Green Watch

Climate change violence study exposes ethical problems in science and the media

As we noted last week, a team of scientists recently published a paper that supposedly links “climate change” to violence – all sorts of violence, from land riots in Brazil to warfare in Africa to rape and wife-beating in the U.S.  The paper, and the media coverage of it, highlight the ethical problems facing scientists and journalists regarding controversial issues related to science.

The paper’s methodology has been picked apart in a number of places. [See this story in the German publication Der Spiegel  and this analysis by the statistician William M. Briggs.]

But the problems in the paper, and in news media reports about the paper, go far beyond questions about the authors’ analysis of the available data. The paper and its coverage raise ethical questions for both scientists and reporters.


The paper has been presented in the media as a case for taking action against Global Warming. In fact, it simply assumes that Global Warming theory is correct.

The abstract for the paper (the summary) notes that “A rapidly growing body of research examines whether human conflict can be affected by climatic changes. . . . For each 1 standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%. Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm 2-4 [standard deviations] by 2050, amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.” (The standard deviation is a mathematical measure of how often something happens outside the norm. For example, a public opinion poll that’s conducted by strict scientific standards would be correct, within two standard deviations, about 90% of the time.)

Putting aside the validity of the authors’ calculations, note this part: “Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm . . . ” The paper presents not one scintilla of evidence to support the belief that such a warming will take place. Again, they assume.  The source they cite for the projection (footnotes 94 and 95) is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—which is, in fact, not an independent scientific organization but an arm of the United Nations.

Yes, the IPCC is an arm of the United Nations, a famously corrupt body in which most votes are controlled by kleptocracies and outright dictatorships. Most of the member-states, as they’re called, are rated as either “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House, and both Communist China and Putinist Russia have veto power. And any settlement of the Global Warming issue by the UN would entail massive transfers of wealth from the citizens of wealthy countries to the politicians and bureaucrats of the poorer countries.

Other than that, one supposes, the IPCC is entirely trustworthy on the issue. (Well, aside from the fact that the IPCC’s climate models predicting Global Warming have already failed.)

In the paper, the authors present their case that warming leads to violence, adding: “The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic [manmade] climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climate changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades.” The authors note that, beyond establishing the (supposed) fact of a warming-violence link, future research should be directed at finding the cause of such a link, because “efforts to mitigate future warming” are only part of the solution to the problem of warming-related violence.

Thus, the authors suggest not only that “large” temperate increases are “expected,” but that “efforts to mitigate future warming” should be taken seriously.  “If future populations respond similarly to past populations,” they write, “then anthropogenic climate change has the potential to substantially increase conflict around the world, relative to a world without climate change. . . . [A]lthough future research will be critical in pinpointing why climate affects human conflict, disregarding the potential effects of anthropogenic climate change on human conflict in the interim is, in our view, a dangerously misguided interpretation of the available evidence.”

Their message: We must act now! …which means acting based on that assumption that Global Warming is occurring, that it’s manmade, that it’s catastrophic, and that it can be mitigated if we just do the right things (presumably the things the politicians and bureaucrats tell us we should do).


Another fact that raises questions about the paper is that it appears in the journal Science. Why is that a problem? Because Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a science-themed political organization that regularly mixes science with politics.

AAPS’s political tilt is well to the left, and has been for many decades. I’ve identified at least seven AAPS presidents during the period 1931-1951 who were members of the American Association of Scientific Workers, a Soviet front group that took a pro-Hitler position during the Hitler-Stalin Pact. During that period, three men served as presidents of both AAAS and AASW. The two groups were often referred to as sister organizations, with AASW as the overtly political arm of AAAS.  In recent years, AAAS presidents have included the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom Marxists consider one of their own, and John Holdren, an advocate of now-discredited “population bomb” theory who once suggested the possibility of adding birth control to the water supply. Holdren is currently science advisor to President Obama.

A Pew Research Center study in 2009 suggested that only six percent of AAAS members are Republicans and nine percent conservatives—a result that, hilariously, was reported in The Huffington Post as “Only Six Percent of Scientists Are Republicans.”  (That’s the equivalent of saying something like “90% of Christians are Republicans” based on a poll of Pat Robertson’s group, the Christian Coalition.)

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a safe assumption that most non-political papers in Science are valid. It’s the ones that make political points that should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.

