Nov 24 2015

Scientific Consensus and Corporate Influence

A new study published in PNAS explores the messaging of organizations commenting on climate change and their relationship to corporate funding. The sole author, Justin Farrell, finds that those organizations who received corporate funding were likely to network their messaging together, and to engage in a campaign of casting doubt on the scientific consensus. There was no such network among those organizations not receiving corporate funding.

Farrell notes:

“This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”

As further evidence of corporate influence, the Washington Post notes:

The publication of the report comes two weeks after New York prosecutors announced an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The probe was prompted in part by reports in the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News, alleging that Exxon researchers expressed concerned about climate change from fossil fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly raised doubts about whether climate-change was scientifically valid.

This should come as no surprise to those following the climate change debate. Climate change and other issues, in fact, challenge the very notion of scientific consensus and what it means, but also demonstrate why we should listen to a robust consensus.

Those who are at odds with a particular scientific consensus will often argue that the scientific consensus can be comfortably ignored. Reasons given are often: the scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, the current consensus is the result of external or internal ideological, political, or financial influence, or there isn’t really a scientific consensus.

Ironically, these campaigns of denial demonstrate that it is not easy to manipulate the scientific consensus.

The Nature of Consensus

I have written about scientific consensus previously. The consensus is often dismissed as an argument from authority, but this is not a valid application of that fallacy. The power of science is that conclusions are crowd-sourced among experts, and are self-correcting with new evidence. Individual quirky opinions average out, and ideas have to go through the meat-grinder of peer-review and the scientific community.

The scientific process, as imperfect as it is because it is executed by humans, is the closest thing we have to a pure meritocracy. Logic and evidence are what matter. That argument has been used to dismiss the consensus, but ironically that is why the consensus should not be blithely dismissed.

Of course reality is complex, and not every scientific consensus is created equal. The questions you have to ask yourself are – how robust is the consensus, how mature is the science, are there any serious minority opinions or differences among various fields, and how legitimate is the scientific discipline and relevant areas of expertise.

I really don’t care what the consensus of opinion among homeopaths is, for example. I listen to my colleagues who are studying string theory, but I don’t think the science is mature enough for any particular opinions to dominate. There are many valid opinions about the true ultimate cause of the various neurodegenerative conditions, without a strong consensus behind any one. Finally, while there is a strong consensus that an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs, many paleontologists feel the data does not fit one sudden extinction event and look to other causes, like volcanism.

Of course it is true that the scientific consensus has changed on many questions over time. But again you have to ask – how solid was that consensus? Does it really say anything about a current consensus under question? Scientific consensus is not black and white, it is not a seal of approval that gets stamped on scientific ideas. It is a continuum.

Let’s take, for example, the current scientific consensus on the fact that life on Earth came to its current state through a process of organic evolution. If you are going to claim that this scientific consensus is wrong, you cannot simply point to a previous example of a scientific consensus being wrong, you have to point to one that was as solid as the consensus behind evolution. I would argue that there isn’t a single example of a robust consensus of the magnitude of the fact of evolution being overturned in the modern scientific era. I am open to any counter-examples.

Climate Change

Climate change contrarians often try to argue that there is no real scientific consensus, but there clearly is. Multiple analyses of the scientific literature demonstrate a clear and robust consensus that climate change is happening.

There are two ways to measure the robustness of a consensus – what percentage of relevant experts accept the consensus, and how certain are they? With respect to climate change we actually have some hard numbers. Evaluations of the literature and of climate scientists find that 97% agree that the planet is warming mostly through human activity. Deniers have tried to refute this number, but they have been unable to put forward a persuasive argument.

How certain are those 97% of climate scientists? Well, the IPCC in its latest report indicated that there is a 95% chance that anthropogenic global warming is real. While that is pretty good, 95% means they think there is a 1 in 20 chance they are wrong. I would consider this a robust consensus, enough on which to base policy, but this is nowhere near the strength of the consensus on evolution. While I have never encountered anyone trying to put a number on it, I would say the probability that evolution is true approaches 100%. Nothing in science can ever be 100%, but it is so close it would be absurd to treat it as anything else.

The challenge with the climate change issue is that we are faced with immediate decisions about how to run our civilization. Like a physician and patient facing a life-and-death decision based on imperfect information, we need to make choices based on a 97% consensus with a 95% confidence. I think this is robust enough to make some reasonable choices, like pushing for renewable energy sources and improved energy efficiency.

Corporate Influence

What does the recent study on the climate change issue say about corporate influence? Combining this study with experience in other areas, like evolution, vaccines, and genetically modified organisms, I think we can make some generalizations.

First, it is interesting to note that the oil industry is perhaps the most wealthy and powerful industry of any of the industries involved in the above public debates. They have more resources and influence than Big Pharma, Big Agro, or Big Evolution (whatever that is). It also seems clear that they were actively trying to influence the scientific consensus.

Despite their motivation, influence, and resources they were unable to affect the scientific consensus on climate change. They could not manufacture a consensus. All they could do is sow doubt in the real scientific consensus, and even then only among those ideologically aligned, not with the public at large, and not within scientific circles.

This fact is often given as a direct refutation of the claim that Monsanto and Big Agro have manufactured a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. At the same time they argue there is no consensus. First – yes there is. There is an international scientific consensus on the overall safety of GMO technology and the current GMO products. This consensus is at least as strong, and I would argue stronger, than the consensus on climate change.

Biotechnology companies have nowhere near the resources as the fossil fuel industry, and it is frankly absurd to argue that they were somehow able to use their money and influence to manufacture a fake scientific consensus on GMO safety. They would have to have secretly controlled the outcome of hundreds of apparently independent studies.

The same is true of vaccine safety.


What an examination of climate change, vaccine safety, and GMO safety show us is that ideological and corporate influence in science is real, but has serious limits. If the science itself is legitimate and robust, the best corporate influence can do is sow doubt and confusion. They cannot manufacture an apparently robust consensus by simply buying the science they want.

Buying science can be done on the fringe, or in areas largely ignored by academic science. Industry can have undue influence when it is poorly regulated. In such situations, however, they are not buying off academics, they are simply doing their own biased research. They are not creating a robust consensus of legitimate experts, they are simply bypassing legitimate experts and presenting their corporate flawed science directly to the public.

With vaccine safety and efficacy, GMO safety, climate change, and evolution we have a robust scientific consensus of legitimate academic experts. You cannot dismiss the consensus on these issues with a convenient narrative about corporate influence. The science is simply too strong.

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