Voices from the climate community on “seepage”

Our recent article “Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community” in Global Environmental Change, authored by me and Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell, and Michael Smithson, has attracted a bit of attention over the last few days. I sample a few comments here and reply to a lengthy post by Richard BettsHead of the Climate Impacts strategic area at the UK Met Office, that critiqued our paper.

The Vice Chair of the IPCC Jean Pascal van Ypersele tweeted about our paper and encouraged climate scientists to read it:


Some scientists clearly did, and sent us some comments for attribution:

Professor Andrew Dessler, of Texas A&M, stated:

“These results strike a chord with me.  As someone working in the area of climate change, I have been attacked for my public statements about the science of climate change.  I can’t help but think that this causes me to water down what I say.”

Professor Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate research (PIK) provided the following comment:

“The paper on “seepage” by Lewandowsky et al provides sobering and convincing evidence for how climate change denial affects the scientific community – this should make every climate scientist pause and think. The authors highlight an important problem: how climate scientists have been influenced in their work by the public debate, to the extent of even inadvertently adopting a rhetorical framing created by contrarian voices from outside science.  They show this for the example of the supposed (but not real) “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming, for which some of us have been using the label “faux pause” for years (check out #fauxpause on twitter).
They highlight how the IPCC adopted the term ‘hiatus’ despite strong concerns by the German government about the misleading nature of this term. And they analyse the double standards used when discussing the so-called ‘pause’ as compared to an equally long period of rapid warming, which in fact deviated more from the long-term trend than the recent phase of slower warming. In fact, in 2007 in Science we noted the rapid warming during 1990-2006, naming as the first reason “intrinsic variability within the climate system” – which is also the prime reason for the slower warming trend when looking at the period starting in the hot outlier year 1998.

As Lewandowsky et al write: “The use of a single ‘cherry-picked’ outlying year to establish the presence of a ‘pause’ … does not conform to conventional statistical practice and is testament to the degree to which the climate mainstream has embraced the ‘pause’ meme for extra-scientific reasons.” I hope that the article by Lewandowsky et al will be widely read and discussed and that it will lead to greater self-awareness in the climate science community in future!”

A post by Katherine Bagley at Inside Climate News reports the impressions of Kevin Trenberth, an IPCC Lead author as follows:

Climate denial campaigns “can absolutely influence what you do and what you write about,” said Trenberth, who was not involved in the study. “Part of the reason they do it is to distract you and get you to waste your time.” Instead of “publishing the good science needed to advance our understanding of climate change,” scientists are left defending their work and debunking false claims.

Those three voices support our analysis that climate denial can affect scientists and how they conduct and communicate their science. At least tacitly, they also recognize that the relevance in our work is not only in pointing out the existence of a phenomenon, but that in so doing we also provide the tools to address it: We know from related work (on which I may blog later) that knowing about a phenomenon such as seepage is half the battle to avoid its occurrence.

Knowledge is generally empowering, and seepage is no exception. Exercising some caution and reflection goes a long way to ensure that one’s scientific agenda is not inadvertently shaped by false agendas.


A Critical Voice: Richard Betts on “seepage”


However, not unexpectedly, there are also some critical voices. We expected that our paper would evoke some spirited disagreement, and so Richard Betts’ critique of our paper is most welcome as it provides us with an opportunity to restate our argument and address some of the objections raised by Professor Betts. To facilitate discussion, I begin by noting that there is much in Betts’s post that we can agree with—for example, the increased role of social media, the increased focus by governments on the need for adaptation and hence decadal predictions. No disagreement there. But then again, none of those points pertain to the issue of seepage.

As far as the core of his objection to the seepage notion is concerned, Betts focuses on our arguments surrounding the alleged “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. We consider this phase to be a fairly unremarkable fluctuation about the average warming rate, a position we support by some informative statistics.

Our argument about seepage and the “pause” rests on two principal points, namely (a) that this “pause” was given undue attention by the scientific community in comparison to previous episodes of above-average global warming, and (b) that this attention sometimes involved an unexplained—and unjustified—departure from long-standing scientific practice.

I limit myself here to Betts’s comments pertaining to our case study, involving the “pause” in global warming. Unfortunately it appears that Betts’s critique was largely unencumbered by acquaintance with what we actually wrote. I therefore provide specific pointers to our paper that correct his claims.

1. Claim: Lewandowsky et al. “… do not specifically identify the “previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid”, but it’s fair to assume that they are referring to the 1990s, probably the period 1992-1998. This was the most recent occasion when global mean temperatures rose rapidly for a few years…”

  • Neither assertion is correct. Figure 2 in our paper (bottom panel) identifies the period of particularly rapid warming that we were talking about, which spans 1992 to 2007. It follows that 1992-1998 was not the most recent period of rapid global warming, but that very rapid warming was observed in the 15-year period up to 2007.       


2. Claim: “It is perplexing that Lewandowsky et al do not seem to be aware of this [earlier] research on short-term climate variability….. Possibly Lewandowsky et al are wondering why there was not a raft of papers specifically focussing on the observed temperature record between 1992 and 1998. The reason is simple  this was not a particularly surprising event. When global temperatures rose rapidly few a few years after 1992, this was very easily explained by the tailing-off of the short-term cooling influence of the Mount Pinatubo eruption.”

  • The focus on a 7-year time period that we never mention in the paper is perplexing indeed. The 15-year periods we cover are not all readily explained by Mt Pinatubo or the 1998 El Niño.

3. Claim: “Lewandowsky et al regard research into natural variability as “entertaining the possibility that a short period of a reduced rate of warming presents a challenge to the fundamentals of greenhouse warming.” Is there any evidence at all of climate scientists actually thinking this? I don’t think so.”

  • Yes, there is evidence that scientists frame it as a fundamental challenge (even if they don’t actually believe that). Consider the following verbatim statements from recent articles on the “pause:”

“Despite ongoing increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, the Earth’s global average surface air temperature has remained more or less steady since 2001.”

“Despite a sustained production of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, the Earth’s mean near-surface temperature paused its rise during the 2000–2010 period.”

“Given the widely noted increase in the warming effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, it has been unclear why global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008.”


“Despite the continued increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the annual-mean global temperature has not risen in the twenty-first century, challenging the prevailing view that anthropogenic forcing causes climate warming.”

And the list goes on….

What those citations show is that a short-term fluctuation, sometimes over as short a period as a decade, was considered by those scientists to constitute a “problem” for climate science that had to be resolved.

To restate what James Risbey already noted in a comment on Betts’s post:

“In the past, the notion that CO2 and GMST must increase in lockstep was considered laughable and indicative of one’s ignorance of climate.  It was well known that CO2 is increasing steadily, but GMST does not because of decadal and longer scale variability.  Yet in recent years, some prominent climate research papers on the so called ‘hiatus’ have started out by pointing to an apparent conundrum between steadily increasing CO2 and fluctuating GMST.  i.e. that which was not a conundrum now is.  That change in framing is indicative of ‘seepage’. That’s not a particularly controversial claim or complicated argument, but it is a different argument from the one addressed by Richard on trends in climate variability research.”

Of course, all papers on the “pause”, including those cited above, come to the conclusion that anthropogenic global warming continues and will continue to pose a risk in the future. In addition, those papers have contributed to our knowledge of short-term climatic variability. Contrary to another claim made by Betts, we are conversant with that research and have recently contributed to it by showing that climate models do accommodate recent temperature trends when the phasing of natural internal variability is taken into account—as it must be in comparing a projection to a single outcome. However, notwithstanding the “pause” papers’ conclusions and the fact that global warming continues unabated, the framing of a short-term fluctuation as a problem for science departs from long-standing stastistical and climatological knowledge.


The Risks of Risk Communication

At this point, one might wonder why all this matters? Given that we do not disagree with the results of the research on the faux “pause”—how could we, having contributed to it—and given that the disagreement between Betts and us seems to boil down primarily to semantics and the imputation of scientists’ motivations, does it matter whether or not there is “seepage” into the scientific community?

We believe it matters a great deal.

To be perfectly clear: Talk of a “hiatus” or a “pause” in global warming has been a contrarian talking point for about a decade, and there is clear evidence that this framing was picked up by the media (see Max Boykoff’s article in Nature Climate Change last year) and has now been picked up by some climate scientists.

This matters because political momentum for mitigative action is difficult to sustain or mount while the public believes that there is a “pause” in global warming. Talk of a “pause”, when there is none, therefore has political consequences and, by implication, also carries ethical risks.

Lest one think that this risk is remote, the legal aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila, which embroiled scientists in charges of manslaughter for their alleged failure to warn the community, vividly illustrates the legal and moral hazards that are incurred when the public is not informed (or misinformed) of the full envelope of identifiable risks arising from scientific findings.

Seepage: The effect of climate denial on the scientific community

The article “Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community” just appeared in Global Environmental Change. The article is authored by me and Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell, and Michael Smithson.

It is open access and can be found here.

Seepage: The Executive Summary

We initiate our argument with the known fact that vested interests and political agents have long opposed political or regulatory action in response to climate change by appealing to scientific uncertainty. We know from earlier work that uncertainty is no cause for inaction—on the contrary, greater scientific uncertainty should make us worry more, not less, about the potential consequences of climate change. Alas, those actual scientific implications are often inverted in public discourse where uncertainty often invites wishful thinking and hence inaction. In this new article, we examine the effect of contrarian talking points that arise out of uncertainty on the scientific community itself. We show that although scientists are trained in dealing with uncertainty, there are several psychological and cognitive reasons why scientists may nevertheless be susceptible to uncertainty-based argumentation, even when scientists recognize those arguments as false and are actively rebutting them.

Climate scientists have done an admirable job pursuing their science under great political pressure, and they have tirelessly rebutted pseudoscientific arguments against their work. Nonetheless, being human, scientists’ operate with the same cognitive apparatus and limitations as every other person. In consequence, it is important to be aware of the factors that may cause scientists to take positions that they would be less likely to take in the absence of outspoken public opposition. We refer to this phenomenon as seepage.

We highlight three well-known psychological mechanisms that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse and thinking: ‘stereotype threat’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and the ‘third-person effect’.

Stereotype threat refers to the emotional and behavioural responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong.  Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. There are now several studies that highlight this tendency by scientists to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as ‘alarmist.’ 

Pluralistic ignorance describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized.  Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

Finally, research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the third-person effect.  However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think.  This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.

While those potential drivers of seepage are well-understood outside the context of climate science, it is a different matter to show that they have actually affected the conduct of science. In our article, we illustrate the consequences of seepage from public debate into the scientific process with a case study involving the interpretation of temperature trends from the last 15 years, the so-called ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. This is a nuanced issue that can be addressed in multiple different ways. In this article, we focus primarily on the asymmetry of the scientific response to the so-called ‘pause’—which is not a pause but a moderate slow-down in warming that does not qualitatively differ from previous fluctuations in decadal warming rate. Crucially, on previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid, the scientific community did not give short-term climate variability the attention it has recently received, when decadal warming was slower. During earlier rapid warming there was no additional research effort directed at explaining ‘catastrophic’ warming. By contrast, the recent modest decrease in the rate of warming has elicited numerous articles and special issues of leading journals and it has been (mis-)labeled as a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’.  We suggest that this asymmetry in response to fluctuations in the decadal warming trend likely reflects the ‘seepage’ of contrarian memes into scientific work.

Finally, we offer ways in which the scientific community can detect and avoid such inadvertent seepage.

