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Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy

Filed under: — group @ 29 December 2010

Recent attention to NASA’s announcement of ‘arsenic-based life’ has provided a very public window into how science and scientists operate. Debate surrounds the announcement of any controversial scientific finding. In the case of arseno-DNA, the discussion that is playing out on the blogs is very similar to the process that usually plays out in conferences and seminars. This discussion is a core process by which science works.

The arseno-DNA episode has displayed this process in full public view. If anything, this incident has demonstrated the credibility of scientists, and should promote public confidence in the scientific establishment.

The story begins with a long-standing scientific consensus backed by an enormous amount of data: DNA is made with a phosphate backbone. Alternative backbones, such as arsenate, have long been considered unlikely for theoretical reasons.

Nonetheless, despite this consensus, reputable scientists have promoted the study of alternatives challenging the prevailing view. And NASA has willingly funded these studies.

Lesson one: Major funding agencies willingly back studies challenging scientific consensus.

The research team, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues, behind this study collected data and concluded that they had sufficient evidence to demonstrate incorporation of arsenate into bacterial DNA. Although the data were preliminary in nature, Science accepted the manuscript (pdf). With a high profile, potentially groundbreaking paper about to be published, NASA announced a press conference to publicize the findings.

Lesson two: Most everyone would be thrilled to overturn the consensus. Doing so successfully can be a career-making result. Journals such as Science and Nature are more than willing to publish results that overturn scientific consensus, even if data are preliminary – and funding agencies are willing to promote these results.

Within days of the arsenic paper’s publication, strong criticism of the study began to appear on scientific blogs. These blogs attracted the attention of the mainstream scientific press. Soon thereafter, media reported the wide skepticism within the scientific community – with some scientists going so far as to say that the paper should not have been published.

These scientific criticisms opened the door to those wishing to discredit science and the peer-review process, with the contrarian blogs suggesting that this study demonstrates that peer-review is “broken”. A comment on Watts’ blog summarizes their thinking:

It’s amazing how fast the scientific community came out to attack NASA for what they claim is plainly flawed science. Then again, NASA isn’t funding any of the attackers.

In the Climategate mess however, we still have heard very little from an awful lot of so-called scientists who should have been saying a lot more about flawed science but are too afraid to lose their grant money.

This raises an interesting question: just who is critiquing the NASA study? It turns out that many of the critics are also NASA-funded. In fact, many prominent critics of this study are funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute – the very same program that funded the arsenic study.

Carl Zimmer gives us several examples:

  • Norm Pace offers the critique: “Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here”.
  • Shelley Copley suggested, “this paper should not have been published”
  • Roger Summons remarked that a critical experiment was left undone, and backed the critical blog analysis of his NASA-funded former student.
  • Michael Russell agreed with blogosphere critics, and offered his own critique of the study based on cosmic ratios of phosphorus to arsenic. Russell is a member of the Astrobiology Institute, as well as an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Forest Rohwer observed, “the experimental evidence in the paper is pretty weak.”
  • George Cody says he “cannot accept this claim until such an experiment [mass spectrometry] (easily done) is performed.”
  • Steven Benner was an early skeptic. To NASA’s credit, they invited him to present his criticisms at the press conference. He has said “we are not expecting this result to survive”.

Each of these scientists is affiliated with NASA Astrobiology.

Lesson three: Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility – not their funding – is on the line.

Regardless of whether or not ‘arseno-DNA’ survives the test of time and further study, scientists have shown that they will rigorously criticize science perceived as flawed, with no fear of reprisal from funding agencies.

This is the key lesson to take from this incident, and it applies to all scientific disciplines: peer-review continues after publication. Challenges to consensus are seriously entertained – and are accepted when supported by rigorous data. Poorly substantiated studies may inspire further study, but will be scientifically criticized without concern for funding opportunities. Scientists are not “afraid to lose their grant money”.

Finally, there is the issue of how scientists who publish papers that generate credible blog reactions should in turn react. In times past, it was simple to wait for properly crafted letters and comments to be sent in to the journal. This gave fixed targets to deal with and allowed for considered reflection and response; discussions would perhaps be published 6 months to year later. But today, serious criticisms can arrive immediately (as seen above). Nature (perhaps with a little schadenfreude) had an op-ed suggesting that the authors on this (Science) paper should be more strongly engaged in the reaction, while Science had a plea from the lead author for a little patience, since they were clearly a little overwhelmed.

