Redefining peer-reviewed literature (by Christians)

A couple of years ago there was a scandal involving the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Somehow, a decade's worth of emails between scientists there were leaked to the world. The whole "hide the decline" scandal. Some of these emails suggested that scientists were going to take extreme measures to limit participation by anthropogenic global warming skeptics in academic discourse. Phil Jones, a climatologist there, sent an email that said, in part:

"The other paper by MM is just garbage — as you knew. De Freitas again. Pielke is also losing all credibility as well by replying to the mad Finn as well — frequently as I see it. I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

I don't know what the proper term is for those who are skeptical of the claims made by mainstream climatologists whose views are generally celebrated by the United Nations and written about in mainstream publications. Whatever their name, this group has long claimed that they're being shut out of many peer-reviewed journals by "gatekeepers" like Phil Jones above and that this prevents their arguments from being engaged in the academic square. They claim that the funds flow to those scientists that write about man-caused global warming and that they are treated as pariah rather than having their views published and responded to in the typical way scientists engage controversial topics. This leads them to publish their work in other peer-reviewed journals but perhaps not the ones that would be their first pick.

I'm not particularly interested in the debate but I do enjoy reading the dust-ups time to time, if only to remind me of the most political time of my life: my very brief foray into graduate school. And I couldn't help but think of the East Anglia emails after reading about a dramatic episode involving a peer-reviewed paper that has caused quite a bit of controversy.

Now typically when a peer-reviewed paper causes controversy, the way to respond is by arguing against the claims in your own peer-reviewed paper. Near as I can tell, that hasn't happened (indeed, that would be quick turnaround if they had). But when the paper came out a month ago, journalists began writing stories about it and a little brouhaha ensued and resulted not in the paper being retracted or withdrawn -- indeed the lead author says he stands behind his work and the editor of the journal didn't move to retract the paper or anything. But the editor did resign. Some are claiming that this was due to immense political pressure from the community that argues that man has caused serious problems related to global warming. He says he did it to show how seriously the journal takes the peer review process (which, for what it's worth, he says technically had no errors). It's certainly very odd behavior. Perhaps it's different in the economics community, but I've never heard of a journal editor resigning for a paper he published.

Peer review does not guarantee, much less require, that a paper be correct, it just works to ensure that the paper follows established and understood processes, and if so, becomes part of the debate. The academic method for refuting a scientific claim is to prove why it's incorrect. You do this by publishing your argument and putting your claims out for public review. Political pressure is not supposed to be part of the process, but most definitely not the main part of the process. I have absolutely no idea if this controversy is about "redefining what the peer-review literature is" or what, but it has all the makings of a good movie (for nerds).

I haven't seen much coverage in the States, but a reader sent along the BBC article because -- you knew this was coming -- it gets into religion.

But before we get to that, it's certainly interesting to reflect on the religious overtones, the accusations of heresy, the inquisitions and the like. I really do wonder sometimes if there is anything more political or religious than academia.

The BBC story reminds me a bit of the Guardian story, although it's better. It's not hard to be better than a story that calls the author of the paper in question a "leading climate sceptic." That makes no sense, although I guess "climate change skeptic" might work, if still inaccurate and misleading.

Sometimes it's weird to read British press on climate debates because they are so much more partisan than even a biased mainstream report stateside. And yet I still thought this one, by the environmental correspondent, was interesting:

The editor of a science journal has resigned after admitting that a recent paper casting doubt on man-made climate change should not have been published.

The paper, by US scientists Roy Spencer and William Braswell, claimed that computer models of climate inflated projections of temperature increase.

It was seized on by "sceptic" bloggers, but attacked by mainstream scientists.

Wolfgang Wagner, editor of Remote Sensing journal, says he agrees with their criticisms and is stepping down.

The note from Wagner is interesting, and you can read the response from the author here.

But you'll note that the excerpt above doesn't clarify that the "mainstream scientists" haven't "attacked" the article in a peer-reviewed journal (yet, at least) and that the editor hasn't -- and now won't -- retract the paper.