Seepage: Some FAQs

There are a few questions one might reasonably ask about our article, and we start by addressing some of those below. We may follow up with additional posts as the discussion evolves:

1. What is seepage?

  • The inadvertent intrusion of memes that arose outside the scientific community into scientific discourse and thinking. There are two criteria for the detection of seepage: First, the scientific community has adopted assumptions or language that originated outside the scientific community or in a small set of dissenting scientific voices. Second, these assumptions depart from earlier norms and scientific conventions.
  • Although scientific conventions may occasionally change as theorizing evolves, in the case of seepage explicit conceptual rationale or empirical support for a departure from previous norms is lacking or weak.

2. How does seepage work?

  • There are a number of known psychological and cognitive variables that provide the opportunity for seepage. We focus on three: Stereotype threat, pluralistic ignorance, and the third-person effect.

3. What effects does seepage have?

  • At a minimum, seepage arises when scientists adapt linguistic frames that were created outside the scientific community for political purposes. We use the case of the so-called “pause” in global warming, which should not be called a pause or hiatus given that global warming continues unabated. Ironically, seepage can arise even when scientists are rebutting a contrarian meme but are nonetheless framing the problem in a way that is inappropriate or misleading.
  • At worst, seepage may alter the way in which scientists interpret data. This arises when they depart from long-standing and long-accepted practice in response to contrarian memes (for example, by entertaining the possibility that a short period of a reduced rate of warming presents a challenge to the fundamentals of greenhouse warming.)

4. Is the research on the “pause” wrong?

  • No. On the contrary, irrespective of the framing chosen by their authors, all articles on the pause have reinforced the reality of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions, and this body of work has yielded more knowledge of the processes underlying decadal variation. None of this work has come to the conclusion that the physical processes underlying global warming are somehow in abeyance or that prevailing scientific conceptions of them are incorrect.
  • However, by accepting the framing of a recent fluctuation as a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’, research on the pause has, ironically and  unwittingly,  entrenched the notion of a ‘pause’ (with all the connotations of that term) in the literature as well as in the public’s mind. Some of that research may therefore have inadvertently misdirected public attention.

5. Who is responsible for seepage?

  • There is abundant evidence that climate science is subject to intense scrutiny and hostility from vested interests. Much is known about how those attacks on climate science take place and the funding that is devoted to those attempts to undermine science.
  • There is also evidence that media coverage surrounding climate change is often misleading and that some media organs disseminate falsehoods routinely, thereby denying the public the right to be accurately informed about risks from climate change.
  • Climate scientists have devoted much time and energy to rebutting those contrarian arguments (often called “zombie” arguments because of the number of times they have already been rebutted).
  • For the reasons outlined in our paper, climate scientists may nonetheless not be immune to (unwittingly) adapting to contrarian framing, for example by talking about a “pause” when there is none.

6. How do we eliminate seepage?

  • Knowing about the potential for seepage is half the battle. For example, there is evidence that merely being aware of the operation of stereotype threat is sufficient to limit its adverse consequences. Our paper lists a few further factors that may be helpful.
  • In addition, scientists need to remember that the purpose of contrarian memes is to keep the controversy alive. While it is a scientist’s job to answer genuine scientific questions, getting pulled into contrarian linguistic frames helps maintain the fiction that the science is still riven with fundamental equivocations and therefore too uncertain to form a reliable basis for public policy. Awareness of this fact is crucial for scientists to resist seepage.

The robust relationship between conspiracist cognition and rejection of (climate) science

There are two articles in Psychological Science that appeared online today: The first article by Ruth Dixon and Jonathan Jones presents an alternative analysis of two papers that I published with colleagues in 2013 on the role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science. The second article is a rejoinder to Dixon and Jones and is authored by me together with Gilles Gignac and Klaus Oberauer.

We are very pleased that, more than two years after the first article in Psychological Science became available, a critical commentary on our work was submitted for peer review. This is the type of scientific debate that moves the field forward, unlike some of the other responses to our work, detailed here, that have only wasted our time and that of other university staff without anything to show for it.

So how did the field move forward by the two sets of articles that appeared today? Opinions will likely be divided on this question, but in our view the alternative analyses of our data by Dixon and Jones underscored the robustness of our original results.

The case that we make in our rejoinder is somewhat nuanced, but in a nutshell Dixon and Jones showed that the correlation between endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of climate science (they did not consider the other scientific propositions that were of interest in our research) will become statistically non-significant under certain circumstances, if the data analyst makes particular choices. We do not question their result per se (we get the same results if we apply their technique), but we argue that the choices that are necessary for this correlation to “disappear” are inadvisable.