In our view, this needs to be thought about clearly on a case by case basis. Some criticisms (that for instance accuse the authors of deliberate fraud or misconduct based on a dislike of the conclusions) are not worth rapidly responding to, but it is worth trying to head off any misinterpretations that might be emerging. Short form papers (even with copious supplementary information) do not provide full context for the results in themselves, and so putting together a response to frequently asked questions is certainly useful (as Dr. Wolfe-Simon and colleagues have). This doesn’t replace the need for technical commentary to pass via the peer-review process though. In the end, that is what people will refer back to.

203 Responses to “Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy”

  1. 101
    Ike Solem says:

    Here’s another lesson: The Federal science agencies, including NASA, the DOE, the National Labs, etc. are in a state of crisis – public relations efforts now come before accurate scientific analysis, and those public relations efforts are typically skewed towards getting more funding for the agency, or supporting the agendas of the “private partners” (for example, by hyping nonsense about “extraterrestrial bacteria” or false claims about “oil vanishing from the Gulf of Mexico” or even more wildly fraudulent “zero-emission coal power” nonsense.)

    A downhill slide, indeed.

  2. 102
    DeNihilist says:

    Obs @ 74, In my view, a good corrolation to what Jim et al are saying is the O’Donnel et al 2010 paper/rebuttal to Stieg et al 2009 paper. As far as I can tell the O’Donnel group had no problems getting the data that they needed for their paper.

    One of the interesting things I thought from the last round of congressional hearings into CS, was an idea to fund a national repository for such data. Thus making it very easy to access. For me, it would make better sense to persuade say google or some such company, to operate such a repository for free for the government.

  3. 103
    John Mashey says:

    Re: #92 and Lehrer article

    KK had praised Lehrer over at Collide-a-Scape and mentioned a Lehrer article whose focus included Bell Labs (where I used to work) and Arno Penzias (a friend).

    It is frustrating that Lehrer clearly understands a lot and can write well, but then screws up in pursuit of some idea for a story. It always makes me nervous when people are thrilled with a story whose simple factual errors are obvious to anyone who actually knew the real details or even looked at the right Wikipedia page.

    I ended up writing this, and this. I did ask Arno about the story. His view was amused, saying that he was always told no publicity was bad as a long as they spelled your name right. He also confirmed that Lehrer had not talked to him.

  4. 104
    Maya says:

    Rod, it would have been more accurate to compare total operating costs of the oil companies, since I was going with NASA’s total budget. What exactly do the taxes have to do with it…? I think others have made salient points along these lines, better than I can at the moment, and heaven forbid I make another mistake to give you fuel for your condescension.

  5. 105
    DVG says:

    Re Gavin’s response to #97:

    Wow, it would seem Gavin really believes that no scientists are ever afraid to lose their grant money. OK, I suppose I am giving “voice to my prejudice” — I don’t believe scientists, even client scientists, to be such an incredible exception to the rest of the human popultion. I’ll stand on my prejudice in that respect: to believe otherwise, as Gavin appears to, is not credible.

    [Response: Why is it no-one ever asks me what I think I meant before going off half-cocked with some impossible interpretation of their own? Had you done so, I would have been happy to respond. ;) … Ok, I’ll respond anyway: No, I don’t think that scientist never worry about their grants. For people on soft money, and for other scientists with post-docs and grad students to support, trying to maintain security of the funding is both stressful and time-consuming. The difference between the original statement and the imagined implication, is the reason why someone would be worried about there grants. This is usually a function of whether they’ve published enough, whether the data turned out to be interesting or not, etc. I know of no case and I have never heard it even raised among climate scientists that they are afraid that public discussion of climate or legitimate criticism of other scientists/science would cause them to be defunded. I have never been on a panel where someone’s public comments on anything have influenced the funding decision. Whether you think I am ‘credible’ or not, that is the truth. You might imagine that there would be much more dis-consensus if grants were not on the line, but this is simply wishful thinking on your part. – gavin]

  6. 106
    Ray Ladbury says:

    DVG, first, what a scientist “believes” is irrelevant. What matters is what the evidence says, and nobody is going to lose funding for producing good evidence, regardless of what the evidence says. Second, can you name even one climate scientist who has lost his funding for speaking out on issues? Hell, a scientist in any field!

