Conversation graphic
Credit: Image by Karin Kirk.

When you don’t like the message, attack the messenger. It’s an age-old tactic and an easy way to energize opposition while distracting from the real issue at hand.

With climate change, ad-hominem attacks on scientists are intended to shake public trust in the scientific evidence that underpin the whole issue. After all, who could be more villainous than the world’s climate scientists? Does one really think this group of bicycle-riding, organic-cotton-wearing PhDs might be pulling off a skillfully-coordinated global conspiracy, one involving 100 years of research from hundreds of scientists all over the world?

The notion of scientists-as-conspiracists seems preposterous – but for those who have never met a practicing scientist, are unfamiliar with the scientific process, and are emotionally invested in the idea that humans aren’t changing the climate, maybe it does seem plausible that climate scientists are stealthily, greedily, falsifying their reports to score the next big grant.

Ergo, this common complaint from those alleging climate scientists are “in it for the money”:

Most climate science is being paid for to prove a hypothesis, not disprove it. Scientists are getting funding to prove a result based on a single variable. And, guess what? Of course they’re going to prove it to keep getting paid. Scientists are told, “Take a million bucks, and prove global warming is a result of manmade CO2.” That’s what’s happening in climate science, and it’s not the way science is supposed to work.

This is a modified version of a comment on a science news Facebook page.

Such sentiments are reliable laugh lines at professional scientific conferences, but given how pervasive they are, they’re not funny at all. Nonetheless, they can spur some good questions. How do research grants work? Why won’t this myth die? And where’s the real financial lever in the climate change debate?

Read on to see how three experts in science and communication unpack this misconception and clear the air.

Strategy #1 – Correct the science

For a glimpse into the life of a research scientist, let’s first turn to Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech. As a top-notch atmospheric scientist, evangelical Christian, and adept communicator, Hayhoe offers an unusually well rounded outlook. She’s a frequent spokesperson for building awareness about climate change.

First, Hayhoe personalizes the message by sharing her perspective as a scientist.

One of the most frequent objections I hear is, “you scientists are just in it for the money.”

What many people don’t realize, though, is that most of us could easily have chosen a different field – like astrophysics, where I began my education – where we’d make exactly the same money. Or, we could use our skills in industry, working for a fossil fuel company (I interned at Exxon during my master’s degree and published several papers with Exxon scientists), and earn easily ten times what we do now. If I wanted to make more money, there are a lot of ways smart people with technical skills could do that without putting up with the harassment climate scientists receive every day.

Then she adds the facts: money from research grants isn’t making people rich. It just covers basic costs, sometimes just barely.

None of the research money I receive goes into my personal pocket; instead, it’s used to pay graduate students the princely sum of about $25k per year and around $2,000 a pop to publish our research papers.

Hayhoe doesn’t let her feathers get ruffled by the assertion. “Their question or objection deserves respect,” she says. But, she asserts, it’s important to “show that we have a clear and rational answer to this objection.”

Strategy #2 – Expose the myth, misinformation, or fallacy

Wonder why some of these climate myths stick around forever, despite their being wrong? That’s because they’re designed with a strong understanding of how human brains hang onto information. These messages offer the precise fodder their intended audience wants to hear (irrespective of whether the information is true or not), and they are “sticky.” That is, they are short, simple, and easy to remember and repeat. Repeatable messages beget even more repeating, and pretty soon the refrain seems so familiar that it must be true. Interests opposed to action on climate change have spent nearly $3 billion on disinformation campaigns, plus over $2 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions in just 10 years, according to investigations by InsideClimate News. That kind of cash buys some well-designed and well-distributed messaging.

John Cook and the volunteers at Skeptical Science have written a handy guide to debunking climate myths. Their responses are short, sweet, and easy to remember.

“The golden rule of debunking is to fight sticky myths with stickier facts,” says Cook. “In other words, it’s not enough to show that a myth is wrong. We also need to dislodge it with a factual replacement.”

Applying that idea to the topic at hand, Cook points out, “If the myth is that scientists are motivated by money, we need to dislodge that myth by explaining what really motivates scientists.”