Politicians and bureaucrats and their allies in the media often cite the opinions of scientists in debates over public policy. The problem is, they cite scientists’ political opinions, not their objective views on scientific matters. In doing so, they deceive the public by blurring the line between scientific questions (say, the number of human chromosomes) and political questions (say, whether there should be a War on Coal).

Science and politics don’t mix very well. When scientists get involved in politics, they usually make fools of themselves. Scientists have been present in large, disproportionate numbers among the leaders of extremist groups such as the Communists, the Nazis, and the eugenics and coercive population control movement. From astrology to phrenology, from white supremacy to centralized economic planning to the concept of an action-reaction “arms race” between the U.S. and the Soviets, scientists have played major roles in promoting crackpot beliefs to the general public.

Worse, the mixture of science and politics corrupts both. If a scientist is emotionally invested in an issue based on his political opinions, he or she is less likely to examine the evidence with a clear head. When he claims a scientific basis for a policy position, he puts his reputation on the line, which can lead to disastrous results. The late Carl Sagan, perhaps the country’s most famous scientist in the 1980s, was a strong proponent of “nuclear winter” theory, which suggested that, if the U.S. were attacked by the Soviets with nuclear weapons, there would be no point retaliating. According to theory, a response using nukes would push the world into a years-long period of winter in which most humans would die. Therefore, U.S. officials who favored a strong nuclear arsenal were fools set on destroying the human race in a “better dead than Red” scenario (red being the color associated with Communism).

The theory was strongly pushed by the Soviet propaganda machine, for obvious reasons—to push the U.S. into a position of weakness during the Cold War. The Soviet Academy of Sciences issued a report backing the theory. Eventually, nuclear winter theory was discredited when Sagan and his cohorts, based on the theory, incorrectly predicted wide-scale, long-lasting effects from the oil-well fires set by retreated Iraqi troops during the first Gulf War.

Or consider a less explosive example. In 2007, the Institute of Medicine recommended that direct-to-consumer advertising for new pharmaceuticals be banned for the first two years that the drug is on the market. IOM is part of the National Academies created under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, and, as such, is supposed to provide policymakers with (as the government puts it) “unbiased, evidence-based, and authoritative information and advice concerning health and science policy.”

The problem is this: The medical scientists who are part of the IOM are not experts in business, in marketing or advertising, or, most certainly, in the First Amendment (which prohibits the federal government from restricting the freedom of speech or of the press). An IOM recommendation might be helpful in, say, creating a procedure for determining a drug’s effects, but useless in deciding whether there should be an advertising moratorium on new drugs.

Similarly, an engineer might be the world’s top expert on the design of satellites, but wouldn’t necessarily have an informed opinion on whether a satellite orbiting the earth violates a nation’s airspace. It’s not his field of expertise.

Scientists are reasonably good at determining objective facts, such things as the speed of light in a vacuum. Scientists’ opinions with regard to public policy have no more weight than those of people in other fields such as those of real estate agents, chicken farmers, lawyers, truck drivers, and hair-dressers.

Most scientists have no particular qualifications to discuss political questions such as whether the federal government should require ethanol in gasoline or whether Obamacare should force poor people to pay for rich people’s birth control. The rare exceptions are scientists who put themselves into the political debate as citizens. They’re the ones who claim no special expertise on policy based on their scientific backgrounds.


A final point on ethics has to do with the way the paper was reported in the news media.  The fact is, it’s highly unlikely that many of the reporters who wrote about the paper actually read it. How do I know? Because the paper was behind a paywall on the Science website, and it’s hard to believe that many reporters sprung for the $20 to take a look at the paper itself. Most just glanced at the press release version or at the various other articles, themselves based on the press release, that appeared on the Web. From one story to the next, reports on the climate-violence paper made the same points in the same words, as if they were copied from one another, which, for the most part, they were.

Nowadays, it’s a rare nightly newscast on a broadcast network that doesn’t include a story based on a supposedly scientific study. A high number of the studies reported on these newscasts are political, supporting causes ranging from banning giant sodas to raising taxes on carbon-based fuels. Often, the source for the study is a left-wing political group with a scientific name, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists or the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It’s clear from many of the reports that the reporter has little or no understanding of the science involved, and little or no concern over the bias of the “group of scientists” he or she is relying upon.

The politicization of science makes it more important than ever before that scientists and journalists alike turn on their bull-detectors – that they treat scientific research not with uncritical acceptance but with a questioning attitude. To do otherwise is to betray their professions.

Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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