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Why claiming that climate scientists are in it for the money is absurd

Posted on 14 February 2017 by BaerbelW

If you are reading the comments on basically any climate change related article, it won't take long to get to one (or more!) commenters boldly claiming that "climate scientists are only in it for the money". This will often be accompanied by outrageously high $ amounts to really get anybody's hackles up but without any real evidence for their statement.

This article is intended to be a repository listing resources you can use to counter this unsubstantiated claim whenever it crops up somewhere. Some are blog posts, some are videos while others come from social media postings.


One of the best explanations of why the claim is just absurd comes from Richard Alley in this interview snippet:

Many of the scientists interviewed for Denial101x also explain why they do what they do and it doesn't have anything to do with money (big surprise!). All those expert interviews are available in the Wakelet-collection Denial101x Expert Interviews

Blog Posts

John Timmer in ArsTechnica (May 2012) - Accusations that climate science is money-driven reveal ignorance of how science is done

"One of the unfortunate memes that has made repeated appearances in the climate debate is that money isn't just influencing the public debate about science, but it's also influencing the science itself. The government, the argument goes, is paying scientists specifically to demonstrate that carbon dioxide is the major culprit in recent climate change, and the money available to do so is exploding.

Although the argument displays a profound misunderstanding of how science and science funding work, it's just not going away. Just this week, one of the sites where people congregate to criticize mainstream climate science once again repeated it, replete with the graph below. That graph originated in a 2009 report from a think tank called the Science & Public Policy Institute (notable for using the serially confused Christopher Monckton as a policy advisor).[...]"

Scott Mandia (March 2012) - Taking the Money for Grant(ed) – Part I and Taking the Money for Grant(ed) – Part II

"[...]Are scientists getting rich from grant funding?  I will use myself as a case study in this post and, in Part II, I will write about others’ experiences.

I recall a lecture I gave on climate change back in April 2009.  After I was finished, a gentleman told me that he though[sic] the whole thing was a hoax so that we scientists could get rich from funding.  Before I even had a chance to reply, a voice from the crowd (my wife) yelled out, “Trust me, I can tell you, he isn’t making any money from this. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing!”  The truth hurts, doesn’t it?[...]"

John Timmer in ArsTechnica (February 2011) - If climate scientists are in it for the money, they’re doing it wrong

"[...] So, are there big bucks to be had in climate science? Since it doesn't have a lot of commercial appeal, most of the people working in the area, and the vast majority of those publishing the scientific literature, work in academic departments or at government agencies. Penn State, home of noted climatologists Richard Alley and Michael Mann, has a strong geosciences department and, conveniently, makes the department's salary information available. It's easy to check, and find that the average tenured professor earned about $120,000 last year, and a new hire a bit less than $70,000.[...]"

Social media

Katharine Hayhoe on her Facebook page (January 2017) - Link to public post

""Climate Change is a Hoax ....Big Money For Scientists to get Grants....Climate Change is Welfare for Scientists!!"

I receive messages like this on a regular basis. And when I point out that an earth scientist with a PhD would get a lot more money working for an oil company than a university, it's met with total incomprehension.

Why is it that people are so convinced all climate scientists are shoveling millions of dollars of government grant money into their Swiss bank accounts (and oil executives aren't shoveling billions into accounts in the Cayman Islands)?

Part of it might be because grants always seem to involve such enormous sums. And it's true, the biggest grant I was ever awarded was the stunning amount of $1.1M USD. Stunning, that is, until we break it down. Here goes!

I wrote the grant with 4 co-principal investigators from different universities. So we divided up the money about equally, giving each of us around $220,000. Still a nice amount.

The grant was for 4 years, which meant I had $55,500 to spend each year. Still nice, right?

Then the university takes 1/3 of that for "facilities & administration" costs. F&A doesn't cover the luxuries — my office has no window, I bought all my own furniture and computer — but it does give us internet, electricity, and an infernal amount of paperwork. That leaves $37,000 for me to spend each year.

With that money, I pay a graduate student the princely salary of about $25,000; I pay the university their tuition, which is around $10,000; and that leaves $2,000 left over each year. Year one, I buy the student a computer; year two, I pay for them to attend a scientific conference; and years 3 and 4, I pay for us to publish one scientific paper because yes, those cost about $2,000 as well.

BOOM - that's how a scientist spends $1.1M! Surprised?"

Other sources

One of my all-time favorites - and not mincing any words - is Ray Ladbury's comment on a Real Climate post from November 2009:

"[...]If you don’t know about or understand the evidence that shows incontrovertibly that we are warming the planet, you are IGNORANT. No sin here. You can rectify your ignorance by hard study.

If you refuse to put in the hard study, then you are WILFULLY IGNORANT and your opinion is worthless.

If you refuse even to look at the evidence even when it is shoved in front of your face and still insist you understand better than all the experts, then you are a DENIALIST.

Finally, if you insist that all the scientists are engaged in a global hoax to preserve their lucrative grants (which amount in salary to about what a mid-level IT administrator would make), then you are an IDIOT."

