Sunday, August 2, 2009

Global warming and the technocrats

So…if I were to ask the question, who caused the global warming crisis, the politically popular response would, of course, be “Mankind!” In truth, I would have to agree. Surprised? Don’t be, because it is important to distinguish between the physical cause (or causes) of changing global temperatures and the cause of the present global warming “crisis.” Yes, yes…I know that the formal term is now “climate change”, but I’ll get to that particular nuance presently. I will argue that the present “crisis” is, indeed, caused by mankind, but not mankind, in general, but by specific groups who have reaped huge benefits by manufacturing this “crisis”. If you are looking for a tin-foil hat, black helicopter, New World Order conspiracy in this, be prepared for disappointment. I will argue that the true culprit in all this is the way that scientific research is presently being funded in this country and in the world in general.

Scientific research that is far removed from commercial application is generally referred to as “basic research.” Thirty years ago, private industry funded a large fraction of the on-going basic research. Large corporations, such as General Electric, AT&T, General Motors, and IBM, all had large basic research budgets and well-equipped and staffed research and development facilities. However, industry increasingly began to focus more on applied research and product development, i.e., efforts aimed at fairly narrowly focused technologies and specific commercial products. As corporations evaluated their cost structures to become more competitive in the global market place, it became far easier to justify the cost of a program if it promised to bring a specific product to market in 18 months than it was to argue that research into phonon scattering in Type III-V semiconductors might lead to something useful at some indeterminate time in the future. This sharp decrease in industrial involvement in basic research is highlighted by the fact that between 1965 and 1987, there were nine Nobel prizes in Physics awarded to scientists working in industrial laboratories. In the 22 years since 1987, there have been only two Nobel laureates to come out of industry.

With basic research funding in industry decreasing, the Federal government became the prime and essentially only source of funding in many fields. This radically changed scientific research and not for the better. To see how this “sole source” funding of basic research affected the scientific community, it is instructive to examine another, earlier “crisis”…ozone depletion.

In the late 70’s, a hole in the ozone layer was discovered over Antarctica. Subsequent investigation showed that this hole was growing. As ozone serves to reduce the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface, there was concern that a depletion or disappearance of the ozone layer would have serious health consequences. Further work advanced the theory that ozone depletion was caused by a class of chlorinated fluorocarbons, (CFC’s). Cries for the reduction of CFC emissions soon followed. Exactly why these CFC emissions chose to destroy ozone in a part of the globe far removed from the emission sources in the northern hemisphere was never explained. None the less, the media, whores for sensationalism that they are, immediately picked up on the predictions of the dire consequences of ozone depletion: skin cancer epidemics, cities, such as Denver, at high altitude rendered uninhabitable, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of animal species extinct, and essentially the end of life as we know it by the end of the 20th century unless CFC emissions were stopped. As a consequence, the chlorinated fluorocarbon industry, which supplied propellants for aerosols, refrigerants, industrial solvents, among other applications, in the United States and Europe was eviscerated. Unfortunately, this did not reduce CFC emissions as the manufacture of these chemicals was simply transferred to China and India, where leaders were unimpressed with warnings of the approaching Apocalypse. Unregulated manufacture and use in these countries actually resulted in an increase in global CFC emissions.

However, casual observation shows that the turn of the century has come and gone without life as we know it ending, not even a rash – as it were – of skin cancers in Denver…and in late 2007, NASA very quietly announced that the hole in the ozone over Antarctica was shrinking, in spite of CFC emissions being at an all time high. Oops.

So…how is it possible that hundreds of scientists could write thousands of peer-reviewed journal papers and attend dozens of conferences addressing the CFC problem and all of them be so very, very wrong? The answer lies in how this work was funded and how that funding process corrupts the peer-review process. However, before we get to the funding process, a short digression on peer-review for those not familiar with it: Peer review is really a primary mechanism for insuring the integrity or published research. As a scientist, I do some research with I think is worthy of sharing, so I write a paper describing my work and the conclusions I draw from it. I pick an appropriate technical journal and submit it for publication. Prior to putting it in print, however, the journal editors will submit copies of my paper to two or three other experts in my field, who will read my paper critically, point out potential errors, make suggestions, and, on rare occasions, even reject the work as being unworthy of publication. These reviews are “single blind”…the reviewers will know I am the author, but I will never know who my reviewers are. Not a perfect system by any means, but it had functioned reasonably well for decades…until the government became everyone’s source for research funding.

Now for the funding process…most offices in the Executive Branch fund research, NASA, the NSF, NIH, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, etc. All of these agencies are beholden to Congress for their operating budgets and competition for congressional funding between agencies is fierce and the competition for funds within a give agency is equally fierce. For example, both NASA and DOE operate their own internal laboratories, as well as funding sponsored work at universities and private industries. As a consequence, anyone involved in research associated with any of these agencies is in constant fund-raising mode…justifying past work, proposing new programs (and new funding) that is in competition with other new programs, both inside and outside of their agency. Now, given this highly competitive environment, imagine you are the director of the Office of Fungus Investigation within the Department of Agriculture – I hope that I just made this office up; if not, my apologies to fungus investigators for what follows. As the director of an obscure office that most people don’t know exists, you are constantly struggling for what little funding you get. Then one day, a report from a project you are funding comes in that describes a fungus that grows rapidly and can cause a rash when it comes in contact with human flesh. You’re at the beginning of your funding cycle and are looking for new programs to propose and, given the human connection on this one, you propose an expanded program to further investigate this fungus that causes skin disease in humans. Your proposal works its way up through the bureaucracy with various embellishments added to make it look a little more “sexy” to the appropriate congressional committees. At some point, either a really bored reporter looking for some story, any story out of the Department of Agriculture or an actual press release happens and, all of a sudden, it is all over the news that there is a flesh-eating fungus threatening humans. Panic, press conferences, congressional hearings, and a general consensus that there’s a “crisis” and something must be done…and what is done is to pour funds into the Office of Fungus Investigation. As the director, you see your budget doubled, tripled, quadrupled, you’re hiring staff, sending out requests for proposals and funding those that promise to address the flesh-eating fungus crisis, giving press conferences, and fielding requests to travel the country giving talks on the status of the “crisis”…and you have 50,000 followers on your Twitter account.

Papers on the flesh-eating fungus begin to get published and there is some criticism that the connection between the fungus and the reported rashes was a little ambiguous. Those critical of the original conclusion submit proposals to investigate whether the fungus really is responsible for the rash. But, you’re in the middle of a “crisis” that must be addressed and you don’t have time to get bogged down in cause-and-effect details…besides, if the “crisis” goes away, so does your huge budget and the media attention and you’re back to sitting in your office trying to think of a proposal that will make pond scum sound interesting. You reject their proposal, saying that it is “non-responsive”. The proposers have nowhere else to go for funding, so they submit another proposal that promises to investigate the growth of the fungus once it contacts human flesh. This one you fund.

In the meantime, it turns out that the original rash that was connected to the flesh-eating fungus, as it is now known, turns out to be nothing more than a case of eczema. No matter…you’re living large and your program has taken on a life (and funding) of its own. You deny the report, attempt to discredit the source, and keep on growing your office…
…and this is how an ozone depletion or global warming “crisis” gets created. The template for the global warming crisis was created with the ozone layer “crisis”. Once Congress is convinced that there is a serious problem that must be addressed and starts funding it, government research offices start to grow to meet the crisis and, once grown, the crisis must be perpetuated to ensure continued funding. The process becomes self-perpetuating as other agencies recognize a potentially lucrative source of funds and start their own programs to address the “crisis”. For example, while the Department of Energy does not fund climate research, they can ask for (and have gotten) funding to help “fix” the problem, i.e., development of renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, etc. Even when evidence starts to accumulate that there is no crisis, these agencies will struggle desperately to maintain the “crisis” status. Hence, now that we have experienced a decade of cooling temperatures, government scientists assure us that this is just a temporary respite before temperatures will start to rise alarmingly again and the term “climate change” is introduced. This last a bit of particularly brilliant legerdemain in that it quietly shifts the “crisis” from one of global warming to the idea that any climate change (warming, cooling, whatever…) contains the seeds of disaster.
One may ask, “Where is the scientific integrity here?” and the answer is that integrity is not always a priority when one’s livelihood is at stake. In an earlier time, there were multiple funding sources for atmospheric and climate research. A scientist working for Bell Labs could stand up at a conference and question the assumptions being made by a NASA scientist or give a research paper a bad review for muddled reasoning without any fear of repercussions beyond some hurt feelings. With a single source of funding, where the funding agency is primarily concerned with perpetuating itself and its programs, anyone espousing views opposing the agencies dogma are highly unlikely to be funded and alternative viewpoints will very rarely reach the light of day. Not only do these opposing views not get funded, scientists will be hesitant to even express them for fear of hurting their chances for future funding. Mainstream scientific research, consequently, devolves to little more than a big touchy-feely love fest where everybody agrees, everybody gets along, and everybody is happy, but critical thinking, the constant questioning of results and conclusions, and the revision of “pet” hypotheses to fit new information – the very core of scientific endeavor for centuries – has long since been kicked to the curb.

I have focused my discussion here on the process by which research is funded and how funding dominated by government agencies almost insures the creation of “crises” and I have avoided any discussion of the evidence that is being used to convince the public and, more importantly, Congress that there is a global warming…sorry, climate change crisis. That’s a subject of for different time.

1 comment:

  1. Let us not forget the CO2 contribution according to the court Jester AlGore, which if had been true would have meant that we would currently be under 6 feet of water from the rising tide and melted ice caps from the eruption of one major volcano, and we have had 2 or 3 since then without even a hint of his theory of associated temperature rise.

    Instead I listen more to Joe Bastardi from the Weather Channel who has been saying for years that we are currently moving back into the weather cycles of the 1930s which will bring global cooling along with it.