    Finally, science is not an individual but a collective activity. If the evidence really raised serious questions about the consensus, do you really think that 97.5% of climate scientists would just go baah-baah-baahing along. Do you think that every single professional or honorific society of scientists would blithely accept such an insult to science?

    [edit – as above]]

  7. 107

    #81 Edward Greisch and #93 Bill DeMott: I’m not an expert on this stuff but I just finished a contract in a bioinformatics group and the biologists there saw no problem with the DNA backbone containing As instead of P, assuming there is some way of getting it there without poisoning other aspects of the cell’s biochemistry. The P in the backbone doesn’t get there by magic, and could easily have ended up in any number of other chemical reactions (so As, if it ends up in the backbone, would somehow have to be tolerated in other reactions – this has been observed in other organisms).

    The backbone is not involved in transcription. The bases that attach to it are. That’s the limit of my knowledge of the subject (in bioinformatics you tend to look at DNA as strings of bases).

    The big issue as I understand it is not whether the claimed finding is possible but whether it is a real finding rather than experimental error.

    Remember cold fusion? That’s another example of the self-correcting nature of science and in particular the fact that premature dramatic claims can stop a whole field in its tracks. There are still some people investigating the concept, probably fewer than had the original claims not proved flawed so dramatically, and I’m not holding my breath for results. This is if anything a better example to relate to climate science. Had early investigations proved insupportably alarmist, the field would have died the same death as cold fusion. Most scientists I know are very cautious of making dramatic claims, and wary of other scientists who make such claims.

  8. 108
    Brian Dodge says:

    “Authors of all papers published in the JAE are required to submit the data they used, unless they are confidential”

    Clearly any research that is published at Journal of Applied Econometrics using massaged, faked data hidden behind a “confidential” smokescreen is just a bunch of propaganda designed by a “hockey team” of conspirators to establish a one world government and insure the continuing massive flow of research grants into their pockets. Their kind of economic alarmism is only designed to destroy United States business interests and transfer massive amounts of our cash to third world loser countries. It’s just another aspect of the Red Green Econometric nazis creeping soci alism that’s taking away our freedom. There are thousands, if not dozens of Nobel Prize winning physicists, chemists, and journalists turned political advisers who have spoken out against this sort of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Market Meltdown hysteria, standing in for the many brave actual economists who have been intimidated into remaining silent.

  9. 109
    Rod B says:


    I don’t know where your idea of equal time or your expression that I am somehow against government funding of science came from, but it sure wasn’t any of my comments. Before blasting my comments it might help to read them — or maybe not…


    Sales taxes are not included in revenue or taxes paid by a business. I don’t know for sure but I think the gas-at-the-pump tax is included in revenue and expense. You seem to be impressed if not astonished that if a company sells a product for $1.00 they report $1.00 in sales or revenue. Boggles the mind.


    Who in hell told you the fossil fuel industry companies are not in it for the money? And you’re shocked that they are??!!?? HELLO!


    Funny. Though your made up examples are nowhere near — and in fact diametrically opposed to — what my comment implied. But don’t let that stop your routine.

    I do know specifically what the criteria should not be: ‘Do you completely agree with Mr. Ladbury?’

    Walter Pearce says,

    “… it appears that Rod B. is advocating additional wasteful government spending.”

    Do I assume correctly that you are referring to my suggestion that the current funding for AGW believing scientists ought to be increased??

    Do you guys read anything I post? Or just notice a comment from Rod B then cut and paste from your hymnal?

  10. 110
    Edward Greisch says:

    gavin: Telling the truth does not work in all cases. There are people, maybe most people, who will not believe proposition X. Some of the time it is because of their own fixed beliefs. Some of the time it is because they just want to try to get you angry. Much of the time it is because they have never been there before or have never done that before.

    Very few people have degrees in science. Even fewer have ever applied for and received a research grant. Most people don’t know what you do with a research grant. Most people may think you just take it home with you.

