Money vs. Science

Everyone who has been paying attention knows that there is a strong anti-science movement in this country — driven partly by populist anti-intellectualism, but increasingly by corporate interests that just don’t like what science has to say. It’s an old problem — tobacco companies succeeded for years in sowing doubt about the health effects of smoking — but it’s become significantly worse in recent years.

Nina Fedoroff is the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is holding its annual meeting right now. She is not holding back about the problem, but tackling it directly. From a weekend article in the Guardian (h/t Dan Gillmor):

“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”

Tim F. at Balloon Juice points to this flowchart at Climate Progress that illustrates how the money and message gets sent around to sow doubt about scientific findings. (Okay, it’s not really a flow chart, but you get the point.) I was also struck by a link to an older article by Ian Sample, which put the problem in its starkest terms: the American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists and economists who were willing to write op-eds or essays critiquing the IPCC climate report — before it was published. Money goes a long way.

Relatedly, here’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg trying to push the Supreme Court away from its ruling in Citizens United, the notorious case that led to the creation of SuperPACs by deciding that corporations were persons, and not letting them advertise anonymously would be a grievous violation of their free-speech rights. We’ll see how well she does. Scientists, meanwhile, need to keep speaking out about the integrity of our field. When researchers are attacked and their jobs threatened by politicians who disagree with their results, it’s time to stand up for what science really means.

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82 Responses to Money vs. Science

  1. Lab Lemming says:

    I think the difference between populist anti-intellectualism and corporate corruptions is fairly straightforward:

    Look at the difference in scope and influence between the organized attempts to discredit climate science vs those to discredit old-earth geology or old-universe cosmology.

  2. shane says:

    nah. we ain’t anti-science. we just don’t want to replace the old dogma with a new one.

  3. Shecky R says:

    When I was in college in the 70s, “Question Authority” was a common bumper sticker (and it’s still around), and it seemed appropriately inspired by the politics of the day… but in a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ that challenging, skeptical (and increasingly widespread) attitude seems, in recent decades, to have morphed into science denialism!

  4. AJKamper says:

    Legal geek: The Citizens United decision has nothing to do with corporations being legal persons. Zero. Zilch. It has to do with the people being able to join together to exercise their individual free speech rights.

    I agree with the rest of the post, but I’ve sworn to get rid of that inaccurate piece of rhetoric whenever I find it.

  5. Savmerrabard says:

    Quote: “a strong anti-science movement in this country”…no there isn’t – oh! wait a moment – of course! Silly me! The centre of the universe, that northern country, um…oh yes, the USofA. Who’d’ve thought that a global structure such as the internet wouldn’t automatically default to this and insert – for the sake of those of us unfortunate enough not to live in such a paradise – “USofA” for every time we read “this country”.
    The problems here seem to be of your own making: as a capitalist nation, the almighty dollar rules, the bottom line is of supreme importance, and is protected – seemingly – at all times, regardless of all else. Witness: the success of the Tobacco Companies for one.
    You’ve made your collective bed, so you’ll have to lie in it! Sadly, for the rest of us, the influence and power you have is monstrous and destructive and parasitical. We, also, have to live with it!
    Greetings from Australia.

  6. ursusmaritimus says:

    AJ: There is no way that an ‘original meaning’ interpretation of the First Amendment would include unlimited spending by corporate interests, especially when the integrity of elections is at stake. Speech and spending are not synonymous. A decision could have been rendered on much narrower grounds.

  7. Lab Lemming says:

    Re: #5. Science denialism in Australia is almost as bad as in the US. Just look at the Federal opposition. Or the Australian.

    Also, it is obvious from Sean’s background that he is an American wrining from a US location.