  • Dixon and Jones (D&J from here on) dismiss one of our studies because the sample was skewed. We agree that the sample was skewed, but because we were aware of this aspect of our data, we used a data analytic technique—an ordinal rank-based structural equation model—that was unaffected by the presence of the skew. We therefore do not believe that a wholesale dismissal of the study is justified.
  • D&J did not model the full variance-covariance structure of the data, as we did in both studies, but resorted to bivariate linear regression involving a single pairwise relationship between two variables while ignoring all others. Linear regression is known to be susceptible to attenuation through measurement error, and it is therefore not surprising that D&J report associations that are only 1/3 the magnitude of those in our—measurement-error free—analysis. Our view is that if techniques exist for precise assessment of relationships then those techniques should be preferred over tools that are known to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio.
  • D&J further removed 35 respondents from our second study with a representative sample because they responded “neutral” on all items involving the two variables of interest. This has no effect on the association between endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of climate science in the structural-equation model (that’s the tool that is known to be free of measurement error), but it does render the bivariate correlation non-significant. In our opinion, the removal of participants on ad hoc grounds (i.e., looking at the data to identify observations that are deemed unsuitable) represents one of the degrees of freedom available to researchers that has recently been identified as a potentially “questionable research practice”, and we believe that the elimination of observations must therefore be approached with great care. This is particularly true in the case of our study, whose sampling plan was “de facto” pre-registered: That is, we contracted with a professional survey company (Qualtrics.com) to obtain a representative sample of Americans of a pre-determined size, and to include only those respondents who completed all items and passed an attention filter question. Those were a priori constraints on our sampling plan, and once we obtained the data, we analyzed them all. Of course, one can now stipulate any number of criteria to eliminate observations, but any such ad hoc elimination can be critiqued as a potentially questionable research practice
  • D&J furthermore reverse the role of the dependent and independent variables in their bivariate analysis, whereupon the observed association disappears. To clarify, instead of predicting the attitude towards science from conspiracist ideation, they predict the latter based on the endorsement of climate science. Now, the fact that the results differ between those two statistical models is not surprising because the two models answer different questions. The question we asked is: Do people with a relatively stable disposition to endorse various conspiracy theories (we know that those cognitive attributes are quite stable) tend to reject established scientific propositions? We have a good theoretical reason for asking this question. A person prone to accept conspiratorial thinking may find it easier to explain away the scientific consensus as arising from a conspiracy among scientists. Indeed, this possibility is supported by a large body of research. The question asked by a statistical model reversing the direction of prediction is: Do people who reject established scientific propositions tend to endorse all sorts of conspiracy theories? We see no theoretical rationale for why one’s attitude towards specific scientific claims should influence one’s general tendency to endorse thematically unrelated conspiracy theories. D&J provide no theoretical rationale for their reversal of the roles of predictor and predicted variable either.

In summary, we are pleased that our work has finally been critiqued in the appropriate forum—namely, the peer-reviewed literature. We profited from this exchange because it forced us to consider our data in new and different ways, and in so doing we were able to show how robust our results are to a number of choices that data analysts might legitimately make. It is only under a fairly specific concatenation of such choices—all of which we believe are sub-optimal—that one of the many associations between variables reported in our paper becomes non-significant.

There is, moreover, one clear point of agreement between us and D&J: The association between conspiracist cognition and the rejection of climate science is relatively small in magnitude. Indeed, the effect explains only about 4% of the variance in our structural-equation models, compared to more than 60% that is explained by endorsement of “free-market” economics. However, just because an effect is small does not mean it is inconsequential: there are several well established and highly consequential effects that are as small as, or smaller than, our reported association. For example, the correlation between combat exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder, and between lead exposure and children’s IQ, explain in the order of only 1% of the variance. They nonetheless have notable public-health implications once scaled up to society as a whole.

Cash for comments vs. public funding of science

The revelation of the “cash for comments” that may have turned Dr. Soon into a mercury expert has highlighted the potentially pernicious role of funding from vested interests in science. (Non-Australian readers who are not familiar with the “cash for comments” saga will find it explained on Wikipedia).

Predictably, the fallout from the Soon affair has included the suggestion that funding from industry for specific “deliverables” is equivalent to the public funding that (climate) scientists receive from granting agencies and research councils. Indeed, around 20% of the American public is willing to endorse the proposition that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by “corrupt scientists who wish to spend more taxpayer money on climate research”, suggesting that confusion about public funding is relatively widespread.

The differences between public scientific funding and “cash for comments” thus deserve to be highlighted. To ascertain whether funding may have a detrimental impact on scientific integrity, we can ask three simple questions:

Who receives the money?

If a company funds a scientist by topping up his or her salary by $100,000, then this will likely impose a certain obligation to tailor the “deliverables” to the funder’s satisfaction. This should be self-evident, but it already establishes a notable difference to public grant funding: In most countries, research grants do not contribute to a scientist’s salary.

To illustrate, I received funding from the Australian Research Council for nearly 15 years after my promotion to Full Professor, and none of that funding made a difference to my salary during that time (it didn’t before the promotion either, although to the extent that funding is a criterion for promotion, one can argue that a grant accelerates one’s promotion into a higher salary bracket.) The same holds true in Canada and, to the best of my knowledge, in all European countries: Grants do not top up a researcher’s salary—the money is for research expenditures only.

The situation is slightly differently in the U.S., where research grants typically contain a salary component for the principal investigator(s). This component is for an additional 2-3 months of salary during the summer, which arises out of the historical accident that American academics are only employed for 9 months a year, and that they can seek other employment during the remaining 2-3 months. Grants provide one source of “employment”, but the salary could equally be provided by additional teaching during the summer.

In the U.S., unlike elsewhere, there is a personal financial incentive for researchers to apply for research grants. But before we can conclude that summer salaries may affect the integrity of academic research, we must ask the next question concerning the role of funding.

What’s the money for?

It is self-evident but often forgotten that a vested interest can arise only if there is, well, a vested interest.  A coal mine makes money by digging up coal. So they must care about the existence of a market for coal, because without that market they would be out of business. The same applies to oil companies, iron ore conglomerates, and the local bakery. No demand for oil, ore, or cinnamon buns—and the business goes under.

It follows that if a coal company sponsors research into the health effects of mercury—a major pollutant from coal-fired power stations—then it takes little imagination to identify the desired outcome of the research. Would the funding be renewed if the research delivered the wrong outcome?

Now consider a scientist who seeks funding from a public granting agency to identify the variables that cause ill health from exposure to mercury. Is that scientist’s career or funding contingent on the existence of a link between living downwind of a coal-fired power plant and mercury poisoning?


If that link did not exist, nothing would change. Research would be conducted, published, and a final report would be submitted to the granting agency. Future funding would not hinge on the specific result, only on academic productivity.

The idea that climate-change research is somehow corrupted by scientists who are seeking a renewal of grant funding is tantamount to claiming that lung-cancer research is corrupted because medical researchers wanted to have their grants renewed. There are few people outside the tobacco industry who would accept that possibility.

A final question we need to ask concerns the process by which funding is awarded.

How is the money awarded?

