The media is buzzing with the so-called “climategate” scandal. If you haven’t heard about this you can catch up on it here and here. The long and short of it is that some hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia have been disclosed to the public and reveal the smoking gun that global warming skeptics have been looking for. In these emails are conversations amongst climate researchers on how to skew data to show warming and how to suppress that information through document destruction. But that’s not the worst part, in my opinion. The major cause of concern in the emails is the glaring attempt to exclude climate change skeptics from the peer-review process at the highest levels.
And, perhaps most reprehensibly, a long series of communications discussing how best to squeeze dissenting scientists out of the peer review process. How, in other words, to create a scientific climate in which anyone who disagrees with AGW can be written off as a crank, whose views do not have a scrap of authority.
“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that–take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…What do others think?”
“I will be emailing the journal to tell them I’m having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor.”“It results from this journal having a number of editors. The responsible one for this is a well-known skeptic in NZ. He has let a few papers through by Michaels and Gray in the past. I’ve had words with Hans von Storch about this, but got nowhere. Another thing to discuss in Nice !”
It struck me when I first read this section of the article that this is the exact thing that the intelligent design camp has been saying for years now. Michael Behe even documented his peer-review nightmare here. Intelligent design scientists have been systematically shut out of the peer-review process by being disallowed from the big journals, such as Nature, for years. Michael Behe isn’t the only one. If you haven’t heard of the whole “Sternberg” affair, go and check it out here. The idea that the peer-review system is some type of open process is just a total myth. Robert Higgs wrote about this back in 2007 for Nature:
Journalists, politicians and advocacy groups refer to “peer-reviewed research” and “scientific consensus” as the authoritative last words on controversial matters involving the natural sciences, from climate change to stem-cell research and genetically engineered foods. But many people have an unrealistic view of how the scientific community actually works.
The peer-review process is not, contrary to popular belief, a nearly flawless system of Olympian scrutiny. Any editor of a peer-reviewed journal who desires to reject or accept a submission can easily do so by choosing appropriate referees.
Unfortunately, personal vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, sheer self-promotion and irresponsibility are as much part of the scientific world as any other. Peer review cannot ensure that research is correct in its procedures and conclusions. A part of the work in every discipline—from the physical sciences to economics—consists of correcting previous mistakes.
At any given time, “scientific consensus” may exist about various matters. Over time, however, new interpretations, tests or observations may demolish that consensus. For instance, in the mid-1970s, an apparent scientific consensus existed that our planet was about to enter another Ice Age. Drastic proposals, such as exploding hydrogen bombs over polar icecaps to melt them. and damming the Bering Strait to prevent icy waters from entering the Pacific, were put forth by reputable scientists and seriously considered by the US government.
The truth is that scientific research at the upper echelons occurs within a fairly small world. Leading researchers attend the same conferences, belong to the same societies, review one another’s work for funding organizations, and so forth. If you do not belong to this tight fraternity, it becomes extremely difficult to gain a hearing for your work, to publish in a “top” journal, to acquire a government grant, to receive an invitation to participate in a scientific conference, or even to place your grad students in decent positions.
“Scientific consensus” often emerges because the members of this exclusive club, and those who support them, have too much invested in the reigning ideas to let go. In this context, it behooves bright young scientists not to rock the boat by challenging anything fundamental or dear to the hearts of those who constitute review committees of funders or journals. The terms “peer review” and “scientific consensus” often serve to suggest a process of disinterested neutrality and saintly pursuit of truth. Like every other human endeavour, however, science is conducted by people with the full range of human emotions and motives.
Good rules of thumb for the non-scientist might be the following: government-funded research that is used to justify that government’s policy should be suspect, whether or not it’s peer-reviewed; and the research of scientists who appear at press conferences in the company of politicians or activists whose agendas they are there to support should be suspect, whether or not the work upholds the consensus opinion.
While I think that it’s great that global warming is in it’s death throws, I think the bigger lesson here is that whenever we hear the words “scientific consensus” it should immediately trigger our skeptic reflex. Science is an ongoing process of revolution and paradigm shift. It always has been. Today’s solid theory is tommorrows waste basket liner. Consensus in world of science is worth about as much as it is in the economics profession. That is to say, not much.