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Bias from Sources of Funding

Wired is running an article about funding and bias in global warming science this morning. Global warming is a topic that is pretty popular right now, but I believe they are only really telling half the story on the funding/bias issue.

The slant of the story is that Pat Michaels, a long time anti-human-induced/global-warming-is-exaggerated scientist is being biased in his research because he is accepting money from energy producers. Certainly, many research companies have gotten into scandals in recent years as they write passionate stories on a subject only to have it revealed that the study was funded by the organization that stands to benefit the most. This is especially sad when the actions of the research organization are in opposition to the findings in these studies.

So, if we accept the claim that research funding from "interested" parties biases the researchers then what can we say about the people who are crying foul in the case of Michaels?

A quick quote from the article:

"These people are just spitting into the wind," said John Holdren, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The fact is that the drumbeat of science and people's perspectives are in line that the climate is changing."

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington advocacy group, said: "This is a classic case of industry buying science to back up its anti-environmental agenda."

So, who are the people funding these organizations. Neither of them readily discloses their sources of funding (at least not that I could find in a cursory view of their website). Clean Air Watch (CAW) does accept donations from private individuals - in which case you have to ask a question: "what motivates a private individual to give money to CAW?" The optimistic perspective is that people do it because CAW is doing something to help every person who breathes air. The pessimistic perspective is that if CAW produces enough "alarmist" reports that scare people into action then those people will be motivated to give more money to CAW. I think it's only fair to say that both the optimistic and pessimistic perspective are valid in at least some of the cases which brings me to my point: CAW has a bias in it's source of funding! So all of this "CAW is holier than though, Pat Michaels" stuff is poppycock.

At the end of the day, I don't have a problem with research funding giving a bias to the research. I'm glad that there is funding at all for this kind of work. If people had to give funding in a truly unbiased way (double blind donations) can you imagine the unintended consequences and horrible research that would result? It's the responsibility of the peer scientists, the academic journals, the conferences, AND the funders as a whole community to ensure that the research is valid. Any researcher who says that they come at a task without a bias is lying to themselves.

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