Update Sept. 7, 2018:

Karin Kirk tackled this myth in an article for Yale Climate Communication on Sept. 5, 2018:

Climate change science comeback strategies: 'In it for the money'

It comes with two cartoons drawn by John Cook:

Cranky Uncles Money 01

Cranky Uncle Money 02

To link to this article you can use the short URL

Please feel free to suggest more links in the comments.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. If Scientific conclusions can be manufactured to support their funder, then Exxon and the Koch Brothers are missing a huge opportunity for continued profits.  Is this because they are too stupid to realize they can manufacture Scientific conclusions, or too honest to do so?  If A, then B.  If notB, then notA: Scientific conclusions cannot be manufactured for money.  Why not?  Because they are conclusions about Nature, and Nature doesn't hide itself just because you got paid to lie about it.  If James Hansen claims his climate model shows future warming, Exxon doesn't have to subpoena Hansen's climate model for inspection.  The physics of our atmosphere is not Hansen's exclusive territory: Exxon can build its own model from scratch.  Which they did, and it confirmed Hansen's conclusion.  Unlike Wall Street, Nature cannot hide a fraud.  It is equally available for sampling to anyone; certainly to any industry that collectively pulls in a trillion dollars in pure profit every year. 

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  2. The argument about money is impervious to fact & logic because it is corollary to the theory that there is an alternative to climate change theory, which is that it is globally sourced collective conspiracy hoax theory. It's a little like arguing against the bodily resurrection of Jesus because a man in his condition would not have been able to move the stone blocking the entrance.

    What I do think is important to present is that many in the science community in past decades did not in fact jump on their new meal ticket, but were reticent in slowly and reluctantly accepting the force of the evidence. It is a story which people understandably resist, desparate for another take on the events that are unfolding. And this reluctance can trigger personal recognition for many today.

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  3. I agree. The accusation that climate scientists are faking data to make things look worse, and that they are scaremongering, all so that they get research grants, is absurd. It would be much easier and less risky just to get a better paying private sector job.While all professions have a few people with little integrity, there is no evidence such things are widespread or the norm, or the courts would be ten times busier.

    There is no proof of fake data, fake photos of glaciers, or incorrect data adjustments, or distorted exaggerations within climate models, or anything else. These issues have been investigated over and over by officially appointed people, (eg climategate, or The Best Study) and they found no problems.

    The people investigating would clearly be rewarded for finding any slight problem, in terms of more prestige, promotions, and bonuses etc. This is important to realise. They have considerable reason to look closely and be very criticial.

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  4. Seems to me that the best argument against this claim is to turn it on its head.  Worldwide, we probably spend a few billions of dollars a year on climate change research.  But we spend a few trillion dollars a year on fossil fuels.  Any scientist who could conclusively show that climate change is wrong would instantly be rewarded by the fossil fuel industry with an endowed chair at a prestigious university, memberships on boards, and senior positions at industry think tanks and industry groups. He or she would instntly become immensely wealthy.  With this opportunity readily available, either climate change is real, or capitalism is fundamentally flawed.

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  5. Lets see  all the climate scientists on earth united in a conspiracy to lie to us over more than a century,  so tight that not ONE of them will spill the story, even though they'd make much MORE money for doing so and there are damned few examples of any such fraud lasting more than a few years...   OR ...  the CEO's and organizations that have repeatedly been indicted, repeatedly proved to be motivated by money and repeatedly conspired at apparently every opportunity they could to improve their monetary results (this is often a STATED PURPOSE of a corporation) are conspiring to lie to us... more recently. 

    Do we have evidence?  Yes

    Which one?   The latter. 

    Is this ever considered by the denialists?   No.  

    In fact, when this is brought up they are invariably ENTIRELY silent on the topic.  As though it got trapped in a filter before they even perceived the question being asked. 

    Which is, in a psychological sense, actually pretty likely.  Reality however, does not go away when you stop believing in it.   -  Thank you Phillip K. Dick

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  6.   Very good article.  However, it leaves out one important (imho) piece: that motivation(s) of the grantors.  Why would a government employee, who gets paid a salary, want to skew climate science one way or another?  What's in it for him/her?  Another point of exploration: does the carbon fuel industry try to influence research by using carefully crafted grants to universities (carefully crafted to get the "right" answer). 


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  7. giniajim @6

    My understanding is that the climate denialists believe scientists are exaggerating the severity of the climate issue, in order to scare governments, who will then want more research to get to the bottom of the problem. It keeps the research grants flowing.

    But it could equally work the other way. Governments could go into denial about the climate problem, and stop any research. And we have a perfect example of this: The Trump Administration have signalled they will do this to a significant extent.

    So it's absurd to believe scientists would engage in such unethical activities, when outcomes are so uncertain.

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  8. People have the wrong analogy in their heads when they think this way. Scientists are not like people selling dietary supplements and self help books to an ignorant public.  They are not plumbers or mechanic exploiting the customers lack of expertise by piling on the costs.

    Scientists are more like car sales-people trying to convince other car sales-people to buy their car.  That is what peer review of grants and papers represents — you are essentially making a pitch to your competitor.  

    That's why consensus in science is so compelling.  The incentive is always for someone to disagree with you — in large part that is your job as a scientist! — and the greatest rewards go to those who challenge the status quo successfully.  

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  9. A lot of people above seem to be concluding much the same thing : The entire system of science, and it's publishing of results, has evolved to expose any problems within science, including unethical behaviour and mistakes, etc.

    In essence,there are numerous whistle blowers, with various motivations. People have plenty of incentives to blow the whistle, or try to find different results.  Then there are professional bodies and their standards. So its quite an intricate and advanced system of different things that helps expose mistakes or cheating rather well. Free speech is the underlying factor enabling all this. No other profession exposes problems in quite such a comprehensive way that I can think of.

    And there's been no evidence of any significant problems, which proves the system works.

    Contrast this to Trump, who is on the verge of censoring science among other things. The net result would be that scientist's will only say what they think Trump want's to hear, or they will leave the profession. 

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