Posted by: bmeverett | July 16, 2010

The Death of Peer Review


Phil Jones, head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate research Unit (CRU) and other authors of controversial emails often referred to as “climategate” have now been exonerated – sort of. The leaked emails in question ranged from tasteless (Ben Santer offering to “beat the crap” out of Pat Michaels), to worrying (Tom Wigley proposing that scientists jointly pressure one journal for publishing articles he doesn’t like), to potentially criminal (encouraging the deletion of documents prior to an anticipated Freedom of Information Act request). An independent review commissioned by the University released its report this month (“The Independent Climate Change Emails Review” or ICCER, which can be found at http://www.cce-review.org/pdf/FINAL%20REPORT.pdf). If you will forgive a very liberal paraphrasing, my interpretation of the ICCER’s conclusion is that Phil Jones’ behavior was bad, but not particularly worse than the scientific community at large. In other words, everybody does it.

The “climate community” bases its demands for severe carbon mitigation on two pillars: (1) the credentials of the scientists who support such action and (2) the quantity of peer-reviewed literature supporting the claims of those scientists. These pillars are in fact unscientific. Science is based on falsifiable hypotheses tested against empirical evidence, not against the number and academic degrees of its supporters.

Peer review is a process by which the editors of scientific journals circulate proposed scientific papers to expert reviewers for comment prior to publication. The idea is to ensure that the science is up to the standard required for publication. The “climate community” would like the public to believe that peer review is a gold standard that virtually guarantees that conclusions are correct and scientifically rigorous. The ICCER contains an excellent and very telling appendix on the subject of peer review. While this appendix argues that peer review is valuable, it also offers several conditions which can undermine the peer review process. If, for example, a reviewer has a financial interest in the outcome of the issue, he cannot be objective, no matter how honest, smart and well-trained he is. Few of us would trust scientists employed by drug companies to do objective assessments of the safety and effectiveness of their products. Unfortunately, almost all climate change scientists suffer from this conflict of interest. A large share of the money devoted to climate research comes from governments, and the funds flow only because the policy implications are so powerful. If the scientific community concludes that near-term catastrophic climate change is unlikely, these funds will dry up – and quickly. Again, this doesn’t mean that scientists are dishonest, but they do have a serious conflict of interest.

The Appendix also discusses another case in which a scientist has devoted his life’s work to a theory and is therefore unlikely to support its critics. This is a common problem in criminal law. The iconic show Law and Order, for example, always includes two half-hour pieces. In the first half, police detectives work hard to solve a crime, using the best evidence and logic available to them. This is essentially a scientific process. The cops form a hypothesis that Suspect A committed the crime, and then test that hypothesis against the evidence. If the forensics don’t support the allegation, the police will (or at least should) move on to another suspect. In the second half of the show, however, the District Attorney’s office prosecutes the suspect identified by the police as the most likely culprit. Prosecutors do not act like scientists. They gather the best evidence available to them and present it with no pretense of objectivity. Balance is left to the defense and to the judge. When the prosecutor offers eyewitness testimony, you will never hear him say, “On the other hand, it was dark and raining and the witness is not a very reliable person, so you should take this testimony with a grain of salt.” When the defense offers evidence, the prosecutor doesn’t reconsider his position, but goes back to his office and tries to come up with the best possible counterarguments. In real world cases, prosecutors almost never admit they were wrong, even when convictions are overturned on appeal.

A substantial number of climate scientists have publicly committed themselves to supporting government carbon mitigation policies, and the “climate community” sees the high proportion of scientists in their political camp as support for the science. In fact, the opposite is true. Once you become a political advocate, you are no longer a scientist, no matter what your credentials are. Changing your mind in the face of new evidence would require a public admission that you were wrong. People tend not to want to do that. No amount of contrary scientific evidence would convince Phil Jones or Michael Mann to change their minds on the nature of climate change.

This type of conflict of interest is becoming prevalent in our society, partly as a result of what’s known as “social justice curricula” in various academic institutions at the university and even at the high school level. The basic idea of these programs seems straightforward: knowledge should not be sterile, but should be used for some socially useful purpose. Medicine is by its nature a socially useful activity, since it saves lives and reduces suffering. People who join the Peace Corps, teach in inner city schools or work for Habitat for Humanity are providing useful services and are to be applauded. The extension of the social justice concept to journalism, on the other hand, is by no means an unqualified success. The field is now full of journalists who believe that their reporting should help society by supporting certain political viewpoints and undermining others. The idea of factual reporting is regarded as archaic and useless. Instead of Edward R. Murrow, we now have Chris Matthews.

The application of “social justice” to science is even worse – a throwback to the Middle Ages, when science and scripture were indistinguishable. Galileo was persecuted for arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun – partly because most powerful people disagreed, but also because his assertions undermined the moral authority of the Church. There are of course moral questions surrounding the application of science. We can sympathize with Robert Oppenheimer’s worries about the use of the atomic bomb he had helped to develop. It would have been a perversion of science, however, if, in his enthusiasm for banning nuclear weapons, he had argued that nuclear fission would cause the Sun to explode, killing everyone on Earth. The “climate community” comes very close to this extreme view of “social justice” science when it tries to frighten the population by overstating the evidence for the near-term catastrophic climate change hypothesis.

Peer review is a helpful part of the scientific process only when reviewers place their scientific responsibilities above their policy advocacy. In the “climate community,” that’s a sin, and that’s why Phil Jones and company have been exonerated. For peer review to work, you need police detectives, not prosecutors.

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  1. […] in various academic institutions at the university and even at the high school level. …More Here var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_localize = { Share: "Share", Save: "Save", Subscribe: […]

  2. […] << “The Death of Peer Review” makes some excellent points <<https://bmeverett.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/the-death-of-peer-review/>&gt;. In a related matter, here are some independent scientists who are trying to do something […]


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