Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Implications of Academic Dishonesty

There has been a recent flap over the appearance online of a video of Jonathan Gruber telling the truth about the Obamacare bill:
This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If [Congressional Budget Office] scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in -– you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money — it would not have passed… Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. And it’s the second-best argument. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.
What he is saying, pretty clearly, is that he wishes one could both be honest and get good legislation passed but approves of dishonesty if necessary to get the job done. 

My guess is that his view is shared not only by most politicians but by most academics involved in the political system, although I expect many would be unwilling to say so, especially on camera. Part of the reason I believe that is an experience that happened almost fifty years ago. I was spending a summer in Washington as a congressional intern. My congressman lent me for four days a week to the Joint Economic Committee. They lent me to the Project on State and Local Finance of George Washington University, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the JEC, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the Governors' Conference. The Project was producing a fact book, a volume to provide the ordinary voter with information on state and local finance. 

I discovered a fact. It was a demographic fact about people already born. It was a fact about future financial requirements for the largest expenditure in state and local budgets. The people running the project refused to include the fact in their factbook, not because they thought it was not true or not important but because it pointed in the wrong direction. Knowing it would make voters less willing to support increases in state and local revenues, which was the opposite of the result they wanted.

The fact itself is one you can easily check. The date was about 1967. For the previous fifteen or so years, as the baby boom came into the school system, the ratio of students to taxpayers had been going up, which meant that taxes for schools had to increase in order to keep per pupil spending from falling. For the next decade or two, as the baby boom came out of the schools and into the labor force, the ratio of students to taxpayers would be going down. That meant that per pupil spending could be kept at its current level while taxes for schools went down. Schooling was and is the largest expenditure of state and local governments.

I had assumed that professional academics, people I liked and respected, were committed to honesty in their professional work. I think of the discovery that they were not as my loss of innocence.

My gut reaction is to disapprove both of what the people I worked with then did—pretending to inform people while deliberately misinforming them—and what Gruber describes and approves of, but I cannot prove that my reaction is justified. Gruber's position is that he is willing to sacrifice one value for another that he thinks more important, and I cannot show that he is wrong. I can, however, point out a danger in the approach. Once academics accept the principle that dishonesty is justified if done for the greater good, their work cannot be trusted on any subject with regard to which they have an incentive to misrepresent it. I offered an example in one of my previous posts.

Consider the relevance for the current climate controversy. No single academic knows enough to base his conclusion solely on his own work and expertise. Each of them is relying on information produced by many others. The economists estimating the net effect of AGW rely on the work of climate scientists predicting the effects on temperature of increased CO2, the work of other climate scientists predicting the effect of increased temperature on rainfall, hurricanes, and other relevant variables, the work of agronomists estimating the effect of changes in CO2 concentration, length of growing season, temperature on agricultural production, the work of statisticians confirming the models of the climate scientists on the basis of their analysis of paleoclimate data, and many others.

What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes is the right conclusion? Each of them then interprets the work of all the others as providing more support for that conclusion than it really does. The result might be that they end up biasing their results in support of the wrong conclusion—which each of them believes is right on the basis of the lies of all the others.

That is one of the reasons I am not greatly impressed by the supposed scientific consensus in favor of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.

There is a quote usually attributed to Bismarck but apparently due to Saxe:
Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.
Science too. At least when it intersects politics.


Anonymous said...

There's a traditional argument that the "AGW is not real, or isn't a threat" side of the argument is made largely by people with a strong vested interest in preserving the profitability of the fossil-fuel industry -- either corporate leaders in that industry, scientists hired by that industry, or politicians from fossil-fuel-exporting states -- whereas the "AGW is a real threat" side is argued by scientists who, individually, have no sufficiently strong vested interest in one direction or the other to impede their scientific objectivity, and therefore we should give more credence to the latter.

Your argument, as I understand it, is that it doesn't take a strong bias in one direction or another to produce biased results; even a slight bias, multiplied by the number of steps of reasoning, would be sufficient to produce a biased conclusion. You're probably right in this, and there probably is a slight but widespread bias among scientists in favor of policies favoring reduced fossil-fuel consumption. So it's plausible that a "game of telephone" with a slight bias at each step in favor of AGW-as-a-threat would produce the current scientific consensus.

