William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Journalist Bias For Sale Vs. Academic Freedom: More On The Soon Pseudo-Controversy

"Organizations cannot make a genius out of an incompetent. "

“Organizations cannot make a genius out of an incompetent.”

Two parts to this. An email exchange with a reporter, and the column he eventually wrote. Regular readers know I’ve been documenting these so other can people can see just how honest, bright, unbiased, and flexible—or their opposites—members of the fourth estate are.

The reporter’s eventual column is duller than a rebuttal speech to a State of the Union address, so I quote from it only lightly. All I want to demonstrate is that reporters aligned with the mainstream are nearly unteachable.

Email exchange with yet another reporter

Dante Ramos of the Boston Globe emailed on 23 February and said:

I’m a columnist for the Globe’s op-ed page, and I hoped to check in with you about the recent stories in our paper and the New York Times. I was particularly interested in how the debate about your work relates to the concept of academic freedom.

About the column he wrote, more in a minute. First, I answered:

Mr Ramos,

Now that is an excellent question.

The topic is large, but consider the effect government money has on science. Somehow, and against direct evidence to the contrary, funds from government are seen as pure and uncorrupting. And the same is largely true about the lucre from non-profits, such as the cult-like Greenpeace, an organization with an extreme ideology and long history of despicable (and illegal) behavior.

Yet money from private individuals and companies is uniformly seen as tainting.

Why?

People who receive (say) NIH or NSF grants pass a review process, but that is also true of private disbursements. The difference is that the government grant recipients of today are tomorrow’s government grant reviewers, and vice versa. The cliché Old Boys’ Club is not inappropriate.

The government hands out billions, and it is it that largely decides the course of science. This can be and has been for the good. But also for the bad, as when politics enters the system. Nowhere is this more obvious than with global warming. Even good scientists feel pressure to conform to The Consensus. Better to keep quiet and keep your reputation—and keep the grants flowing.

You’ve doubtless heard about President Eisenhower’s farewell speech in which he warned of the “military-industrial complex.” But less well known, and in that same speech, he also said this:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Gravely to be regarded indeed.

Now as I have told your Sylvan Lane, and many many other reporters, for our paper “Why models run hot”, we received no money from anybody. We asked nobody for anything. Nobody offered us any anything. We did this paper on our own time driven only by our intellectual curiosity. We had no conflict of interest of any kind. And we said so. This is real academic freedom.

The whole flap over this paper is ideologically generated, as I have extensively documented. Why?

To distract. It is a fundamental unquestionable scientific principle that bad theories make bad predictions. Climate model predictions are lousy. It is thus necessarily true that the theories which underlie these models are bad.

We proposed one reason why this might be so. We might be wrong. But even if we are, it is still utterly certain that climate models are broken and cannot be trusted.

Every scientist used to not only know this, but they said it loudly and clearly. Not so now. Now everybody pretends not to notice how rotten climate models have become. Too dangerous.

There is no intellectual freedom left in climatology except by going outside the system as we did.

I’m happy to answer other questions you might have.

William M. Briggs

He responded:

Dear Dr. Briggs,

Thanks for setting out your thoughts at length. I gather from the
email chain that Dr. Soon forwarded along my message. Just so I
understand, are you speaking on his behalf?

If so, I suppose an obvious question is why he wouldn’t just disclose the funding sources for the papers in question up front, and let the journals involved draw their own conclusions? I gather that Harvard-Smithsonian was aware of where Dr. Soon’s grants were coming from, so that wasn’t a secret…

Thanks,
Dante

Finally, me:

I speak for the four of us on the paper “Why models run hot”. Your second set of questions (1) assume the conclusion you wish to ascertain and (2) are not unlike the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” ploy. Try again.

