Incentives and Conspiracies

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.


  1. L Nettles:

    Every time they quote the 2500 scientists on the IPCC they are necessarily including Steve McIntyre since he is listed officially as a reviewer. Of course the lead authors just ignored and stonewalled him.

  2. Anon:

    Regardless whether you are correct is asserting that there's a core of two dozen folks -- but I think that's just a side-effect of the incentives. The "cream" is rising to the top.

    It's the same invisible hand that guides the free market -- except in this case, it is a government-induced distortion with a (quite ironic) positive feedback effect.

  3. A. Cogbill:

    On this issue I completely agree with you. Until 4 or 5 years ago, I had never heard of the so-called hockey stick; I simply had not paid attention to the issue. A friend of mine brought it to my attention in the context of the M&M quarrel with Mann and others. I investigated the issue, and was utterly appalled by the Mann and others responses to M&M. It was quickly obvious to me that Mann and others were almost certainly fraudulent, and were very poor statisticians to boot. As I have observed the issue since that time, things have only gotten worse.

    My conclusion is that (a) I have absolutely no faith in any time series derived from ground-based temperature measurements and (b) I give no credence whatever to temperature histories concocted from tree-ring studies. Moreover, I am now convinced that the basic physical processes necessary for understanding the system are quite poorly understood. In conclusion, only a certified idiot would attempt to make serious decisions from the body of knowledge that is what passes for climate science.

    I should state that I am a PhD geophysicist.

  4. John Moore:

    The earth isn't 4000 years old? Darn, I'm gonna have to find another reason for my skepticism :-)

    A. Cogbill... I also think that temperature series are pretty lousy. The reason is that near-surface temperatures are just not a good measure of the earth's heat budget. There are plenty of other reasons, but that one predominates in my mind.

  5. Rob:

    I wonder if I can get my phd without a defense... Especially if my thesis is pro-agw!?!?!!

  6. ben:

    I liked the point about the research application criteria. To get consensus on a bad idea there needs to be a co-ordinating mechanism of some kind. A nice alternative to overt conspiracy as a co-ordinating mechanism is conditional funding criteria.

  7. Dr. T:

    Again, Warren Meyer is far too nice to people who call themselves scientists. If you aren't a skeptic, if you don't understand and follow the scientific method, and if you don't examine evidence before making conclusions, then you aren't a scientist regardless of how many letters and initials follow your name. The majority of climatologists are not scientists. They follow the herd and the funding and don't care about the integrity of evidence or the validity of climate models. Non-climatologist 'scientists' who support these frauds deserve severe chastisement. Justifying their support of AGW by claiming they were supporting science (in general) downplays the impact of their unethical and unscientific behaviors.

    I came out against the climatologists supporting AGW only after reading the final draft of the 2004 IPCC report. This report was a total joke: the methodologies were poor, the data were biased, the conclusions were unsupported, and the final climate model was totally unsound. One didn't need to be a climatologist to see how bad the report was. That's why I am not forgiving of well-known scientists who jumped on the AGW bandwagon. (My opinion is that many of these scientists were just grandstanding to gain publicity and didn't care about global warming at all. The same thing happened with cloning a dozen years ago.)

  8. O Bloody Hell:

    > The “cream” is rising to the top.

    Anyone who is familiar with The Septic Tank Rule of Management knows that "cream" isn't the only substance that floats to the top.

    I think this is very self-evidently an instance of demonstrating the properties of that substance, rather than cream.

    > I wonder if I can get my phd without a defense… Especially if my thesis is pro-agw!?!?!!

    No, but the defense will be pro-forma, like a Soviet political trial...

  9. Chris:

    You are making some pretty bold claims about what 'many' scientists believe or how they react.

    While my priors would lead me to believe you are correct - do you have any evidence that this is, in fact, true?

  10. Anson Young:

    I would like to see some actual examples of funding applications that require successful candidates to 'demonstrate AGW'.

    Is there anyone out there that can show verifiable examples that can be put up on the web as PDF files, or that are already posted on the web? Do the peer-reviewed journals publish ads like that? I'd love to be able to contront AGW partisans with something of that nature, but I'm not any kind of scientist, and I'd want to be 100% sure before shooting my mouth off.

  11. Elliot:

    This has often been the pattern of the Panic business. I can't recall the true numbers so forgive the estimate, but a researcher actually walked through a large city and actually counted ALL of the homeless people. This came to, say, less than 100. He wrote a book to tell this story, of how the number of homeless, often estimated at over 10,000 is really much less.

    The guy who wrote the forward did not read the book but told what he knew about how important the subject was, "After all, there are over 10,000 homeless out there".



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