But let's remember that it takes just as many steps of reasoning to conclude that AGW isn't a threat as to conclude that it is, so the multiplier effect should be similar in both directions. I'm still inclined to believe a large number of scientists who don't have any obvious strong vested interest in AGW over a small number of scientists who do.

Where do the former group of scientists get their pay? Mostly through Universities -- which may on average have a slight liberal bias but which also pride themselves on allowing dissident voices -- and from government grants, which might plausibly be biased in the direction of the current Presidential administration, but if that were a controlling factor, I would expect to see a scientific consensus from 2001-2008 that AGW was NOT a real threat, and we didn't.

Mark Malmros said...

David, here you point out one of many contemporary examples of the "doctrine of equivocation" - which Richard Posner explains is "divorcing ethics from consequences. The Jesuits developed the doctrine to enable them to lie their way out of heresy examinations by their religious enemies without committing a mortal sin."

Posner makes the point (although in a slightly different context) that in this case telling the truth would have worse consequences than lying. But still, lying is a mortal sin - hence they redefined lying. The "doctrine of equivocation" of course is itself a lie - but how convenient to codify it into "legitimacy".

Posner in "The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory", p. 124)

jimbino said...

The big secret of Obamacare is that childfree single young health males are being taxed to support the breeding females and the sick and the old.

The bing secret of measures like carbon-capping is that the non-breeders will be taxed to support those who are exacerbating the global warming, depletion of resources and annihilation of species by their breeding. Besides threatening to destroy the planet, our pro-natal policies go on to waste our tax dollars in the mis-education of the brood--that very brood who stand to gain most by the punishing carbon and energy taxes on adult non-breeders.

Daublin said...

Regarding Obamacare, even the major commentators seem unclear on many of the important details, for example the apportionment of responsibility between the feds and the states. So your point about academia is already applying to the blogosphere discussions.

Continuing the analogy, there is evidence that the highest proponents of the system pushed a *lot* of details onto the programmers, asking them to implement an impossible system that cures all problems. Some of the features of the exchange are completely unnecessary; to further the parallels, some of the features are there to trick young people into purchasing insurance that is not in their interest compared to paying the penalties.

For academia, there is an unfortunate systems argument that no institution is going to remain dominant unless it follows the money. For many sources of funding, you have to show results, or you'll be out-competed by other professors that do come up with results. Professors with funding have more successful universities all around, including the attainment of graduate students to follow on and spread their ideas in the next generation.

Dan Pangburn said...

Science has identified the two drivers that explain the uptrends and downtrends of climate change with 95% correlation since before 1900 and credible estimate back to 1610. Discover what the drivers are and why CO2 change is NOT one of them at

Mark Bahner said...

Hi David,

Your description of what is happening on climate change is in hypothetical terms. But the IPCC's treatment of the Representative Concentration Pathways isn't hypothetical.

Specifically, the IPCC has made no attempt to inform anyone how extremely unlikely it is that the RCP 8.5 scenario will occur.

Instead, they allow people to routinely refer to the RCP 8.5 scenario as "business as usual (BAU)".

Even the UK Met Office refers to RCP 8.5 as "business as usual":

"A new type of pathway is being used for the next Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013 — the Representative Concentration Pathway or RCP. These represent very different views of how the world may look in 2100, with RCP 2.6 showing the effects of strong mitigation and RCP 8.5 the impacts of 'business as usual' in which we continue to use fossil fuels with no mitigation."

There's no doubt in my mind that the IPCC would make it clear if an organization like the Met Office underrepresenting likely emissions in the 21st century. But the IPCC deliberately sets up the RCP scenarios to give the misimpression that RCP 8.5 is "business as usual."

David Friedman said...

I recently came across one example, not of academic dishonesty, but of dishonesty in the transition from academic work to popular perception of climate issues. One part of the popular perception, which I ran into in a recent online argument, is the idea that AGW will result in a reduction of agricultural output, hence make famine more likely.

I found the following from what appears to be part of the product of the IPCC working group 2:

"Studies of the economic impact of this change (in all cases, climate change associated with 2xCO2) conclude that the aggregated global impact on the agricultural sector may be slightly negative to moderately positive, depending on underlying assumptions (e.g., Rosenzweig and Parry, 1994; Darwin, 1999; Parry et al., 1999; Mendelsohn et al., 2000)."