  8. GM says:

    5. Savmerrabard Says:
    February 20th, 2012 at 6:37 pm
    Quote: “a strong anti-science movement in this country”…no there isn’t – oh! wait a moment – of course! Silly me! The centre of the universe, that northern country, um…oh yes, the USofA. Who’d’ve thought that a global structure such as the internet wouldn’t automatically default to this and insert – for the sake of those of us unfortunate enough not to live in such a paradise – “USofA” for every time we read “this country”.
    The problems here seem to be of your own making: as a capitalist nation, the almighty dollar rules, the bottom line is of supreme importance, and is protected – seemingly – at all times, regardless of all else. Witness: the success of the Tobacco Companies for one.
    You’ve made your collective bed, so you’ll have to lie in it! Sadly, for the rest of us, the influence and power you have is monstrous and destructive and parasitical. We, also, have to live with it!
    Greetings from Australia.

    Anti-science attitudes (and anti-intellectualism in general) are indeed most visible in the US but that does not at all mean that they do not exist or they don’t dominate everywhere else. It is useful to actually review the situation worldwide rather than just talk in general:

    1. We know the US is pretty bad, and as it was mentioned above, Australia isn’t in a great shape either. But the US is actually far from the worst, because you also have:

    2. The Muslim world which I need not go into details about how “respected” science is there

    3. The non-Muslim part of Africa where all sorts of crazy versions of Christianity mixed with tribal beliefs dominate people’s thinking to an extent not seen in other place since the Middle Ages

    4. Latin America plus the Philippines where the Catholic Church has a great influence on society. As a little example, in Nicaragua abortion is completely illegal even in cases in which it’s needed to save the mother’s life

    Then you have the supposed fortresses of rationalism where, however, closer look
    reveals things to not be so rosy.

    5. The former communist countries indeed put a lot of emphasis on science and math education. The problem is that it was always technical and teaching children how to think was happening only in math, i.e. scientific reasoning was never really taught. There is a reason why for all the intellectual brilliance that exists there there are also so many wacky crackpot scientists. But the more serious problem was that people developed, and rightfully so, a deep distrust of what the government was telling them (the rule of thumb was that the truth us usually the opposite of what the official sources say) and because science was very much part of the establishment, that mistrust extended towards it too. And it hasn’t subsided at all two decades later.

    6. In Western Europe you have a similar distrust towards science developed due to its association with industry and pollution, dangerous chemical in consumer products, etc. On top of it you have a much lower level of scientific literacy and respect towards science than commonly assumed. If the US did not exist, we would, and should, be fretting about the abysmal level of scientific literacy in Europe – things are not at all good there, however, because they are so bad in the US, and the US is so important for world affairs, that this is usually glossed over.

    It is isolated pockets of rationality here and there in the world and the US is by no means the only place in which this is a problem, it is not even the worst.

  9. Savmerrabard says:

    Re#7. Absolutely! What a delicious term: science denialism! I’m also prepared to look at the Australian Federal government and its allies, and even down to State and Local government. But why stop there: science denialism is rampant in the public conscience; just look, for example, at all the hack cosmetics/diets which are pseudo-science at its best, which (usually) deny science.

    However…

    “Or the Australian”: pardon? ‘The Australian’ what? The AustralianNewspaper?

    Not too sure how I would know Sean’s background by 18 words into his piece. Referencing ‘American’ (I assume USofA) and UK authorities doesn’t exactly identify his geographic location.

    ‘Supreme Court’? We have one in Victoria! Not a unique identifier!

    And Sean might be an ‘American’ (as anyone from Canada, Mexico, Argentina can so describe themselves) but it is unclear how that demonstrates that he is “wrining” from a US(ofA) location.

    “wrining”?

    At least you were able to comment with great accuracy on the Australian connection (given that I accurately identified the origin of my previous greeting).

  10. Warrick says:

    The problem with the anti-science movement is that it is difficult to convince people away from their convictions. Consider the backfire effect (link at You Are Not So Smart). If we, as scientists, wade in saying things that boil down to “you’re wrong, stop being silly”, we aren’t going to get anywhere in bucking the anti-science trend.

