Barbarians at the Gates

A reader wrote me:

Authors complained that although Crichton used their findings correctly, their own intention when writing was not to ‘dispute global warming’. That is the whole problem that seems to keep coming up – so what if someone ‘supports’ the consensus in their own private life and ideology? The point of science is to make judgements on data.

I wrote back something I have meaning to post here.   Why do so many scientists from various fields, who may have less knowledge of the details of climate science than a layman like myself has, sign onto all these petitions and letters supporting the science?

One thing that helps explain some of this behavior is that there is a very strong social cost in academia to challenging global warming, so that even when findings in certain studies seem to undercut key pieces of the argument, the researches always add something like “but of course this does not refute the basic theory of global warming” at the end of the paper.  In universities, being identified as having criticized catastrophic man-made global warming theory is sort of like standing up in a Harvard faculty meeting and announcing that one is a devout Baptist and a Sarah Palin supporter.  So on the flip side, publicly declaring for climate catastrophe is a badge of honor and sophistication.

In fact, the lumping of climate skeptics with fundamentalist evolution doubters/deniers actually helps to explain a lot of academic behavior.  We see all of these open letters and surveys that are signed by all kinds of scientists and academics from multiple fields supporting catastrophic global warming theory, but in fact many have not delved even a little bit into the science.  Partially this support is professional courtesy to their peers, but in large part when academics sign these letters, they feel they are supporting science per se, rather than the specific science of global warming (which they have not really inspected) against the anti-science barbarians at the gate.

People often take public positions for what that position communicates about themselves, rather than based on any kind of rigorous analysis.  I would argue that a solid chunk of the Obama votes in the last election were not based on any real understanding of the candidate but on the desire to say, “look what an enlightened person I am, I have voted for a black man for President.”

  • stan

    Related to this statement in an invitation to the debate Pielke Jr is having in England.

    “No mainstream scientist would question that human activity has had an effect on the Earth’s climate. Few doubt that it is the major issue facing humanity in the 21st Century.”


  • ADiff

    Bingo! Right on target. It’s the same reason that many early scientists publicly supported the theory that witchcraft was real and a major public threat.

    Ya gotta go along to get along!

  • Waldo

    Mr. Meyer has made a couple of charges: 1) that scientists in “academia” are afraid to challenge global warming, and 2) many peopled voted for Obama to appear “enlightened” for voting for the first black president.

    I wonder how he knows either of these things? Who is policing academia and, more importantly, can we find evidence of a professor / scientists dismissed on these grounds? And is this blog on climate really about Al Gore and President Obama?

  • Otter

    Conversely, how does waldough know that the opposite is true / possible? Can he provide evidence, or is it just wishful thinking on his part?

  • I had an interesting conversation several months ago with a professional biologist (PhD level) that I had just met a party. Nice guy; I had several beers with him and I’d do it again. The interesting thing was that the subject of AGW came up. He immediately became very … I’ll use the word “excited” … about the subject. He claimed that he saw evidence of AGW “everywhere” in the “real world” of his work, and that it was causing massive species loss which upset him greatly. Delving deeper (and keep in mind that beer was involved) it seemed that he was conflating several legitimate concerns (habitat loss, etc), but was unable to point to specifically how AGW was involved. My impression (strictly conjecture, but probably good conjecture 🙂 ) was that he passionately felt an “us-versus-them” conflict with the great unwashed general public / evil big business (he was politically well to the left) and the scientific community when it comes to protecting the environment and that this well-intentioned passion overrode any skeptical inclinations he may otherwise have had. He was defending his tribe against the other tribe, so to speak.

    It’s always interesting to discuss these things in the abstract, but I was really shocked at how emotionally involved this guy was. I can see where dealing with living creatures would create these sort of issues too, and I certainly sympathize because I’ve dealt with / supported organizations that protect and breed some of the same endangered critters he was studying and I really, really like them too. That being said, I did expect a bit more detachment when it comes to reasoning these things through. Emotion and logic just don’t mix.

    Anyway, the plural of anecdote is not data, etc., but I wouldn’t discount good old-fashioned tribalism in explaining most of this.