Slightly negative to moderately positive result from AGW implies that preventing AGW wil have an effect from slightly positive to moderately negative—just the opposite of the public perception.

Norm said...

A somewhat similar experience:

Almost twenty years ago I was on the Little Hoover Commission panel to examine California school finance. I was a fairly new school board member who had tried to understand the way California financed schools. I’m a good deal more analytical and investigative than most board members and I had spent quite a bit of effort, but I couldn’t get it all. This panel created by the California legislature seemed to me to be a chance to understand more. Driving to the first of about ten meetings I realized I had to have something to contribute. My only thought was that the citizens would be best served by a system that they could understand if they cared to so they could assign responsibility for the results. Various education leaders would not be able to blame mysterious funding problems for their deficiencies. At least if there were funding problems they would be visible and those responsible would be identifiable.

The panel had 40 members and whoever created it did a fantastic job of having every possible interest represented, small, medium, large and Los Angeles sized districts, teachers, administrators, board members , parents, consultants, department of education employees and legislative staff and members. Of course we agreed on very little. The one subject we did agree on, unanimously, was the idea that a simpler, more direct, system would be better because the public could understand it and hold those responsible accountable. (Someone else brought this subject up before I could.)

The legislative members of the panel pointed out that this was really the only subject for discussion that was off limits since there was no way the legislature would even consider reducing their power to tweak the system and show their supporters they were doing something. The insane complexity of the financing was directly caused by the need to make new “laws” frequently. It also made the public nearly powerless because they couldn’t understand individually, much less collectively, how the system worked.

A nice report was filed after our meetings.

Laird said...

Just another example of "the ends justifies the means".

Richard Ober Hammer said...

Timur Kuran's book seems relevant, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification

David Friedman said...

Laird: The problem is that everyone believes the ends justify the means, provided the ends are sufficiently important. With enough at stake, anyone is willing to do things he would normally disapprove of.

As it happens, that's one of the secondary themes of my second novel, not one I planned but one that emerged in the course of writing it. Prince Kieron is an antagonist but not a villain. At one point he behaves very badly towards the protagonists, gets them into his power by trickery and then threatens the female protagonist in order to get the male protagonist to do what he wants.

The reason is that he needs their assistance in doing something he believes, reasonably although perhaps mistakenly, is of enormous importance. And he has actually warned the female protagonist earlier that he is willing to do things he normally disapproves of if enough is at stake:

"Law-breaking is a bad thing, whether by the King's servants or anyone else, but there are worse things, some of which it is my responsibility to deal with. I will promise not to violate bounds or law save in the most extreme circumstances, ..."

Natalie said...

I've often said that the current mainstream view of anthropogenic global warming is equivalent to a stock market bubble.

Mac Muir said...

Here is an article that I think is on point:

Charley said...

Around 1970, when I was young, I was an ardent ecologist. I was pessimistic because I was certain that man's actions would destroy the earth in just a few decades. I never thought I would reach my 40th birthday.

In my sixth grade class, taught by an ecology-minded teacher, I faced a question on a test something like this: "Do ecologists sometimes need misrepresent the truth to get people to take action?"

I answered "no" and was marked down for the wrong answer.

Andrew said...

It occurs to me that this potentially provides an example of something which it is politically incorrect to say anywhere, including on the political right. If politically correct means "quite possibly true, but nevertheless unacceptable to express" then "voters are stupid" is such a proposition.

Anonymous said...

It's rarely in the interest of salesman, lawyers, and politicians to tell the whole truth. Any situation that involves A trying to convince B of something, is a situation that invites some level of dishonesty. If you're trying to convince someone to marry you, you probably don't start with a list of your flaws...there's no presentation of facts which is completely viewpoint neutral, so why not shade things in a flattering direction?

William Newman said...

"there's no presentation of facts which is completely viewpoint neutral, so why not shade things in a flattering direction?"

There is no transportation system which is completely safe, so why not cause a few extra accidents?

I gather that you have thought something that convinced you that the two questions are not parallel. It doesn't seem to me that you have written anything that should convince us.

When I read _David's Sling_ around the time of its publication, I thought it was an unrealistic strawman stunt to put in the mouths of the antagonists. These days I am sadder but wiser.

Rebecca Friedman said...


A popular newspaper comic strip - Foxtrot - was making a variation on that particular point this year around election day. So I don't think it's unsayable.