    Fortunately, we have scientific studies of human behaviour on our side, so at least we know what innate bias-systems we’re fighting against!

  11. Pieter says:

    I also recommend the book “Merchants of Doubt” by Conway and Oreskes. It is a detailed and well-documented account of how the same people who were hired to throw doubt on the link between tobacco and lung cancer are behind the climate change misinformation campaign.

  12. AI says:

    What about money in climate science? Don’t you think it can corrupt if you are getting significantly more for finding one way then another? With all the group think and suppression of dissent characterizing AGW movement it’s a good thing someone is funding opposing views.

    But the main problem is that climate science is 90% politics and 10% science. The fact that people are attacking funding sources to discredit the views they oppose is the best proof of that. Scientific arguments are decided on their merit. If that cannot be done then the issue is scientifically undecided.

  13. Lab Lemming says:

    Re #12
    Most climate scientists are geologists (of one type or another), and are taking a $50,000 to $150,000 dollar per year pay cut by working in government or academia instead of mining and exploration.

    I have several friends who have moved between industry and academia in both directions, so for a properly trained earth scientist, the learning curve between the types of work is modest.

    For industry rates, go to http://www.seek.com.au and type in “geologist”

  14. anoNY says:

    “the notorious case that led to the creation of SuperPACs by deciding that corporations were persons,”

    I thought scientists knew how to read. The Court in Citizens United did not rule that “corporations were people.” The Court said that individual people do not give up their constitutional rights when they organize themselves into corporations.

  15. Not quite as kid-friendly as the bad astronomer*sigh*

  16. Tom Clark says:

    I got a look at an advance copy of Chris Mooney’s forthcoming “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality” (note the subtitle!). Very much on target about why conservatives can’t and won’t accept certain fact-based realities and what liberals can do about it: appeal to conservative emotions, not reason. http://www.amazon.com/Republican-Brain-Science-Science-Reality/dp/1118094514

    There’s also a fairly straightforward top-down approach to those who deny science, should we be able to engage them in a conversation about epistemology (good luck with that!): Have you got a better idea about how to decide what’s true? Does science have a rival? If so, please show and tell, http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm#rivals Scientists shouldn’t be so shy about publicizing the virtues of empiricism, but since they’re afraid of offending their congressional funders, they generally keep quiet. Nice that Fedoroff is speaking her mind…

  17. AJKamper says:

    @6: I’m not remotely as confident of that as you are. I think it’s quite possible that one’s right to speak might also include one’s right to spend money to have one’s speech published… after all, isn’t that what freedom of the press really is?

    I think the Citizens United decision is right on principle, but incredibly naive in the ramifications for public elections; the actual result is incompatible with a just democracy.

    It’s just that progressives (of which I am one in many ways) have used that “corporations are persons” canard to make the decision seem worse than it really is, and have basically lied about the decision and the Court as a result. So when I see people that I otherwise agree with make that mistake, I raise my little red flag to keep us honest.

  18. GM says:

    16. Tom Clark Says:
    February 21st, 2012 at 5:05 am
    I got a look at an advance copy of Chris Mooney’s forthcoming “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality” (note the subtitle!). Very much on target about why conservatives can’t and won’t accept certain fact-based realities and what liberals can do about it: appeal to conservative emotions, not reason. http://www.amazon.com/Republican-Brain-Science-Science-Reality/dp/1118094514

    The problem with Mooney is that he doesn’t realize that by calling for scientists to appeal to emotion and not to reason, he basically calls them to lose the battle voluntarily. After all, the goal is to have people think rationally because there are some really big and desperately needed changes to be made that people can agree on only if they think rationally about the issues and no amount of “framing” will get them to accept them otherwise. So if you just try to gain small victories here and there by “appealing to reason”, you’re never going to get where we need to be. But Mooney doesn’t understand that.

  19. Joel Rice says:

    So … where is the flowchart for how Al Gore’s money gets around promoting his brand of nonsense – which is supposed to be required brainwashing in schools. I wonder how much money that cost. It was all politicized since the beginning. Even in Science Mag.

