Why Scientists Lie -- and What to Do about It

The recent revelations of misrepresentation by CRU scientists about research on climate change should come as no surprise. Scientists, like all human beings, are sometimes tempted to lie or cheat, and occasionally they succumb to those temptations.

Actually, scientists don't do too badly.  According to a recent analysis of surveys of scientific misconduct:

In surveys asking about the behavior of colleagues, fabrication, falsification, and modification [of data] had been observed, on average, by over 14% of respondents, and other questionable practices [such as "dropping data points based on a gut feeling" and "changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source"] by up to 72%.

That's probably a better track record than sociologists or economists could muster. I shudder to think what the corresponding percentages would be for politicians or journalists.

But it's not good enough. Scientists are worthless if their data and reasoning cannot be trusted entirely. They have in effect signed a contract with society, pledging honesty and objectivity. When a scientist is caught in a lie, it should rarely, if ever, be forgiven or forgotten. So why did the scientists at CRU indulge in such reckless, career-shattering antics?

To try to understand this, we must consider why and how scientists lie. The Wikipedia article on scientific misconduct is just the tip of a vast ocean of reportage and analysis of the subject. I shall use a simplified anatomy here.

Why do scientists lie? In order of decreasing disingenuousness, the main motives are: 

  • Profit: Sometimes there's money in it -- a lot of money. This may be why, according to Fanelli's report, "surveys conducted among clinical, medical and pharmacological researchers appeared to yield higher rates of misconduct than surveys in other fields" [1].
  • Laziness and ease of perpetration: It's so much easier to just make up data than to perform all those tedious measurements. And in most cases, no one is going to question you about it.
  • Career pressure: This is the most common reason. The data isn't going your way and you may fail to get your thesis accepted, or not get tenure, or miss a promotion, or lose your grant or your job.
  • Pride: Scientists are as hungry for praise and prestige as other mortals. And no one likes to be forced to admit he's wrong. So, when someone contradicts your earlier work, you may be willing to cut a few corners to defend yourself, or to prevent your opponent's paper from being published.
  • Ideology: Many feel that if a cause is worth dying for, it's worth lying for. As we shall consider below, liberal intellectuals are particularly susceptible to this weakness.
Next, let's consider the methodology. Aside from plagiarism (which is not relevant here), scientific lying follows the same three methods of concealment that are used in all scams:

  • Lying: the fabrication of nonexistent data or the falsification of data by manipulating research materials, equipment, processes, or the data itself.
  • Hiding: omitting data that does not fit your conclusion and/or ignoring or suppressing conflicting data from other sources. Another form of hiding is shouting down the opposition by seeking the greatest possible media exposure [2], repeatedly claiming a dubious or nonexistent consensus for your views, or contriving to prevent the opposition from publication in technical journals by malicious refereeing.
  • Misdirection: massaging the data with biasing statistical or processing techniques, choosing the model or graphic plot that best suits your conclusion, misinterpreting data or suppressing alternative interpretations, forming unfounded assertions or extrapolations, etc. This is a vast field in itself, one in which the CRU and their IPCC brethren seem to have broken new ground.
The psychology of these motives and activities may be inexcusable, but is nonetheless understandable. More often than not, it begins with self-deception. For although Polonius' advice to Laertes --

This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man (Hamlet, I, iii) 

-- is often wrong, its opposite is true. If you begin by deceiving yourself, you will go on to deceive others. And self-deception is easy; contrary to the old adage, the road to hell is paved with rationalizations.

To try to explain the CRU's primrose path, I must remind you that most scientists think of themselves as intellectuals, who, as the phrase "trahison des clercs" implies, are not above advancing themselves or their pet causes by doing a little lying. Moreover, most intellectuals are liberals, many of whom -- perhaps because of their lack of the moral restraint that religion imposes -- are willing to twist the truth for the sake of their ideology. The steps of this process go something like this:

