Peer Review and the Science Versus Opinion Smackdown

Tue, 2009-04-07 15:28Leslie Berliant
Leslie Berliant's picture

Peer Review and the Science Versus Opinion Smackdown

Peer Review - a process by which something proposed (as for research or publication) is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Over the weekend, Brian Angliss posted a piece over at Scholars and Rogues on why scientific peer review matters. He wrote it in response to climate change deniers who like to argue that peer review is useless and therefore, just because climate science is peer reviewed, it isn’t necessarily true.

Unfortunately for the denier community, it’s a little more complicated than that. As Angliss writes:

One major misconception about all varieties of peer review is that the reviews guarantee no errors in the final product.

What peer review does is start a process of finding and correcting errors, which generally continues upon and after publication, Angliss explains. It is another step in the scientific method of gathering data and testing hypotheses to solve a problem or understand an issue. Because of this method, scientific understanding often builds and deepens over time. That does not make the original assumptions or theories incorrect.

Case in point, a recent series on NPR on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution points out that Darwin was correct in ways that he himself could not have understood at the time.

It should go without saying that peer review can also serve to keep anyone with a theory and enough money from ExxonMobil from passing it off as scientifically sound. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case as media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post continue to behave as if climate change science has two sides to it by treating self-proclaimed authorities on global warming like Marc Morano as if they actually have a right to that title or to be taken seriously. As Angliss writes:

After all, anyone can publish a blog filled with so many numbers that it looks legitimate, but only a scientist would subject him or herself to peer review.

In this way, peer review can also be used to pass off bad science, which is why there needs to be an understanding that peer review is only part of the process and evolves over time. It is also why the media ought to play a greater role in pointing out legitimate, independent criticism of scientific theories that have passed peer review, while separating peer reviewed science from mere opinion.

Differing opinions on a range of topics, from the best city for pizza (Chicago, how is there even a debate?) to whether dogs or cats make better pets (um, anyone with a dog knows the answer) keep the world interesting. But science is not opinion. Science is an understanding of the evidence of something to the best of our ability. Science is about facts, tested and retested, against a set of assumptions. Peer review is imperfect, and not everything that gets through the process is without flaws. Peer review may also slow down the process of moving from theory to actionable understanding. However, it is the first lines of defense in separating opinion from fact. And until the media stops giving credence to people with opinions passing them off as scientifically-based, it may be the only line of defense.

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Comments

Writing a review of an article submitted for journal publication is somewhat of a task – probable 4 or 5 hours of work in the usual case. You must check the author’s citations, and read them if you are unfamiliar. You correct English errors and question murky sentences. You check arithmetic, and examine graphs for clarity and accuracy. The major task, reviewing the soundness of the science, is an art. Then you have to write your findings and return to the journal editor. And if you reject the paper, you may have to defend your view through several iterations.

Not all reviewers are perfect and some errors can’t be caught this way. It may later turn out that an experiment could not be replicated. 

But the paper is in a scientific journal and is available for further review and correction as necessary.

Usually reviewing a paper is an unofficial part of a scientist’s duties – it’s a mostly altruistic, or cooperative, act.

The trouble with having a ‘debate’ – some people think this ought to happen – is that you can’t know everything off the top of your head. Science takes time and patience. Those biologists who have gone into evolution vs. ‘creationism’ debates are apt to come out poorly, even though their data was accurate and their opponents was taken out of context or outdated or erroneous. Being correct on the fly isn’t necessarily convincing to the general public.

Debating adroit liars is a losing proposition.

=”But science is not opinion.”= Science is often an opinion. Especially when the science is using untested GCM models to predict events a hundred years into the future.

I would have said that science, or at least the hard sciences are observation, (experimentation where possible), deduction and logic. (Hard, as opposed to soft, not as in difficult).

Untested? Do you have some sort of inside information here? On what basis do you make that claim?

GCM models are largely untested Richard. They offer up a wide variety of projections far, far into the future. Are they solid? Are they reliable? We won’t know until that future arrives.

paul s,

Have you heard of Hindcasts?