  20. shane says:

    again, not anti-science. just no more accepting of the fact that science represents absolute truth than we are of religion. science is a process. you all really need to reexamine what science is instead of using it as your latest propaganda tool of power. science that can not be proved wrong and improved on is not science. science is the art of not knowing. science is not a conclusion. it is not an answer. we are not anti-science. we are anti-d0gma, the dogma that tells us scientific conclusions are one thing one day and one thing another day. stop saying science when you mean power, money, rhetoric or politics.

  21. Al says:

    Ah climate change. We can always count on you to bring the nuts out of the woodwork.

  22. Frankie says:

    It seems, at least to me, that most of us scientists are very bad at explaining the nuance of science to the general public. It seems, from my impression anyway, that these so-called controversial debates (tobacco, evolution, climate science) often reduces to the opposition selecting out one or few counter-intuitive and ignoring the overall body of evidence. (Reminds me of the movie “Thank You for Smoking.”) This also speaks to the misunderstanding of the scientific process in the larger public. The scientific process is more like building houses and bridges than “A Beautiful Mind.” There’s a large army of postdocs and grad students banging their heads, checking and re-checking many different pieces of evidence that ultimately converge to an overall thematic conclusion. The term “scientific consensus” much closer to “the body of analyzed evidence” than “scientific opinion.”

  23. Quote: “a strong anti-science movement in this country”…no there isn’t – oh! wait a moment – of course! Silly me! The centre of the universe, that northern country, um…oh yes, the USofA. Who’d’ve thought that a global structure such as the internet wouldn’t automatically default to this and insert – for the sake of those of us unfortunate enough not to live in such a paradise – “USofA” for every time we read “this country”.”

    I think it’s fair to assume that the author means the country in which he lives when he says “this”.

  24. 6. In Western Europe you have a similar distrust towards science developed due to its association with industry and pollution, dangerous chemical in consumer products, etc. On top of it you have a much lower level of scientific literacy and respect towards science than commonly assumed. If the US did not exist, we would, and should, be fretting about the abysmal level of scientific literacy in Europe – things are not at all good there, however, because they are so bad in the US, and the US is so important for world affairs, that this is usually glossed over.

    First, I agree with your points 1 through 5. However, if some Bushman has a view of reality which is not backed up by science, the consequences for the rest of the world are not as severe as when US politicians have a view of reality which is not backed up by science.

    Yes, in Europe there is (justified) distrust of some technological (I think that is more appropriate than scientific, here) aspects due to pollution etc and while this might turn into anti-science in general in some people, these people are definitely a minority (though a vocal one). Second, with regard to genetically modified food etc in the States some people take it too far the other way: just because there is no moral danger involved, it is assumed to be safe in all aspects. Saying that evolution produces genetically modified organisms as a response is as silly as saying that we don’t need to worry about AGW because other things influence the temperature of the Earth as well.

    Attitudes to science and technology also vary quite a bit within Europe. Scandinavia and Finland in general tend to adapt quickly to new technology. I think that scientific literacy is more respected in France than in Germany, where the emphasis in education is somewhat different. (In all countries, of course, the fraction of the population actually working in science is quite small.) Yes, scientific literacy might be less in Europe than some people assume, but the scientifically illiterate here tend to avoid science entirely, whereas in the US they tend to claim that they are scientifically literate and real scientists are not: Evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, and those devilutionists are so brainwashed that they don’t even realize it.

  25. KWK says:

    Re:“Scientists, meanwhile, need to keep speaking out about the integrity of our field. When researchers are attacked and their jobs threatened by politicians who disagree with their results, it’s time to stand up for what science really means.”

    For example, you can easily keep informed on (and learn what you can do about) some current situations faced by scientists throughout the world by joining the email listserv of the American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists. Or, if you are an APS member, serve on the Committee yourself!