Anyway, you don’t understand. There was NO FUNDING SOURCE for “Why models run hot.” Where by “NO FUNDING SOURCE” I mean “NO FUNDING SOURCE.” I’m not sure how I can make it any plainer.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but reporters can be awfully lazy and narrow-sighted. You are aware, are you not, that there were four authors on the “Why models run hot” paper? Why are you focusing on just one? Why are you so eager to change the subject from Climate Models Stink to a false accusation about a conflict of interest?

Did you get the point of science I made? If so, this is your big chance. You can start a revolution in the public understanding of science! Now that would make a difference. Every reporter’s dream, eh?

You’ll take a lot of heat from your colleagues, sure—but hey, that’s what bravery is all about.

Ramos’s article

Ramos’s Academic freedom for sale appeared on the 24th (and I only saw it two days ago).

Ramos starts by saying some fool (Gillis of the NYT) reported Willie Soon had done wrong. Ramos does not attempt to correct this lie, letting that Soon was accused imply his guilt, a standard journalistic cheap trick. He then mentions academic freedom:

…such freedom is most vital for those who, like Soon, do research that rubs their colleagues the wrong way. But it doesn’t mean researchers should never have to answer for who funds them or how they conduct themselves. “Academic freedom” isn’t an all-purpose excuse, behind which anything goes. And for institutions, the term shouldn’t be bureaucratese for “looking the other way.”

A lot of nonsense. Ramos was told we received nothing for “Why models run hot”, but this factual news was of no interest to him. Ramos then began walking away from the charge that Soon’s employer remained unaware of Soon’s activities (that walk back will be back to the beginning, as it were, and Soon will, of course, be vindicated, because it was Soon’s employer who signed all contracts).

Anyway, Ramos said:

Soon didn’t respond to my request for comment; I did receive an odd e-mail, signed by an associate of his, quibbling with the premise that government grants confer more credibility than funding from corporate interests.

You can see what I wrote above. Ramos could not be taught that, inside the academy, government grants do confer great status—and great monetary and professional rewards. Ramos was also disinterested in how the vast sums injected into the system, as Eisenhower promised, corrupt science.

And science is indeed corrupt. As any disinterested examination of global warming would reveal.

29 Comments

  1. Well you know they didn’t hear it on public radio, therefore, it didn’t happen.

  2. Well, it was a good try William, but the result was as depressing as it could be.

    The point has been made elsewhere that it has taken almost the entire climate and scientific establishment (and their friends in the media) to bear down upon just four dissenters. And that, as such, it is a sign of almost terminal desperation that they feel the need to kick the shit out of you on such flimsy grounds.

    There are times when I feel quite optimistic that the tide, if not yet actually turning in our favour, is at least at slack water. But this is not one of those times.

    It is a very sad day when Harvard has stooped to the levels that it has, in order to crush academic debate and freedom of speech. As such, it bodes ill for the rest of us. Nevertheless, despite the opposition, you have published. Despite the vilification, your paper has been viewed thousands of times. Despite the huge might of the established media and attempts to close down debate, your voices are being heard.

    It is, of course, easy for me to urge you onwards and upwards, from the comfort and safety of my little house in the south-west of England, on the other side of the Atlantic. You have bills to pay and a living to make; and it is difficult to keep all that in motion whilst having so much ordure dumped on your head. In another context entirely, I have some idea as to what it is like to feel cornered and where the only option is to keep fighting. But that is what I hope all four of you will continue to do.

    Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  3. In my life my personal contact with reporters has been totally negative as they uniformly have been dullards with an agenda who have missed the point or manufactured one. This distortion of reality includes as august a magazine as Time in the 1960s to a small town local newspaper and many in between: they all got it wrong, usually really wrong. One more point: editorial writers have been as dull as the reporters and TV reporters have been bottom of the barrel quality but photogenic. Yet people seem to believe what they report and editorialists say and write. (Google this: The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.)

