The image above is from the Heartland Institute, an advocacy group which receives funding from a number of conservative sources (Scaife, Olin, Koch, for example) to promote doubts about climate change, the health risks of cigarettes, the dangers of fracking, and of taxation–among other issues. In addition to supporting the production of papers, it also engages in public relations efforts. The billboard above links the acceptance of climate change to an obviously suspect source.
Almost all scientists who work on climate accept the reality that the climate is changing, largely because of human impact–and it’s not benign. But there are others…. One is Wei-Hock Soon, who holds an appointment at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but has to raise his salary and support for his work from grants (New York Times story). He’s been reasonably successful at doing so; Greenpeace filed a Freedom of Information Act request to trace it and found that he’s accepted more than $1 million from the fossil fuel industry, which likely finds some utility in his consistent findings that the sun is generating any observed changes in climate on earth. Given that Dr. Soon’s work gets little support from his colleagues or other working scientists, he’s fortunate to have found corporate benefactors. And the companies are glad to have someone with a doctorate and publications whose findings don’t undermine their business model.
But academics who may have a financial stake in a particular finding are obligated to disclose that potential conflict of interest in their publications; Dr. Soon has not routinely done so. He may not be tailoring his findings to suit his funders, but readers want to know if there’s reason to be suspicious. [When I tell you that I support funding for the collection of data and support of public universities, you know that I draw a salary from a public university; you can consider interest when you evaluate my arguments. You want to know when research supports the favored position of the people paying for it, no?]
Opponents of concerted action to ameliorate climate change will no doubt find other people with Ph.D.s to support, but they’ll be looking for the result before they pick the scientist. Alas, when one-time climate skeptics begin to join the scientific consensus, they lose both the financial support and political support of their former sponsors (discussed here). Don’t worry, interests will find someone else to fund.
If you’re invested in a particular outcome beyond truth, it’s not science.
And science is almost always big and diverse enough that you can find someone who looks credible enough to support your beliefs about climate change, evolution, or vaccines, to cite a few examples. Sometimes, as on nutrition, the scientific consensus has been historically inconsistent, which makes it harder to find useful guidance. Most of us are not well-equipped to adjudicate disputes among epidemiologists about population samples, for example, so we fumble trying to find reliable information, or just pick the result we like and put the scientist who generated it on our poster. Not so great.
But belief in science is belief in a method of discerning truth. It may not produce readily usable results, but our commitments are contingent upon evidence, and we want to be open to new evidence that might undermine them. It’s tough.
The Dr. Soon story reminds us that interested parties will cultivate authorities who substantiate what they want us to believe. Skepticism is appropriate, but ultimately we need to make decisions, and it’s better if they’re informed. The scientific consensus, if it can be found, is hardly infallible, but it’s likely to be a better guide than an outlier supported by someone with a vested interest in a particular conclusion.
Our values should pose questions, but we really want to find honest answers that come from somewhere else.