Paying for controversy

There has been condemnation today of the stale news (perhaps pumped up to make the new IPCC report more interesting) that the ExxonMobil-funded American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have been offering to fund research questioning the orthodoxy of climate-change science. The Guardian, which "broke" the story, did not see fit to provide the full text of any of the letters sent by the AEI, so we are left to imagine how bad they must have been from the few excerpts provided. These consisted of:

  • a claim that the IPCC are "resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work";
  • a request for essays that "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs";
  • a figure ($10,000) that would be paid to scientists and economists who provided such essays;
  • a quote from Kenneth Green, the author of the AEI letters offering such funding, defending the offer on the basis that "right now, the whole debate is polarised. One group says that anyone with doubts whatsoever are deniers and the other group is saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist. We don't think that approach has a lot of utility for intelligent policy."

Shocking stuff. If these are the highlights, one can only imagine how much more damning would have been the complete letter. How dare anyone in the energy industry fund research that dared thoughtfully to question the intellectual orthodoxy? What right have we to expect the IPCC to pay attention to "reasonable criticism" or to provide thorough analytical support for their conclusions?

By contrast to this strident and aggressive stance, the archbishops of climate-change orthodoxy were moderate and reasonable in their response to Mr Green's letters.

  • David Viner of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia intoned semi-literately: "It's a desperate attempt by an organisation who wants to distort science for their own political aims. The IPCC process is probably the most thorough and open review undertaken in any discipline. This undermines the confidence of the public in the scientific community and the ability of governments to take on sound scientific advice". "Thorough and open" other than in the consideration of dissenting opinions, perhaps. But we must excuse such partial review, because the confidence of the public (which it is the first purpose of science to satisfy) must be maintained by suppressing dissent rather than by rational analysis and falsification.
  • Steve Schroeder of the Texas A&M University declined the offer on the grounds that "You wouldn't know if some of the other authors might say nothing's going to happen, that we should ignore it or that it's not our fault." Better avoid the Festschrifts and Journals, Steve, you never know what other authors might write.
  • Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the Royal Society, "Britain's most prestigious scientific institute" according to the Guardian, or "Britain's most active protector of orthodoxy and persecutor of climate heresy" according to me,fulminated: "The IPCC is the world's leading authority on climate change and its latest report will provide a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific understanding on the issue. It is expected to stress, more convincingly than ever before, that our planet is already warming due to human actions, and that 'business as usual' would lead to unacceptable risks, underscoring the urgent need for concerted international action to reduce the worst impacts of climate change. However, yet again, there will be a vocal minority with their own agendas who will try to suggest otherwise." Because all that Popperian guff about the falsifiability of true scientific theories is just so out-of-date. Science should proceed by majority vote. The agendas of the losing minority must be inherently more suspect than the agendas of those who insist that they yield to the might of the majority. And opinions can be anticipated to be more convincing than ever before, simply because they are expected to state the consensus view with greater emphasis, which nowadays is the same thing as a convincing argument.
  • Ben Stewart of Greenpeace hissed: "The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration's intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they've got left is a suitcase full of cash." How can one resist such compelling and measured reasoning?

Perhaps most revealing is one small phrase in the final paragraph of The Guardian's report:

"On Monday, another Exxon-funded organisation based in Canada will launch a review in London which casts doubt on the IPCC report. Among its authors are Tad Murty, a former scientist [my emphasis] who believes human activity makes no contribution to global warming."

How does one become "a former scientist"? Did Mr Murty forget his scientific training when he joined the climate-sceptic camp? Did he hand in the papers that entitled him to call himself a member of the scientific community?

This is not reporting. This is propaganda. The argument is "won", and anyone who dares question the result is inherently suspect and of lesser credibility.

We have been here before. Often the consensus is right. But not always. The academic community judged Oskar Lange to have defeated Ludwig von Mises on the question of the impossibility of economic calculation in a socialist economy, only for Mises to be proved right sixty years later (as even Robert Heilbroner, an intellectual descendant of Lange, conceded). The academic community judged Keynes's General Theory to have revolutionised not just theoretical economics but the practical approach to managing economies. Rational criticisms such as Hazlitt's complete demolition of the book were ignored (as Boehm-Bawerk's demolition of Marx's Capital had been ignored before him) by most of the academic community until reality demonstrated that much of it was complete cobblers. Many (perhaps most) have continued to hold to Keynes's theories despite the now ample theoretical and empirical destruction of his arguments. 364 academic economists signed a Keynesian condemnation of Geoffrey Howe's 1981 budget. History quickly proved them to be wrong, but at the time, very few academic economists could be found to support the Budget. Even now, many of those economists cling to their illusions. Challenging academic consensus isn't dangerous, it is essential. Clever people can sometimes be catastrophically wrong.

I believe it is very likely that the Earth's climate is warming, and very likely that human activity is contributing to that warming. I do not believe that either of these postulates has been established irrefutably, nor am I aware that the more reputable climate scientists would make such a claim.

It is sensible for us to price the risk of anthopogenic global warming into those activities that distort the Earth's carbon balance, on the probabilistic basis that the consequence of failing to take account of the risk if it turned out to be true is very much more serious than the consequence of having taken account of the risk if it turned out to be false (as Gerard Baker put it, an environmental version of Pascal's Wager). It is sensible for us to act proportionately, but it is not sensible for us to attempt to suppress debate. The dominant theory, however popular, might be wrong. We should always allow for a paradigm-shift.

The most tendentious yet popular of the criticisms of the climate sceptics is that they are funded by companies like Exxon. How much money have the scientists and economists of climate-change orthodoxy received from various institutions? An order of magnitude more than Exxon has provided to those who question that science, for sure. Should we disregard the orthodox analysis too, on the basis that their funding institutions undoubtedly had their own agendas?

No question should be considered out of bounds, and no answer should be debated other than on its own merits. When the sceptics play by these rules, and the alarmists resort to ad hominem attacks, it makes me more inclined to believe the sceptics than is perhaps warranted by the balance of scientific evidence.