Cartoon by Josh
“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!”
Phil Jones to Michael Mann, Climategate emails, July 8th 2004.
If you can’t spot what’s wrong with this email, don’t worry you’re in great company. Among the numerous luminaries who can’t are environmental activist and filmmaker Rupert Murray, celebrity mathematician Simon Singh, celebrity Nobel Prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse and celebrity Guardian doctor Ben Goldacre to name but four. To each one of them I have tried on occasion to explain why the corruption of “peer-review” is the issue that matters above all else in the Climategate emails. But none of them, sadly, was bright enough to get it.
Let me have one more stab. Here’s how I explain “Peer review” in my forthcoming book Watermelons:
Peer review is the benchmark by which most new scientific research tends to be judged. If that research is to be taken seriously by the scientific community then it must be accepted for publication by one of a fairly small number of academic or quasi-academic journals, such as Nature, Science and Scientific American.
Peer review is not a perfect system. In the golden era of Twentieth century science it wasn’t even thought necessary: neither Watson & Crick nor Einstein were peer reviewed. But in today’s abstruse, fragmented world where the various branches of science have grown increasingly recondite and specialised, peer-review has become widely accepted as the least worst method by which quality science can be sifted from junk science.
And nowhere more so than within the climate science community. In the run-up to Climategate, one of the main weapons used by those within “the consensus” against dissenting scientists was that their various papers picking holes in AGW theory had not been “peer-reviewed” and were therefore invalid. As Phil Jones himself puts it in one of his emails:
“The peer review system is the safeguard science has adopted to stop bad science being published.”
I think that’s pretty clear, don’t you? Now let us revisit that Jones/Mann exchange in the light of this knowledge. What we see happening is the deterioration of “peer review” into something more akin to “pal review.” The “peer review” process – at least in the debased field of “climate science” – has been corrupted. No longer can it be relied on as a guide to what is true or untrue, correct or incorrect, plausible or implausible. That’s because the scientists who control the “peer review” process – as revealed by the Climategate emails – are a self-serving claque, with rather less concern for the pursuit of objective truth than for their own vested interests.
With me so far? Good. Now we can move on to an incredibly complicated story which is causing much excitement at Watts Up With That?, Climate Audit and Bishop Hill at the moment. Some are saying its as damning of the “Consensus” as Climategate. It involves two people you’ve probably never heard of – Eric Steig and Ryan O’Donnell.
Eric Steig is a member of Michael Mann’s “Hockey Team” – the group of Warmist scientists who established a website called Real Climate, initially to rebut claims by McIntyre and McKitrick that Mann’s Hockey Stick wasn’t quite up to scratch, later to stick up for the Warmist cause generally.
In 2009 Steig et al published a paper considered so important that it made the cover of Nature. (H/T Barry Woods). The paper purported to counter one of the main arguments used by sceptics to dispute “global warming”, viz “if global warming really is as catastrophic and universal as some claim, then how come Antarctica remains as stubbornly cold as it was 30 years ago?” Steig’s paper showed that contrary to earlier claims, Antarctica was in fact warming too.
Or was it? Among the sceptics who suspected the reliability of Steig’s paper were Jeff Id (of the late-lamented Air Vent site) and Ryan O’Donnell. They pointed out that the statistical methods used to show this alleged warming were based on highly dubious extrapolations of data taken from small number of stations on the Arctic peninsula and coastline. (Something similar happened recently, you’ll remember, with NASA’s dramatic “warming” that took place in the Arctic – all of it, funnily enough, in places where there were no thermometers to check the reliability of NASA’s claims).
Steig suggested that rather than argue it out on the blogs O’Donnell, Id at el should publish a paper under peer review. So that’s what they tried. And guess which person it was who was selected to review O’Donnell et al’s paper. And guess which person it was – under the pseudonym Reviewer A – who tried to thwart the paper’s progression to publication with 88 pages of comments and obfuscation ten times longer than the original paper.
Yep. You got it. The mystery peer reviewer was none other than Eric Steig. Even in the monstrously corrupt world of “climate science” this was clearly a breach of protocol. Certainly, in no other scientific discipline would a reviewer with such a clear conflict of interest be invited to review a paper whose main purpose was to criticise one he’d written himself.
Now let us allow Iapogus (the commenter at Bishop Hill from whom I filched this summary: I’m an interpreter of interpretations, me) to continue the story:
Ryan guessed that Reviewer A was Stieg early on, but still remained patient and good natured. At one point in the review process, Steig suggested that Ryan and Jeff should use an alternative statistical technique, which they then did. But then later, Steig then criticised the paper, citing the example of the same statistical technique as an issue (the one he had suggested). So Steig has laid himself open to charges of unprofessional conduct, duplicity. And that was when Ryan decided to bring all this out in the open. Meanwhile Gavin and the other members of the Team at the Real Climate (RC) blog have gone into overdrive in moderating any commenter who ask any reasonable questions about all of this. Basically this was the evidence that peer review at least in climate science is broken.
Now you could argue that I shouldn’t be reporting on stories like this. It’s one of those “How many polar bears can dance on the head of the pin?” discussions of nuances of meaning which may be of tremendous interest to the “climate science” community – both sceptics and warmists alike – but which has little traction in the outside world.
Up to a point, I’d agree with this. The AGW debate – as I repeatedly argue in this blog – is essentially a political one not a scientific one.
Unfortunately, there are still lots of people out there – the Simon Singhs, the Sir Paul Nurses, the Ben Goldacres, the Robin Inces, and their Guardianista Twitter Posses, for example – who think otherwise.
And it’s important that these people are made to realise that not only are there no sensible political or economic arguments to support their cause, but passing few scientific ones either. If the science supporting AGW theory is really as rock solid as Warmists claim, why on earth would they need to resort to the kind of corruption and dirty tricks we first saw in Climategate and are now witnessing again in RealClimategate?
Give up, guys. The game’s over.
PS One more thing. Undoubtedly one of the best things ever to happen to the (somewhat dubious and generally second-rater-friendly) field of Climate Science has been the Watts Up With That? website. Not least among its achievements is to show the way forward after the death of “peer review”. The future is “peer to peer” review, at which WUWT excels. It has become a forum for experts from all scientific disciplines to assess various aspects of climate science rigorously and without the grotesque bias we’ve unfortunately seen so often among the “consensus” scientists at the IPCC. And now WUWT has rightly been put up for the Best Science Blog in the 2011 Bloggies Awards. It deserves your support. Vote early, vote often!
Let me have… (to read more, click here)
- Climategate: the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’?
- Simon Singh: is there anything he doesn’t know?
- Climategate: what Gore’s useful idiot Ed Begley Jr doesn’t get about the ‘peer review’ process
- The curious double standards of Simon Singh