Competitive research grants are awarded on the basis of merit—not on the basis of a commercial interest on the part of the granting agency, and not on the basis of a commercial interest on the part of the researcher. Grants are awarded by expert panels on the basis of recommendations during peer review. Appointments to the panel are made on the basis of expertise.

That means that grants are provided to examine the effects of mercury exposure—but they do not prescribe that coal-fired power plants must be the cause. Grants are provided to fund research into atmospheric processes—but they are not tied to a specific outcome, such as the identification of CO2 as the cause of global warming.

To illustrate, my own grants were awarded to fund a variety of research into people’s thinking and reasoning, but in no case was the outcome prescribed. Indeed, all the grants that I have written and submitted as senior investigator contained research ideas that I developed on my own (or with collaborators) and without any input from the funding agency ahead of time.

This point is sufficiently important to bear repetition: Grants are awarded on the basis of merit, for pursuit of a good idea, whatever that idea may be (subject only to broad directions set by the Research Councils). Public funding of scientists thus goes a long way towards ensuring their independence to pursue ideas based on merit, and not for commercial reasons.

Limitations and qualifications

The public-funding process just described is not perfect, and there are ways in which politics or policies may intrude in funding decisions: For example, a funding agency may stipulate “priority areas” or they may launch specific “calls for proposals” that are geared towards specific projects. Researchers may adjust their grants on that basis, or they may shy away from controversial topics that they think are less likely to get funded. Conversely, scientists may be reluctant to give up on an idea because they have sunk a lot of work and time into its existence: Once a paradigm has been established, it doesn’t disappear overnight—it takes time for a new idea to gather a foothold.

All those faults must be acknowledged, examined, and managed. But none must detract from the fact that public funding of scientists is the virtual antithesis of “cash for comments”.

Cash for comments: The public has a right to know

“In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives”—so reads the opening paragraph of a recent peer-reviewed paper on the history of how Big Tobacco “played dirty” by injecting lavish amounts of money into a public-relations campaign aimed at undermining the scientific evidence linking tobacco smoke to adverse health impacts.

Science and vested interests

There is considerable evidence that a similar playbook is being followed by fossil fuel interests in their campaign against the well-established scientific fact that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions associated with human economic activity. 

An important element of the tobacco industry’s activities involved the recruitment of medical scientists who, in direct exchange for cash or through indirect funding, would downplay the harms from tobacco in public. Those activities are described in encyclopedic detail in Robert Proctor’s book Golden Holocaust.

The sources and targets of money that flows into the scientific process must therefore be of considerable public interest. It is not surprising that the recent events surrounding Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist affiliated with the Smithsonian and Harvard University, have caused such a stir.

In addition to astrophysics, Dr. Soon proclaims expertise in climate science, although his work has not withstood scientific scrutiny. He is also an “expert” on polar bears who has accused the U.S. Geological Survey of being “unscientific.” He also claims expertise on mercury poisoning, having used the Wall Street Journal as a platform to assuage fears about mercury-contaminated fish because, after all, “mercury has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment.”  

Is there a common thread behind astrophysics, polar bears, climate, and mercury in fish? The New York Times has revealed it to be funding from the fossil fuel industry. If you are wondering about the mercury in fish, remember that coal-fired power plants emit loads of mercury.

Dr. Soon has apparently failed to disclose this funding in many of his publications, in seeming violation of the journals’ policies. Dr. Soon also denied receiving funding from vested interests during U.S. Congressional testimony in 2003. 

I believe that this recent high-profile case, and the history of interventions by vested interests, illustrates the importance of complete funding disclosures by scientists when they publish, present, or testify about their research. 

Declaring funding

This brings us to the recent requests for disclosure of funding that Congressman Grijalva issued to a number of scientists who have testified in front of Congress, including Dr. Pielke Jr. and Dr. Curry. 

I cannot find fault with this request. Seeking confirmation of funding is not a “witch hunt.” It is in the public’s interest to know who has funded the research underlying an expert’s testimony to Congress.

I was initially concerned that the Congressman’s requests for disclosure seemingly went beyond funding-related documents, thereby straying uncomfortably close to potential harassment, which I have opposed in the past and which I continue to oppose irrespective of the identity of the source and target.

I was therefore sympathetic to scientific voices who objected to Congressman Grijalva’s requests on those grounds. Fortunately, it has now become clear that the Congressman’s requests pertain to sources of funding only and he has qualified his request for correspondence, which several scientific organizations have—rightly, in my view—considered to be an over-reach. 

Congressman Grijalva is to be commended for his responsiveness, which contrasts favourably with the unwillingness of other politicians to discontinue their witch hunts of climate scientists.

In my view, his request for funding sources is sound and very much in the public interest.

How to build support for climate policies?

Our paper, entitled “The effect of framing and normative messages in building support for climate policies”, was recently published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. The paper reports a media analysis of the framing of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme along with two studies exploring approaches to building public support for reducing emissions. The abstract for the paper reads as follows:

Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are required to mitigate climate change. However, there is low willingness amongst the public to prioritise climate policies for reducing emissions. Here we show that the extent to which Australians are prepared to reduce their country’s CO2 emissions is greater when the costs to future national income are framed as a “foregone-gain”—incomes rise in the future but not by as much as in the absence of emission cuts—rather than as a “loss”—incomes decrease relative to the baseline expected future levels (Studies 1 & 2). The provision of a normative message identifying Australia as one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters did not increase the amount by which individuals were prepared to reduce emissions (Study 1), whereas a normative message revealing the emission policy preferences of other Australians did (Study 2). The results suggest that framing the costs of reducing emissions as a smaller increase in future income and communicating normative information about others’ emission policy preferences are effective methods for leveraging public support for emission cuts.