Scientists don’t get funding to prove what we already know – their job is to push our boundaries of knowledge. Science also makes incredibly valuable contributions to society – helping us build a safer, healthier world.

Motivation cartoon 1

Motivation caartoon 2

Funding for scientific research doesn’t go into scientists’ pockets. It goes into the operational costs of research programs. If climate scientists were truly interested in money, they have other more lucrative options.

“This is an ideal opportunity to explain how science really works,” offers Cook, pointing to a silver lining in mythbusting – it opens the floor for sharing better information.

Strategy #3 – Engage in dialogue

Karin Tamerius, of SMART Politics, offers her take on this myth. She begins by indicating agreement with the commenter and asking a question to kick off a dialog. Tamerius points out that asking “gotcha” style questions is unlikely to promote dialogue. Instead, she takes a few steps back, to the point where there’s a potential opening for a less controversial avenue that can be explored together.

“You are absolutely right that money can corrupt science. That’s one of the reasons I try to get my information from a wide variety of sources. Which science sources do you think are most trustworthy?”

As she considers her next step, Tamerius takes stock of the underlying concern of the commenter, “This person seems wary of scientific sources,” she observes. Much of the debate on any issue nowadays involves rote repetition of messages coming from one’s preferred camp, and Tamerius strives to get beyond that. “I’m trying to encourage the other person to reflect on where they get their information. My hope is to turn that skeptical spotlight back on their own sources of information.”

As for where the conversation might lead, Tamerius strives for both parties’ being “able to talk about how to tell ‘good’ science from ‘junk’ science,” she says. “Ideally, we would walk away from the conversation with a few reliable scientific sources we can agree on.”

Want to try your hand at being radically civil? SMART Politics hosts a Facebook group that runs practice discussions touching on different themes and topics.

Strategy #4 – Be persuasive

When it comes to changing minds, it takes a blend of solid facts, an appreciation for the concerns of your audience, and a compelling delivery. For this multi-pronged approach, we return to Katharine Hayhoe. While some scientists report their research results and leave it at that, others wade directly into the public conversation. Hayhoe has nearly 54,000 Twitter followers, and her Global Weirding video series illustrates key elements of persuasion.

To grapple with the influences of money in climate science, Hayhoe doesn’t shy away from exposing the real financial forces in play – corporate powers that, for decades, have attempted to derail the climate change conversation.

Let’s look at who really has the most to lose when it comes to weaning ourselves off the old, dirty ways of getting energy. … Take the 10 richest corporations in the world. Eight of them depend partially or even totally on the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for their bottom line. Yes, 80% of the richest corporations in the world have everything to lose from giving up fossil fuels.

So yes, I absolutely agree: let’s follow the money. I think we can see where it leads!

Lastly, Hayhoe offers solutions, with a blend of inspiration, optimism, and patriotism.

But let’s also consider this: we are currently undergoing as big a transition as we did when we went from horse-drawn buggies to the Model T Ford. Globally, renewable energy investment has outstripped fossil fuel investment since 2014. And China and India know this. They’re not investing in fossil fuels. They’re shutting down coal-fired plants and flooding coal mines and covering them in solar panels.

The money of the future IS in green energy. We are being left behind. Did you know that China already leads the world in wind and solar energy production? Are you okay with that?

One of Hayhoe’s hallmarks is her optimism about clean energy solutions. Paradoxically, concern for a low-carbon economy is what drove fossil fuel interests to cast doubt on the science of climate change in the first place. But as it turns out, most people actually like the idea of clean energy. Few would advocate for a life with more pollution.

“Acknowledge their objection, respect it, answer it, but then turn the conversation to the real issue: solutions,” advises Hayhoe. “As long as we can agree on the solutions, what’s the problem?”

The author expresses thanks to John Cook of George Mason University for his advice and recommendations on this project.

This series will continue to explore different facets of climate communication, while showcasing the voices of scientists, communicators, and everyday people.

This series:

Climate change science comeback strategies
‘In it for the money’
Al Gore said what?
How to identify people open to evidence about climate change
How to sort out good-faith questions about climate change

Karin Kirk is a geologist and freelance writer with a background in climate education. She's a scientist by training, but the human elements of climate change occupy most of her current work. Karin is...