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Incentives, Ideology, and Climate Change

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12/02/2015

I've written before on the institutions of scientific research which, like other human activities, involve expenditures of scarce resources, have benefits and costs that can be evaluated on the margin, and are affected by the preferences, beliefs, and incentives of scientific personnel (1, 2, 3). This sounds trite, but the view persists, especially among mainstream journalists, that science is fundamentally different, that scientists are disinterested truth-seekers immune from institutional and organizational constraints. This is the default assumption about scientists working within the general consensus of their discipline. By contrast, critics of the consensus position, whether inside our outside the core discipline, are presumed to be motivated by ideology or private interest.

You don't need to be Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, or any modern historian or philosopher of science to find this asymmetry puzzling. But it is the usual assumption in particular areas, most notably climate science. A good example is this recent New York Times piece by Justin Gillis, "Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change." In response to the question, "Why do people question climate change?" Gillis gives us ideology and private interests.

Most of the attacks on climate science are coming from libertarians and other political conservatives who do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming. Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science.
This ideological position has been propped up by money from fossil-fuel interests, which have paid to create organizations, fund conferences and the like. The scientific arguments made by these groups usually involve cherry-picking data, such as focusing on short-term blips in the temperature record or in sea ice, while ignoring the long-term trends.

Ignore the saucy rhetoric (critics of the consensus view don't just question the theory or evidence, they "attack climate science"), and note that for Gillis, opposition to the mainstream view is a puzzle to be explained, and the most likely candidates are ideology and special interests. Honest disagreement is ruled out (though earlier in the piece he recognizes the vast uncertainties involved in climate research). Why so many scientists, private and public organizations, firms, etc. support the mainstream position is not, in Gillis's opinion, worth exploring. It's Because Science. The fact that billions of dollars are flowing into climate research -- a flow that would slow to a trickle if policymakers believed that man-made carbon emissions are not contributing to global warming -- apparently has no effect on scientific practice. The fact that many climate-change proponents are, in general, ideologically predisposed to policies that impose greater government control over markets, that reduce industrial activity, that favor particular technologies and products over others is, again irrelevant.

Of course, I'm not claiming that climate scientists in or outside the mainstream consensus are fanatics or money-grubbers. I'm saying you can't have it both ways. If ideology and private interests are relevant on one side of a debate, they're relevant on the other side as well. Perhaps the ideology and private interests of New York Times writers blind them to this simple point.

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Contact Peter G. Klein

Peter G. Klein is Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and W. W. Caruth Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.

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