  • 1. Intellectual liberals believe that human beings are fundamentally good and that they are constantly evolving into something better. Moreover, they believe that intellectuals (i.e., themselves) are the best and wisest of humans and therefore the predestined leaders of mankind.
  • 2. They also tend to believe that there are simple and drastic solutions to all of the world's problems. These solutions generally entail the creation of an all-powerful world government, staffed mainly with intellectuals.
  • 3. Therefore, they tend to unquestioningly follow a charismatic leader who proposes sweeping reforms that will lead to a better world, with the intellectuals themselves in line for key positions.
  • 4. They also tend to become bigots, in the Chestertonian sense of being unable to imagine any sane and honest person disagreeing with them. Therefore, all their opponents must be fools or liars. Moreover, the public -- the "common man" -- is a vast mob of idiots who must be manipulated for their own good.
  • 5. Therefore, bending the truth a little so as to make it more blatantly obvious to the limited mentality of the public, or silencing the wrongheaded opposition so as not to confuse the simpleminded public, or crying "wolf" about a supposedly dire emergency so as to galvanize the lethargic public into immediate drastic action, are legitimate and even noble tactics.
This sort of rationalization has seduced scientists before. The early enthusiasts of evolution occasionally felt obliged to emphasize the results of the research so as to catch the public eye. One thinks of Haeckel altering his embryo drawings and Kammerer inking the legs of his toads, not to falsify, but (as they told themselves) to make the truths they were convinced they saw easier for others to see.

I have not read the CRU e-mails in detail, but I suspect that the shenanigans recounted therein are consistent with this form of rationalization. Of course, this does not exclude the admixture of baser motives, such as increased grants to refine and expand research, key positions in the climate control branch of the ultimate world government, and perhaps a few Nobel prizes in addition to the peace prize IPCC shared with Al Gore in 2007 [3]. 

How should we respond to this incident? I think we must protest as loud and as long as we can, even striving to make an eponym of it, i.e. "climategating the data." But in the end, I think the perpetrators will get away with this suberfuge. Many times in the past, scientists have covered up major embarrassments and managed to maintain their self-proclaimed prestige and influence [4]. The whitewash is already being brushed on, a sacrificial lamb or two will be demoted or transferred, and politicians will ignore the matter and continue to insist that the AGW crisis is unquestionably urgent. Obama's climate czar, Carol Browner, has already shrugged off the scandal as irrelevant.

Our only hope is that we can make our congressmen nervous enough about possible future scandals to induce them to defer cap-and-trade legislation and treaty ratifications until evidence for the urgency is more firmly established. We must also try to dispel the notion that a universal consensus exists by citing prominent dissenters such as Freeman Dyson (arguably the finest scientific mind alive), who stated in his latest book:

My first heresy [is] that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models ...

By way of contrast, we should emphasize the fact that the CRU scientists caught with their graphs down are not mere members of the pro-AGW faction; they are the leaders and instigators of that movement. 

On the other hand, we must avoid the blunder of believing that the entire case for AGW has been demolished. What is needed is a thorough investigation of the case, examining all the critical data for evidence of corruption.

The CRU miscreants might say, like Browning's Mr. Sludge, "I cheated when I could...but there was something in it, tricks and all!" The basic "greenhouse'" mechanism has been under scrutiny for over fifty years and appears to be valid. The ability of human activity to significantly affect global energy balance is obvious from satellite photos and was demonstrated by the effect of halocarbons on the ozone hole [5]. And since our prodigal use of Earth's resources, if unchecked, might well lead to eventual uninhabitability, some of the measures proposed by AGW advocates, such as economical energy/materials usage and replacement of fossil fuels with renewable ones, are simply prudent planetary housekeeping.

I therefore recommend that, while fighting against nonsensical schemes like cap-and-trade and avoiding extreme measures that would endanger our already precarious economy, we become judiciously cooperative about reasonable and gradual approaches to energy conservation, supportive of honest efforts to learn more about climate trends, and even receptive to measures for controlling and counteracting them. 


[1] It's worth noting that "Nobel fever," which has bred more than its share of ethical lapses, concerns both money and pride.

[2] One should always be suspicious when scientists issue a press release about a discovery before publishing a refereed paper. It may be a fiasco of self-deception, like cold fusion, or it may just mean that their grant is up for renewal.

[3] In view of recent recipients such as Carter, Gore, and Obama, the Nobel peace prize is becoming an embarrassment. Perhaps future awards should be announced in the Harvard Lampoon.

[4] Predictions about the surface of the moon are a classic case in point. In the 1960's, the high-visibility cosmologists (Kuiper, Gold, Sagan, etc.) were in virtual consensus about the moon being covered with meteoritic debris, while one lone geologist (Jack Green) predicted that the main constituent would be volcanic rock (e.g., Geotimes, May 1970). Although subsequent lunar missions proved that Green was right, the cosmologists wiped the egg off their faces and maintained their celebrity while Jack Green, who also predicted the presence of water in lunar rock fifty years before its recent discovery, was conveniently forgotten.

[5] Even when the CRU's prevarications are discounted, data on warming trends are contradictory and badly in need of honest and impartial review. However, as Dyson pointed out, it is the modeling that is the most questionable part of the AGW case.
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