What Do The War On Cancer And Climate Modeling Have In Common?

The reverential treatment accorded to climate modelers by the media, policymakers, and the public is one of the great mysteries of modern life. But it is not an inscrutable one. Indeed, the failure of medical science to date to find a cure for most cancers—despite hundreds of billions of dollars dispensed by governments and the private sector around the world for cancer research—suggests we should approach the apocalyptic predictions of climate modelers with great caution.

An apples-to-oranges comparison you say? Stay with me on this as I explore an ugly side of Big Science few care to think about.

Believe it or not, scientists are human. They may be smarter than the average Joe, but they respond to incentives just like the rest of us. And, like most people, their work is motivated and influenced by their personal values. One can no more assess the work of scientists without examining the incentives and value systems under which they operate than one can assess the work of mortgage bankers without looking at the incentives and value systems that led them to drive the economy into a ditch.

Years ago I trained as an aspiring scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT), though I left to pursue a career in engineering and commerce. The MIT lab where I studied was run by experimentalists. Their motto: ‘Truth is data; please check your theories at the door’. Woe be to any graduate student who tried to cherry pick data to match pet theories or seek accolades for a ‘breakthrough’ that could just as easily have been an experimental artifact. I saw grown men reduced to tears when caught trying to slip shoddy work past the lab’s ruling greybeards.

The culture at the lab was so ruthless about calibration and controls that life there could only be described as crushingly tedious. Yet the tedium served a purpose. The lab had a well-earned reputation for producing one thing everyone could count on: experimental results that could be replicated by any scientist who was equally diligent about calibration and controls.

It appears to be getting harder to replicate the results of studies published in even the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals likeScience and Nature. According to a paper published in Nature Reviews Drug Discoveries, ‘When Bayer tried to replicate the results of 67 studies published in academic journals, nearly two-thirds failed’. Bayer’s experience is not unusual. Researchers cite the inability to reproduce academic studies as a leading cause in the decline of the success rate of phase two clinical trials.

How serious a problem is this? Enough to hinder research into potentially life-saving therapies. Consider, for example, research based on human cancer cell lines. This field has been thrown into disarray by audits revealing that an alarming percentage of the cells commonly used in laboratories—as much as a third—may have been contaminated or misidentified. This means that scientists who believed they were publishing data on the efficacy of experimental drugs on one type of cancer were actually using cells from another. No one knows which data in the established literature have been corrupted and which have not.

How did science get this sloppy? The answer can be found by examining the incentives and value systems under which modern academic scientists operate. In general, scientists who choose to make a living in our great ivory towers are motivated by three overriding concerns: academic fame, grant money, and job security.

Academic fame—the esteem of peers—is to scientists what the annual bonus check is to investment bankers. Fame is earned by publishing papers in the highest rated journals. No one earns fame by replicating another scientist’s results. And no one wins friends by pointing out that a colleague’s experiments are flawed; all too often peer review turns into pal review.

Academic fame, in turn, is the surest path to grant money, the mother’s milk of Big Science. For example, the annual research budget for the National Institutes of Health is $30 billion—enough to attract a throng of scientists to the public teat. Principal investigators who obtain the most grant dollars can support the largest number of graduate students, whose own work can further advance their lab’s reputation and fame.

Fame, money, and job security provide the temptation. Then human nature places the tripwire for falling into the trap. Scientists who neglect to check their pet theories at the door leave themselves open to confirmation bias (especially when performing studies that are not blinded). Others who are lax about calibration and controls as they rush to publish can fall prey to the temptation to cherry pick data to advance their careers by presenting a breakthrough finding.

By now, you are probably wondering: What does all this have to do with the scientific work of a small group of climate modelers who have successfully convinced millions of people that runaway global warming is such a grave threat that the entire global economy needs to be turned upside down—right now—in order to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions? Plenty!

Climate modelers share the same general incentives and personal values as cancer researchers. They are members of the specialized guild of Big Science. They review each other’s papers, approve each other’s grants, and work in concert to lobby Uncle Sam for bigger budgets. They operate under the same publish-or-perish culture. They have the same vested interest in raising alarm to justify bigger budgets. And they all have tenure—or want it and need the approval of elders in the guild.

However, climate modelers operate under very different incentives and value systems than those of the legions of cancer researchers who have spent 40 years fighting the most expensive medical battle in American history, thus far coming up short.

Recall the famous hockey stick temperature graph that landed Penn State professor Michael Mann in hot water.

Second, they are not held to the higher standard of double-checking by an industry responsible for putting their science to practical use. There is no Bayer replicating climate modeling experiments. There is no Food and Drug Administration insisting on double blind studies before new medicines can be sold to the public. But there are government appropriators and foundation grant officers doling out cash – $70 billion dollars of it since 2008.

As a result, climate modelers work open loop with an unprecedented degree of opacity. This is a powerful combination, leaving only one form of accountability. Trust us; we’re scientists! Those who cast doubts on the pronouncements and recommendations of climate modelers are compared to Holocaust deniers, accused of shilling for polluting oil companies, and demonized as anti-science, flat-Earth crackpots. The party line is clear: Government funded climate scientists have taken a vote, and the key scientific controversies have been settled.

This charade was partially exposed by the Climategate scandal in 2009, when a whistleblower released a series of email exchanges between climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU), whose data has been widely cited by climate scientists around the world. The emails revealed a pattern of mendaciousness, intimidation, and insider dealing meant to silence dissenting voices. The whitewash that followed was even worse.

The CRU scientists’ reaction to the scandal reveals as much about their modus operandi as the emails themselves. They have carried on business as usual. They continue to insist that we pay no attention to scientists that are not part of their guild, such as the many dissenting physicists, chemists, geologists, and meteorologists, who we are told have no standing to criticize.

Or do you prefer to unquestioningly worship climate science as if it were produced by saintly beings untainted by worldly matters? Do you consider their pronouncements sufficient justification for turning the keys of the economy over to bureaucrats who believe that replacing oil, gas, and coal with windmills, biofuels, and solar cells is part of a holy crusade to save the planet (even though that won’t make one iota of difference to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the foreseeable future)?

Considering what is at stake, how much proof should be required before we rush off and destroy the economy of the world in order to save it?

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here. If you would like to have his columns delivered to you by email, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.