I could point out problems with the entire BBC report, but here's just another sample:

The paper became a cause celebre in "sceptical" circles through its claim that mainstream climate models inflated temperature projections through misunderstanding the role of clouds in the climate system and the rate at which the Earth radiated heat into space.

This meant, it said, that projections of temperature rise made in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports were too high.

The paper, published in July, was swiftly attacked by scientists in the mainstream of climate research.

They also commented on the fact that the paper was not published in a journal that routinely deals with climate change. Remote Sensing's core topic is methods for monitoring aspects of the Earth from space.

Publishing in "off-topic" journals is generally frowned on in scientific circles, partly because editors may lack the specialist knowledge and contacts needed to run a thorough peer review process.

Should an article like this mention that the authors are by no means the first to suggest the IPCC temperature rise projections were too high? I don't know.

But there are several oddities about the "off-topic" journal claim.

For one, I read the editor's note and he says that one of Remote Sensing's premier goals "is to better understand physical and biological processes on our planet Earth. The use of satellite data to check the functionality of all sorts of geophysical models is therefore a very important part of our work." And if you read the paper, it ends: "It is concluded that atmospheric feedback diagnosis of the climate system remains an unsolved problem, due primarily to the inability to distinguish between radiative forcing and radiative feedback in satellite radiative budget observations."

So I'm not entirely sure how "off-topic" the paper was. I also wonder why an article about this shocking resignation of the editor wouldn't include a discussion of gatekeeping and the increasing accusations of academic epistemic closure when it comes to disputes surrounding climate science. But finally, even if one does believe that Remote Sensing was too off-topic, could we get someone to actually back up what the reporter asserts? Again, it may be wildly different in economics than environmental sciences but it is pretty much the rule rather than the exception that cutting edge, disputed or fringe ideas are printed in new or obscure peer-reviewed journals or journals that are slightly "off-topic" than in the mainstream journals.

I guess I should also point out that the editor said the reviewers for this particular article were "three senior scientists from renowned US universities, each of them having an impressive publication record" (although, he adds, the reviewers might have committed the sin of having some skeptical ideas about climate change).

But the real kicker is this. Underneath the photo of the author of the peer-reviewed article is the following caption:

Dr Spencer is a committed Christian as well as a professional scientist

No other person in the story is identified by religious affiliation, in case you are wondering. Not the editor, not the unnamed critics of the paper, not a professor praising the resignation. No word on the reporter's religious status, for that matter.

At the end of the piece, the author is given a few quotes. They are interesting quote choices. For instance, while no one has yet responded through the peer-review process to the article, the editor said in his resignation note that he'd been led to believe the paper hadn't responded to other previously written studies. He gives the example of a paper written by Kevin Trenberth. (This happens to be the Kevin mentioned in the first quote above, for what it's worth.)

And I don't know if that's true or not but it seems the BBC should mention that Spencer has said "But the paper was precisely addressing the scientific arguments made by our opponents, and showing why they are wrong. That was the paper’s starting point." A quote where the central arguments are engaged might be better to include than, you know, Spencer's religious affiliation.

The article ends by describing Spencer as follows:

Dr Spencer is one of the team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville that keeps a record of the Earth's temperature as determined from satellite readings.

He is also on the board of directors of the George C. Marshall Institute, a right-wing think tank critical of mainstream climate science, and an advisor to the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an evangelical Christian organisation that claims policies to curb climate change "would destroy jobs and impose trillions of dollars in costs" and "could be implemented only by enormous and dangerous expansion of government control over private life".

Once again, these are odd lines. I don't know if proponents dispute these claims about policies to curb climate change but, if so, perhaps they should be given a chance to respond. More than that, however, what exactly does this have to do with the paper in question? I mean, in addition to hitting the poor reader over the head with the ad-hominem, the focus on the personal over any substantive arguments against the paper gives the impression that the only reason people are opposing Spencer is political.

That doesn't seem fair to either side.

Please respect our Commenting Policy