Or do you just make stuff up?

Quants have been hindcasting in economics for years. It didn’t prevent them from completely missing the economic upheaval we are in now. And our economic system is far less complex then global climate.

The fact that some models can roughly correlate with some aspects of previous climate is not surprising but it is not (yet) convincing enough that climatologists are capable of predicting climate 100 years into the future. Just look at predicted sea level rise; predictions are all over the map.

.

Bad analogy. Analogies are always dangerous and always wrong to a greater or lesser degree. Analogies tell far more about the person drawing the analogy than that which is being ostensibly ‘explained’ by the analogy.

Strangely Economics and the Climate aren’t the same, Economics is driven by human behaviour, whereas the climate is driven by physics, albeit with a large anthropogenic input that has led to perturbation. 

Your FRAUDULENT analogy is a Straw man argument.

The GCMs are well tested.  Here is the IPCC FAQ on this subject:

http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/FAQ/wg1_faq-8.1.html

I have no doubt they are well tested. Able to predict 100 years into the future? Not so sure.

Future projections seem to be all over the place suggesting uncertainties are much larger, and confidence in projections lower then what the public has been led to believe.

Untested, largely untested, well tested. Do you understand what you mean? Because the rest of us don’t stand a chance.

Tested in the lab, untested in the real world. How’s that?

Paul, of course they’re untested in the real world, in that you’d have to be psychic to determine the degree of difference between the forecast value and the value that occurs.  However, the GCMs have been tested on conditions in the past and have a remarkable degree of accuracy in predicting the climate that has passed, given the input of prior conditions.

What kind of arguments are you thinking of, Paul?  Are you just trying to prevent action by way of silliness and stalling tactics?

Considering the massive sacrifice that is being asked of people, yes, of course we are going to ask a lot of questions. And if we don’t get answers that we feel are satisfactory (appealing to authority doesn’t count) we will stall action.

Secondly, which GCM’s have this “remarkable degree of accuracy”? One of them? All of them?

A fair number of the GCMs have a remarkable degree of accuracy.  Also, when used in an ensemble, a more accurate picture can yet be drawn about the future climate.

This is far different than predicting the weather a week or two down the road, where models sometimes have wildly different takes on what will happen.  The climate is far less chaotic than the weather is.

This is all done by the IPCC in order for them to estimate a 2 C increase in temperatures by 2100, which, when examining recent work on GCMs, seems to be a very conservative prediction.  The more likely number is 3 C, which would be catastrophic for the half-billion people who live within a metre of sea level.  Hence, the Pentagon’s concern about AGW being a 21st Century national security nightmare, with the millions of environmental refugees (many within the USA) who will be forced to migrate.

Now, doesn’t it seem like the denier crowd is being foolish when even the most hawkish Neo-Conservatives in the Pentagon are in agreement with Dr. James Hansen and former Vice-President Al Gore, people they would not normally consider political allies?

Several inaccurate GCM’s lumped together provide more accurate predictions? Do tell!Smile

“The climate is far less chaotic than the weather is.”

On a short term basis, sure. But climate is also infinitely more complex then weather.

“On a short term basis, sure. But climate is also infinitely more complex then weather.” -paul s

No, it’s not.  Climate is far easier to forecast a year in advance than weather is.  That illustrates the incredible complexity of weather as compared to climate.  If one knows the phase of ENSO, the NAO, the PDO, and the PNA, one can estimate fairly well what the following winter will be like (in terms of temperature and precipitation anomalies) for North America and Europe.  One cannot do the same for weather on a day-by-day, let alone a week-by-week basis.

“Several inaccurate GCM’s lumped together provide more accurate predictions?” -paul s

You really don’t understand climate modeling, do you, Paul?  Take a course or read the following links before you comment any further on GCMs and their predictions:

http://www.climateprediction.net/content/basic-climate-science

http://www.climateprediction.net/content/modelling-climate

http://www.climateprediction.net/content/regional-climate-models

http://www.climateprediction.net/content/climate-science-explained

http://www.aip.org/history/climate/Radmath.htm

If we are to have an intelligent conversation about this issue, you should actually know something about climate science and modeling rather than repeating PR hacks’ meritless talking points.

