2012-02-28 05:17:03Need feedback on my post about climate scientists and money



Following the debunkers handbook, I'm trying to create a stickier story to replace the sticky story about the conspiracy of scientists manipulating data about climate.  My attempt at this is here:  http://www.skepticalscience.com/Koomeyonscientistsandmoney.html, which is a slighly modified repost of the article that first appeared here:  http://www.koomey.com/post/17610406093

Please comment!  And if anyone has a good source tallying total funding for climate science research globally I'm all ears.

Many thanks,

Jon Koomey


2012-02-28 10:37:06
John Garrett

I certainly agree with your position, but selling it to the contrarians is the problem. There have been some high-profile science research fraud cases in the last few years. A very recent one was related in medical research and another from a few years ago in physics. I don't remember their names, but will try find out. So a contrarian can always cite the few bad examples against your argument that scientists are in it for the truth. Another angle, some argue that Al Gore is in it for the money, trying to profit from carbon markets. How do you deflect similar criticism of you? I mean to ask this kindly, and am not accusing you. Since your self-description at the end shows that your work is in showing businesses how to profit from climate change, it's reasonable to expect such an accusation.

I very much agree it is time to lay out business solutions to the climate problem.

John Garrett


2012-02-28 10:54:09
Tom Curtis


An interesting article.  I am unwilling to suggest much in the way of major change as it would then no longer be a reprint of your previous article.  However, if you are going to edit it for content:

1)  Comparisons of Climate Change research money to total revenue for fossil fuels is inapt as the corporations do not get to keep most of their revenue.  A comparison with profits would be more appropriate.  Better yet would be a comparison with the exploration and R&D budgets (exploration being a type of R&D for mining companies); and a comparison with advertising budgets, including payments to politicians and political parties, and to think tanks. 

2)  A rough itemization of major expenses in climate research, including typical wage levels would help show that personal profit is not a major motive.

3)  In this passage:

" Why then would I have worked at a government research lab for two decades when I could have had a salary five or ten times as high?  Can’t think of a reason, other than that I actually care about whether human civilization survives the next century in some reasonable semblance of its current form." 

your stated reason is a political, not a scientific motive.  I consider it still exemplary but deniers will pick up on it to disparage your work and the impact of the article.  I'm sure your motivations are more complex than that, and expanding on them will help focus attention back on the main point, ie, love of truth and the acquisition of knowledge (unless your being a completely selfless martyr).

I also noticed these minor issues:

Cook˙'s suggestion => Cook's suggestion

SS => SkS (or prefereably Skeptical Science (SkS) for the first appearance in the article.

Is the last sentence of the Perry quote accurate?  It is certainly not grammatical regardless.

2012-02-29 05:45:24Thanks to John and Tom for comments



A few cases of fraud don't matter, because these are always rooted out by others who can't replicate the experiments. And that's really the point. A conspiracy of scientists is an unstable equilibrium, because the person who can show conclusively that the current consensus is wrong will gain great accolades from his colleagues.  No one has been able to do this convincingly for climate change, which is why the National Academy of Sciences calls it a settled fact that the earth is warming and that humans are mostly to blame. A conspiracy of powerful business interests protecting themselves is a stable equilbrium (at least for a long time, until reality becomes so obvious that they can't deny it any more, as it did for cigarettes and so many other public health and environmental problems).  So the second theory is a more likely explanation than the first one, in my opinion.  

It's harder to refute the idea that Al Gore isn't in it for the money, but I think he donates profits from his books to his climate change foundation.  I don't know anything about his other business interests.

For myself, I would expect people to read what I've written and judge whether it accurately and fairly conveys the gravity of the issue and the paths to potential solutions.   I'm happy to listen to people's criticisms, and I modify my views depending on the evidence. But the measurements on the climate issue are conclusive, in my view, even ignoring the powerful corroborating evidence that comes from comparing climate model predictions with what has already happened on earth, or comparing them with temperatures on Mars and Venus (where they do pretty well). When models make predictions that are confirmed by measurements, we call such knowledge "facts".


I disagree that comparing research funding to total revenues is a bad comparison.  There are costs for running research facilities just like there are costs for running fossil fuel production operations.  And there's no analog for profits in a research context.  The argument is that having more money flowing through their organizations increases the importance of that organization, just like having more profits increases the ranking of a company on the Fortune 500 list.

