You 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.
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.