If I were trying to convince someone to marry me, I would make sure he knew my flaws - not doing so might be helpful for the immediate purpose of convincing him, but seems likely to lead to an abrupt failure of the marriage at a later date. It's not as if I can hide them forever.

David Friedman said...

" If politically correct means "quite possibly true, but nevertheless unacceptable to express" then "voters are stupid" is such a proposition."

I think it depends on the forum. It's unacceptable for a politician to express in public. But, as we observe with Gruber, it is acceptable for an academic to express in most contexts, which is why he felt free to say what he said. It's only a problem when the academic is linked too closely to politicians.

An academic commenting to others that voters are stupid will not face the sort of reaction he would get if he said that he thought blacks were on average less intelligent than whites or that fewer women than men had the talents necessary to be a really top mathematician.

Anonymous said...

In choosing to value the legislation he favored over honesty to the voters, he indicated that his choice of his values was more important than the choices of all of the individuals he misled. Even if this wasn't a subversion of democracy, which he pretended to value by participation in the project, and even if the number of people did not weigh enormously against his decision, there is a reason to find both an ethical and a logical flaw in his choice. He believed he was making his choice based on superior knowledge, which he clearly was not. He was, and is, less knowledgeable about the values and life circumstances of all of the individuals on whose behalf he made his choice than each of them is.

AnthonyD said...


"Mostly through Universities -- which may on average have a slight liberal bias but which also pride themselves on allowing dissident voices"

There seems to be rather convincing evidence that liberal scholars are very willing to discirminate agaisnt conservatives. Which shouldn't be shocking since minorities are very frequently discriminated against when they refuse to conform to the majority's will. See the extreme discirmination against Black Americans who have dreads or other "black" haircuts. Or who commonly speak in aave.

Paper with detailed evidence:

Main webpage with many re-sources:

brendan said...

Reminds me of this funny observation about how the Left thinks:

"that (1) “democracy” is both an ethical necessity and the ideal organizational structure for any country-sized corporation; whereas (2) actual public policy decisions should be made by experts — scholars, that is, who will no doubt be Whigs — as opposed to whichever scoundrels happened to win the last election, let alone by the whims of 51 percent of some huge, confused mob; these garnished with the all-purpose Whig meta-proposition that (a) contradiction notwithstanding, these two claims are beyond dispute (typically by appeal to the current date); with the obvious corollary that (b) anyone who insists on disputing them must be stupid, crazy, or downright evil. In short: “democracy” good, “politics” bad, shut up and don’t ask questions. We’ll call it the democratic double valence."

Anonymous said...

One thing, David.

If climate scientists each fib a little, and the fibs accrete until the sum is a giant lie, there's a giant pullback on it.


So far, nature hasn't obliged by showing that climate scientists are fibbing.

LH said...


Whether Nature has obliged to show that scientists are fibbing is disputable; whether it has obliged to show that those scientists are incorrect is much more clear. There are now decades of predictions for elapsed time periods, and to my knowledge (on the warming topic) they have virtually all been wrong, most significantly so, and on the side of predicting too much warming.

One might reasonably expect incorrect predictions based on scientific inaccuracy, whether via inadequate theory or methodology, to show variability in both directions or to cancel out to an extent. A prevailing one-sided bias compounded through successive research would be more consistent with the observed predictive failures.

You might argue that the massive discrepancy between predictions and observation is explained but some additional phenomena that was unknown at the time of predictions, and you might be right - but that does not negate the relevance of the shape of the distribution of prediction errors.

Bravin Neff said...

"What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes is the right conclusion?"

I would think it depends entirely on the distribution of the expert's beliefs. One result might be that of added noise to the distribution of conclusions with roughly the same conclusion. I'm guessing that's where the bulk of results would lie.

G-Man said...

There's a difference between scientists being incorrect, to a greater or lesser degree, and engaging in the sort of dishonesty David claims.

I've not seen any compelling evidence that a reason for the difference between some aspects of climate model predictions and observations is due to some sort of dishonesty; a scientific error isn't evidence of that *a priori*.

Besides, it's not like the differences are that huge and are unable to be explained by other things besides a concerted effort (intentional or otherwise) to "bias" the results.

My point still stands - nature is the final arbiter of correctness and error, and no amount of fibbing overrides that.

David Friedman said...