    My heart goes out to Willie Soon-may he prevail in this. Also, everyone reading this I advise reading this (free PDF or nearly free Kindle) newly published diatribe on the media: Addicted to Distraction by Bruce Charlton or http://addictedtodistraction.blogspot.com

    Dan Kurt

  4. Anyway, Ramos said:
    Soon didn’t respond to my request for comment; I did receive an odd e-mail, signed by an associate of his, quibbling with the premise that government grants confer more credibility than funding from corporate interests.

    But you told him: “I speak for the four … ” AND you said three times (in capital letters even): “NO FUNDING SOURCE”.

    The story goes that you’d be divorced in the Middle East (from the funding).

    I like how he enquotes “Academic Freedom” before “isn’t an all-purpose excuse, behind which anything goes”.

    Replace “Academic Freedom” with “Concensus Science” and voila.

  5. Everyone with a non-poisoned brain, which btw omits 3/4 of Massachusetts citizens and 99% of Boston Globe subscribers, realizes that paper is nothing more than an ideological rag. A prime example is a piece last year by a reporter wondering if the populace failed the Marathon bombers and somehow induced them to commit their crime (the murder of three people and maiming of dozens of others). It regularly ignores stories inconvenient to the wackadoodle mindset. Ramos and Lane wouldn’t get a word published if they didn’t confabulate a story around a few scraps of misrepresented information. How could they possibly understand academic freedom when all they know is to slavish follow the party line?

  6. Gary:

    You’re telling me whether the BeeGees went to San Francisco or back to Massachusetts would make no difference?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk9bmuncB4Q

  7. Blanket attacks on the press, blanket attacks on academia, and nothing at all said about the actual pro-pollution argument.

    Nice try. The reporter did his job.

    JMJ

  8. Wow, I just read Mr. Ramos’s article. And then I saw a related editorial cartoon on “Climate Change Payola” by Dan Wasserman (http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/02/24/editorial-cartoon-climate-change-payola/WuuuwyXSO76ThCoo5s1FkI/story.html). It is absolutely unreal how “conventional wisdom” seems to work and how the masses just latch onto these narratives – no matter how outdated or untrue they may be.

    In the cartoon, simply replace the descriptive “Fossil Fuels Co.” with “Greenpeace” or “WWF” and then the word “skeptical” with the word “evangelical” in the third frame, and you have a completely different, and in my opinion, a more logical and believable, narrative.

  9. Oh, and one more necessary and obvious change to the cartoon, in order to change the narrative. Take the suit of the guy, and instead give him a beard, a hemp shirt, and some birkenstocks.

  10. Speaking of “Academic Freedom”

    Works one way:

    Consensus Science; Consensus Politics and Consensus Religion (Non-Theism orAtheism):

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/as-storm-brews-san-fran-archbishop-strikes-back-at-school-guideline-critics-82817/

    Politicians have targeted San Francisco Catholic schools’ teacher standards, but Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone says they are a matter of Catholic mission and common sense.

    “Would you hire a campaign manager who advocates policies contrary to those that you stand for, and who shows disrespect toward you and the Democratic Party in general?” he wrote in his reply to eight state legislators who had criticized Catholic standards for school employees.

    The archbishop suggested a hypothetical situation in which Democratic politicians employ a “brilliant campaign manager,” though a Republican, who is willing to work for them and not speak or act contrary to his employers or his employers’ political party.

    “Now let’s say that this campaign manager you hired, despite promises to the contrary, starts speaking critically of your party and favorably of your running opponent, and so you decide to fire the person,” the archbishop continued in a Feb. 19 letter. He suggested this firing would be done not for hatred of Republicans but because the employee “violated the trust given to you and acted contrary to your mission.”

  11. RCase:

    That is REALLY, REALLY sick (makes me ill)

    Need a name for the researcher as well:
    Dr Lou N Tick?
    Dr Sou Less?
    Dr Ima Twit?

  12. This reminds me of Michael Crichton’s comments about the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect:

    From MC –
    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

  13. I think that what Dan (above) said is right. I suspect that most of them really are dull, but as unconscious incompetents, fully convinced of the value of their witterings. That, coupled with “Oh, of coerce I don’t understand maths/science/anything technical” (what right minded person would!) and we end up with what we have, even in the absence of malice.