In terms of personal profit, what is needed is a comparison of wages for academic researchers to those with comparable backgrounds in the fossil fuel industries, and my initial hypothesis is that this comparison will show that researchers in industry would be paid a lot more than their peers in academic (but we'd need someone with real data to tell us if this is correct).

You raise a valid issue on the third point.  The search for truth is implied in my example (if it's not true that climate is a real issue, then maybe I should have gone into finance).  The example makes the general point that I didn't choose my career for the money, and if that's my primary motivation I would have made a different choice.  This of course brings up the complexity in evaluating what money means personally (which is easy to evaluate, and it's almost certain to show that the scientists chose the path of lower remuneration) with what it might mean professionally (like if your research lab gets to be big and important).  I think the claim of the deniers is that the importance of having a bigger lab is driving scientists en masse to create an elaborate hoax.  But as I point out in my response to John, this isn't a stable equilibrium, and there's no way such a conspiracy can last very long.  

It's also not consistent with the character and culture of the scientific enterprise, which really does value truth above all else, and enforces that discipline ruthlessly (in the form of severe reputation penalties for people who forge data or research results). Reputation is precious and perishable, and once destroyed it cannot easily be restored.

Thanks to both of you for these comments, which got me to think more clearly about the topic at hand.  If you have any other thoughts prompted by my reply (or by anything else) I'm interested to hear them.

Many thanks,



2012-02-29 12:45:19


It's hard to find global figures.

For the US, space only, you can find figures here which show that the greater part of the 'billions spent on climate science' is actually spent on space hardware.

More budget info here.

As to 'billions in oil revenues', the rights owners make about 6% after tax.  Reports about oil profits vary according to who is preaching and who is in the choir.

This right-wing think tank list seems to be fairly comparing like with like.

2012-02-29 12:50:10



The amount at stake is 20 trillion dollars.  That is the amount of profits the fossil fuel industry must forgo if we follow the strategy of reducing our CO2 emissions by reducing fossil fuel extraction.

source: http://capitalinstitute.org/blog/big-choice-0

2012-03-01 13:07:48
John Cook


I asked Steve Lewandowsky (who has been talking about posting a response to the "scientists in it for the money" meme also) for his thoughts on this blog post. This is his email reply:

It doesn’t get to the heart of the issue which is that you can also get grant money for work on other issues and that (in most countries other than U.S.) grant money does not flow into researchers’ pockets. In other words, there is nothing in it for the individual and to the extent that grants give you anything (eg travel money) you can get the funds equally for working on the favourite color of termites (provided you can convince the funding committee that it’s scientifically worth it.)

In a separate google gropu discussion (not about this post but about this topic), James Risbey expanded on this theme:

Address specifically the question: what actually does motivate scientists? 

There are many answers to this question, but the dominant motivations centre around the gaining of prestige and respect of peers, of satisfying curiosity, the fun of asking and answering hard questions, the intrinsic interest in the object or system of inquiry, and the desire to make the world a better place. 

There are variations on this theme, but very few scientists would answer the question by saying they do it for the money. If you are smart, there are much better avenues to wealth than science. The standard professions and business all pay much better than science or academia.

The one motivation which is trickier here is the desire to make the world a better place. Not all scientists have that, but many do. I would certainly count it as a motivator. I think that is a complex motivation that can be a source of some bias and also a means to eliminate bias (because it makes you more inclined to seek out the root cause of problems). The salient point is that it is not a self interest bias; in fact, the opposite.

The claim of financial motivation is a projection by the deniers that just doesn't ring true in the science community.

2012-03-01 13:11:05More thoughts from that google group discussion
John Cook


The vested interest meme continues to yield interesting thoughts which I will collect in this thread for reference - this is from Michael Brown:

Irrespective of the aspirations of scientists in the public sector (e.g., career advancement, grants, citations), these aspirations will eventually be thwarted if the research is very clearly wrong. A consequence of this is most scientists spend vast amounts of time doing cross checks and trying to get their science right. 