  • ADiff

    It’s not unusual for ideologies to try to use science to advance their ’cause’. It’s somewhat rarer, but far more dangerous when science itself becomes ideology. The most notable example isn’t the current Catastrophic Global Warming/Environmental religion, but the application of Evolutionary theory to social issues, so-called ‘Social Darwinism’. When scientists found that Evolution perfectly catered to numerous social and political prejudices, there was a free-for-all rush to adapt its approach to any number of social, economic and political issues. An overwhelming Consensus rapidly developed in the Sciences that led to all manner of unsupported theories being widely accepted, resulting in numerous wasteful and destructive public (and private) policies from social hygiene to eugenics. Of course the greatest damage was done when the broad leftist political movements adapted these ideas to Utopian activism, giving rise to the leftist phenomenons of Nazism and Communism. We all know where that went.

    Something of the same kind is going on with Catastrophic Global Warming, and once again Science is surrendering rigor and objectivity to its prejudices, damaging itself, and offering to enable leftist Utopian activists with powerful justification for their activist programs.

  • Waldo

    Otter, I don’t understand what you are asking – are you suggesting…that I prove somehow that academics are NOT afraid to speak out? If so, Pielke, Botkin, Spenser are all currently employed academics. Bryson was retired but is still beloved at UW (as far as I know no one revoked his pension). I’m willing to bet he majority of the legitimate (and unqualified) skeptics who posit AGW as overblown – follow any of their trails, particularly the ‘unqualified’ academics. The only law suit I am aware of is when Tim Ball sued the Calgary Herald and Dan Johnson for pointing that he, Ball, was not a climate scientists (Ball withdrew the lawsuit, of course).

    See the article hunter posted on the “Settled Science” thread – academics and government scientists. As for the people who voted for Obama? I suspect that Obama was largely a vote against George Bush – but this is entirely conjecture on my part…as is Mr. Meyer’s assertion above.

    Evil, interesting. Without further context I’m not sure what to say (and yeah, I bet a lot of scientists have got their kung-fu grip on about the subject in question because they are being harassed [yet they are still the experts]), but I did like this line: “I wouldn’t discount good old-fashioned tribalism in explaining most of this.”

    Yahoo bravo absolutely! Our tribal minds. CS is a veeeery tribal site. There is far more political commentary and allegation on this site than there is science any day.

  • I’ve spent 25 years of my career in academia, and aerospace labs. It seems to me that the majority of physicists at the physics department of the University of Amsterdam are rather doubtful of all the predictions about future climate. I think most of us are too aware of the complexity of climate, as well as the inherent problems in modeling large scale open energy systems.

  • NormD

    I don’t think that the problem is just limited to AGW. Scientists are experts in very limited areas, but for reasons that are beyond me that they commonly support the findings and theories of other scientists even if they have absolutely no expertise in the subject matter. Professional courtesy? An unspoken agreement that I won’t question your work if you don’t question mine. Who knows.

    Years ago I was talking with a VP of HR in a company I worked for and she was gushing on and on about how brilliant our VP of R&D was. I asked her: “How do you know?”, She looked somewhat confused. How dare I question such a thing, he had a PhD from Stanford, was published and he acted brilliant, therefore he must be brilliant. Lots of people are like the VP of HR. In fact, the gentleman in question was emotionally unable to consider any work or ideas that questioned his preferred view of the world. Conflicting data or ideas were ignored, suppressed and re-interpreted; supporters were promoted, doubters were given uninteresting assignments or laid off. And this was just internal company politics.

    I am deeply suspicious that the problems surfaced in AGW research community are more widely spread than just that one community.

    I am also deeply hopeful that the resurgence of more open science as part of AGW theory will spread more broadly. Science should should be done in the open and everybody that has intelligent, informed opinions should be able to contribute.

  • Pat Moffitt

    There are a number of possible reasons for this phenomena. The kindest is virtuous corruption (basically -belief that the goal of AGW is more important than the science). The free flowing grants related to AGW are not limited to climate science- the money funds biologists (the “what if” impacts on everything from vegetation to diversity to specie threats), sociologists get to study human impacts, economists get to study financial impacts, engineers get to study green technologies. And the overhead charged to the “rich” departments by the university supports all the humanities. AGW is the heart of the environmental justice movement as such there is also tremendous pressure at a university to support this goal.

