type of consensus shown by the IPCC 2007 report, or every report since then.
In other cases, the climate deniers have claimed that the “conspiracy” is motivated by money. This is so bizarre and contrary to reality that it is laughable. Most scientists are just hard-working people who are willing to survive a measly researcher’s or professor’s salary because they love the thrill of discovery of the truth about the world, not because they have some economic or political agenda. If they had really wanted to become rich, they would have gone into law or business or oil jobs, where the big bucks are (as many of the climate deniers have done). Most scientists work in relatively low-paid academic jobs, where they make much less than they would in the private sector of oil or business (especially considering they must undergo another 4-6 years of grad school to earn their Ph.D., much more than a lawyer or MBA or oil geologist is required to do). After 35 years of full-time teaching, mostly as a tenured professor, I never earned six figures once, and only a small percentage of professors ever do (counting all the faculty in community colleges and adjuncts; the handful in elite institutions are the exception). By contrast, in the oil industry the salaries rise to six and even seven figures very quickly. You can see this difference in the professional meetings I attend. At the Geological Society of America convention each fall, which is the main meeting for purely academic geologic research, you don’t see many fancy suits and the vendors tend to focus on books and lab equipment. But at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists convention, not only is the cost of the meeting much higher, but the exhibit hall is full of high-priced equipment and services, and there are far more vendors for expensive gems and jewelry and pretty rocks than you will ever see in the exhibit halls of GSA, full of threadbare academics. At one time, the 35 mm slides at the GSA meeting were crummy home-made and crudely drafted images, while those at AAPG were slickly drawn by professional artists. (Now Powerpoint has leveled that playing field, thankfully).
Yes, scientists try to win grants to support their research, but that money is miniscule compared to the huge amounts made in the oil industry, for example. This lie about grant money shows a complete misunderstanding of how science works. In all my years of National Science Foundation grants, I never made more than a few thousand in salary from them. Even in large grants of $100,000 or more (and none of mine were larger than $60,000 for three years), most of that money (50% to 70% or more) goes to “overhead” or the institution’s and NSF’s euphemism, “indirect costs”: the cut that the university takes off the top just so you can use the lab facilities and office and equipment in your department that you already had when you were hired. Of the pathetic remnant that is left, most of that money goes to the salaries of any employees or grad students necessary to keep the research going (plus their benefits), plus all the expenses of the research: lab equipment, field equipment and travel, services and supplies, money to travel to professional meetings and present the research, and money to pay publication costs of the research (journals charge a fortune these days). Most scientists only make a few thousand dollars from each grant for personal income to do all that extra work above and beyond their paid job. To top it off, the grant funding landscape is now so bleak, with an 80% rejection rate in most branches of the NSF, that it’s barely worth all the work just to write the proposal in the first place. Believe me, if scientists wanted to get rich without all this discouraging extra work and high chance of rejection, most of us would have quit academia and become oil geologists long ago.
In short, you couldn’t find a better example of psychologists call “projection”, or accusing someone else of the motivations and deeds that you are guilty of. It is commonly known by the phrase “the pot calling the kettle black.” As Oreskes and Conway abundantly documented in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, it is not the scientists but the climate deniers who are part of a conspiracy. This has been revealed by numerous leaked memos documenting when and how the right-wing think tanks met with the energy companies, and revelations of how much the energy companies pay them to spread their propaganda. And unlike the scientists, the climate denier are clearly motivated by money, given that they have lots more of it (and make more of it) than anyone in the climate science community.
Even more bizarre is that false notion that the alarms over global climate change is some sort of “left-wing conspiracy” to foist Big Government on us. In fact, scientists come in every political color and stripe, but most try to rigorously exclude politics from their science. For example, Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, who showed the connection between climate change and more intense hurricanes, is a Republican, as are many less famous climate scientists. Yet he does not let his political views contaminate his science. In fact, it is considered taboo in most scientific journals or meetings to be too political and speak openly about politics, because scientists try to maintain their distance and objectivity about scientific issues, and not make them overtly political. As scientists, our job is to let the data speak for themselves, and not put a political spin on it.
