Incentives and Conspiracies

Cross-posted from Coyote Blog:

I am sort of the anti-conspiracy theorist. I have written a number of times that events people sometimes explain as orchestrated conspiracies often can be explained just as well by assuming that people with similar preferences and similar information and similar incentives will respond to these incentives in similar ways.

I think the great herd-think around climate alarmism is a good example, and the Bishop Hill blog brings us a specific illustration from the comment section of Watts Up With That. A commenter observed that it was pretty hard to believe that thousands of scientists could be participating in a conspiracy. Another commenter wrote back:

Actually not so hard.

Personal anecdote:
Last spring when I was shopping around for a new source of funding, after having my funding slashed to zero 15 days after going public with a finding about natural climate variations, I kept running into funding application instructions of the following variety:

Successful candidates will:
1) Demonstrate AGW [ed: Anthropogenic Global Warming]
2) Demonstrate the catastrophic consequences of AGW.
3) Explore policy implications stemming from 1 & 2.

Follow the money — perhaps a conspiracy is unnecessary where a carrot will suffice.

If only alarmist results are funded, then it should not be surprising that only alarmist studies are produced.

By the way, it is probably incorrect to think of climate science really being driven by 2500 scientists. Here is an analogy: Strategy at General Motors is in some sense driven by thousands of workers – salesmen who know the market, channel managers who know their distribution partners, planners who watch econometric trends, manufacturers who know what can and can’t be done with costs, engineers who see what the next technological opportunities, etc. — you get the idea.

But realistically, there are probably 20-25 people who are really setting and driving and communicating the corporate strategy for GM. And those 20-25 people will likely say to the public that their strategy is supported by all those 200,000 workers. But in fact there are thousands, maybe even a majority, that would say that they don’t support the strategy and don’t think that strategy is consistent with their bit of knowlege.

I think climate science works roughly the same way. The same 20-25 people are lead authors on the IPCC, write key reports, contribute to Al Gore’s movie, get quoted in the NY Times, run the Realclimate web site, and, of course, feature prominently in the CRU emails. And while these 25 may claim thousands of scientists support their conclusions based on the mere fact that these other scientists contributed to an IPCC report that had these conclusions, many of these scientists, when actually asked, will disagree.

Here is one thing that is never mentioned — most of the scientists outside of climate science who have gone on the record somewhere as supporting catastrophic man-made global warming theory, if you really talked to them, would say they made their statement in support of science, not global warming theory. Most of these folks really haven’t dug into the details, but the problem was presented to them as one of science vs. anti-science. They are told by their peers and the media that AGW skeptics are all fundamentalist super right-wing anti-science evolution deniers who think the Earth is 4000 years old.

By saying they support AGW, these scientists are really trying to make the statement that they support science. The bitter irony is that they are doing the opposite, enabling those in the core of the climate community who are trying to duck criticism and replication by demanding unquestioning respect for their authority. The fact is that nearly every time one of these outsider scientists – a physicist or a geologist or a statistician, say – digs into the science, they are appalled at what they find and how bad the science behind catastrophic AGW theory really is.

  • Gösta Oscarsson

    Every Wednesday I look in at CO2 Science and every time there is a new study, from somewhere in the world, identifying the mediaval warm period och the little ice age. McIntyre wrote some months ago about the silence of the lambs (confronting evil). But up till now I have not seen any of the hundreds of scientific foot soldiers reacting on the papers by their super-peers trying to eliminate those periods. Why?

  • Stonyground

    According to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, deniers not only think that the Earth is 4,000 years old, they also think that it is flat.

  • Pete Ballard

    So much of this is anecdotal and hearsay. There is a very easy way to deal with this in the next IPCC report: adopt the judicial model of majority and dissenting opinions for the major findings and recommendations. Since there is alleged bias in selection of IPCC members that might limit dissent, include links to “amicus briefs” from outside individuals and organizations. Construct a website in which outside individuals could register their name, affiliation and simple support or opposition to specific findings and recommendations.

    Short of this, someone could send an anonymous survey to climate scientists asking their opinions on specific IPCC findings.

  • OverNaught

    I think a better analogue than GM would be Enron. At Enron a very small group of insiders ran the company into the ground by falsifying financial results and records. But this could only be done after the directors suspended the normal rules of open accounting and the rules against conflicts of interest. There were a larger group of managers who could have figured out the scam but doing too well to ask questions publicly. At the bottom were thousands of honest workers who did their jobs well, trusted their bosses, and wound up losing their jobs and their retirement savings.

    Oh, and Enron was also behind the early wave of AGW hype & funding because they hoped to profit from carbon trading.

  • Sweet Old Bill

    It is important to realize that there is a high probability the same 20-25 climate scientists not only review each others manuscripts, but also review each others research proposals to NSF, DOE and other agencies in the US and abroad. Peer review can only be as good as those who select peer reviewers (editors and program managers)make it.

