Fun Science Fact: Scientists Do Not Get Paid to Conform to Conventional Wisdom

By Edward Ashton
May 4, 2019 · 961 words · 4 minutes

From the author: In which the author forecloses any possibility of future grants from The Heartland Institute.

If you’ve followed the shouting matches around anthropogenic climate change (I was going to say “debates,” but that’s really much too dignified a word) you’ve probably noticed a distinct asymmetry in the arguments. The vast majority of experts in the fields of climatology and atmospheric modeling are all on one side - the side that says that human activities are in fact significantly impacting the climate on a global scale, in case you were wondering - while on the other side you mostly have folks with no particular expertise in the field, but with a very strongly held belief that all those pointy-headed scientists are trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

If you’re a random citizen with no axe to grind, how do you decide which side of this argument to believe? On the one hand, scientists have been pretty good over the years about curing diseases and giving us cell phones and convincing us not to burn so many witches. On the other hand, though, we all remember that annoying kid in high school who was always raising his hand in class and answering questions. We hated that guy, right? Who wants to listen to what he has to say?

As it turns out, there’s actually a pretty simple way to cut through all the big words and charts and graphs and whatnot, and to figure out who you really ought to believe. This method isn’t foolproof, but it’s pretty close, and it applies to a lot of different situations. When two sides in a debate are throwing technical gobbledygook at you and you don’t have the expertise to sort out which one is yanking your chain, ask yourself this: which side has a bigger financial stake in convincing you that they’re right?

As an example, consider the case of a dietary supplement - call it Vitamin R. Vitamin R is said to cure all sorts of ailments, from lumbago to dropsy to ants-in-your-pants. The company that manufactures Vitamin R has produced a study showing its many benefits. However, an independent scientist at State U has just published a study of people taking Vitamin R that shows that it provides no benefits whatsoever, and that in fact the pills are made of ground-up fingernail clippings.  Who to believe?

In this case, I think most of us would be pretty confident in saying that the independent scientist is telling the truth. He doesn’t get paid any more or less based on the results of his study.  In fact, if he’d shown that Vitamin R has real benefits, the manufacturer might have been willing to throw him a research grant. The company, on the other hand, has a powerful incentive to make sure that their study can be used as a marketing tool. If the benefits of their supplement are disproven, they may go out of business. This gives us every reason to believe that the results of their study are biased.

The arguments around anthropogenic climate change are not quite as clear-cut as those around Vitamin R, but in fact the same principles apply. Look at the funding behind the (very few) studies showing that climate change either is not occurring, or that it’s being driven by some natural process. By and large, it comes from producers of fossil fuels, who have a very strong financial incentive to convince us that burning coal and oil and natural gas is a fine thing to do. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they’re saying is untrue, but it certainly calls the objectivity of their results into question.

What about the other side? James Inhofe has said that anthropogenic climate change is the greatest hoax ever foisted on the American people. So, who’s doing the foisting? Who stands to make money if Americans are convinced that climate change is occurring? That’s a difficult question to answer. The argument you mostly hear is that because there is such a strong consensus among working scientists in favor of the idea that we’re changing the climate (we’ll just ignore how that consensus formed in the first place), it’s impossible for those with contradictory data to get published. Therefore, scientists have a strong incentive to go along with the idea of anthropogenic climate change in order to avoid losing tenure and getting smacked around at conferences.

The problem with this argument is that it displays a complete lack of understanding of how science and scientists work. Overturning conventional wisdom is how young scientists make their bones. I’m a working scientist myself, with a modest reputation in my field. Much of that reputation came from a series of studies I published early on in my career showing that something that pretty much everyone had taken for granted was in fact not true. Did I get a bit of grief at first? Sure. Nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong. But I had the data on my side, and once that was clear, conventional wisdom changed.

So, what would happen to a young scientist who conducted a study definitively proving that human activity was not having any effect on the global climate? Would he be denied tenure? Forced out of the academy? Given swirlies by the older professors in his department? No, he would not. He’d have to have his ducks in a very neat row, because he’d be going against a gigantic weight of accumulated evidence - but if his data held up, I’m pretty confident in saying that he’d eventually wind up with a Nobel prize.

In reality, of course, no such study has been produced, and none appears to be forthcoming. The implications of this are left as an exercise for the reader.