As geologist (and former President of Oberlin College and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) James Lawrence Powell wrote:
Scientists….show no evidence of being more interested in politics or ideology than the average American. Does it make sense to believe that tens of thousands of scientists would be so deeply and secretly committed to bringing down capitalism and the American way of life that they would spend years beyond their undergraduate degrees working to receive master’s and PhD degrees, then go to work in a government laboratory or university, plying the deep oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles, and torrid jungles, all for far less money than they could have made in industry, all the while biding their time like a Russian sleeper agent in an old spy novel? Scientists tend to be independent and resist authority. That is why you are apt to find them in the laboratory or in the field, as far as possible from the prying eyes of a supervisor. Anyone who believes he could organize thousands of scientists into a conspiracy has never attended a single faculty meeting.
“But” someone might say, “what about individual scientists who biased their data”? Sure, scientists are humans, and some of them may want their ideas to be true and may not see the weaknesses in their ideas or data clearly. But this is where the checks and balances of peer review are important. Peer review ensures that your harshest critics have plenty of chances to shoot your idea down, both before publication and afterwards. No idea that does not survive this harsh gantlet of scrutiny and criticism survives very long, let alone convince 97% or more of the relevant experts in the field.
“But what about cases where scientists follow trendy bandwagon ideas that turn out to be wrong?” Again, this completely misunderstands the nature of the data about climate change. The fact that climate is changing has been documented for almost 60 years now, and every year, hundreds of new scientific papers document further evidence of climate change from many different parts of the planet: global atmospheric temperature, ice volume on the poles, retreat of the glaciers, global ocean temperatures and acidity, seasonal extremes and variability of climate, and so on. It’s not one trendy idea (like the “impact killed off the Ice Age megammmals” fad) supported by thin thread of a few data points, which was shot down within a few years (and a final debunking just appeared). It’s the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence that convinces 97% of scientists who actually work with these data, and are personally familiar with its strengths and pitfalls, that their conclusion is inescapable. For a group that is as prickly and independent as scientists, a 97% consensus almost never happens except in cases where the evidence is overwhelming: the heliocentric solar system, the fact of evolution, the laws of gravity, and the evidence that humans are causing our current climate change. When it comes to big ideas, scientists are not sheep, but are always trying to score points and become famous by criticizing and shooting down popular ideas. Getting scientific consensus is more like herding cats, and doesn’t come unless even the biggest doubters in the community cannot ignore evidence any longer. (By contrast, the climate deniers continue to deny the facts right in front of them, no matter how overwhelming they are). Furthermore, I know of no instances in the history of science where the entire community of independent scientists (not those in the pay of some employer or government with an agenda, like Lysenko) committed fraud or conspiracy. It just doesn’t happen.
“But scientists are telling alarmist fables to get grant money”. Bullshit! First of all, I’ve already mentioned how ridiculously small the amount of money we get from grants is, and how hard it is to get it, against an 80% failure rate. It’s simply not worth it to make stuff up just to get funding against such odds. More to the point, funding agencies and other scientists are not killjoys or spoilsports by nature. We don’t like being Cassandras and telling our fellow humans bad news—unless we have no choice in the matter, and the data force us to. The NSF would just as readily fund research (and does fund it when it can) that shows good news on climate change. But when scientists tell you bad news, it’s because the data are overwhelmingly telling us there is no alternative. Scientists have no vested interest in tell you “inconvenient truths,” so if they do tell you bad news, it’s more likely to be true. It reminds me of the cartoon showing scientists telling us the earth was not the center of the universe, that humans evolved from other animals, and other information that shattered notions that humans wanted to believe. The final panel reads, “Science: if you ain’t pissin’ people off, you ain’t doing it right”.
A sterling example of this process happened a few years ago when UC Berkeley Prof. Richard Muller conducted his own review of the climate data from the three leading organizations, NOAA, Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Muller started as a doubter, and the research was funded heavily by ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and other energy sources. In a hearing in 2011, the GOP House Science Committee called him as their star witness, thinking he would give them ammunition. But Muller could not be bought, and showed his integrity as a scientist. To the shock and surprise of the GOP committee members, he told them flat out that the data from the other climate institutes was right, and that the planet is really warming as they had documented. He did what a scientist is supposed to do when the evidence comes in—change his mind, and be honest with what the evidence shows.
If only those who spend time and money savaging and undermining the science community in this country were so honest…