How to Become a Scientific Hack

William HapperYou have probably heard of the Greenpeace climate denier sting. Zaid Jilani provides a good introduction to it, In Greenpeace Sting, Professors Agree to Produce Research for Fossil Fuel Industry Without Disclosure. It focuses on the story of Princeton physicist William Happer. And it is stunning. But I know what I would wonder if I did not have inside information, “How does this happen?” I don’t go in for the whole business about people being evil or greedy. These are academics. If they were really greedy, they would have gone into another line of work. So why do they do it? I think I can provide the answer to that question.

The group that I worked in for eight years was focused on methane emissions. That wasn’t my work, but I was very much involved in it, and even published one paper that was focused on it. For a long time, people said that methane could not be increasing in the atmosphere because it was created by natural processes. It was actually my group (long before I was in it), that proved that wasn’t the case. While it was true that methane comes from “natural” sources like animals and wetlands, we greatly affect these in terms of breeding cows and growing rice.

“You son of a bitch, I haven’t taken a dime! I haven’t taken a dime, you son of a bitch.” —William Happer

Some of our group’s work showed that methane production from American cattle was not nearly as high as it was for cattle in other countries. Understandably, American cattle ranchers were thrilled about this information. The work was covered prominently in American Cattlemen and similar industry periodicals. Now, I don’t remember if the group got any funding from “organized cattle.” But this is how it works. It isn’t that someone from the cattle industry would go to a scientist and say, “Fake some research for me” — some kind of backroom deal. Rather, it is that these industries will preferentially support people who have research results that are helpful to their interests.

The biggest problem that researchers face is getting funding. I know that my thesis adviser did not go to research conferences to hear what other scientists were doing. Everyone already knew that. He went to them to meet with project managers. Even existing grants had to be constantly tended to like a garden. And it’s sad, because my adviser was, even then, a very big deal. But that’s the nature of academic research. So if the cattle industry wants to give you $60,000 to look at cow flatulence, you take it. That may not seem like a lot of money, but it’s probably almost half your year’s salary (after overhead), where you could be working rather than teaching a bunch of premeds.

None of this means that people need to turn into hacks. But my group was always pretty well connected — both nationally and internationally. (We had a huge joint project with China looking at rice field emmisions.) Maybe it would have been different if it had been overly dependent upon one source that was highly motivated to see one particular result. Now, I’m not saying this is what happened to William Happer with his work for the coal industry. But I feel certain Happer started as a climate change denier and then the money started rolling in, and not the other way around. Over time, I don’t know what went on with him.

I think it’s important to remember this. It isn’t just a question of understanding fellow humans, even when you think they are behaving very badly. It’s important to understand that science isn’t immune to this sort of thing. Of course, that is the beauty of science. Unlike politics, science makes the whole greater than the individuals. Science can and does get things very wrong. But eventually, it finds its way. But most of all, science won’t be hijacked by a small number of cranks and iconoclasts — unless they happen to be right. There is enormous indication that in the field of global warming, the cranks and iconoclasts are dead wrong.

11 thoughts on “How to Become a Scientific Hack

  1. This point you are raising is interesting, pertinent, and not one I’ve really thought about before. People need to be more aware of the fact that being a professor, while it is a pretty comfortable life with many perks, is not a way to get rich and does not tend to attract those in search of great wealth.

    I’ve heard surveys that indicate that people think profs get a mil year or something like that. Absurd. I congratulate you on looking for reasons for climate denial that require that the individual be flawed and not evil.

    • People may get that impression because well known professors have a lot of money. Krugman’s worth a couple of million. Of course, that has little to do with him being a professor. In general, tenured professors would fit neatly in the middle quintiles of income earners. Some make it into the upper-middle class. And a few make it into the upper class. But none of them are rich because of their being professors. This is why a lot of academics go into administration, which has really expanded over the years. It pays more. Most people go into academia because of the lifestyle. But this days, colleges are highly dependent upon adjunct professors who might as well be TAs.

      • When it comes to almost anything, whether it be the efficacy of a particular automobile repair shop, expected behaviour of people of a certain skin colour, or professor’s salaries, most people view their first observations as typical. That goes despite the efforts of professors over the last few generations to educate people on elementary fallacies. As I’ve said before, we’re fucked.

  2. I was on one of the comment threads on Facebook for Salon regarding climate change and some Ted Cruz supporter was blathering on about some variable and I honestly wanted to ask him “do you think scientists don’t know how to science? That they don’t know how to account for variables?”

    Americans outside the scientific fields barely remember what they were taught in high school so it is not a surprise that this person actually said something so silly however it is a surprise this person said something so silly when using his own name. But then why would he care?

    • True. Although the people on the other side are motivated. When Ted Cruz goes around talking about how temperatures haven’t increased in satellite data over the last 17 years, he’s being disingenuous. No one can look at the graph and see anything but a clear upward trend. (The 17 year stat uses a trick: start on an abnormally hot year and end on an abnormally cool year; needless to say, this is not how trends are calculated.) Most people will just accept that scientists know how to science. (Good phrase!) It is just when motivated interests start telling them that there is a conspiracy that everything gets screwed up.

      • Republicans (Conservatives) are primed to believe literally everything is a conspiracy so when someone like Ted Cruz says the coded words like he does, it makes it sound like he is in on the secret and they get that thrill of being in on something the normal people are not. The problem is that unlike with liberals, who if you beat them over the head long enough with science will finally accept something is true, conservatives never do.

        Then again, I keep seeing stupid stuff about GMOs from my liberal friends…

        • I think conspiracy is the tool of losers. There is no other way to argue against global warming other than that it is a big conspiracy of scientists.

          How do you respond so quickly to comments?!

          • I read incredibly fast, think incredibly fast and in general, put paid to the notion that southern Californians are laid back.

            To give you an idea of how fast I am-I can do a default eviction in 17 seconds reading out the number of the file, the full names of the plaintiff, defendant and the documents required in the file such as the originally signed complaint, five day notice, and affidavit of service while checking to see all of the information is correct for the eviction to go forward. And yes I have timed this because of a case that required me checking.

            The more nervous I get the faster I talk and think.

            • Whereas I’m pretty slow at everything I do. I think pretty well but not very fast. I could never have been a lawyer. I was born to be an academic.

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