THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
Chris C. Mooney
The Meaning of
the Island of Doubt
CLIMATE OF BIAS?
In this past weekend's Telegraph, Robert Matthews, who has been covering the subject for years, produces a couple of respectable scientists who claim the world's top science journals are suppressing findings for no other reason than the conclusions are at odds with most everyone else's. The story is the latest example of a complaint that pops up quite regularly, namely that the scientific community isn't nearly as unified as we have been led to believe on why the world has warmed by about 0.6oC over the last few decades.
This is perhaps one of the most important questions facing civilization at the moment, and we can't afford to jump to conclusions, which is why skepticism is so important. If the "dissident" climatologists are right -- if the evidence that humans are blame for much of the warming is faulty -- then reinventing the very foundations of modern industrial society might not be worth the effort.
My own opinion is that the dissidents' case is weak. But I'm not a trained climatologist and so remain at least marginally open to the idea that more than 2,000 of the world's leading experts in the field have got it wrong. After all, science does advance by overthrowing orthodoxy. What I can evaluate with some degree of expertise is the argument that journals might be suppressing research that contradicts the wider consensus merely to sell more copies. Here's one of the complainants from Matthew's story, Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama: "It's pretty clear that the editorial board of Science is more interested in promoting papers that are pro-global warming. It's the news value that is most important."
This is a strange argument to make. Considering that news consists of what's unusual, wouldn't it make more sense for an editor to jump at the chance to publish a contradictory paper, instead of yet more evidence that we are in trouble? If news value is what's important, it seems that Spencer's work would be front-page stuff.
Indeed, this is why climate change dissidents get as much attention as they do in the popular press. The average journalist, taught to present both side of the story, gives contradictory opinions equal treatment, even though an informed analysis of the debate would suggest they warrant only a passing mention. Less scrupulous politicians and pundits then seize on the apparent lack of consensus for their own ends. Science journalist Chris C. Mooney ably addresses this problem of "false equivalency" in the Columbia Journalism Review.
But that's the popular press. Editors of Science and Nature, the other journal singled out for criticism in the Telegraph, have more than news values to consider, and more than a passing acquaintance with the subject, when deciding what to publish. At the top of the list is the question, "is this good science?"
To be fair, Spencer and his like-minded collaborator at U of Alabama, John Christy, are anything but wing-nuts. Despite their outsider status when it comes to the climate-change community, they have made valuable contributions to the debate -- keeping the science honest, some would say -- by pointing out potential and sometimes real flaws in their opponents' work. This is what skeptics are supposed to do. Much of their primary argument, that satellite measurements of atmospheric temperatures have been widely misinterpreted, is hard for non-experts to follow, but it is worth a try.
When it comes to understanding the editorial process, however, I think they come up short. They undermine their analyses by complaining about being shut out by Science and Nature. What seems to annoy them most is they are no longer the go-to guys when it comes to reviewing papers on satellite-based measurements of the troposphere. Maybe they have a point, but they don't do themselves, or the wider debate, any favors by failing to stick to the science.
Spencer wrote last year in Tech Central that "I will admit to being uneasy about airing scientific dirty laundry in an op-ed." Agreed. Nobody likes a whiner.