“Climate is far easier to forecast a year in advance than weather is.”

In that case, you’re predicting seasons, not climate. And the climate models that the public remain unconvinced of the are the ones going 25, 50 and 100 years out.

Again, you are wrong.  Another explanation of my point here.  It would be far easier to predict, say, the 2051-2080 climate normals in terms of average temperature or precipitation for a location than it would be to predict the weekly average temperature or accumulated precipitation for, say, June 20-26, 2056.  This is based on climate vs. weather models.

Also, you said “the public remain unconvinced” about these models.  That doesn’t matter one bit.  What matters is where scientists stand on these models and the vast majority of them are very worried by the forecasts of most GCMs.  They are also quite sure that the models have it right, for the most part at least.

The problem with your “the public remain unconvinced” comment is that it perfectly illustrates how successful the disinformation campaign the fossil fuel companies have been running in terms of confusing and misleading the public on the true nature of the science of global warming.  Many members of the public would be convinced that Elvis Presley was still alive or that the world was flat if they had it shoved down their throats repeatedly.  These are the same sorts of people who still believe that Barack Obama was not born in Hawai’i (or in the United States, for that matter) or that Obama is a Muslim.  It is a perfect illustration of how poorly educated our population is, or at least how gullible they are.

Also, you said “the public remain unconvinced” about these models.  That doesn’t matter one bit.  What matters is where scientists stand on these models and the vast majority of them are very worried by the forecasts of most GCMs. 

Climatologists don’t set public policy though, we do. And until a majority of us are sufficiently convinced, we will withhold from committing to drastic action.

The problem with your “the public remain unconvinced” comment is that it perfectly illustrates how successful the disinformation campaign the fossil fuel companies have been running in terms of confusing and misleading the public on the true nature of the science of global warming. 

Oh not the fossil fuel bogeyman again. It doesn’t exist. It is a mythical creature invented by environmentalists. I like fossil fuels. It is amazing stuff. And so far, there is no reasonable, cost effective replacement for it. That is where much of the reluctance of the general public comes in.

 

“Climatologists don’t set public policy though, we do. And until a majority of us are sufficiently convinced, we will withhold from committing to drastic action.”

Your argument is supporting a scenario similar to that of the months before 9-11, when the Bush Administration, unconvinced of the reports by security and intelligence officials of the heightened danger as it related to possible attacks by Al-Qaeda, rested on their laurels and refused to do anything until too late.  As Richard Clarke said in the 9-11 Commission Congressional Hearings, “It takes body bags before the government is willing to do anything.”  So, Paul, are you encouraging governments to hold off on doing anything until the body bags start piling up as a result of AGW?

“Oh not the fossil fuel bogeyman again. It doesn’t exist. It is a mythical creature invented by environmentalists. I like fossil fuels. It is amazing stuff. And so far, there is no reasonable, cost effective replacement for it. That is where much of the reluctance of the general public comes in.”

Sure, and space aliens are humanity’s parents, as the Scientologists would have us believe.  Give me a frigging break and take a look at the site http://www.exxonsecrets.org.  It proves the case of fossil fuel companies’ meddling in public policy in terms of the environment and energy.

I fail to see how 9-11 is analagous but still, you ignore my point. Climatologists don’t set government policy. All power emanated from the people. And the people are not yet sufficiently convinced of the threat. You cite www.exxonsecrets.org and I say nonsense. The amounts of money are too small to seriously affect anything.

Bullshit!  Millions of dollars will buy hundreds of hours of airtime to spew PR and ads, as well as mouthpieces to brainwash the public in disinformation campaigns.  Get your head out of the (tar) sands!

