Why Questionable "Science" Gets Published, Pounced On in the Media, Retracted, Causes Resignations…Rinse and Repeat

Tue, 2011-09-06 07:42Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Why Questionable "Science" Gets Published, Pounced On in the Media, Retracted, Causes Resignations…Rinse and Repeat

An editor resigns after a journal publishes a paper that seems to trash the scientific consensus on climate change—but is heavily criticized by top scientists. Where have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2003 hearing held by Senator James Inhofe designed to bash climate science:

The very day before Inhofe’s hearing, the editor in chief of Climate Research, the small journal where the Soon and Baliunas paper originally appeared, had resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process leading up to the paper’s publication. Several other editors also subsequently resigned…

Where else have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2004 flap over the publication of a pro-“intelligent design” paper in a little-known taxonomic journal called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington:

…soon after the article’s publication—which was accompanied by considerable media attention and apparently caused angry journal subscribers to pester the editorial offices demanding an explanation—facts came to light that cast doubt on whether the work should have been published at all…the Biological Society of Washington has since backed away from the work, claiming that [it] “does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.”

Where else else have we heard this kind of story before? From the vaccine autism story:

The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, has now gone to the extreme of fully retracting a notorious 1998 paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues, purporting to show a shocking new cause of autism—the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine…The 1998 paper hit the British public like a thunderclap, triggering a decline in use of the MMR vaccine as well as a resurgence of the measles…ten of Wakefield’s original coauthors (out of twelve in total) had backed away from the work in a 2004 letter to The Lancet….

Dude. We have so been here before. It’s like somebody put on an oldie. It’s like vinyl.

The story over Roy Spencer’s paper in Remote Sensing, which had seemed to undercut the scientific consensus on climate but didn’t, but the conservative media leapt on it, and then the scientists fired back and an editor resigned, claiming the paper was “fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal”…Egads! There is a reason why this kind of stuff keeps happening.

There are a fair number “skeptics” out there in politicized and contested fields, and lots of journals. And there is a premium—if you’re a “skeptic” scientist—on getting your point of view published, because of course you believe your point of view is scientific and right and correct. You have evidence and arguments and data for it that you find utterly convincing. (Motivated reasoning affects scientists, too.)

Given the very strong scientific consensus on climate change—and the fact that everybody is aware of the intense politics here–it is still very hard to get a paper published that up and announces that everybody else in the field is, like, totally wrong. Peer reviewers will tend to point out major problems with these kinds of papers, leading to major changes, and so on.

But peer review is hardly perfect, and peer reviewers engage in motivated reasoning too. And “skeptic” peer reviewers will be more likely to find ideologically sympathetic “science” to be of a high quality, and worth publishing.

So it stands to reason that occasionally—some genius may even be able to work out the statistics—you’re going to get a kind of perfect storm scenario, where all the self-serving biases align, a real howler gets through, and then there’s a “scandal”—leading to a resignation, a paper being retracted, etc etc etc.

The real problem here, for the most part, is not the journals or the scientists. They police themselves adequately, albeit rather slowly. The real problem are the media.

Any well trained science journalist knows that one study proves nothing—precisely because of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and so on. If there aren’t a bunch of studies out there, by a bunch of different authors, all converging on a point—or if there isn’t a meta-analysis, a consensus assessment report, and so on–you had better be very careful. Humans are too prone to biases—even scientists—to treat any single study as a new truth.

It’s just looking for trouble.

But who cares about science journalists these days, and the skills they’ve learned over those long careers? The media is shedding them like dandruff. And then there’s Fox News, where they cover the climate issue as if every day is scientific opposite day. (Thereby, of course, playing to the biases and self-serving motivations of their viewers.)

So what can we do about this?

Honestly my answer—short of fixing the economy (for the climate issue), or vast media reform—is to make people more aware of the nature of bias and its subconscious (and frankly, biological) underpinnings. At that point, just maybe, we can begin to realize that weird “science” gets published sometimes, and even gets pounced on in the press…but that still doesn’t mean you should listen.

Comments

Chris,

You  might be interested to know how the local media here in Alabama covered it. An explanation of what the paper said? Why scientists were so critical? The impact on the university’s reputation??

Nah- get a quote from a religious authority that says he is a victim of the “climate mafia”.

Which is all people who get their science from the paper or AL.com know about it here, and that is MOST people.

There’s an excellent article at the Wall Street Journal,

“The Other Climate Theory”

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904900904576554063768827104.html

Oh yes, because Murdochs media will always give you a fair & balanced story wont they?

 

Sorry, forgot to include it: http://blog.al.com/montgomery/2011/09/post_10.html

FYI,

While it’s true that the editor, Wagner, resigned, the journal Remote Sensing has not withdrawn the paper. There is a strong belief among many that Wagner was basically forced to resign by the AGW bigwigs.

Barry Bickmore in this blog posting provides a very simple and stunning critique of Roy Spencer’s paper.

http://bbickmore.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/just-put-the-model-down-roy/

Bickmore states that Spencer uses a simple series of equations to represent a typical column of air on the earth.  The sun warms the upper layers and then energy is transported down through successive layers of the atmosphere where it is absorbed and re-radiated by CO2, water vapor and other green house gasses, and then through successive layers of the ocean and finally into the deep oceans.

The key point by Bickmore is that Spencer selectively cherry-picks the parameters that conveniently make the mathematical equations give him the answers that he wants.

The key difference between climatologist that rely on 3-dimensional mathematical models and Spencer is that these climatologists have to substantiate why they select values for parameters that they use in the equations where they model the whole world.  And those parameters then have to be supported by basic physics, in others words one has to go back to base principles.

Spencer doesn’t do that.  Nor does he tell the reader how much error there might be in his calculations.  Nor does he account for very important mechanisms that cause heat to flow from the surface of the ocean to its depths.

And this simple model which even a non-expert in the field like myself can see has obvious flaws is going to disprove hundreds of scientists who have deeper knowledge than Spencer?

Sorry…just an incompetent scientist with a political agenda.


 

Please keep beliefs inside of church.

“… climate capo Kevin Trenberth” blurted McIntyre. Yes, I quit reading there and then. 

Source: http://climateaudit.org/2011/09/06/the-stone-in-trenberths-shoe/#comment-302290 .

Because Spencer couldn’t work it out where he went wrong. Andrew Dessler spells it out in simple pictures.

http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/09/dessler_shows_that_clouds_aren.php

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, WTFUWT is in denial.

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/09/02/breaking-editor-in-chief-of-remote-sensing-resigns-over-spencer-braswell-paper/

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/09/04/the-science-is-scuttled-abraham-gleick-and-trenberth-resort-to-libeling-spencer-and-christy/

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/09/06/hot-off-the-press-desslers-record-turnaround-time-grl-rebuttal-paper-to-spencer-and-braswell/

Unlike Dessler, the deniers submit only opinion from the safety of their own blogs & decline the offer to produce a rebuttal through the peer review process.

Deniers & liars for hire.

 

I wonder why same bigwigs didn’t force a retraction while they were at it… ah, the mystery of omnipotence.

 

People may be interested to know that Roy Spencer, along with other notables such as David Legates and Ross McKitrick, has signed on to the Cornwall Alliance’s “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming”. Among other things, it states the following rather unscientific view:

“We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.”

http://www.cornwallalliance.org/articles/read/an-evangelical-declaration-on-global-warming/

http://www.cornwallalliance.org/blog/item/prominent-signers-of-an-evangelical-declaration-on-global-warming/