The Sciences

Why Buy a Climate-Skeptic Cow When Milk is Cheap?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollFeb 6, 2007 7:09 PM

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There's been a bit of blogospheric buzz about this story in the Guardian that accuses the conservative American Enterprise Institute of offering $10,000 to scientists who will contribute articles to a collection responding to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC report pins the blame for global warming squarely on human activity, and warns that the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are growing has been accelerating in recent years. The AEI, meanwhile, is known for such sober assessments as The Global Warming Joke. So there is some concern that the AEI is simply bribing scientists to go along with Big Oil's party line. Personally, I think the Guardian article is getting a lot of attention because the polar bear picture is really cute. At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler digs up the actual letter from AEI scholars Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green, as well as a note to AEI employees from President Christopher DeMuth. The argument of those on the We Call It Life side of the climate-change fence is that the AEI isn't offering a bribe to scientists to distort their positions -- they're just collecting a bunch of articles from voices that might be skeptical anyway. Adler:

In these letters AEI was certainly seeking out prominent analysts willing to participate in a critical examination of the IPCC report, but I don't think the letter suggests AEI wanted Professor Schroeder or anyone else to tailor their views to AEI's agenda. Rather it looks to me like an effort to encourage those who have been critical of climate projections in the past to provide a detailed assessment of the new IPCC report.

All of which is completely true. Think what you will of the practice, but this is how the game is played (as Jack Balkin points out, more sarcastically). The point is, there's no need to bribe scientists to be skeptical about climate change, or to hold any other industry-friendly minority position. There are enough scientists out there that there will inevitably someone who sincerely holds that view, as small as the minority might be. All you have to do is ferret them out, and then use your money to give them a megaphone in the public arena. The role of ExxonMobil's cash isn't to buy people off, it's to dramatically amplify the voices of a small number of skeptics, so that the political discourse about the environment is dramatically different in tone and balance from the professional scientific discourse. And at that, they're doing a fantastic job. When I was an undergraduate (bear with me here) I spent a summer working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I worked with Sallie Baliunas, a CfA scientist who was a fellow Villanova astronomy grad, and was running an ambitious project to track chromospheric activity on a large sample of Sun-like stars. Sallie is an outstanding astrophysicist, and was a great advisor, as well as a friend. It's no coincidence that I ended up going to grad school at Harvard's astronomy department; the physics department didn't like people from smaller schools and wouldn't let me in, and Sallie helped convince the astronomy department to accept me. Sallie also was, and continues to be, very right-wing, of the libertarian variety. Letting the free market do it's job was the best strategy in nearly any circumstance, she firmly believed. Her interest in stellar variability led her to contemplating the role of Solar variability in the Earth's climate, and she became convinced that changes in the Sun were essentially the only important factor in explaining changes in the Earth's temperature. In particular, that human-produced emissions had nothing to do with it. Nothing about this belief was influenced in any way by large piles of cash offered by oil companies. But, once her views became known, they were more than happy to provide platforms from which to spread them; she's now an editor at Tech Central Station, as well as a fellow of the George C. Marshall Institute. Nobody could be more sincere in their views about climate change than Sallie is. I also happen to think that she's dramatically wrong, as do the vast majority of (much more expert) scientists working on the question. But this is how the game is played -- no need to bribe people when you can influence the public debate much more easily, and without fear that your targets won't stay bribed. Unfortunately, oil companies have a lot more cash to spend on this purpose than the atmosphere does. Which is why public-minded scientists who agree with the carefully researched views of the IPCC need to keep hammering on the importance of doing something to fix this problem, before the damage is irrevocable. I did want to highlight this bit from AEI President Chris DeMuth's note to his employees:

Third, what the Guardian essentially characterizes as a bribe is the conventional practice of AEIâ€"and Brookings, Harvard, and the University of Manchesterâ€"to pay individuals at other research institutions for commissioned work, and to cover their travel expenses when they come to the sponsoring institution to present their papers. The levels of authors' honoraria vary from case to case, but a $10,000 fee for a research project involving the review of a large amount of dense scientific material, and the synthesis of that material into an original, footnoted and rigorous article is hardly exorbitant or unusual; many academics would call it modest.

I would like to go on record as not thinking of $10,000 for a review article as modest at all. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder why I've been doing it for years now without any honorarium whatsoever. If the AEI would like some review articles on the cheap, call me! I promise to be original, footnoted and rigorous.

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