Also, climatologists do not set policy, I agree.  However, politicians set policy, and politicians rarely look beyond an election cycle.  If they were really focused on doing good for their constituents, they would do what President Obama is doing and take measures which will be good in the long term, not necessarily the short term.  Paying hundreds of millions of dollars to reform the health system will save billions down the road.  Cutting millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases will save tenths (or more) degrees and hundreds of thousands of lives, not to mention billions of dollars in damages due to severe weather.

9-11 was analogous because it was a catastrophe which could have been foreseen and, therefore, avoided.  Catastrophic climate change is foreseen in the future under the status quo and, therefore, can be avoided by changing the ways we do things (i.e. cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70% or more by 2050).  We must take action before the body bags start piling up or else we have lost our moral high ground.  Those who refuse to take action or who try to inhibit people and governments from taking action are guilty of immorality, as they are directly or indirectly causing the deaths of people and are making this planet less inhabitable.

As I’ve said many, many times; millions of dollars is peanuts. You can’t do brainwashing for peanuts, in fact it impossible to do in a free and democratic society such as ours.

“… they would do what President Obama is doing and take measures which will be good in the long term, not necessarily the short term.”

And what is it that President Obama is doing? At best, he will set intensity targers. At worst, he will be no better then Clinton and Gore.

“9-11 was analogous because it was a catastrophe which could have been foreseen and, therefore, avoided.”

9/11 was nearly impossible to foresee. Preventable with more competent law enforcement, maybe.

In spite of 9’11 and heightened security in the US, Canada, and all of Europe, the Madrid terrorist bombings and London train bombings still occurred.

And watch your language Stephen. I wouldn’t want to see your posts removed again. Tongue out

What’s wrong with my language, Paul?  Or is that just a threat because you didn’t like the content of my post?

A month or more earlier than 9-11, there were intelligence reports which said that such an attack was likely on US soil.  Hence, it being foreseen.

Also, Obama is NOT going for intensity-based targets, much to the chagrin of Harper and Stelmach.  That is why they are so uppity on this issue, hiring lobbyists left and right to try to persuade Obama to adopt intensity-based targets.  However, INTENSITY-BASED TARGETS WILL NOT DO NEARLY ENOUGH!  Hard or absolute targets are the only way we will mitigate AGW.

The US gets “chatter” all the time. And 9/11 might have been prevented, but can never be certain. Besides, most of the left thinks Bush did 9/11 anyways, so what does it matter?

As for Obama, yup, at best he will do intensity targets. Watch and see.

And read up on DeSmog policy on the use of profanity in threads Stephen. They will delete your posts if you continue with your use of vulgarity, not me.

Paul, why do you continue to say that I am on the left?  This is not the case.  I am not a right-winger, either.  One can be neither left nor right.  Also, about the 9-11 conspiracy theorists, I think they are whackos and need to get their heads examined.  Absolutely no evidence supports their position.

Obama won’t do intensity targets.  He is too much of a forward-thinker to espouse those retrograde and destructive policies.

Also, where did you consider my post to have foul language?  Maybe I should have used the abbreviation BS instead of spelling it out in full, but academics and others use the term all the time.  Have you ever seen the book On Bullshit?  No library that I have seen which has it has the last word blotted out in their online catalogue.

Democrats have always been big on the talk on AGW. But as Clinton and Gore demonstrated, they don’t follow through.

Clinton and Gore at least attempted to get Kyoto signed though Congress.  Only those Democratic members in the pay of Big Oil and Big Coal, as well as pretty much all the Republicans voted against it, making it a hopeless effort.

Bush et al. did nothing, and actually made it worse by inhibiting efforts to be taken by other nations.

Gore and Clinton put in as little political effort as possible. All talk, little action.

You have no idea what Clinton and Gore did behind the scenes.  Few people do.  So, before you go running your mouth, proving your vendetta against the former Vice-President, I suggest you actually go and do some research.

You provide no helpful links or sources behind your arguments.  You seem just to parrot the blather of the climate change deniers and whiners without inserting anything original instead of providing anything new or informative.  Why should I waste my time with you if you aren’t engaging in a constructive dialogue?

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