"So far, nature hasn't obliged by showing that climate scientists are fibbing."

Two points. The first, as someone already pointed out, is that the climate scientists have not done very well on predictions so far. I discussed the IPCC's record here some time back:

That post was on predictions of warming. Other predictions not supported by what happened were on droughts, where the IPCC actually retracted in the fifth report what it had claimed in the fourth, and hurricanes.

But I'm more worried about predictions of net effects. When adding up a lot of uncertain numbers, positive and negative, it's easy to bias your results without trying to, in the direction either of what you believe or of the conclusion that you think it is more in your interest to reach. I discussed one example of that here some time ago:

Josiah Neeley said...

Earlier in this thread, Prof. Friedman cited a particular example of dishonesty relating to climate change. Popular perceptions are that climate change will increase famine by reducing agricultural production, yet according to an IPCC document, "the
aggregated global impact on the agricultural sector [from a doubling of CO2] may be slightly negative to moderately positive."

That certainly sounds like a contradiction. Yet the text immediately following the sentence Prof. Friedman quoted runs as follows:

Most studies on which these findings are based include the positive effect of carbon fertilization but exclude the negative impact of pests, diseases, and other disturbances related to climate change (e.g., droughts, water availability). The aggregate also hides substantial regional differences. Beneficial effects are expected predominantly in the developed world; strongly negative effects are expected for populations that are poorly connected to regional and global trading systems. Regions that will get drier or already are quite hot for agriculture also will suffer, as will countries that are less well prepared to adapt (e.g., because of lack of infrastructure, capital, or education). Losses may occur even if adaptive capacity is only comparatively weak because trade patterns will shift in favor of those adapting best. Overall, climate change is likely to tip agriculture production in favor of well-to-do and well-fed regions— which either benefit, under moderate warming, or suffer less severe losses—at the expense of less-well-to-do and less well-fed regions. Some studies indicate that the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world may increase, because of climate change, by about 10% relative to the baseline (i.e., an additional 80–90 million people) later in the 21st century (e.g., Parry et al., 1999).

So there is no contradiction. Warming may increase agricultural production globally, and yet still result in 80-90 million more hungry people because it hurts agricultural productivity in certain vulnerable regions.

Was Prof. Friedman being dishonest in selectively quoting from this IPCC chapter? I doubt it. But I do think the example shows why we ought to be hesitant before ascribing dishonesty to people we disagree with, particularly on complicated and technical matters such as climate change.

David Friedman said...

Josiah is correct that the piece I quoted from went on to predict declining agricultural output in some parts of the world. What he may be missing is that the IPCC high emissions scenario assumes, I think reasonably enough, continued economic growth. The result is that by 2100, world per capita income in the model is something like five or ten times its present level (I haven't checked the exact numbers). Unless the growth is all in the rich parts of the world, which isn't the pattern at present, the inhabitants of India and Bangladesh are not going to be subsistence farmers dependent for food on their own crops. They will be part of a world market for food, just as we are now. The price of food will be determined on that market, so will depend on world supply, not local supply.

It's also true that the passage mentioned other potential problems not included in their model. Drought was linked to AGW in the fourth IPCC report, but the claim was retracted in the fifth. Given the progress in GMO crops, insects are likely to be less of a problem in the future than in the past, not more.

People implying that AGW will lead to famine mostly don't mention that through the first century of AGW crop output and yields have been rising sharply.

Robbo said...

"Gruber's position is that he is willing to sacrifice one value for another that he thinks more important, and I cannot show that he is wrong."

We cannot always and everywhere prescribe that value X stands above value Y, and therefore Y can be sacrificed for X if necessary.

But in the practice of their professions it IS reasonable to insist that in (almost) all circumstances people do elevate the right values. In engineering, one expects that bridges, ships, cars and aeroplanes will be built without elevating profit above safety. In business one expects that company officers will put the shareholders profits above lining their own pockets in secret. In the law, one expects that judges will put due process above the need to clear the streets of wrong-doers. In kings ? Protecting the integrity of the realm should probably trump telling a few lies, or indeed much worse.

Where Gruber IS wrong is in sacrificing academic values - commitment to the truth - for political values - getting legislation that he likes through Congress, while at the same time presenting himself as an academic, an MIT professor, no less !

These value-priority issues are usually policed internally by the communities of specialists - no-one else is really in a position to sit in judgement, and it is the community which can effect sanctions - loss of office, an end to career advancement, shunning.