Reducing emissions and the “worse-off” fallacy

Our paper builds on previous work by Hatfield-Dodds and Morrison (2010) who found that a significant minority of Australians believe that taking action to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions will cause future incomes to decrease. However, this perception is misguided because most economic modelling indicates that cutting emissions will not reduce incomes—it will merely slow the rate at which incomes rise. Indeed, as noted elsewhere, Australian Treasury modelling (Johnson, 2008) indicates that reducing emissions by 90% will still result in average national income, per person, rising from its current level of $50,000 to $80,000 by 2050.

The researchers suggested that this “worse-off” fallacy—the misbelief that people will be financially “worse-off” by reducing emissions—could be a pivotal factor underpinning people’s reluctance to support climate policies. They further speculated that this misperception might be the consequence of a bias in the way that the economic impacts of reducing emissions are communicated to the public.

To understand this putative bias, we need to examine the distinction between two different approaches to framing a negative outcome. A negative outcome can be framed either as a loss or a foregone-gain.  The distinction between the two is best illustrated with an example:

(1) “Reducing Australia’s emissions would mean that national income per person would be about 1.7% lower by the year 2020 than it would be without emissions cuts.  This is equivalent to a cost of $1000 per person.” (Loss frame)

(2) “Reducing Australia’s emissions would mean that national income per person would increase from its current level of $50,400 to $54,900 in 2020.  This increase is $1000 lower than without emission cuts.” (Foregone-gain frame)

In the two above examples, the cost of reducing Australia’s emissions is objectively identical—viz. $1000. However, in (1) the cost is judged as an out of pocket expense. Since no information is conveyed about how incomes will change in the future, relative to today, the cost is interpreted with reference to one’s current income level, potentially leading one to infer that reducing emissions will cause future incomes to decrease below present levels. By contrast, in (2) the same cost is judged as a reduction in a future gain. Although reducing emissions incurs a (relatively small) cost, it is apparent that incomes will nevertheless continue to rise above current levels.

Hatfield-Dodds and Morrison suggested that the “worse-off” fallacy might arise because most communications about the economic impacts of reducing emissions are cast within a loss frame. However, they did not provide any concrete evidence to substantiate this claim.

Evidence for the communication bias

In our paper, we provided this evidence by performing a search of major Australian newspaper articles for communications regarding the future costs of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme—more commonly known as the “carbon tax”. We examined 1,481 articles from major Australian news outlets published over a two year period and classified them according to whether the future costs of reducing Australia’s emissions were framed as a loss or a foregone-gain. Our analysis revealed overwhelming support for the communication bias: communications that used a loss frame outweighed communications that used a foregone-gain frame by a staggering ratio of 10:1.

Thus, the communication bias is real and may be undercutting efforts to raise public support for reducing emissions. Having demonstrated the existence of a communication bias, we then set about exploring whether public support for climate policies could be increased by reframing the costs of reducing emissions as a foregone-gain.

The power of (re)framing

In two studies—one with university students and a second with a representative Australian community sample—participants were presented with several emission reduction policies that varied in terms of their future cost to national income and the extent to which they reduced Australia’s carbon emissions. To make our studies ecologically valid, the policies were based on real economic modelling conducted by the Australian Treasury (Johnson, 2008). The primary manipulation in both studies was that for one group of participants, the costs of the policies were framed as a loss, whereas for a second group the objectively equivalent costs were framed as a foregone-gain.

We anticipated that policy support would be higher in the latter group than the former, and across both studies that is precisely what we found: people were willing to reduce Australia’s emissions to a greater degree—and incur larger monetary sacrifices—when the policy costs were framed as a foregone-gain, compared to a loss.

The power of social norms

In conjunction with our framing manipulation, we also examined whether it would be possible to increase support for emission cuts by harnessing the known power of social norms to influence behaviour (Rivis & Sheeran, 2003). Social norms refer to people’s perceptions of how others behave in different social contexts, such as how much people tip waiters in restaurants, how much alcohol people consume at social gatherings, and how much people donate to charities.

Social norms are powerful motivators of behaviour because when people are uncertain about how to behave in a particular social context—e.g., how much to tip the waiter in a restaurant, or how much to reduce emissions—social norms provide information about what behaviour is most suitable.

Prior research has shown that exposing individuals to normative messages that highlight social norms can reduce household energy consumption (Allcott, 2011) and littering (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). Normative messages have also proved effective at increasing recycling (Schultz, 1999) and conservation amongst hotel guests (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). We therefore reasoned that normative messages might also be effective at raising support for emission cuts.

In our first study, support for reducing emissions was high. Thus, there existed amongst the group of participants a social norm of strong support for reducing Australia’s emissions. We capitalised upon this in our second study by providing one group of participants with information about the frequency with which participants from our initial study chose the different emission reduction policies.

We found that people exposed to this social-norming information were willing to reduce Australia’s emissions to a greater degree than a second group who received no such information. Thus, seeing that most other Australians in our first study supported strong action on climate change caused these participants to increase the amount by which they were also willing to reduce Australia’s emissions.


As one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses (per capita and per kWh produced) and contributors to global climate change, Australia bears a heavy burden of responsibility to reduce its emissions. However, there is generally low willingness amongst the public to prioritise climate policies for reducing emissions. We have shown that this resistance may—in large part—be attributable to a misperception that climate policies are more costly than they are in reality, brought about by a communication bias in which the costs of such policies are framed overwhelmingly as a loss. We demonstrate that reframing those costs as a reduction in a future gain significantly increases policy support. Moreover, crafting social-norming messages that effectively communicate this high level of support also constitutes an effective method for increasing support for emission reductions. We conclude therefore that framing and normative messages represent two successful approaches by which climate policy communicators can raise levels of support for reducing emissions in Australia and elsewhere. 


Allcott H (2011) Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics 95: 1082–1095.

Cialdini RB, Reno RR, Kallgren CA (1990) Theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58: 1015–1026.

Goldstein NJ, Cialdini RB, Griskevicius V (2008) A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research 35: 472–482.

