I could have told him that

Richard Black investigates the common crank claim that science is just an old boys network designed to throw sweet, sweet grant money at their friends. Guess what? The evidence of this conspiracy is lacking.

I anticipated having to spend days, weeks, months even, sifting the wheat from the chaff, going backwards and forwards between journal editors, heads of department, conference organisers, funding bodies and the original plaintiffs.

I envisaged major headaches materialising as I tried to sort out the chains of events, attempting to decipher whether claims had any validity, or were just part of the normal rough and tumble of a scientist’s life – especially in the context of scientific publishing, where the top journals only publish about 10% of the papers submitted to them.

The reality was rather different.

The sum total of evidence obtained through this open invitation, then, is one first-hand claim of bias in scientific journals, not backed up by documentary evidence; and three second-hand claims, two well-known and one that the scientist in question does not consider evidence of anti-sceptic feeling.

No-one said they had been refused a place on the IPCC, the central global body in climate change, or denied a job or turned down for promotion or sacked or refused access to a conference platform, or indeed anything else.

Whether this exercise has conclusively disproved a bias is not for me to say – I am sure others will find plenty to say, doubtless in the courteous and gracious language that typifies climate discourse nowadays.

But I will say this; if someone persistently claims to be a great football player, and yet fails to find the net when you put him in front of an open goal, you cannot do other than doubt his claim.

Andres Millan, who wrote to me on the subject from Mexico, offered another explanation for why scientific journals, research grants, conference agendas and the IPCC itself are dominated by research that backs or assumes the reality of modern-day greenhouse warming.

“Most global warming sceptics have no productive alternatives; they say it is a hoax, or that it will cause severe social problems, or that we should allocate resources elsewhere,” he wrote.

“Scientifically, they have not put forward a compelling, rich, and variegated theory.

“And until that happens, to expect the government, or any source of scientific funding, to give as much money, attention, or room within academic journals to the alternatives, seems completely misguided.”

It’s good that he researched this and all, but frankly, it was a waste of time. It doesn’t matter what the crankery is, they’re always convinced the reason people don’t listen to their nonsense is that it’s some kind of conspiracy against them. And surprise surprise, when you actually try to make them provide evidence of said conspiracy, they can offer none. From the HIV/AIDS denialists to the cdesign proponentsists, you always see the same argument again and again. Science is a church, protecting dogma! It’s biased against us! You’re just conspiring to enrich your buddies with grant money! Blah blah blah.

You don’t need to waste any time investigating such nonsense, it’s a prima facie absurd claim.


  1. Well all this “evidence” is obviously in favor of there being a conspiracy. Only a perfect conspiracy would be good enough at covering it’s tracks to leave no evidence, which necessitates it’s existence otherwise it would not be perfect. I call this the ontological argument for the existence of conspiracy. There has to be some reason why most scientists don’t consider my ideas worth the bandwidth they consume!

  2. Justin Moretti

    You don’t need to waste any time investigating such nonsense, it’s a prima facie absurd claim.

    Yes, it is – but I think science should at least be seen to be addressing it.

  3. MarkH wrote: “that science is just an old boys network designed to throw sweet, sweet grant money at their friends.” The where I work there is at least some anecdotal evidence to support the claim and I am not talking about global warming. For example, as a PhD student you will have a harder time publishing in the journal of your choice if you are an unknown sole author. Submit the same paper, but add a well known respected researcher as a co-author and you will have an easier time publishing. The same happens if you are a well known respected researcher and the current research you are publishing is crap, it is easier to get it published. Names, reputation, politics, all do count to some degree, which you probably will find out once you obtained your PhD and start working in the real world. The old boys network is alive as well and it is a little naive to think otherwise.

  4. “there is at least some anecdotal evidence to support the claim and I am not talking about global warming.”

    But there is anecdotal ‘evidence’ to support everything. My first five publications had me as the sole author.

  5. Read the same author’s same day article ‘The Cosmic Connection’ in which he talks about Svensmark’s theory.

  6. I agree with Dan and David that being established allows you to publish junk more easily, and not being established can generate harsh reviews regardless of the merit of the paper. This isn’t claiming conspiracy, simply human behavior–most fields are fairly small, and reviewers will know the established author by their work, techniques, and style, even if the submission is blind. Similarly I can see an unknown proposal, especially proposing something out of the ordinary, getting slammed as prima facie absurd.

    I suppose this:

    “science is just an old boys network designed to throw sweet, sweet grant money at their friends. Guess what? The evidence of this conspiracy is lacking.”

    _is_ a crank claim, but a milder version of the same has been said by many good scientists trying to make it in a resource-scarce environment.


  7. I agree there is some effect of that. It’s known as reputation. Humans will always make some judgments based on reputation, and it’s not always a bad thing.

    In the current super-tight funding environment, these allegations also pop up much more frequently. People who get grants denied repeatedly often spout off about how you have to be famous or “know someone”. But the fact is that anyone who knows anything about how grants are awarded from the NIH and other government granting institutions realizes this is largely imaginary (and ego-protecting). It’s not one guy in control of the money. Or 5, or even a dozen. Your grants go through lots of hands, are scored by committees (study sections) based on the merit of the work, Then everything is funded up to a certain score. Those committees are simply too diverse and too large to carry any real biased agenda.

    I don’t buy it. Further there are so many instances of people establishing a reputation based solely on the quality of their work in science. It may have flaws and will always be a human endeavor, but it still is exceptional as a meritocracy.

    It is true though that it is easier to get published with a big name on your paper, and big names can publish junk really easily. Look how far Duesberg got before he was eventually dismissed as a crank. But the point is, if your selling BS, even the big names and NAS members will eventually get shut out.

  8. At the end of ‘A Cosmic Connection’, Richard Black lays out two possible future scenarios quite elegantly. It is worth a look.

  9. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘waste any time’ – if you mean that Black should have known the result before he started, well, I’m pretty sure he did.

    But I think going through the motions of the investigation and reporting it was well worthwhile. Look here, for example, bearing in mind that that article was originally intended for the Beeb’s in-house magazine: Black and Harrabin thought it necessary to point out to their journalistic colleagues that denialism is skewing debates.

    There’s a debate that keeps threatening to poke into the margins of the topic of this blog, about what needs to be done about the hinterland of the denialists, a rather amorphous cloud of people who believe their lies and tend to be sympathetically inclined to them, yet may be more open to reason than they are. I think it’s what Matt Nisbet is banging on about, however tactlessly.

    While GW deniers have a large overlap with BBC distrusters, I still think that Black’s series is very useful in the wider context of an audience who know virtually nothing about the scientific process (well, why should they?), and therefore are susceptible to slanders about scientific integrity.

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