It seems to me that there is a tipping point when enough members of a professional community are willing to sacrifice what should be their primary value, and their colleagues do not sanction them. As far as academia is concerned, they have one job - to discover and teach the truth. Academics who elevate other values over this are in the wrong job, as are those who turn a blind eye. The bottom of the slippery slope is where no-one believes anything that comes out of academia any more. The problem then is, why are taxpayers paying for it ? Oh, and, who then will do the teaching and research necessary to continue and advance our civilisation ?

You can't prove Gruber is wrong to put getting the law passed above telling the truth but it is always wrong for a professor to sacrifice telling the truth for a political end. He should have felt the obligation to choose between the two, that he did not speaks very badly of academia, in the US at least.

Robbo said...

"What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes is the right conclusion? "

This reminded me of the C S Lewis essay "The Inner Ring" - what happens when people will shade things a little to ease their way into the inner ring ?

Anonymous said...

@ prof. Friedman:"Given the progress in GMO crops, insects are likely to be less of a problem in the future than in the past, not more"

I generally agree with this argument but recently became a bit worried.I read Talebs take on the risks of GMOs( then I saw the new movie, Interstellar. If you haven't seen it, go see it, it's 3 hours well spent I think. Anyhow, I immediately connected it with the Taleb paper. Althoug not specificaly stated in the movie, humanity was dying out because of a combination of changing weather, overpopulation and overreliance on certain crops, which were grown in massive ammounts to meet demand and which developped catastrophic deseases and started to die out one by one.I am not a biologist but the scenario didn't strike me as entirely unrealistic.I am open to be educated on that matter. Anyways, I just wanted to share the Taleb paper on GMO risk and maybe hear an opinion on that.

Bravin Neff said...

Regarding the: "What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes is the right conclusion?"

It is hard for me to see what is strong about this. It is used to justify the statement of being *unimpressed* (which is to say, have reason to suspect is nonexistent, or illegitimate, or whatever) with a scientific consensus for catastrophic AGW. However, if there is such a consensus of expert opinion in published work, and you assume everyone lied a little in the direction of their private belief, then it seems the thing to conclude is there first existed a consensus *of private belief* which resulted in a consensus *as published* albeit in stronger form.

On the other hand, if the distribution of private beliefs of experts is random, with (for the sake of argument) an equal amount of dissenters as supporters, each lying their little lie, then it is hard to see how you can conclude anything other than the lies will roughly cancel each other out in the aggregate, and you end up with a general *public consensus* that is again roughly equal to the aggregate of *private beliefs.* Maybe the bell curve of published beliefs is wider than the distribution of private beliefs, but the median belief remains the same.

The only way I think you can get to being justifiably *unimpressed* is to assume the side you find yourself uncomfortable with lies more than the side consistent with your priors (or ideological convenience), in which case you can conclude the aggregate *public consensus* of expert opinion got biased toward one side despite private counterbalancing forces toward the other, because one side lied more than the other and pushed the median published belief illegitimately. That seems quite a rabbit hole to go down, but if one believes that, I think they should just say it: "I think the side that makes me uncomfortable lies a little more."

Or maybe there is just a onsensus.

David Friedman said...

Bravin: A couple of responses.

1. Consider the cascade effect. Some position gets accepted early on on the basis of relatively weak evidence. Since that's the established view, later researchers are biased towards supporting it. For example:

The original count of human chromosomes, published in 1923, gave 48. It wasn't until 1956 that it was corrected to the correct value of 46.

The implication isn't that the orthodox view in such situations is wrong but that the evidence for it is weaker than it appears, since the fact that lots of people confirm it may reflect such a cascade.

2. Ideology. The academic world, in particular the elite academic world, is pretty much a political monoculture, as you can easily observe by visiting good colleges and universities and talking with the students, or by looking at the distribution of political views of the faculty. CAGW, like the catastrophic population views fifty years ago, appeals to people who think governments ought to do things to improve the world.

There's a cartoon I'm fond of, used by people on the CAGW side, with a text that amounts to "what if AGW turns out to be a fraud and we've done all sorts of good things for nothing." The implicit assumption is that the things recommended as dealing with AGW are all things the people who recommend them are in favor of anyway. It's relatively easy to convince people of things they want to believe.

