Sunday, August 16, 2009

Does Funding for Global Warming Research Promote Biased Results?

I posted recently on the amount of money that has been spent on Global Warming research, and wondered aloud whether the availability of money could encourage researchers to bias their results.

If this were a scientific study (it is not) the investigation would need a hypothesis and we would then look for evidence for and against that hypothesis. The objective would be to reach a conclusion about the likelihood the hypothesis was correct.


But what hypothesis would properly describe the issue? I have given this question considerable thought, and confess that I have come up empty. Here is my thinking:
  1. Research is funded by a variety of government agencies and non-government foundations and interest groups. The foundations and interest groups can be broadly categorized as having an agenda that matches their vision statements. One would expect an industry foundation to pursue an agenda that is different from, say, GreenPeace or the Sierra Club.
  2. A hypothesis that the source of funding would bias the results of the research would require an auditor to review the research, find evidence of errors in data gathering, data processing and/or data analysis, identify a pattern in those errors that favors the agenda of the funding agency, and attribute that pattern to a decision on the part of the researcher to shade his results to match the funding agency. This is beyond my capability.
  3. Instead of looking for bias at the level of individual research projects, one could look simply at the availability of funding for various types of global warming research. Again, though, what question would you ask? What is the control group for a null hypothesis that you would use for comparison? I hear anecdotes, for example that failing to slip the words "climate change" into requests for funding in biology research dooms the application to rejection. But grant applications get rejected for lots of reasons, and one would have to crawl into the head of each board that reviews grants.
  4. Then there is the "dutiful soldier" defence. If an institution decides that global warming is probable, who would criticize someone for approving funds to either clarify its possible extent, or to research how to cope with the likely impacts? This is bias in the strictest sense of the word, but at the same time no sane administrator would approve funds for a study based on "nothing will change, and we will need to prepare for unprecedented levels of sameness." The availability of funds tells us nothing useful.
  5. So what about tabulating research results and trying to draw a conclusion based on how many studies support one view or another? Well, this turns into science by consensus, and we should speak with Copernicus and Galileo about the validity of THAT approach.
  6. If one can not come up with a good clear-cut hypothesis, what other methods exist? I can think of only one: invert the problem and reverse the onus of proof. Premise - people operate in their self-interest. Whether consciously or not, human nature leads us to conform our actions to the prevailing wisdom of the times.
  7. This, not surprisingly, reminds us that we are ALL biased, and that our actions are colored by our beliefs about the world. This is demonstrably true in religion, politics, investment markets and entertainment, and the list will go on and on.
  8. So now the burden of proof shifts to the opposing position. Prove to the world that research into global warming is NOT biased by the source of funding. (Such a situation, I believe, would make it unique among human endeavors). Anyone want to give it a shot?
Humans are just humans, regardless of our political opinions. We do what we think is right based on how we see the world. Then we criticize others who see things differently. Bias is part of our essential being.

3 comments:

JR said...

Certainly one’s head does soon start to spin trying to contemplate all the variables involved in addressing the bias question.

While bias is a natural condition, not many scientific issues are as politically charged as global warming which has become so thoroughly politicized that bias (and/or suspicion of it) is particularly problematic. When everyone’s motives are questioned it’s tough doing real science or at least getting it a fair hearing.

I just finished reading an account of the development of quantum theory. While there was intense rivalry between the scientists, the issues were argued and resolved on the basis of evidence and logic. No one’s motives were questioned.

PKD said...

Heck - you've taken the bias question much more seriously than I'd of given you credit for Half - interesting stuff!

But I find the logic falters on step 6. You cannot simply inverse the logic of the problem to the negative if you cannot prove the positive.

You can only test for positives, not for negatives in science as the absence of something does not prove its not there, only that you couldn't find it.

Slightly off topic this also extends to the non-science world. Saddam Hussien couln't prove the non-existence of WMD's for instance - how do you prove you don't have something?

Back to your point 9 - I could try and prove the non-existence of bias, but you'd always state that I haven't proven the non-existence of bias, only that I couldn't find it. Does that make sense?

And in any case, one thing you are right one - everyone has bias. But we must be able to assume that scientists are able to operate to facts rather than bias 1st and foremost, otherwise I strongly doubt we'd have made half the scientific advances we have to date...

Halfwise said...

I agree that scientists must operate to facts, as you put it. This makes the whole question of bias in relation to climate science more pointed; if there is no disclosure of underlying data and/or methodologies (eg Mann and his Hockey Stick) then the facts are not there to be examined and challenged.

I say that it is natural and human for bias to affect decision making, especially when self-interest is involved. This was my original point, and I stand by it.

Hussein, by contrast, claimed publicly to have WMDs. Imagine his surprise when Bush II took him at his word.