  14. MC was right. Reporters seem to rarely get anything right. I’m part Croatian and it was telling to see news reports of the conflict surrounding Bosnia where the reporters repeatedly used ethnic slurs when referring to all sides. Talk about clueless! Even more amazing was the mentioning of attitudes and posturing worn mostly as a uniform being listed as the reason for the conflict. OTOH, the very image of the Stars and Stripes causes immediate conversion to the Republican viewpoint (As reported here earlier. Science never lies!) so maybe the reporters weren’t completely off-base.

    The one thing TV news talk shows have is that at least the comments aren’t filtered through the reporter. That is assuming that both sides will be portrayed (which is rare) or if both sides are represented they aren’t allowed to talk over each other which sadly seems to be coming more prevalent.

  15. Dan – Sorry. Missed your post on Murray Gell-Mann effect. You beat me to it.

  16. Just think if it was disclosed at the outset that Dr. Soon got some grants from some oil/energy companies, and, that his salary was in part derived from funds from these sources…as the facts seem to show.

    THEN, it would be unnecessary to refute the media-implied connection between those sources & a concealed conflict of interest.

    What Briggs, etc., are missing here is that this is a purposeful ad-hominem attack on Dr. Soon using concocted implications to smear everything. There is no desire to get to truth or facts — unless they can be twisted or combined to create the illusion of misconduct. That’s easier than trying to debate the paper’s conclusions objectively.

    The alarmist crowd has been asserting for years/decades that Big-Oil, etc. are funding denier research. There’s no possible way the authors were unaware of that. So, not taking that oft-stated position and oft-stated justification for discrediting Big-Oil-funded research into account the authors made a fundamental blunder. They instigated a confrontation armed with facts to rebut an opponent who fights with emotional perception — and failed to defuse a key bomb at the outset (they failed to disclose one author’s hot-button funding sources — something that [in an objective world that doesn’t exist] doesn’t really matter at all … and had they disclosed it up front the central crux of the attack could not have happened in the manner it did).

    Study history, not philosophy, its the cover-up that brings down the big game (recall Capone/tax-evasion, Nixon/Watergate….). The perception of a cover up, in the court of public opinion [a court with an increasingly short attention span] is almost equally effective.

  17. The Heartland Inst. has much to say on its website about the Dr. Soon controversy, including the following, which notes that in their/Dr. Soon’s case the line of demarcation between government & industry sponsorship is actually a bit fuzzy (the following, if actually comprehended, would likely caused the reporter’s brain to dissolve):

    “This process, which is not uncommon for universities and other research organizations, means the Smithsonian investigated and certified that none of the grant money [much from “Big Oil”] received by Dr. Soon posed a conflict of interest. This determination of non-conflict is especially compelling considering the Smithsonian IS ADMINISTERED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT [emphasis in CAPS added]. Any allegations that Dr. Soon behaved unethically by not reporting Smithsonian grant money as “conflicts of interest” face an uphill battle to prove the federally administered Smithsonian ruled incorrectly and Dr. Soon knew the Smithsonian had ruled incorrectly.”

    FROM: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/defense-dr-willie-soon-politically-motivated-attacks

    That link also includes the following:

    “DR. SOON AND THREE SCIENTIFIC COLLEAGUES generated tremendous attention in January 2015 when the Science Bulletin published their paper showing Earth’s climate is less sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations than asserted by IPCC. The PAPER OR ITS ABSTRACT WERE DOWNLOADED from the Science Bulletin’s website SOME 22,000 TIMES, MORE THAN ANY OTHER PAPER EVER PUBLISHED BY THE PEER-REVIEWED JOURNAL.” [emphasis in CAPS added]

    A number of lengthy but very informative discussions on the topic is available at: http://heartland.org/willie-soon

    Here’s an article where, long in the public domain where [among other things] Dr. Soon’s funding from “Big Oil” was already long recognized http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2013/11/05/harvard-smithsonian-global-warming-skeptic-helps-feed-strategy-doubt-gridlock-congress/uHssYO1anoWSiLw0v1YcUJ/story.html

    This common knowledge, except when it’s convenient [to some] to pretend this was a secret, illustrates a sort of compliment – they can’t get’m on science (or they would) so they concoct a scandal (ad-hominem attack) to distract from the findings.

