Government grants distort the climate change debate

University of NSW Associate Professor David McKnight has written a petty mud-slinging article. He argues that oil corporation Exxon-Mobil is distorting the public debate over global warming by funding sceptical opinions. But those sceptical opinions get very little government support. So why shouldn’t Exxon give money to views that would otherwise be marginalised?

Let’s not forget that the government is the biggest corporation of them all. When public money funds climate science, it too “distorts” the debate by propping up viewpoints that other taxpayers disagree with. At least private money from Exxon – excluding any government subsidies it gets – has the advantage of being honestly acquired. The CSIRO’s budget, on the other hand, comes from taking the fruits of others’ labour through the force of the State.

Government money can also corrupt, just like private money. What about the incentives facing “Department of Climate Change” bureaucrats? If they exaggerate the threat of global warming, won’t their jobs become more secure? Indeed, public servants find it in their interests to be busy-bodies. The social-engineering required to “fix” climate change hands bureaucrats new powers and encourages the perception that they’re doing something worthwhile.

Instead of launching a one-sided attack on Exxon, McKnight should have simply said that corporate and government funded work should be judged on their individual merits. It’s anti-intellectual to try and discredit opinions because of the funding source: there’s no excuse for not putting in the hard yards and rebutting the substantive arguments.

24 thoughts on “Government grants distort the climate change debate

  1. there’s not just an associate professor pushing this crap up that hill, Sukrit. there’s also a junior lecturer pushing that line on his blog most days. It must be the water there. South Sydney water supposedly causes delusion on a grand scale.

    What’s actually quite funny is that the larger US foundations like the Ford and the Rockefeller foundations fund some of the most most lefty causes known to man. But that’s ok. It’s only Exxon’s money that’s tainted.

  2. “But those sceptical opinions get very little government support.”

    Implicit in that is the assumption that the government supports certain scientific ‘opinions’ and not others. Why do you think that?

    “The CSIRO’s budget, on the other hand, comes from taking the fruits of others’ labour through the force of the State.”

    True (though it is becoming more commercial), but its funding is not dependent on pushing a certain line of inquiry. And take a look at who decides on what research to do – less than 10 people from government departments out of 61.

    “What about the incentives facing “Department of Climate Change” bureaucrats? If they exaggerate the threat of global warming, won’t their jobs become more secure?”

    You’ve never worked in the public service, have you? Their jobs are always secure. They won’t get fired if global warming reverses itself. They don’t get bonuses if we get extra scared of climate change.

    “It’s anti-intellectual to try and discredit opinions because of the funding source”

    That’s right, absolutely. Yet you are doing that for government-supported research! 😉

    “there’s no excuse for not putting in the hard yards and rebutting the substantive arguments.”

    Yes. And that’s what sceptics are practically universally failing to do, which is why their opinions are marginalised.

  3. Jarrah, think about it for a second. The department of Climate Change was established under Rudd’s electoral mandate at the recent election. If climate change goes away as a political and scientific issue, are you saying the department and all its accompanying jobs will continue to exist? This is additional bureaucracy over and above the environment & science department, in response to a specific issue. Their jobs are linked to climate change, hence the name “Department of Climate Change”. Their mandate, as explained on their website, is to come up with policies to respond to climate change. How can they do that if they are sceptical about the science?

    I don’t know enough to comment about climate science, so where have I tried to discredit it? I accept what the IPCC (a government funded body) says, although I would prefer if their conclusion had been reached through private, voluntary financed methods via a contestable “undistorted” debate process. When the government goes around funding professors at Australian universities with tax dollars, that distorts the debate because they aren’t standing on their own feet. Tax dollars are a crutch, and neither side of politics should have access to it.

  4. Implicit in that is the assumption that the government supports certain scientific ‘opinions’ and not others.

    Government money tends to go to those people who mimic public opinion. As politicians control the purse strings, and polls show the vast majority of Australians are climate change true believers, there’s no electoral benefit in giving money to sceptics, even though they might exist in our universities and think-tanks.

    The best way for me to get a research grant is to lobby an MP to do what is in their electoral interest. If I was sensible, and I were an academic, I would watch the polls very closely and ask for additional funding to research electorally important issues, rather than obscure ones.