    People believe a lot of really strange things. Why is a good question. It is clearly not because of evidence. If it isn’t a branch of psychology, it should be. I just googled “why people believe” and got About 1,440,000 results. Here are the first 4: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience … Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (9780716733874): Michael Shermer: Books. › … › Psychology & Counseling – Cached – Similar

    Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World: Scientific …
    May 19, 2009 … A Skeptic’s take on souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens and other invisible powers that be. – Cached – Similar

    Why do people believe in God? ||
    Jun 20, 2003 … I merely would like to point out some of the reasons I see why people believe in God. Another common thread among theists is some sort of … – Cached – Similar

    book review -why people believe weird things by Michael Shermer …
    Even so, Shermer seems to have overlooked or underemphasized some fundamental reasons why people believe weird things. Ignorance, for example, seems to be … – Cached – Similar

    I can say that I am glad that they have failed to get gavin angry. That is an amazing achievement on gavin’s part. Beyond that, I could refer you to research on the psychology of persuasion. Google Scholar gives me 463,000 results for the single word “persuasion.” Maybe That is what we need to study.

  11. 111
    DeNihilist says:

    Maybe this is a bit of science in action/correcting itself:

    Drs. Dessler and Spencer debating by e-mail (so far up to tonight) the cloud feedback issue. Better then American Idol IMO.

  12. 112
    DeNihilist says:

    OH yeah, and wishing all here a wonderous and intriguing 2011!

  13. 113
    Edward Greisch says:

    108 Brian Dodge: “Red Green Econometric nazis creeping soc ialism” is just insulting.

    “taking away our freedom” is what Climate Science is NOT doing. But Business As Usual [BAU] is taking away our FOOD!

    Climate scientists are trying to protect your freedom, in particular, your freedom from hunger.

  14. 114
    Hank Roberts says:

    Edward, see Poe’s Law; Brian gave an example.

  15. 115
    Sou says:

    #110 @ Edward Greisch – Going by some of the comments here, not only are there people who think you just take a grant home with you, those people don’t seem to have any understanding of what is involved in applications for funding. I’m thinking they are of the view that an individual writes a letter and says they are going to prove xyz and then they get money put into their personal bank account :) (And they think that more people are setting out to prove AGW than are wanting to prove AGW is a furphy.)

    They don’t understand that the funding is to investigate a specified problem or specific unknown and report, NOT to come up with an answer you already know. I mean, if you already know the answer, there is nothing to research is there.

    Scientists probably don’t realise how little some people know about project and program funding (whether for science or any other activity), or how little some people know about scientific research (or any research for that matter).

    For the record, I’ve been associated with research funding (from a management perspective – scientific mainly, but also other research such as politico-social) in Australia and internationally – including ‘competing’ for funding from an institute’s research budget, competitive funding from private and government sources, commissioned projects, interdisciplinary projects, inter-agency projects, and global collaborative projects. I don’t recall any project, no matter how small, that involves only one person (either doing the research or approving the project funding). Nor can I recall any project that did not require approvals up the line within the applying organisation before jumping through the requisite hoops of the funding body or, commonly, funding bodies. I don’t imagine it’s too different in any country.

    I greatly admire the infinite patience of Gavin and his colleagues.

    Happy 2011 to all.

  16. 116
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ah, I see Rod is still dodging the question. I will pose it again, Rod.

    What is your proposed basis for deciding what “skeptics” get funding if it is not their scientific output?

    And if it is their scientific output, then I think you will find they are already getting far more than their fair share. When was the last important paper published by a denislist?

  17. 117
    JCH says:

    Rod B. –

    International oil company note to summary statement of income:

    (1) Sales and other operating revenue includes sales-based taxes of $31,728 million for 2007, $30,381 million for 2006, and $30,742 million for 2005.

    The above taxes are paid regardless of profit and loss. A sales tax on candy is a sales-based tax.

  18. 118
    Didactylos says:

    Rod B: I think your “opponents” were simply having a little fun with your inconsistent and ever-changing positions.

    Still, it’s an interesting question: where *are* all these underfunded sceptics? You seem to be studiously avoiding this question, despite saying “A reasonable but small amount of funding can go to recognized scientists who are clearly out to disprove current AGW” and “I think it ought to be more available, and increased”.

    Who is signing all these imaginary grant proposals?

  19. 119

    Re: #109. Didactylos was right — in part I was just having fun with your silly straw man.

    But also, I’ll play it straight for a moment: Gavin’s #92 on “how to have a discussion” gets to the heart of the hostile reception you often receive here. If you’re going to assert that “skeptical” climatologists are having difficulty getting funding, do everyone the courtesy of providing statistics or at least a few specific examples so that we can discuss your views from a common starting point.