This is upended by funding from think tanks and lobby groups, where advancement is tied to producing the "right" answers rather an correctly answering the right questions. The evidence for this is the litany of errors one sees in "research" linked to think tanks and lobby groups (IPA, ACSC etc etc).

2012-03-01 15:37:41


These additional replies from Steve L, James R, and Michael B. are very helpful.  The earlier comments got me thinking about motivation also.  The idea that it's monetary enrichment that motivates most scientists is easily disproved.  FIrst off, salaries remain more or less constant as your research funding increases.  At some point, if you accumulate enough funding you might get promoted, and so get a higher salary, but it's a relatively weak effect, and not as direct a link as there is in the private sector.  In addition, as James R. points out (echoing one of my comments, in the post), if you really want to make money you don't go into science, you go into business or law.  Finally, Steve L's point about other research topics offering the same incentives is a critical one.  There's certainly no more benefit to going into climate science than into other interesting areas of research, so there's no reason to believe that climate scientists are motivated by money than any other scientists are.

And the flip side is that the reward system in science is all about respect of peers, satisfying puzzle solving, interest in some topics, and the desire to make the world better, as James R. points out.  This means that there is an incentive for people to root out errors and misconceptions, because there will be reward in it for scientists who do it successfully (and disapprobation for those who don't). So the system is self correcting, at least in the medium term.

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments.  I will mull these over and revisit them early next week.


2012-03-01 16:05:00
John Cook


"salaries remain more or less constant as your research funding increases"

That's an important point, I think, that people just don't get. When deniers talk about a scientist getting X millions of dollars, they don't understand how that doesn't end up in the scientist's pocket.

I'm not so convinced about the "if they wanted more money, they'd go into business or law". You could counter-argue that once a scientist has chosen science as a career, they then read the writing on the wall and take the path that gets them the most money (eg - endorse mainstream consensus). But if you don't get much monetary benefit from research funding, then this counter-argument is false. So again, perhaps the best approach is to concentrate on explaining the nature of how research funding works which is more tangible and structural.

2012-03-01 16:55:05
Andy S

I'm typing this on an iPad so it will be in one run-on paragraph. Sorry. I fully agree that Perry's argument is absurd. I think that everyone works for a whole variety of motivations, passion for the work, money, security, status, lack of other options and so on. If you characterize everyone who works on Wall Street as only interested in money and people who work in research being motivated only by passion for the truth, I think you're setting up two cartoonish straw men. The fact is that everyone has a mix of complex motives that change over time. People don't even gamble just for the money. And I don't think you help your case at all by including the stuff at the bottom about how you can act as a scientific advisor to help people profit by getting serious about climate change. I'm not saying that you are wrong to make that pitch in other circumstances, it just clashes with the stuff above by being in the same article. The "only in it for the money" meme has a great deal of appeal for the majority of people who work in boring jobs just to survive and who are understandably suspicious of people who earn more than them and say that they work just to discover the truth. This is a tricky myth to argue against.
2012-03-01 17:07:51Just a brief psychological note
John Cook


Sorry, Jonathan, to pile on the comments but I just thought of something that may or may not be pertinent to this. Yesterday, was talking to psychology researcher Ben Newell and he brought to my attention a fifth backfire effect I failed to include in the Debunking Book (we'll include it in the next edition). In an experiment with lab participants, when the participants were shown strong evidence, they updated their beliefs appropriately. However, when they were given the same strong evidence + weak evidence, it had a backfire effect and they updated their beliefs less. In other words, adding weak evidence even though it supported the argument actually had the opposite effect. Perhaps we'll call this the Lame Backfire Effect :-)

The practical consequence here? There are so many approaches you could take in arguing "scientists are not in it for the money". I would resist the temptation to include too many arguments in the rebuttal. If you have a strong argument "the very structure of research funding means scientists don't get more money", adding a weak argument "they could go into business if they were money motivated" rather than adding to the overall strength of your rebuttal might undermine it. So I'd restrict the post to only the strongest arguments.

2012-03-04 08:11:24"high profile science fraud cases"
Same Ordinary Fool


There is a website that lists such cases of science fraud.  When I scrolled thru it, I found only one climate listing, for Wegman and his retracted paper.


on Feb 24 also mentioned his recent reprimand.