  18. The words “I’m not technical” are the weaseliest words in the language. I hear it all the time in IT. Hint for a reporter – if you can think, you can learn the technicalities. But it seems most reporters have no desire to think.

  19. Mike Bromley the Kurd

    March 7, 2015 at 3:07 am

    Most excellent expose. That is all.

  20. Slightly off-topic: Another trouble with government grants is that they are not generous enough. While $1.2 or $2.7 or $3.5 seem to be huge amounts of money, but if the amount is distributed over years, and with a lot of people (usually) having time “on the grant” (which includes salary and benefits), not to mention the costs associated with the particular study, plus the overhead, and factoring in the annual funding cuts (now about 3%) —-the entity receiving the grant, in the end, is covering costs associated with the grant, but that the grant funders (US govt agencies) refuse to pay.

    And also a word about dance of getting the grant itself. A PI and research team come up with a course of study and a budget, and submit the application to the appropriate agency via the administrative structure of the home university. After about six months, a committee has met on the grant, and applications. If a grant is “scored” this is good news, even if not funded. If a grant is not scored, less good.

    If the score is good, it will take another few months to determine if an award will be made. It is very typical that the agency will say, “We see you put in a application for $2.7M. See if you can find out if you can do the same work for $2.2.” and so the PI has to go back and see how he or she can conduct the study with fewer resources. The is the dangerous part for the PI, because he or she is thinking in terms of “getting the grant” and not thinking so much about the future cuts. If the PI makes the cuts, the home institution will bless the paperwork and it goes back to the agency for approval.

    In the second year of the grant, the PI will get a memo that recalculates the future years of funding that shows reductions going out. Same for the third year, etc. So in the end, a $2.7M application will likely be funded for $1.8M for essentially the same study.

    If a grant is not scored, it can be resubmitted in accordance with the calendar. Or the PI can rethink the topic and put it with another Program Announcement. Or drop it altogether.

    In my opinion the current grant system is broken. Universities, as rich as they may be, are bearing the cost of public research to varying degrees. Universities are also bearing the personnel costs associated with preparing unfunded grant applications.

  21. JMJ: Mindless drivel, ridiculous assumptions and nothing about the actual post. You, too, could be a reporter. (Especially since you have the same blindness the reporter did.)

    Ken: Your logic seems to be “feed the alligator chickens and he won’t eat you”. Throw those funding tidbits out up front and viola! You’re safe. Not in any world I can think of. The reporter still finds something to discredit. I actually think he was unaware that putting the off-the-cuff statement about quibbling with the premise that government grants confer more credibility might create doubt in some minds reading the paper. Also, the cover up is all that counts is only on the Republican side–Democrats can cover up everything and little is said. At least for now.

  22. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    I feel your pain and agree wholly with your main line of response to those questioning your motivations.

    However.. you keep saying stuff like this with respect to climate models:
    ” It is a fundamental unquestionable scientific principle that bad theories make bad predictions. Climate model predictions are lousy. It is thus necessarily true that the theories which underlie these models are bad.” and that’s only half right because good models tested with falsified data will produce falsifiable results.

    You should not, in other words, condemn the models unless they have produced counter-factual predictions when tested with realistic data.