    So — any specifics?

  20. 120
    Rod B says:

    Ray Ladbury, my statement was, “… A reasonable but small amount of funding can go to recognized scientists who are clearly out to disprove current AGW — this in the vein of basic research… ” The criteria of “recognized scientist” is sufficient for my purposes. I would let the funding bodies refine the criteria. The “reasonable but small amount” is a judgement call that needs to be left up to the funding bodies even though it might entail a very difficult coordination of some kind that the bodies would likely be very reluctant to do. I don’t know how this could be enforced. I certainty would not burden the bodies with restrictions anywhere near akin to the NFL rule book. C’est la vie.

  21. 121
    Rod B says:

    JCH, a “sales-based tax” is not sales tax. It’s likely gasoline tax at the pump, maybe certain excise taxes, and some such. Companies are merely collectors of “sales tax” money that belongs at all times to the state or city or whatever. By law (normally) they can never claim it as their money — their revenue.

  22. 122
    Hank Roberts says:

    > scientists who are clearly out to disprove

    Rod, you think funding people to try to reach a predetermined concusion, pretending it’s science, is a good idea in the Rod B. universe — why?
    Because you assume it’s what everyone does, right?

    Look up falsifiability.

  23. 123
    Rod B says:

    Didactylos, Walter Pearce, et al: I’m reluctant to cite specific examples. This has often been done before, here and in other places/blogs (search RC for “lindzen funding” for example), and it always ends up with the same retorts like: he’s not serious, he’s a liar, it’s not logical that his funding would be withheld, he already got some funding, his publications have been refuted, his science is not credible or supported, etc., etc., etc. Pardon the expression, but a whole bunch of denialism.

    You guys and gals think skeptic scientists already have plenty of funding — likely too much. That’s your right. I think funding for skeptics ought to willingly increase (though not as much as “mainstream” funding ought to be increased.) Agree or not.

    [Response: This is very odd. Funding should be based on the quality of the ideas, tractability of the proposal and confidence that the work will be done by the proposers. It has nothing to do with what any of the proposers have said in the Wall Street Journal or the Guardian. Nothing. If someone wants funding to prove that all climate scientists are frauds, then that is unlikely to review well, but if someone wants to research cloud feedbacks, or carbon cycle issues, or dynamical thermostats, or climate sensitivity in the Tertiary, or any other scientific topic then they have to make a credible, researched case that they can make advances on the topic. That is open to everyone. There is no money specifically set aside based on the conclusions of the research! Look up what NSF funds (all the abstracts are online), it doesn’t resemble what you think is happening at all. – gavin]

  24. 124
    dhogaza says:

    Ray Ladbury, my statement was, “… A reasonable but small amount of funding can DOES go to recognized scientists who are clearly out to disprove current AGW — this in the vein of basic research… ”

    Fixed that for ya, Rod B.

  25. 125
    flxible says:

    Yes Rod, who are these “scientists” who wish to disprove AGW? Am I mistaken in believing that scientists set out to investigate particular questions rather than entire bodies of fact? Who are these wunderkind that have a fundable study that could undo an entire theory based on coherent lines of evidence from thousands of scientists?

    Totally cool new live preview function, RC! Thanks!!

  26. 126
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    RodB. I think I can explain this to you in laymans terms. Funding bodies don’t give grants for people to “prove” or “disprove” anything at all. They fund investigations. That’s why the consensus among climate scientists is almost universal: the facts as observed dictate their position, although there will always be debate/research around the uncertainties. On the other hand, back in 1991, Prof. Lindzen was getting $2,500 a day for “consulting” to fossil fuel interests. How does that equate to underfunding? Can you imagine what they’d offer Gavin?

  27. 127
    Dean says:

    My guess is that anybody with credentials who wanted to “disprove AGW” could easily get money from Heartland. They could probably build them a lab and provide PR staff.

  28. 128
    dhogaza says:

    You guys and gals think skeptic scientists already have plenty of funding — likely too much.

    Without solid evidence to the contrary, I’d say they get more or less the right amount of funding, in terms of their slice of a pie that overall is smaller than I’d like to see (i.e. I’d like science funding to be increased, and the rising-tide-raises-all-boats principle suggests that top-ranked scientists (skeptic or not) might see their funding increased, or funding might be pushed further down the food chain (regardless of the inhabitants there being skeptic or not), or both.