  5. “re you saying the department and all its accompanying jobs will continue to exist?”

    The names of their jobs will change, that is all. This is in fact one of the big problems with the way we run our public service – for the most part they effectively have tenure.

    “This is additional bureaucracy”

    How much is actual addition, and how much shifting paper-pushers around?

    “Their mandate, as explained on their website, is to come up with policies to respond to climate change. How can they do that if they are sceptical about the science?”

    Why should they be sceptical about the science? The science is well established. The economics of responding is not, and this is where they will make typical government mistakes, and where we should be objecting to their actions.

    If your point is that funding always distorts, that’s fair enough, as long as you acknowledge the degree of distortion varies. But where does that leave you? Disbelieving everything?

    And I note that we have a pretty decent system of government that isn’t prone to dictating research, as I showed above, which you are vaguely denying but can’t substantiate.

    Science is the most objective, evidence-based paradigm humans have. It isn’t perfect, because we’re still human, but it’s very decentralised and subject to very strong feedback mechanisms (similar in composition to a free market) and thus very good at approximating the ‘truth’ of various subjects, better than anything else we have.

  6. “The best way for me to get a research grant is to lobby an MP to do what is in their electoral interest.”

    No, it isn’t. Have you ever applied for a research grant?

  7. I answered them above. However I didn’t answer this:

    “Have you ever applied for a research grant?”

    In my comment I was referring to lobbying an MP to allocate NEW funding, not applying to an existing grants system. When you apply for an ARC grant, I realise there are procedures that are supposed to ensure impartiality (of course, impartiality is never certain, unless you believe men are angels).

    When you lobby an MP however (e.g. as part of a tertiary union, the conservation foundation) you can make a more plausible case for government funding if you point out that it’s in the MP’s electoral interests. If I pointed out that over 70% of Australians believe climate change is real, and very few are sceptics, then the minister would be more agreeable to setting up a grants system, think-tank, department, or whatever that focuses on specifically coming up with responses to climate change.

    In practically every government program known to mankind, people have tried to rort the system. You should explain why you think the research grants system and electoral pork-barrelling are exceptions, and also why you feel funding decisions should be made by political operators rather than private individuals using their own money.

  8. You’ve never worked in the public service, have you? Their jobs are always secure. They won’t get fired if global warming reverses itself. They don’t get bonuses if we get extra scared of climate change.

    You’re missing the whole point. These were the geeks geeks department heads sat in the darkest area of the office and barely spoke to them. Some of them have taken on celebrity status. More funding means more status. Wake the fuck up occasionally.

    This is the typical leftie stooge job that government funds are untainted. It’s patent nonsense and Sukrit has presented a good reason why it is.

  9. “I answered them above.”

    I’m afraid not. Try again. Hints – anti-intellectualism; degree of distortion; difference between subject distortion and results distortion; evidence for government distortion; innate qualities of science.

    “you can make a more plausible case for government funding if you point out that it’s in the MP’s electoral interests.”

    What you seem to be saying is that MPs shouldn’t respond to the concerns of their electorate. Or should ignore expert advice.

    “You should explain why you think the research grants system and electoral pork-barrelling are exceptions,”

    I don’t know why pork-barrelling is now brought up, it’s a separate issue. And I’m not claiming the grants system is not prone to rorting, I’m saying that science is resistant to government or commercial control. That’s why Lysenkoism, with the full force of one of the most controlling and repressive governments of the modern era behind it, still failed. That’s why the untold billions poured into tobacco-is-fine-for-you research by cigarette companies failed. And that’s why the conclusions of scientists have gravitated to the global-warming-is-bad consensus, despite strong resistance from BOTH the commercial and government spheres – remember, governments have been among the strongest hold-outs on the science.

  10. Jarrah, let me enlighten you about science by telling you a true story that happened 10 years ago.
    You might even remember some of the details.
    I saw a small article in ‘The Australian’, with the headline something like ‘Full moon not responsible’. The next short paragraph explained that statistics disproved the old idea that people played up during the full moon. She put her conclusions at the start.
    The next paragraph gave the numbers for new moon, waxing moon, full moon, and waning. The highest numbers actually were around the time of the full moon!
    Her own numbers contradicted her conclusion, which she had put at the front!
    Whilst the newspapers only gave a summary of her paper, which was given in full to an in-house magazine, the numbers were never corrected.
    I eventually ended up sending this info to ‘Fortean Times’ where it was published as a letter in #130.
    We can hope that’s not typical of science, but I’d sure like to know how we could test them for objectivity!