    Perhaps as important -there is no support (sufficient to withstand the attacks of the NGOs) for anyone to stand up and say NO to some environmental paradigm. The message was sent to the academic community years ago- go along and you will be funded and if not you will be smeared and have your funding eliminated. Look at the attacks on Dr. Ames when he criticized the toxics scare (especially Alar) or Edward Krug (run out of his field of soil science) who had the audacity to question the impacts of acid rain as but two examples. A single person will get run over. If we want more people to stand up they must be protected at least as well as Hansen’s support during the Bush Administration.

  • Waldo

    Sooooooooo there’s a lot of assumptions and generalizations about the scientific community…and that’s about it.

  • stan


    A number of academic scientists have retired and made statements to the effect that they can now speak freely about their doubts because they have retired. AGW drives an enormous gravy train. Anyone who upsets that gravy train is persona non grata in the department. It’s academic suicide unless one is already very well established. Even then, it can cause isolation and rejection. See the experience of Professor William Gray at Colorado State for example.

  • Dana White

    I don’t think it’s just supporting fellow scientists. How many people jumped to support the cold fusion researchers? What this tendency shows you is just how effective Al Gore and crowd have been with the “deniers” label. Once you are a denier, you’ve joined the far, far right as far as civilized society is concerned.

  • hunter

    Here is an idea:
    Why not try to have thread that is not highjacked by waldo?
    Chrichton, who was a very accomplished academic himself, was perfectly capable of understanding what he read.
    As a generalist, he had an adavantage over specialists in seeing a bigger picture than narrowly focused specialists.
    If he was able to assemble a compelling picture out of the parts that he accurately found in the academic forest that is at odds with the owners of the various ‘trees’ persepctives, there is very likely more to it than his being wrong.
    The recent developments, showing that soot accounts for much ice melting, and that CO2 is not going to create massive positive fedbacks, are much more in line with what Chrichton saw from the evidence than the consensus that many are highly dependent on.
    Also, it must be pointed out that the consensus view, for years, according to the leaked e-mails, was enforced by distorting the perspective people were able to achieve on the AGW theory.
    Data diddling, criminal coverup (at least in Britain), dubious algorithms, dubious data base management, all underscore that the consensus perspective is not likely to be that accurate.

  • Ralf Dekker

    Somehow many people of my generation (1957) genuinely and intuitively believe that the (local) climate has warmed considerably. They remember the cold days in their youth. So they are receptive to the global warming story. Before i started to dive into the sceptical global warming view I thought the same. The local temperature record, however manipulated and ‘warmed’, does not really show a change that would have been discerneable to me. I remember being surprised when I first saw that.
    I seriously think there might be a severe memory bias there. When I was a kid i was sent out to play on the street for the full day (outside school hours clearly). Playing inside the house was a rare event since that would create a mess, hence more work for my mother. As a result I vividly remember ‘playing’ outside for hours, having cold feet, sliding on the ice in winter, etc. I am sure most of my generation peers have a similar story to tell. Nowadays I get in the car or stay inside. Never to be really exposed to the elements again.

  • hunter

    We are of the same generation.
    Many of us were still taught to be skeptical and critical in our thinking.
    On of the most interesting things I notice is the majority of opinion leaders on the AGW side are highly urbanized, and as you point out, tend to not spend much time outside.

  • h

    Based on rigorous analysis I argue a position that communicates a real understanding of the candidate, the desire to say, “look what an enlightened person I am, I have voted for a black man for President.”

  • Mike

    Pat Moffitt:

    “There are a number of possible reasons for this phenomena. The kindest is virtuous corruption (basically -belief that the goal of AGW is more important than the science)”

    I have to disagree. I’m a member of a chemistry department, with quite a few people whom I consider smarter than myself. Most of them support AGW – but no one benefits personally in any way. In discussions I had with several of them, it became clear that they simply hadn’t looked into the evidence themselves. Some readily use terms like “denialists” and so on, making it pretty plain that they get their information from the MSM rather than the scientific literature.