    That’s your right. I think funding for skeptics ought to willingly increase (though not as much as “mainstream” funding ought to be increased.) Agree or not.

    Why should skeptics be singled out, rather than be ranked according to the quality of their work?

    Also, please provide solid evidence that, say, Roy Spencer is underfunded by NASA when judged by the quality of his work. Or Lindzen, who among other things is tenured at one of the most prestigious universities in the world (MIT). My guess is that folks like Ian Plimer and Tim Ball and Tim Curtin get little government research funding in their respective countries, but odd believes like “the sun is made of iron” (held by one of the above) tend to lead to folks being marginalized, and rightly so. And they don’t do climate science, and should not be funded as though they do.

    On the other hand, Spencer’s religious belief in creationism has nothing to do with his work in climate science, and should not impact his funding, and AFAIK has *not* impacted his funding by NASA, which is just as it should be.

    Yet, we have Theon being quoted as saying he would’ve fired Jim Hansen if Hansen hadn’t been protected by “political interests” … are you sure it’s skeptical scientists that are under the gun, here? I haven’t heard Inhofe or Issa talk about investigating Spencer or Christy or Lindzen for fraud, after all …

    OK, Rod B, you’ve made some claims, so back them up:

    Who are the deserving scientists who aren’t getting sufficient funding because of their skeptical views regarding climate science. Provide evidence.

  29. 129
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, Again, have you learned absolutely nothing about how science is done. One does not write up a grant proposal in purple crayon and say, “Can I haz grant money to dispruve Glboal Warming?”

    You come up with an interesting research question that bears on the responsibility of the funding agency/department. Usually, it will be competing with proposals from other researchers. Funding is decided by your track record of success, publications, etc. You bring up Lindzen specifically–not a great example, as he hasn’t published anything of import in over a decade. Spencer has been publishing more interesting work, but then he gets gummint money, and that kind of undermines your argument.

    The fact is that the consensus model of Earth’s climate is the consensus choice precisely because it is most useful for understanding the behavior of the climate and for predicting future behavior. Rejecting a significant tenet of that theory (e.g. CO2 sensitivity~3 degrees per doubling or positive feedback) simply because one doesn’t like its political or philosophical implications is bound to handicap one’s ability to understand climate, and therefore to publish. Sorry, Rod, that’s just science.

  30. 130
    Didactylos says:

    Rod B said: “I would let the funding bodies refine the criteria.” … “a judgement call that needs to be left up to the funding bodies” … “I certainty would not burden the bodies with restrictions”

    But despite this, you do want to dictate how they disburse money. Make your mind up!

    And in spite of your grandstanding, the funding bodies routinely make judgements as to what is worth spending money on. They most emphatically do not have a pot of money for “the team” and a pot of money for “the sceptics”, because that would be moronic.

    It’s a meritocracy. Deal with it. If your favourite “sceptic” scientists can’t cope, then find some better “sceptic” scientists, why not?

  31. 131
    Septic Matthew says:

    113m Edward Greisch: 108 Brian Dodge: “Red Green Econometric nazis creeping soc ialism” is just insulting.

    I think that was a spoof. Hank Roberts refers next to Poe’s Law.

  32. 132
    Septic Matthew says:

    Off topic but timely, in view of the reference to Poe’s law, here are other web laws:

  33. 133
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dean says, “My guess is that anybody with credentials who wanted to “disprove AGW” could easily get money from Heartland.”

    Hell, if someone had a frigging viable clue how to go about this, there is not a single research organization on the planet that wouldn’t fund them to their little heart’s desire. Any time you have reasonable chance of overturning a theory that has been established for over 100 years, people are usually quite happy to have a piece of that action–particularly when it has very lucrative implications.

  34. 134
    Mike says:

    This is a bit off topic, but relates to how science does or does not correct itself. Many faculty in developing countries and faculty in the West are pushed to publish in peer reviewed journals. So, a cottage industry has emerged of, let us say, lightly peer reviewed journals. Here is an example:

    It is easy to get nonsense papers on climate published in these. Here is an example:

    These get picked on in denier blogs, like here:

    That’s not too harmful, but some of this will find its way into the mainstream media and Congressional hearings. How can the scientific community let the press and public know which journals are legit and which contain a lot of junk?