  11. oh yes, that little anecdote has so much enlightenment in it. You really put science in it’s place with that one.

    Just a thought – were the numbers statistically significant? Maybe that was the basis of the conclusion.

  12. Glad to know you were enlightenified.
    As to the numbers- she thought it was worth publishing, and creating publicity about it. However, I never saw her criteria for significance- that would have been in the main journal, which I never found.
    The lesson, young Jarrah, is to question everything, even scientists. Despite behaving like robots, they are human beings, meaning they have prejudices. Every time a scientist ‘tells’ me something, I now think, “That’s what you say!”

  13. I think, therefore I don’t exist!
    Oops, that can’t be right! I think, therefore I AM! That’s better! And why would I need to think, unless socialists are causing problems?
    The world is too complex for solipsism to be plausible. If I were the only thing, or the center, of the universe, why aren’t I worshipped as G.O.D.?
    Therefore, the existence of an exterior universe is more plausible than any other idea, so I can accept that.

  14. Sukrit, are you claiming that when evaluating complex scientific arguments which you don’t understand that you never look at the incentives people have to say what they do?

    Incentives matter.

    By the way, what do you think of the science funded by the tobacco lobby which disproves the smoking/cancer link?

  15. Yes john, and parts the of government funded education continue to tell us that nuke power is dangerous to our health.

    A number of government paid professors decry free labor markets when there’s incontrovertible evidence the opposite is the case. These trogs are supposedly trained as economists by the way, receiving a stipend from our taxes.

    Is there any corrupt practices? Sure there is on both sides of the fence.

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  17. >> You’ve never worked in the public service, have you?
    >> Their jobs are always secure. They won’t get fired
    >> if global warming reverses itself. They don’t get
    >> bonuses if we get extra scared of climate change.

    You’ve never worked for the CSIRO have you?
    There jobs may be secure, but funding is not.
    The average scientist in the CSIRO would sell their grandmother for the next round of funding. Promotions in the CSIRO are also intimately connected with funding.

    Let me give you a specific example:

    20 years ago, the CSIRO was going research into the slow
    death of the Great Barrier Reef with GRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). It was well known then that the
    reef was being killed by chemicals from the rivers (mostly
    fertilizer runoff from farms).

    As soon as Global Warming became popular, the reason changed. Look at any of the literature now. The reason has changed to:

    *** GLOBAL WARMING*** (and some chemical runoff).

    Same science, same effect, different funding priorities, different conclusion. Who’d have thought?

    There is a strange notion that a ***SCIENTIST*** is (sort of like a modern day Pope) total uncorruptable. Scientists are people, just like any other public servant, trying to maximize their incomes, and further their status and careers.

    Just as a businessmen pursues the most likely course of action to make him money, so the scientist pursues the most likely course of action to further his career. And AGW skepticism would be a career halting decision in the current political climate.

    To suggest that this isn’t so, is simply naive or dishonest.

  18. Just because you take away the profit motive, doesn’t mean people aren’t motivated by money.
    Completing grant applications is a long process and is of extremely high importance to the researchers.

    Grants (and therefore money) are everything to researchers. And research advances careers and is more prestigious (even when it’s useless research) than teaching.
    It’s no wonder uni education is so expensive.

  19. Sorry about being the devil’s advocate here (and I can see this topic has been dead for months….), but isn’t any deliberately ordered commission going to find whatever they have been paid to? To a point we benefit from taxpayer funded research (http://www.csiro.au/news/pt74.html), and I know private industry would probably start filling the void if the government stepped back, but in this day and age of insane copyright laws and abuse in the issuing of patents, we would need to strike a correct balance in law before withdrawing the funding completely

  20. Seems similar to what some people say about immigration – until welfare is properly reformed, we shouldn’t increase immigration.

    Immigration and research geared to the profit motivce already deliver benefits, despite their sub optimal pre-conditions.

    However, you would be right to say that IP law needs to be scrapped or seriously watered down.

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