A Most Hilarious Climate Change Myth

By William Allen, Guest Columnist

My favorite myth about scientists who study climate change is that they’re in it for the money. This myth is my favorite because it’s absolutely hilarious.

People who think scientists go into this profession because they want to get rich are either delusional, don’t understand the values and norms of science, or work for the climate-denial circus, which has spent millions of dollars trying to fool you by creating scores of myths.

As a follow-up to last week’s column on “The Great Climate Hoaxers,” let me introduce you to the Myth of the Greedy Scientists — No. 32 on the list of 197 “Global Warming & Climate Change Myths”. The list has been produced by Skeptical Science, an award-winning, non-profit science education group. Their work, all volunteer though worthy of Paypal donations, is widely respected as a credible source of climate change information, including the devious claims of the denial circus.

The top of the list of 197 climate change myths from climate change deniers, as compiled by the group Skeptical Science.

The list also includes such myths as climate change isn’t bad, the sun is responsible and it’s all part of a natural cycle — all lies commonly hawked by the circus clowns.

As to the Greedy Scientists myth, the scientist and writer John Timmer, in a 2016 article in Ars Technica magazine, said that since climate science “doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal, most of the people working in the area, and the vast majority of those publishing the scientific literature, work in academic departments or at government agencies” with relatively moderate professional-level salaries.

For example, at Pennsylvania State University, which has a prominent climate research program, a newly hired geoscience professor made just under $70,000 and a tenured professor made about $120,000. Not bad, but you’re not going to see many climate scientists cruising around in yachts, or chilling out beside the pool at gated vacation mansions in Florida, or flying out for a weekend at a posh resort in … I don’t know, where do oil and coal executives go?

For his article, Timmer got more than 50,000 results when he googled for “global warming gravy train.” (Let’s just say they weren’t fact-based stories like you’re reading now.)

As a public-service science journalist since the 1980s, I’ve gained pretty good insight into the values, norms, and personalities of scientists. I understand how research is done, why scientists dedicate their lives to it, and why evidence — not opinion, not money — is their basic principle and motivation. I respect that.

When it comes to my experience using scientists as sources, they generally come in higher on my list of personal credibility rankings than, say, politicians and corporate officials. Yet, I’ve always kept a skeptical attitude about the claims of scientists. In the journalism vernacular, I never “married the native.” And I’ve developed a really good BS detector for science fraud.

I know that some engineering faculty and molecular biology “gene jockeys” can get patents, spin off entrepreneurial companies and get rich. But that is just not so for university and government climate scientists, who mainly come from a different side of the physical, life and social science communities. They’re workaday (and into the night) folks who are in it mainly for the pursuit of knowledge and truth, the thrill of discovery, a concern about life on the planet, a decent living for their families and helping others. Sure, like all humans they have their faults.

But greed is not one of them.

greenland ice-nasa
A researcher examines Greenland ice in 2017 during a NASA study of how the ocean is melting the island’s glaciers. Photo by NASA.

If you’d like to laugh more, consider this anecdote from Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, whose 2010 blog entry is cited on the Skeptical Science website:

“I recall a lecture I gave on climate change back in April 2009. After I was finished, a gentleman told me that he thought the whole thing was a hoax so that we scientists could get rich from funding. Before I even had a chance to reply, a voice from the crowd (my wife) yelled out, ‘Trust me, I can tell you, he isn’t making any money from this. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing!’ The truth hurts, doesn’t it?”

Climate scientists are sitting ducks for this Greedy Scientists myth, a propaganda technique that falls into the category sometimes called the “plain folks device.”

All scientists spend years becoming experts in their knowledge-based profession. In other words, they are intellectuals. And a significant portion of U.S. society is anti-intellectual, just as it has been throughout our history. Thus, the oily propagandists at issue here push the “anti-intellectual button” with millions of susceptible Americans who know little about scientists, fear scientists or just plain hate them because they’re “smart.”

Perhaps the funniest (and most ironic) part of this myth is that those who push it — the lawyers and public relations brains of the climate denial circus — are paid by incredibly rich corporate executives of fossil fuel companies and other denizens of the Dark Money world. In essence, these super-wealthy titans have sent out a snake-oil sales force equal to the men who hawked cure-alls off the back of covered wagons in the 1800s, complete with co-conspirators planted in the crowd.

Label from a bottle of snake oil, a concoction synonymous with deception and fraud.

Average Americans shouldn’t feel ashamed if they don’t fully grasp the complex science behind climate change. But they ought to recognize when they’re being taken by snake-oil specialists, especially in the run-up to the Nov. 6 elections. Bottom line: if you sense smoke and mirrors, trust your BS detector.

The snake-oilers want you to think there’s a scientific debate over whether climate change is happening and humans are causing it. But as last week’s column shows, there’s no such debate. We’ve got to get on with the next step: what are we as a nation and a global community going to do about climate disruption?

Rome is burning, and in classic flimflam fashion, they’ve slyly kept us watching the wrong hand — a fire we started and have long known is a threat. We need to switch the focus to the other hand and discuss, “Where’s the water?”

Don’t be played for a fool. Vote for candidates who want to take action on climate change.


William Allen is a 25-year veteran of professional journalism, including 13 years covering science for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also spent 2004-2017 teaching science, agricultural and environmental journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He currently is an assistant professor emeritus and still teaches part-time at the university.

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