  35. 135
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The thing about junk: it leads nowhere. It doesn’t leave you with more understanding than before you read it. It will generate a little excitement on WTFUWT, and then it will lie like a dog turd on a hot New York sidewalk.

  36. 136
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    The Annals of Improbable Research seems to have a bead on the publishing company responsible for the turd(s) just laid by the International Journal of Geosciences. (note to self, spell check suggested pseudosciences)

  37. 137
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Todd Actual,
    Although there are many people without conscience, there are also many others that do have conscience. Your assumption: (which you may not realize), that no scientists have conscience, is unbelievable!

  38. 138
    Edward Greisch says:

    Seconding 137 Lawrence McLean: “people without conscience” = psychopaths. Psychopaths tend to be weeded out of sciences by self-selection. Science is too tedious and not financially rewarding enough for psychopaths. There are quicker ways to get the thrills they must have. People who just don’t care are easily bored. Psychopathy doesn’t lead to working the homework problems alone or doing the lab work carefully.

    Reference: “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul 1980 University of California Press. In this book on the Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791) page 99 says: “Science is not so much a natural as a moral philosophy”. [That means drylabbing [fudging data] will get you fired.] A psychopath would not last long in science.

    I think that the professors would also weed out psychopaths among graduate students.

    Reference: “The sociopath next door : the ruthless versus the rest of us” by Martha Stout. New York : Broadway Books, 2005.
    4% of all people are born sociopaths/sciopaths/psychopaths.

  39. 139
    Taylor B says:

    @Rod B:

    Perhaps all climate scientists, economists, and public policy analysts should be designated “pro-AGW” or “anti-AGW” for purposes of making federal research grant decisions. But why stop there? We could have “pro-Obama” and “anti-Obama” researchers, “pro-Ayn Rand” and “anti-Ayn Rand” researchers, “pro-Intelligent Design” and “anti-Intelligent Design” researchers, too!

    On the other hand, the current system of self-selection seems to be working quite well for distributing Koch Foundation grants at George Mason University.

    @Rattus Norvegicus,

    There was some discussion about the strange collection of journals under the umbrella of Scientific Research Publishing at Deep Climate a few weeks ago. In particular, an article coauthored by David Douglass of “A Climatology Conspiracy?” in Vol. 1, No. 3 of IJoG gained the initial attention there. My guess is that Scientific Research Publishing is either or both a) some kind of front for the Chinese government, hoping to attract manuscripts to get ideas about current research in the U.S.; or b) a vanity publisher for low-quality research that gets rejected elsewhere, i.e., a perfect home the publication of “anti-AGW” research.

  40. 140
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Edward Greisch,
    Thanks Edward, I prefer not to use the term “psychopaths” in a public forum because the term is not fully standardized in meaning. And, when you use that term, people think that their personal understanding of the word is the standard.

    Psychopaths encompass a range of personality types in addition to the purely hedonistic subset. In my experience for example I have had dealings with one Professor that was a full on psychopath.

  41. 141
    John Mashey says:

    re: #139 Taylor B
    Koch money: note that Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies are GMU entities as well, and I have some later (larger) numbers in Appendix A.6.1 of CCC. Also, the Charles Koch Foundation is just one of the 3 (David Koch, Charles Lambe are the others).

    Finally, don’t forget the Scaife funds.

    BUG: on first try, I mistyped captch. Software cleared the entry window, told me Captcha was wrong.

  42. 142
    Gilles says:

    what does “pro-AGW” mean exactly ?
    I can formulate a number of different assertions such as :

    * human activity contributes to increase the average surface temperature of the Earth (ASTOE)

    * human activity is the major contributor to the increase of the ASTOE

    * human activity is so significative that there wouldn’t have been any significative increase of the ASTOE without it.

    * human activity is the major contributor to the increase of the ASTOE, and it will cause a severe damage to the economy above a threshold of X °C (each value of X gives a different assertion), which is likely to be reached if no effort is made.

    * human activity is the major contributor to the increase of the ASTOE, and it will cause a massive extinction of all species including mankind itself above a threshold of Y °C (each value of Y gives a different assertion), which is likely to be reached if no effort is made.

    Obviously all these assertions are different and none of them imply the following ones. So where do you place exactly the border of “pro-AGW” and ” anti-AGW” ?

