Beware the retired scientist?

The Lippard Blog has an interesting analysis of Who are the climate change skeptics? In this he identifies links of many of the sceptics with several right wing think tanks like The Heartland Institute and George C. Marshal Institute. One could do a similar analysis of our local climate sceptics and deniers. Some of them seem to be linked with the right wing NZ Centre for Politcal Research, the ACT Party and Conservative Christian organisations and blogs. Have a look at the discussion New Zealand’s “CLIMATEGATE”! on the Centre for Political Research forum. Obviously conspiracy theorists tend to congregate in these areas.

Professional status of sceptics

But – enough of the political connections. What interested me about Lippard Blog’s analysis is the likely age and professional status of scientists who are climate sceptics compared with those working in climate science who are generally accepting of the IPCC conclusions. (He identifies the latter groups as the “IPCC scientists.”)

The analysis used data for 623 scientists involved in the Working Group 1 of the IPCC and for 469 scientists who were signatories of documents skeptical of anthropogenic global warming. The data included the number of citations for the 4th most cited paper for each scientist and the year their last degree was obtained. This gives us some idea of scientific standing, age and working/retired status.

I have plotted the data in the figure. Unsurprisingly the number of citations increased with time since last degree, or age. Scientific standing does increasing with time and experience (and numbers of publications).

But there is a huge difference between the two groups in the average date for last degree. I take from this that as a group climate sceptics tend be older and many more of them will actually be retired, compared with those who worked on the IPCC documents.

Retired scientists

I am retired myself so I have often thought of the role that many retired scientists still play in scientific and political issues.

Some scientists like to remain active in their field on retirement. Some will continue to work without payment or retain academic positions – often for no payment. Great for their institutes – although I did hear of one lab which had been trying to  diplomatically  tell a still active long-term retiree that his shaking hands and poor eyesight had become a safety issue in the laboratory!

It’s also quite common for scientists to do a bit of consulting in their retirement. It brings in a bit of money, maintains some standing in the scientific community and often, to be frank, appeals to the vanity and self worth of the scientist. After all, one of the few negative features of retirement is reduced social contact and standing.

Problems with consultants

I see a problem with assuming retired scientists are always reliable sources of information, though. After all, it’s harder to keep up with the literature and to be aware of current findings – especially if one is no longer based in a working scientific institute. There is no longer the advantage of, and necessity for, peer review of one’s publications and public statements. Mind you, commercial and political interests may be more interested in the name and degree, the authority of the scientist, than the facts.  Maybe a win-win situation for some. A presentation of an authoritative image by the retired scientist, without the need to maintain research and reading or bother about consulting colleagues. While the purchaser of the information gets a “tame’ expert with suitable endorsement of their product or political campaign.

Now I am not, by any means, claiming this is so in every case. Far from it. Simple retirement doesn’t necessarily lead to loss of integrity. Nor does institutional employment necessarily imply integrity. I have seen scoundrels in both situations.

However, the graph above does indicate that climate sceptics are more likely to be divorced from peer review, familiarity with the literature and current findings  and the discipline of consulting colleagues. And maybe they can be influenced by commercial interests, or even just the fact that in the current political climate large numbers of people are willing to see them as authorities and uncritically accept and parrot their articles and statements.


Similar Articles

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


11 responses to “Beware the retired scientist?

  1. Great blog topic Ken, and one well worthy of dissection.

    For the record I’m on the fence when it comes to the causes of Global Warming – basically the subject burns a hole in my brain and I go watery-eyed upon its very mention (more frequently running to the fridge and opening a beer to calm my nerves) So, I don’t have an axe to grind, either-way.

    But I couldn’t help but spot the same ‘conspiracy’ (for want of a better term) you did.

    That’s to say conservative Christians acting as global-warming deniers and digging-up all sorts of statistics and ‘authorities’ to back-up their claims and ignoring others when suits.

    The idea that an individual who believes in invisible entities from another dimension, undetectable to ‘mere humans’ and ‘science’, can suddenly & conveniently go rushing to those very same sources they lambaste when it comes to their belief in the supernatural – is ‘rich’ and duplicitous to the extreme.

    A prime example is a local fundamentalist who believes the earth is 6,000 years-old writing a book telling us that it’s all a ‘con’ using scientific-data to back his ascertains-up!

    They have zero credibility and should stick to their ancient mumbo-jumbo.




  2. For the record I’m on the fence when it comes to the causes of Global Warming…

    Then may I cordially invite you to get off the fence?

    Try this as a harmless (though enlightening) thought experiment.

    Get a pen and paper and quickly write down the top five scientific communities on the planet.
    Don’t think to much about it.
    The first five that come to mind.
    No particular order.
    Just the ones that you personally know about and have always trusted for other scientific information.
    The ones you personally have always been a fan of even when you were a little kid.
    The “Special Forces” of the scientific world.
    The really, really famous ones.
    The ones that are liberally loaded with Nobel prize winners.
    The ones that have a host of dedicated hard-working professionals that actually get out there and do the work that science demands.
    Write down the top five.
    Jot them down now.
    Just straight off the top of your head.

    Finished? No cheating?

    Now go and google each of those shamelessly important and famous scientific communities and find their web-sites.
    Once you get to those web-sites, check out what each of their position is on global warming and the causes behind it.

    Notice anything?
    None of the scientific communities that you chose are “sitting on the fence” as to the causes of global warming.

    Try again with a different random five.
    Choose your own. I won’t influence you.
    Yet…you’ll get the same result.
    Interesting, yeah?

    You are an individual.
    You don’t just follow the herd.
    Cool. No problem. I can respect that.

    So, in all honesty, ask yourself this…
    How is it that you are comfortable “sitting on the fence” and yet there are no scientific communities on your very own list that support your position?
    How did you arrive at your position on the science on global warming in the first place?
    It certainly wasn’t because you checked out your favourite scientific communites.

    The only way that somebody can be comfortable with an “indifferent/neutral/ambiviant/skeptical/etc” viewpoint on the existence of global warming and/or it’s causes is if they carefully avoid every single scientific community on the planet.

    To reinforce their preconceptions, however, they can swim happily in a zillion no-name blogs, op-eds in newspapers, political pundits on tv and conservative think-tanks.

    So, I don’t have an axe to grind, either-way.

    Evolution denierism is the twin brother of global warming denierism.
    Hiv denialism, moon landing denialism and anti-vacc denialism are all part of the same family too.
    They rely upon the same tactics, shameless use and abuse of the media and a gullible public and very often are touted by exactly the same people.
    It’s all anti-science.
    Don’t selectively reject only some anti-science and yet others sneek past your guard.
    Leave that crap to the wooly-headed creationists who let their doctor treat them with antibiotics yet can’t handle the idea of an Earth older than a few thousand years.


  3. I have a better idea than submitting to intimidation or authority or petty demagogues of the internet.
    Get the raw data. Put it in excel. Look at it.
    It’s really that simple.
    (Don’t use the ‘value added’, fudged, artificially adjusted or ‘infill’ data – get the raw data.)

    Then you will be doing science. It’s not rocket surgery.

    Then you will find out who lies.

    The only thing ‘unprecedented’ in this issue is the sheer audacity of the attempted fraud.


  4. Dr Doom – what the he’ll are you referring to?

    Sent from my iPod


  5. Get the raw data.

    What raw data?
    From whom?
    How much of it?

    How do you verify your work and make sure you’re not falling for confirmation bias or the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect?

    Dr Doom, what five scientific communities were on your list?

    Let me give you an example of what I mean…

    My first choice is NASA.
    (Obvious, I know, but it’s a world famous class act.)
    Second choice is…
    The Royal Society.
    (Snob value alone is worth it.)
    Third choice is the CSIRO.
    (Home team advantage)
    Fourth choice is the British Antarctic Survey.
    (Big fan of Scott)
    Fifth Choice is the British Meterological Society.
    (Last but not least)

    Who are your top five?
    The best of the best?


  6. Off-topic.

    Ken, thought this might interest you.
    Kooky religious nutters don’t just hate science. They hate science fiction too.


  7. Cedric, mate you have missed my point entirely. I have other interests in life – I would rather spend time in the pub, watching horse races, looking at porn on the internet, mountain-biking etc than concerning myself with saving the planet, whales or debating issues I nether have the expertise, nor more importantly, the interest in.

    Put succinctly – I don’t give a rats- arse about global-warming and its causes.

    I’m planning to be dead, due to over-indulgence in a whole range of vices – long before it effects become noticeable to mainstream homo-sapiens and besides if it means the weather gets better here in Christchurch – that’s got to be a good thing.

    In-fact, to show my contempt & to speed the process-up (far too slow for my liking) I’m going home tonight and smash my fridge to pieces to burn an-even bigger hole in the ozone layer – right over my house. Then dance about dunk & naked to celebrate my efforts in speeding the process-up!

    You are invited – b.y.o though.

    See ya.



  8. If being an atheist means being in some way affiliated with either Cedric or Paul I’d just like to say that I’m not an atheist. I just don’t happen to believe in a God. 😉


  9. Pingback: Lynch mob mentality « Open Parachute

  10. Paul your sentiments are not challenged but some perspective of where they lie in any debate of future events, is open to speculation.
    If you just don’t care what will happen as long as your plans are met with gratification, then that may well be the perspective that your views are received in.
    I ask to clarify this “Do you accept any responsibility for the consequence of your actions?”


  11. Pingback: Climate scientist’s’ register? « Open Parachute

Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s