Anonymous said...

There's also another, non-ideological factor in play: researchers are biased in favor of interesting results. CAGW is more interesting than lukewarm AGW, which is more interesting than natural variability.

Bravin Neff said...

Bias because of cascade effects and bias toward interesting results are interesting in their own right, but I was addressing the claim bias might get burnt in to a consensus because everyone gave himself license to lie. It could be these are tantamount to the same thing, but lying (or what I think is more germane – exaggerating) seems separate. The blog post seemed to treat it as separate. Its plausible a consensus on CAGW *got started* because of some early lying despite weak evidence, and everyone else bought in to it in good faith. But it also seems something of a stretch considering research is now several decades in.

Bias in the other direction is possible too. CAGW is framed in terms of two sets of costs: costs imposed on people currently living to benefit some of our future selves but mostly future others, or costs imposed on future others and some of our future selves in favor of people currently living. We know we are hyperbolic discounters, disproportionately discounting future states in favor of current ones. And I’m pretty confident we disproportionately discount the welfare of others to ourselves. Which seems a pretty strong built-in bias against doing anything now. This argument might not work well for academic researchers who only ever exercise *system 2* (LOL – I doubt it), but it seems a decent explanation of the general American public’s reaction against doing anything now.

Bravin Neff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Friedman said...

Bravin: I think your point is legitimate with regard to what people want to do. But the individual researcher, like the individual voter, knows that his contribution to the debate is unlikely to have a significant effect on the outcome. It is much more likely to have a significant on him—his status with friends and acquaintances, his professional opportunities. If his environment is one with an ideological bias in favor of CAGW, that gives him a good reason to share it.

At a slight tangent ... . Dan Kahan has done some interesting work, which I discussed in earlier posts, on why people believe things. It runs along similar lines.

I suggested to him a while ago that he should think about what things he believes not because there are good arguments for them but because openly not believing them would have negative effects on his relations with those around him. He wasn't willing to play.

Bravin Neff said...

David: You’re probably right in pointing out the significance of the effect on the researcher provides the strongest incentive. But I find it interesting you word it that way, in terms of the status and opportunities at stake for him. I have personally struggled with CAGW, but it is worded thus: a bleak today vs. a bleak tomorrow, with my welfare in competition with the future welfare of my children and progeny, a competition I do not welcome. I don’t know what gets the typical researcher out of bed, or keeps him up at night, but I assume I am not unique in that regard. If evolutionary psychology tells us kin selection is a primary motivator, and advancing the cause of insurance against CAGW is a form of kin selection, this seems to me the stronger motivation to exaggerate one’s work than personal status. I definitely lose sleep over the prospect of a future world with dramatically diminished probabilities of the good life. I might lose sleep over diminished personal status.

Bravin Neff said...

Put another way, I think two worlds are on offer:

World 1: there is published expert consensus on CAGW. And experts fib a little in accordance with status incentives.

World 2: there is published expert consensus on CAGW. And experts fib a little in accordance with protecting the interests of their future progeny.

World 1 could leave you doubting the private consensus because lies motivated by status don't necessarily align with private belief. World 2 leaves you little doubt what the private consensus is, because the lies are in line with private values. I think world 2 has stronger incentives than world 1, in which case a published consensus should be interpreted as a private consensus (and thus impressive).

There might be a world 3 with a published expert consensus on CAGW, where experts don't privately believe in CAGW (and so aren't worried for their progeny), and simultaneously don't value the costs their ACGW fibs impose on everyone including themselves, if the insurance policy gets sold, and who lie for whatever reason in the opposite direction of their private belief. But...

Jonathan said...

It's obviously correct to point out that climatologists are human, they have human failings, and aren't completely trustworthy.

The problem is that non-climatologists are equally human, they're no more trustworthy, and in addition they know less about the subject.

If you decide to believe no-one, then science becomes worthless to you, except for whatever research you can conduct yourself without input from anyone else.

I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying that, while total belief isn't justified, total disbelief leaves you with very little basis for any decision-making.

I'm not even an amateur climatologist, and don't know how climate is likely to change in the future, nor why. Fortunately, that doesn't matter, because I'm in no position to make important decisions about it.

It seems reasonable to believe that the world's climate is likely to change in some way (as it has done in the past), and that human activities have some effect on it. More than that I can't say.