    (I think that a fair part of those you’re calling “deniers” would admit at least one of these assertions)

    [Response: The prefix ‘pro’ means ‘for’ or ‘supporting’, No-one outside of Fred Singer’s kitchen is ‘for’ AGW, and I assure you everyone in the mainstream scientific community is very clearly anti-AGW. So why introduce terminology that is completely inverse to reality? – gavin]

  43. 143
    Geoff Beacon says:

    We need a Standard and Poor’s for papers – refereed or not.

    Or rather a few of them.

  44. 144
    Geoff Beacon says:

    What about “Science is self-correcting. Lessons from the continental drift theory?”.

    What if some crucial decision for the future of the world had rested on that in 1920? Would the decision have been be deferred for forty years.

    What if some crucial decision for the future of the world had rested on that in 1660? Would the decision have been be deferred for four hundred years.

    I wish you scientists would stop being so smug and realise how far short of the mark many of you are falling. Hansen may be an exception.

  45. 145
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Beacon,
    Science is and needs to remain conservative. When you need to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, you are in the realm of engineering–particularly probabilistic risk assessment. This considers the consequences of a decision about a threat in addition to the probability of that threat being realized. The first step is to bound the adverse consequences–and if you can’t do that (as with climate change), the only responsible choice is risk avoidance. That is, don’t let it happen.

    We know how to do this. The politicians and business community just aren’t letting us.

  46. 146
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Gilles: “I think that a fair part of those you’re calling “deniers” would admit at least one of these assertions.”

    Unfortunately, science doesn’t run on a cafeteria system. You can’t take double helpings of one scientific finding and reject one that is as well supported by evidence. What makes one a denialist is not merely the rejection of a scientific finding, but the refusal to consider the evidence on which the finding is based.

  47. 147
    Geoff Beacon says:


    If you say “science” needs to be conservative, then is it OK to tell scientists they should put more effort into telling decision makers and the media that influences them the dangers? Call that non-science if you wish.

    OK, RealClimate is one of the best at providing a platform for doing this but it’s just not enough. It may be true that “the politicians and business community just aren’t letting us.” To overcome this a more proactive approach is required.

    What do you think of the “Climate Change and ‘Balanced’ Coverage” on the NYT Green Blog?

    ‘Balance’ is something touted by the BBC, who I don’t trust too much on climate change – one “Climate Correspondent” sent me an email containing this “Email from the US….how on earth man made warming fits in with the US now saying their hottest year was 1934 is anyones guess!”

    Do we need some BBC watching?

  48. 148
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff, I gave up on the NYT and the BBC as far as science coverage a decade ago. I think the NYT is afraid of putting off the “Bidness” community by telling the truth, and the BBC still thinks of scientists as those odd “boffins” (Yes, Snow’s Two Cultures still only engage in one-way commerce). The Economist sometimes gets it right, as does NPR, but I rely more and more on the editorials in Science and Nature and the blogosphere to keep me up on what’s going on outside of physics.

    Frankly, I don’t see any prospect for progress until the business interests that have something to lose from climate change (e.g. Insurance) or those with something to gain from averting it (e.g. green energy technologies…) pony up and start opposing fossil fuel interests. In the US, it is irrelevant what voters want–or rather corporations are the only ones who have a vote.

  49. 149
    Septic Matthew says:

    148, Ray Ladbury: Frankly, I don’t see any prospect for progress until the business interests that have something to lose from climate change (e.g. Insurance) or those with something to gain from averting it (e.g. green energy technologies…) pony up and start opposing fossil fuel interests.

    Are you asserting positively that companies with a financial interest in averting or preventing global warming have not been ponying up? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you seem to be asserting that Cargill, ADM, GE, Siemens, former V.P. Al Gore, Sharp and others all have been silent these last 5 – 10 years.

  50. 150
    Didactylos says:

    The BBC don’t advertise some sort of balance. They are in rather a special position, since they are not only expected to be unbiased, they are legally required to be non-partisan.

    This makes them susceptible to false balance, and token balance.

    Generally, though, they don’t do too badly. At least one of their editors has a clue about science and denialism. Some other editors, sadly, are particularly prone to throwing in both “sides”, and jumping on the nearest bandwagon. This is especially true of their anonymous articles.

    The best that can be said of their climate coverage is that it’s no worse than the rest of their science coverage.