    Most of them are politically left of center and quite sure of these beliefs, without spending much intellectual effort on justifying such positions either. The correlation between AGW skepticism and conservative outlook feeds the dismissive attitude – lumping AGW skeptics together with creationists and other marginally literate right-wingers is quite effective with our crowd.

    So, I’d say it’s another case of “never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence”. Outside their area of specialization, scientists are no less incompetent than other folks.

    BTW it’s “this phenomenon” – phenomena is plural, like media (singular: medium), data (sg. datum), criteria (sg. criterion). The word “phenomenon” means “thing”, phenomena “things”, which is much easier to get right.

  • Harrywr2


    “can we find evidence of a professor / scientists dismissed on these grounds?”

    At least 1

    The associate Washington state climatologist looked in a claim of ‘unprecedented glacier melt’ on Mt Rainier, and based on his review of the meticulous records that have been kept since 1931 concluded there wasn’t any. He was promptly stripped of his title. We had another event in 2009…someone found a survey marker on bare ground on Mt Rainier and claimed ‘unprecedented melting’, some brave sole at USGS looked into the record and sure enough, the survey marker had been placed on ‘bare ground’ in 1956. Don’t know if the USGS person kept there job or not.

    News link and excerpt
    “The dispute traces back to 2007, when UW meteorologist Mark Albright, an associate of Mass and co-author of the new study, challenged claims that Northwest snowpacks had fallen by half in the second half of the 20th century.
    In the ensuing debate, Mote stripped Albright of his title as associate state climatologist. Mass then accused Mote of censorship.”

  • ADiff

    This source may be worth a look:

    It details numerous well documented and highly public cases where those in the scientific field who challenged the ‘science’ of Catastrophic AGW where censored, censured, professionally ridiculed or dismissed.

    Can there be any doubt at all that advocates of Catastrophic AGW have tried to defend their theories by silencing their critics politically? The basis isn’t science at all, it’s based on their lack of sufficient faith in the advocate’s beliefs, per se, regardless any scientific factors at all.

  • GregO

    No doubt a lot of baggage is carried in with people’s opinion on AGW – pro and con. Before Climategate I really didn’t pay that much attention to Man-Made Global Warming – after Climategate I have become a fanatic and have read a bunch of books; bookmarked websites (just added this one…) and started talking to all my friends about AGW. Wow. People that buy-in to AGW are very not into being confronted with any contradictions to their belief system. It is really like talking about religion as opposed to science or public policy. Just listen to the deafening silence coming out of American MSM on this (they are laming-out in a most gutless fashion leaving the field of battle to the web)…No question this is a loaded topic and just talking about it with the “wrong” viewpoint can get you in trouble with friends and colleagues. So much for freedom of speech; say whatever you like; but watch out if you get caught guilty of independent thought!

  • Waldo

    Harry, now be fair. I found this here:

    Mote, upset that Albright was broadly distributing e-mails about the issue, last week told Albright that he would have to let Mote preview any e-mails before sending them out, if he was tying his work to the state climatologist’s office.

    Mote’s position as the state climatologist is a volunteer job that doesn’t carry any official recognition or rules. Mote agreed to do the job several years ago, and his colleagues accepted it. The office collects and disseminates climate information and advises the state on climate-related issues.

    When Albright refused Mote’s ultimatum, Mote barred him from associating himself with the state climatologist’s office.

    Mote said Albright was sending out messages showing just his side of the story, and airing an analysis that hadn’t gone through proper quality checks. As a representative of the climatologist’s office, there needed to be standards, he said.

    “I’m not trying to squelch debate by any means,” Mote said.

  • Waldo

    Mind you, I would not defend the squelching of academic debate, but there are always two sides – something that CS is rather weak about showing – and it would appear that Albright was (perhaps, this is only conjecture) jumping the gun a little and abusing the position of a volunteer job (perhaps [conjecture, mind you] enjoying the limelight a bit too much). One can still find him on the UW website, by the way – no one lost a job of any sort, volunteer or otherwise. So I’m not sure this really sounds like academic intimidation.