Earlier this week NPR's Morning Edition reported a story in which ExxonMobil asked for an inquiry into the journalistic ethics of Columbia University students. The company is evidently annoyed by the Los Angeles Times story that they helped to research that claimed that the oil giant lied about what it knew about man-made global warming. Based in part on those stories, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has issued subpoenas to the company with the aim of possibly suing it for failing to disclose to stockholders what it knew about the risks of climate change.
According to the NPR report, one major objection by the company was that the Los Angeles Times did not disclose to its readers that the Columbia University investigation on which its stories were based was supported by a foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which is advocating a shift away from fossil fuels. Now the Dean of the Columbia Journalism School Steve Coll has responded in a six page letter to the company's critiques. In his letter, Coll notes that the investigative project's Columbia University website does list its funders. But more interestingly, Coll argues:
ExxonMobil, as you note in the penultimate paragraph of your letter, has also supported projects at Columbia University. You therefore understand that the issue is not who provided funding for this or any Columbia University project, but whether the work done is independent of the funders. In short, did the journalism fellows and the Los Angeles Times editors on these stories follow the information uncovered by the reporting or did they follow the funders' agenda? The fact is that this reporting was not subject to any influence or control by the funders….
Of course, that's just as it should be. Nevertheless, some still practice "follow the money" when it comes to activities which they dislike and hope to thereby discredit. For example, a new study, "Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change," by Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences researcher Justin Farrell got plenty of uncritical headlines when he claimed to have found that "organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." By polarization, Farrell means that they question the scientific consensus that most recent global warming is man-made and will likely result in catastrophic future consequences.
Based on prior peer-reviewed research Farrell assembled a database of 164 organizations and 4,556 individuals that he deemed as "overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change." These include think tanks, foundations, trade associations, and grass roots lobbying firms. He then assembled a database of 40,785 texts dealing with climate change issued from these organizations between 1993 and 2013. Finally, Farrell then checked to see if any of these groups had received any amount of funding from either ExxonMobil or the Koch family foundations during that period. After "following the money" through his databases, Farrell concluded that "corporate funding influences the actual language and thematic content of polarizing discourse [about climate change]" and "that organizations that received corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated contrarian texts."
Sounds damning, right? Well, maybe not. Farrell more or less buries the lead in his research when at the end of his paper he acknowledges "a causal dilemma about whether corporate funding leads to increased production of discourse, or whether the organizations already creating discourse attracted corporate funding." He further notes that his analysis "revealed few discursive differences between organizations who received money before producing discourse (e.g., front groups) versus organizations that received it later (e.g., established think tanks)."
Put plainly, Farrell's analysis could not determine if opinion follows the money or if money follows the opinion. One reasonable interpretation of Farrell's work is that he has discovered the not-all-that-surprising fact that funders tend support researchers and groups that share their values and views. Hardly the stuff of anxious headlines. Dean Coll is right when he states that the "issue is not who provided funding…, but whether the work done is independent of the funders." Farrell's analysis cannot and does not address this question with regard to the groups who have been participating in the public debate over climate change. (In any case, I look forward to Farrell's research on the funding of corporations and foundations for groups who challenge the broad scientific consensus on the safety of biotech crops.)
Finally, one of the supposed 164 "climate contrarian" groups listed by Farrell includes the Reason Foundation which publishes this website. So in the interest of disclosure, I point to my 2006 Reason.com article, "Confessions of an Alleged ExxonMobil Whore" in which I explain how I changed my mind about the possible dangers of future man-made climate change. In addition, I note that the Reason Foundation hasn't received funding from ExxonMobil since 2006. David Koch is a member of Reason Foundation's Board of Trustees and the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation has supported Reason each year since 2013. Each year we publicly thank and publish the list of supporters who have given $1,000 or more to the Reason Foundation. The lists are published in Reason magazine, most recently in the June 2015 issue. We already know what Farrell has concluded about these disclosure, but readers are invited to make up their own minds.
Finally, I will note that there is a webathon going right now where those of you who share our values and views can also make "suspicious" contributions to the work of my excellent colleagues at Reason magazine.
Note: I will be reporting daily dispatches from the Paris climate change conference beginning next Monday.