Climate change denial and the abuse of peer review

People can get pretty riled up about hockey sticks. AAP

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professor Stephan Lewandowsky holds “sceptics” accountable for their subversion of the peer review process.

On 20 April 2010, a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and creating the largest oil spill in history.

When President Obama sought to hold the corporation accountable by creating a $20B damage fund, this provoked Republican Congressman from Texas Joe Barton to issue a public apology.

An apology not to the people affected by the oil spill … but to BP.

In a peculiar inversion of ethics, Barton called the President’s measures a “shakedown”, finding it a “tragedy in the first proportion” that a corporation should be held accountable for the consequences of its actions.

What does a Congressman’s inverted morality have to do with climate denial?

Quite a bit.

In a similar inversion of normal practice, most climate deniers avoid scrutiny by sidestepping the peer-review process that is fundamental to science, instead posting their material in the internet or writing books.

Books may be impressively weighty, but remember that they are printed because a publisher thinks they can make money, not necessarily because the content has scientific value.

Fiction sells, even if dressed up as science.

During peer review, by contrast, commercial interests are removed from the publication decision because journals are often published by not-for-profit professional organizations. Even if private publishers are involved, they make their profit primarily via university subscriptions, and universities subscribe to journals based on their reputation, rather than based on individual publication decisions.

Very occasionally a contrarian paper does appear in a peer-reviewed journal, which segments of the internet and the media immediately hail as evidence against global warming or its human causes, as if a single paper somehow nullifies thousands of previous scientific findings.

What are we to make of that handful of contrarian papers? Do they make a legitimate if dissenting contribution to scientific knowledge?

In some cases, perhaps.

But in many other cases, troubling ethical questions arise from examination of the public record surrounding contrarian papers.

For example, in 2003 the reputable journal Climate Research published a paleoclimatological analysis that concluded, in flat contradiction to virtually all existing research, that the 20th century was probably not the warmest of the last millennium. This paper, partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute, attracted considerable public and political attention because it seemingly offered relief from the need to address climate change.

The paper also engendered some highly unusual fall-out.

First, three editors of Climate Research resigned in protest over its publication, including the incoming editor-in-chief who charged that “…some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common.”

This highly unusual mass resignation was followed by an even more unusual public statement from the publisher that acknowledged flaws in the journal’s editorial process.

Three editorial resignations and a publisher’s acknowledgement of editorial flaws are not standard scientific practice and call for further examination of the authors and the accepting editor.

The first author of this paper, Dr Willie Soon, is an astrophysicist by training. In U.S. congressional testimony, he identified his “training” in paleoclimatology as attendance at workshops, conferences, and summer schools. (The people who teach such summer schools, actual climate scientists, published a scathing rebuttal of Soon’s paper.)

Undaunted, Dr Soon has since become an expert on polar bears, publishing a paper that accused the U.S. Geological Survey of being “unscientific” in its reports about the risks faced by polar bears from climate change.

Most recently, Dr Soon has become an expert on mercury poisoning, using the Wall Street Journal as a platform to assuage fears about mercury-contaminated fish because, after all, “mercury has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment.”

Lest one wonder what links paleoclimatology, Arctic ecology, and environmental epidemiology, the answer is not any conventional area of academic expertise but ideology.

As Professor Naomi Oreskes and historian Erik Conway have shown in their insightful book, Merchants of Doubt, the hallmark of organized denial is that the same pseudo-experts emerge from the same shadowy “think” tanks over and over to rail against what they call “junk science”.

Whether it is the link between smoking and lung cancer, between mercury and water poisoning, or between carbon emissions and climate change, ideology inverts facts and ethics whenever overwhelming scientific evidence suggests the need to regulate economic activity.

So what of the editor who accepted the flawed Climate Research paper, Dr Chris de Freitas of Auckland?

Later, De Freitas co-authored a paper in 2009 that some media outlets heralded as showing that climate change was down to nature.

One of the authors, Adjunct academic Bob Carter from James Cook University, claimed that “our paper confirms what many scientists already know: which is that no scientific justification exists for emissions regulation.” Welcome news indeed, at least for the coal industry, but does the paper support this conclusion?

No.

For starters, the 2009 paper by McLean, de Freitas, and Carter did not address long-term global warming at all.

It discussed the association between ocean currents and air temperature — in particular the time lag between the warm El Niño current and the ensuing increase in temperature.

Indeed, the article does not even contain the words “climate change” except in a citation of the IPCC, and its only conceivable connection with climate change arises from the speculative phrase “ … and perhaps recent trends in global temperature …” in the final sentence.

It appears ethically troubling to derive strong statements about emissions regulations from such a tentative clause in one’s final sentence in a paper on quite a different issue.

Such statements appear even more troubling if one considers paragraph 14 of the paper, which reads, “to remove the noise, the absolute values were replaced with derivative values based on variations. Here the derivative is the 12-month running average subtracted from the same average for data 12 months later.”

What happens to data if successive annual values are subtracted from each other? This mathematically removes any linear time trend.

In other words, temperatures could have doubled every other year and it would have escaped detection by the authors.

This removal of the trend did not escape detection by the scientific community, however, and the published rebuttal of this “it’s-all-natural” paper was as swift and devastating as it was for Dr Soon’s.

To remove the linear trend from temperature data in a paper that does not address climate change, and to then claim that nature is responsible for global warming and there is no scientific basis for emissions regulations smacks of an inversion of scientific ethics and practice.

Let us return to Congressman Barton.

Before apologizing to BP, not for the nearly $3,000,000 he has received in contributions from the oil, gas, and energy industries, but for President Obama seeking accountability from the corporation, Mr Barton also sponsored a contrived investigation of the famed “hockeystick” paper by Professor Michael Mann and colleagues.

The hockeystick is the iconic graph that shows the sky-rocketing temperatures of the last few decades in comparison to the relatively constant temperatures during the preceding centuries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences affirmed the basic conclusions of Professor Mann, as have numerous other papers published during the last decade.

Mr. Barton, however, relied on a report by a certain Professor Wegman, who claimed to have identified statistical flaws in the analysis underlying the original hockeystick. (Even if correct, that criticism has no bearing on the overall conclusion of Professor Mann’s paper or on the numerous independent hockeysticks produced by other researchers.)

Professor Wegman subsequently published part of his report in the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis. Although normally a peer-reviewed journal, in this instance the paper was accepted a few days after submission, in July 2007, in an especially ironic twist as the paper tried to cast doubt on the quality of peer review in climate research.

Alas, the paper’s lifetime was cut tragically short when it was officially withdrawn by the publisher a few weeks ago.

Why?

The paper by Wegman and colleagues was officially withdrawn because of substantial plagiarism. Conforming to the typical pattern of inversions, Wegman also appears to have plagiarized large parts of his initial hockeystick critique for Congressman Barton, while additionally distorting and misrepresenting many of the conclusions of the cited authors.

We have examined just the tip of an iceberg of inversion of normal standards of ethics and scientific practice.

These multiple departures from common scientific practice are not isolated incidents — on the contrary, they represent a common thread that permeates all of climate denial.

Because climate denial is just that: denial, not scepticism.

Science is inherently sceptical, and peer-review is the instrument by which scientific scepticism is pursued.

Circumventing or subverting that process does not do justice to the public’s need for scientific accountability.

At a time when Greenland is losing around 9,000 tonnes of ice every second — all of which contributes to sea level rises – it is time to hold accountable those who invert common standards of science, decency, and ethics in pursuit of their agenda to delay action on climate change.

This is the sixth part of our series Clearing up the Climate Debate. To read the other instalments, follow the links below: