News & Politics

John Oliver Blasts Junk Science, Gives Climate Change a Pass

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HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver boasts the best investigative journalism on television. Peppered with humor ranging from the vulgar to the sublime, Last Week’s segments nonetheless delve into timely and important topics. This is the show that some weeks back offered an entertaining and informative report about local special districts, perhaps the most obscure government topic imaginable. If anyone else tackled that, audiences would fall asleep or change the channel. Oliver’s masterful juggle of comedy, cognizance, and commentary is what The Daily Show should have been but never was.

In their most recent episode, Last Week took on the credibility of scientific studies in a masterful exposé of just how frequently findings presented as scientific prove to be utter nonsense. Brian Nosek, a doctor working for the Center for Open Science, explained the motivations which lead scientists to forward misleading claims:

My success as a scientist depends on me publishing my findings. And I need to publish as frequently as possible in the most prestigious outlets that I can.

Oliver expounded:

Now that’s true. Scientists are under constant pressure to publish, with tenure and funding on the line. And, to get published, it helps to have results that seem new and striking, because scientists know [that] nobody is publishing a study that says “nothing up with acaí berries.”

And, to get those results, there are all sorts of ways that, consciously or not, you can tweak your study. You could alter how long it lasts, or make your random sample too small to be reliable, or engage in something that scientists call p-hacking… [which] basically means collecting lots of variables and then playing with your data until you find something that counts as statistically significant but [which] is probably meaningless.

Oliver went on to provide examples of studies which were unreliable for a variety of reasons. His expressed purpose in this exposé was to defend real science by raising awareness of fraudulent or dubious methods. Oliver bemoaned an imagined point of exasperation past which people write off science altogether due to contradictory and nonsensical claims. Such exasperation proves problematic, in Oliver’s view, because it leads to a rejection of proper scientific claims. Among claims which Oliver regards as proper science are those warning of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change.

But wait a minute. Why does climate change get a pass? Why would we assume that scientists motivated by the self-serving desire to get published and earn tenure and funding would suddenly drop that bias when working on the climate? Indeed, if you want to get published in scientific journals and enjoy the requisite benefits, there may be no area more dependable for that purpose than climate science.

Why? Because of the politics.

“Going green” has become a cultural fad in the same sense as eating “low-fat” or going “gluten-free.” It’s a fashion statement, a status symbol, a means by which certain people signal their virtue. Indeed, such people are willing to pay for the privilege, forking over a premium for green this and green that, everything from hybrid cars to eco-friendly cleaning services. That same social demand creates a market in academia, and that market is exaggerated by the intervention inherent in public funding.

The whole thing self-perpetuates, with politicians and academics, benefiting from the bogeyman of man-made climate catastrophe. If I’m a politician, I want something to rally support around so I can get (and stay) elected. If I’m an academic, I want a sexy field of research to attract funding and accolades. The politicians provide the academics their funding. The academics provide the politicians their findings. Neither is motivated by truth.

None of this is offered to suggest that climate change is not happening, or that it is not exacerbated to some degree by human activity. However, when we note the extent to which climate alarmists have offered utterly ridiculous claims about the end of everything, and when we have seen such prognostications go unfulfilled time and again, it becomes fair to regard ongoing claims offered in a similar vein with a high degree of skepticism. The motives which lead scientists to fudge data for a headline do not disappear when the topic is climate.