    More than a decade ago I had a chance to look at the insides of one of the major models. What I found was that most of the code was, in one way or another, tied to data and procedural parallelism. Discard that, and what was left looked a bit like a metaphorical onion – hundreds of thousands of lines of add-on code by hundreds of people in dozens of institutions, much of it mutually contradictory, and mostly to do with adding specific output tables, modifying outputs to better match historical data, or to bring in (and later reweight or remove) newly discovered factors somebody wanted to use. At the heart of thing I found some basic 1960s fortran (requiring the aptly named watfor) encoding equations that seemed, at least to the untrained eye like pretty much 1st order approximations.

    Today’s code may be much better, but my belief at the time was that the core models had never really been tested because the majority of the modeling effort had gone into things like increasing the level of detail reported (without changing fundamentals), making the output better fit highly questionable historical data, or adding a third decimal place to something somewhere to justify a graduate study grant, job, or proposal.

    Basically, the theories may be correct and the models conceptually elegant, but the computer code implementing those models may be calibrated to cooked data and itself more reflective of decades of difficult to follow grad student activity than of the underlying models.

  23. “Quibbling”, I like that, indicates a possibly large vocabulary although expansive reasoning capability was not demonstrated. Please, next time just hint that Greenpeace “may” have an “agenda”. His brain probably just slammed off at “…cult-like Greenpeace, an organization with an extreme ideology and long history of despicable (and illegal) behavior.” Nobody likes to hear that their hero is a villain and they won’t believe it. All your other statements were spot on.

    Thanks for the Eisenhower comment. I so wish we had a thinker like him working for us in the White House today.

  24. You were expecting the reporter to be competent? What an optimist. When I was in grad school I was friends with a reporter and we would hang out together. He worked for the local paper and hadn’t been to journalism school. He had nothing but contempt for most reporters and called them idiots and worse. You have to be able to write well to be a reporter but you don’t have to be very smart.

  25. I’m picking a nit here:

    “Ramos was also disinterested in how the vast sums injected into the system, as Eisenhower promised, corrupt science.

    And science is indeed corrupt. As any disinterested examination of global warming would reveal.”

    Your use of “disinterested” was incorrect in the first sentence, correct in the second sentence.

  26. I wonder if the fossil fuel industry has employed similar tactics to Samsung. Samsung were caught out paying people (typically students) to make bogus posts/opinions on websites deriding competition and lauding Samsung products.
    I wonder if there are paid astroturfing shills by the fossil fuel industry.
    We now know that engineer (not astrophysicist) ‘Willie’ Soon is a paid shill by big oil/coal in peer reviewed literature (fringe, rather than reputable peer review journals), so considering how much rubbish is churned on sites like these, I wonder if posters on various sites are paid for favourable posts for the fossil fuel industry.

  27. If they are and they’re as incompetent as you appear to be, hiding in old threads and hoping no one notices, I’d fire them and get someone who’s at least competent. Or is that the problem? You realize how incompetent the global warming shills are and you’re worried?

  28. *I* could punch a wall. ….and I haven’t lived this. …it is evil. Worse: it is evil that has been internalized, become an “honest belief” by these folk: the journalists, the young “scientists,” the “educated” citizens who believe Florida might be under water in the next month….

    Chin up. The bastards won’t win.

    I like the home page picture. ….smile. ….Lady in Red

  29. Has anyone thought of writing a message to reporters to the effect that the scientists named in the witch-hunt are the same 7 people one would recall as having provided testimony to congress disputing the AWG-scam or been otherwise vocal about “97% consensus” frauds or alterations of data by scientists employed by the US government (who probably have the only valid COI).
    The message could be written on a heavy object such as a brick and tossed casually in the general direction of a reporter to ensure that it wasn’t overlooked.
    Just a thought; I haven’t read anything correlating the victims of the purge with their political activism, and the minimally interested general public is unaware of the extent of censorship in the media, but Jade Helm season isn’t a bad time to emphasize fascist oppression; maybe some are growing ears to hear now that UN tanks are rolling in the USA.
    I looked up Grijalda’s funding, and he’s owned by unions, but I haven’t come up with an organized labor motive for his attack.

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