  • hunter

    And we all know Brown is such a credible, well informed fella.
    Sweet Old Bill,
    Very good point.
    Enron was also involved with developing the cap-n-trade concept.

  • TanGeng

    No real conspiracy although a conspiracy can develop if like-minded individuals are intimate enough like those involved in the ClimateGate emails.

    Most of the consensus in climate science can be attributed to confirmation bias, self-selection, and one huge exogenous driver. Confirmation bias is when people who study climate sciences enter the field with a preconceived notion and go on to confirm that notion by drawing strong spurious connections between largely unrelated signals. Self-selection is that these Global Climate Change Conventions self-selects for those that believes humans are the cause of climate change. Finally there is one large exogenous driver, public funding from politicians who are either easily scared or want to scare easily scared people.

    Any conspiracies that do happen, happen on a much smaller scale like the dozen or so people of ClimateGate.

  • Shills

    I agree that this post relies too heavily on anecdotes. That story about the funding application, if real, was possibly taken out of context.

    Anyway. I just wanna see how other lay peeps come to their conclusions on this AGW issue. I am convinced that their is a scientific consensus that AGW is happening. This is founded on the widespread presentation of such in skeptical groups (like Australian skeptics). Popular science publications such as New Scientist, popular science celebs like Dr Karl, who are known for being skeptical. Maybe others I can’t think of right now.

    Being a lay person, I cannot look at the research or data meaningfully, so I don’t. I can only look at the consensus.

    To me, it is more rational to go with the consensus, is it not? This siding with the consensus would cease to exist if: It was shown that a consensus does not exist, that a fatal flaw in the science (monoculture, conspiracy…) was evident, that umm… I dunno what makes you suspicious of CC?

    Sry if this has been covered before. I’m not trying to make enemies or friends, just trying to test my position. So go nuts.

  • Robert

    Well said. Most researchers have not seriously looked into the theories behind AGW, because they are so busy studying the “effects”. AGW has spun an entire industry of research into “what could happen”. The possibilities of “what could happen” are nearly limitless, so AGW has been a real boon to all kinds of researchers.One things for certain with this type of “research”, the effects of a warming climate are all bad!

  • Hunter

    How fucking gullible can you get? Did you bother to look up who that commenter was? Did you try to find out whether they were actually a scientist, or if they had ever in fact published a climate-related paper? Clearly not. You just found a statement that fitted in with your retarded beliefs, and parroted it unquestioningly.

  • john

    I challenge you to provide an example (ideally a link) of any grant program with funding instructions anything like this:

    Successful candidates will:
    1) Demonstrate AGW [ed: Anthropogenic Global Warming]
    2) Demonstrate the catastrophic consequences of AGW.
    3) Explore policy implications stemming from 1 & 2.

    Saying you have encountered this is a lie. Not that that would bother you or most your readers.

  • Richard Saumarez

    I’m no fan of conspiracy theories, especially when venality and stupidity will do. However, if the IPCC has its way and CO2 output drops dramatically, is it possible that the warming trend applied to the data will suddenly become a cooling trend?

    Yours paranoiacally

  • Rob

    FWIW: Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth is about 7000 years old, not 4000.

    This number was derived by somebody counting up generations and date information in the bible.

    Even the Young Earth types are not so foolish as to say that the earth started in the time of the Patriarchs – that wouldn’t fit their data set.

    The problem with the AGW types is that they cannot even leave their dataset alone and interpret from there. They are compelled to alter (model) that data until it fits what they are after.

  • O Bloody Hell

    > According to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, deniers not only think that the Earth is 4,000 years old, they also think that it is flat.

    The latter is certainly true if you assume space is warped in a certain specific way.

  • O Bloody Hell

    > If only alarmist results are funded, then it should not be surprising that only alarmist studies are produced.

    Uh, I gots some newz fer yaz all —

    If the results are defined ahead of time, IT AIN’T SCIENCE that’s getting funded.

  • ADiff


    The question could be re-stated as ‘would the apparent cessation of the previous warming trend turn into a more substantial cooling trend’. The previously observed warming (to the extent it’s real and not an artifact of sampling error!) already appears to have ended, at least for the last decade. We do not know at this point (it seems to me) whether this will continue to be the case, or whether there will be other period(s) of warming, or whether we may see period(s) of cooling. But in any event, if criticism of the positive feedback mechanisms upon which Catastrophic Global Warming (utterly) rely is accurate, and such either doesn’t exist or is much less pronounced than AGW advocates contend, then whatever we do about CO2, whether we reduce or increase its emissions, won’t really matter a great deal, but be largely subsumed in other, as yet not fully understood, determinants of cyclical and irregular changes in climate trends.

    “If the results are defined ahead of time, IT AIN’T SCIENCE[.]” And if the data are manipulated to achieve those desired results, it’s jobbery, and ANTI-SCIENCE.