Hatfield-Dodds S, Morrison M (2010) Confusing opportunity costs, losses and forgone gains: Assessing the effect of communication bias on support for climate change policy in the United States and Australia, CCEP working paper 9.10, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, Crawford School of Economics and Government, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Johnson D (2008) Australia’s low pollution future: The economics of climate change mitigation. Canberra: Treasury.

Rivis A, Sheeran P (2003) Descriptive norms as an additional predictor in the theory of planned behaviour: A meta-analysis. Current Psychology 22: 218–233.

Schultz WP (1999) Changing behavior with normative feedback interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 21: 25–36.

The EU Science Advisor: Greenpeace and Climate Denial

After being rumored for some time, the E.U. has now abolished the post of Chief Scientific Adviser. I have been following this from a distance, and although there may be some nuances that I am unaware of, my first reaction is that I am in agreement with Mark Lynas, namely that

“This is a dark day for science in Europe. Instead of having scientific advice at the heart of European policymaking, the Juncker Commission clearly wants to remove any person who might bring inconvenient scientific truths to the top EU table. Sadly, this is all too consistent with European moves to back away from evidence-based policymaking – if you can’t change the science you muzzle the scientists or keep them out of the room when powerful people are taking decisions.”

It is also clear that this move was undertaken in response to a concerted lobbying effort by various groups who opposed the position by noting:

“…The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.” [Emphasis added]

The language may sound familiar: Opposition to a scientific position by claiming that the position undermines science. Straight out of the playbook of the Merchants of Doubt. Straight out of the tobacco industry’s strategy to call their opposition to medical research “sound science”—which of course it was not.

So who was doing the lobbying, and who claimed that a Chief Scientific Adviser undermines scientific research?

It was Greenpeace.

Greenpeace and a number of other environmental organizations that co-signed a letter to the President-elect of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker.

Bob Ward succinctly summarized the implications of this:


Does this mean there can be no public debate about GMOs, and that “science”, however it is best defined in this instance, should have the final word?

No, far from it, in the same way that a disembodied appeal to “science” cannot solve the risk from climate change. Ultimately, we have to make decisions about policies and those decisions require debate with input from all stakeholders and the public—whether they are “skeptic” about climate change or GMOs or not.

The problem arises when the politics—and their offshoot, so-called “skepticism”—seek to influence or deny the science rather than addressing the policies that deal with the scientific evidence.

It’s one thing to argue against Monsanto or against a carbon trading scheme, but quite another to seek to muzzle inconvenient scientists or to get rid of an advisory position altogether.

It’s one thing to oppose corporate profits but quite another to destroy a field experiment involving GMOs, as Greenpeace has done in Australia.

Unfortunately, at least at first glance, in the GMO arena Greenpeace and its allies seem to have taken a page from the playbook of operators whom they would implacably oppose on other issues, such as climate change.

The irony is distressing, but it also underscores that, psychologically, cognitively, and politically, science denial is denial is denial is denial. Wherever it happens to be pointing.

Air travel and 21st century fears

Air travel shows robust and sustained growth of 4 to 5% per year, and Airbus anticipates that air traffic will continue to grow at just under 5% annually.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the organization of the world’s airlines, expects to see a 31% increase in passenger numbers between 2012 and 2017, with total annual passenger numbers rising to just under 4 billion by the end of that period.

Such growth, it has been estimated, would require more than 29,000 new passenger and cargo aircraft with a value of more than US$ 4 trillion. Another estimate states that the number of aircraft in service in 2011 will double by 2031.

Two concerns – two fears – have the ability to derail this growth in the 21st century, for different reasons and across different timescales. These concerns are the spread of Ebola virus (and future contagious diseases) and climate change.

Ebola virus

Ebola virus disease is an acute, often fatal illness in humans which first occurred in remote villages in Central Africa in 1976. It is transmitted to humans from wild animals, and in the human population through transmission from human to human. The average Ebola case fatality rate is about 50%; such rate has varied between 25 and 90% in previous outbreaks.

The present outbreak in West Africa ‘is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak’ since Ebola was first discovered. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes,

[t]here have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. It has also spread between countries starting in Guinea then spreading across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, by air (1 traveller only) to Nigeria, and by land (1 traveller) to Senegal.

Transmission during air travel

The incubation period of Ebola is from 2 to 21 days. People become infective with the onset of symptoms. The primary mode of transmission is from person to person through ‘direct contact with infected, symptomatic persons or their body fluids/secretions.’

WHO notes that infected persons have travelled internationally and that more Ebola cases ‘might be exported to non-affected countries.’ It also notes the possibility ‘that a person who has been exposed to the Ebola virus and developed symptoms may board a commercial flight,’ and that such persons ‘should seek immediate medical attention upon arrival, and then be isolated to prevent further transmission.’

Liability issues: More the contagion of fear of contagion …

WHO further states that risks to fellow travellers in a situation where a person who has been exposed to Ebola and then travels on a commercial flight are very low. It should also be noted that those who are contagious don’t have a chance to infect many other people before they are isolated during treatment. However, WHO does recommend ‘contact tracing’ in such circumstances.

Air travel by those exposed to Ebola virus raises the question of airline liability for passenger death or injury.

Liability for bodily injury or death of a passenger on board an international flight is determined by reference to international aviation treaties. The 1929 Warsaw Convention was the first of these treaties. The most recent is the 1999 Montreal Convention, and it is the treaty that will most likely apply to a passenger’s journey.

Article 17 of the Montreal Convention provides that a carrier:

… is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking. 

Death or injury must be caused by an ‘accident.’ The most widely and generally accepted definition of an accident is set out in the decision in Air France v Saks, in which the US Supreme Court stated that liability under Article 17:

 … arises only if a passenger’s injury [or death] is caused by an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.

It would seem, then, that a health condition or a pre-existing injury that worsened as a result of air travel would not be an ‘accident’ for the purposes of the Montreal Convention. Moreover, as the UN aviation body, ICAO, and others have stated,

The risk of transmission of Ebola virus disease during air travel is low. Unlike infections such as influenza or tuberculosis, Ebola is not spread by breathing air (and the airborne particles it contains) from an infected person. Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animals, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller.

Nonetheless, it appears that Ebola fears have already affected the financial performance of the world’s carriers. Last week US airline shares fell by up to 6% ‘as part of an overall market slump’ due in part to fear of Ebola.

‘Mucking up the planet’

Another fear or concern which has the ability to derail aviation growth is climate change. It is considered that air travel is ‘the most carbon- intense form of travel.’

No matter what the aviation industry does to reduce emissions, it will be outweighed by growth in air travel, according to a new analysis. Growth will trump emissions cuts even if significant (and contentious) measures come into force to try and curb emissions – and those measures are decades away at best.

Last year, researchers calculated that total aviation emissions in 2006 were 630 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that by 2050, those emissions are projected to be between 1,000-3,100 million tonnes depending on how much air traffic grows, and how successfully we can tackle emissions with measures like improved fuel efficiency, biofuels, and emissions trading.

‘The last flight I ever take’

The new report referred to above by researchers at the University of Southampton shows there is not much the aviation industry can do to reduce emissions – and indeed it has not done much to date. ICAO lacks the legal authority to force airlines to cut emissions and, as the study’s authors point out, it relies on ‘voluntary cooperation and piecemeal agreements.’

If the status quo is maintained, civil aviation is forecast to become an increasingly significant contributor to global emissions.

As the meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus has said,

I realized, just now: This has to be the last flight I ever take. I’m committing right now to stop flying. It’s not worth the climate.


Naomi Klein in Oxford

Naomi Klein spoke in Oxford a few days ago on invitation of COIN, the Climate Outreach Information Network in the UK. Her talk was in the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford—a ceremonial building indeed that added much to the enjoyment of the evening. Naomi drew a large crowd—of more than 800, so I have been told—and the event was very interesting indeed.

Dr. Adam Corner, the COIN Research Director, has already offered his thoughts on the event and Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything. He “found the ambition of the book (to radically curb the excesses of ‘extractivist’ growth-based capitalism) compelling, but the means by which these ends could be achieved disappointingly lacking in inspiration.”

I cannot comment on the book overall as I have not read it yet beyond the early chapters, but for me the evening in Oxford raised the following questions, issues, or resolutions:

  • Capitalism is a subject for discussion. The topic of a conversation can often tell us more about the world than the arguments that are launched for or against a particular position. For example, the fact that climate scientists now vigorously debate whether one extreme weather event or another might be attributable to climate change—as for example in a recent special issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society—tells us that climate change is no longer a distant threat but that it is happening all around us. Why? Because 10 or 20 years ago no one would have seen fit to have that debate. The fact that we have the debate tells us all we need to know—climate change is happening now. Likewise, the fact that the words such as “capitalism,”  “inequality,” and “social justice” have found their place in mainstream public discourse tells us all we need to know—we are at the cusp of a paradigm shift.
  • What’s unrealistic is to ignore reality. If the solution to climate change really involves the demise of the neoliberal paradigm, isn’t that an extremely unrealistic endeavor? Isn’t climate change bad enough without having to trade in a one ideology for another one? Klein’s rejoinder to those legitimate questions was quite insightful, I thought: What’s unrealistic isn’t the replacement of neoliberalism with something else, what’s unrealistic is to ignore the physical reality of this planet which has become a central pillar of neoliberalism.
  • How to move forward? Like Corner, I am ambivalent about what follows from Klein’s analysis or indeed what she has to recommend. Perhaps paradoxically, I can agree with several seemingly incompatible positions: On the one hand, I have enough faith in markets to believe that pricing of externalities, or Pigovian taxes, may be sufficient to yield a transformation to a low-carbon economy. It wasn’t that long ago (in a nearly-geological time scale at least) that I was a principal of a software company at a time when MS-DOS 2.0 and an 8087 numeric co-processor were considered a breakthrough—the comparison with today’s information technology is so breath-taking that it augurs well for the speed with which markets could decarbonize the modern economy if given the incentive to do so. On the other hand, I have little faith in the current assortment of political “leaders” and their ability to introduce the legislation and leadership required to make markets function for the benefit of future generations. Opposition to neoliberalism, and its ultimate demise, may therefore be the only way in which climate mitigation can be achieved. On that view, any action that nibbles away at the prevailing neoliberal paradigm and its underlying fundamentalist view of free markets may indeed be considered climate activism.
  • To Change Everything we Need Everyone. Yes.


The Australian’s Disappearing Comissar

Update 3 October 11:33: Apparently there are two versions of the AP story, the earlier of which contained no mention of the Australian heatwave. This information was revealed by Seth Borenstein in a Twitter exchange which is recorded here. If The Australian relied on the earlier version, they would not have removed anything, and the remainder of this post is therefore irrelevant to their reporting in this instance. We now look forward to The Australian updating their AP report to reflect the elements that are of such obvious importance to Australia.


Graham Readfearn reports on The Australian’s coverage of the recent research that examined the link between climate change and recent weather extremes. The Australian calls itself the “heart of the nation”, although it is not always clear what nation this is referring to. It is unlikely to be Australia given that The Australian reprinted an AP piece on the extreme-weather research. That is, they reprinted most of it, with the exception of the following:

The report seeks to find how much and how man-made warming has influenced the weather, said NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling, an editor of the report.

The influence on Australia’s hottest year in more than a century is glaring, the report’s editors said.

“It’s almost impossible” to explain Australia’s hot 2013 without climate change, said Peter Stott of the United Kingdom’s meteorology office, another report editor.

Yes, they left out anything relating to Australia. This editorial strategy can be readily expressed in pictorial form: