Scientific scholarship vs. pseudoscholarship

How many times have we heard the apocryphal statement about global warming that “the science is settled”?  Is the debate really over?  It depends on who is doing the debating, and what is claimed to have been settled.  There have been many climate-change debates among scientists as well as non-scientists.  First, it’s important to recognize the difference between a scientific debate and other forms of disagreement.  Science has ground rules.  Those who don’t follow the rules are entitled to their opinions, but cannot legitimately claim to be participating in a scientific debate.

One rule for scientific results to be accepted is that they must be subjected to peer review and published in a scholarly scientific journal.  This is a necessary, but insufficient, condition (nobody is compelled to accept the conclusions of a paper just because it has been refereed).  This rule is not intended to create a “high priesthood” of scientists or keep others from participating.  On the contrary, scientists welcome dissent and encourage contrarians to publish their ideas so they can be subjected to the same scrutiny that is applied to conventional thought.

Peer review is designed to screen out material that is demonstrably wrong, flawed, or illogical.  Non-specialists are not always able to spot errors quickly in a highly technical piece of work, so experts are recruited to make sure any mistakes are corrected and necessary documentation is provided, before peer-reviewed science can be published.  Think of this as a kind of standard for all scholarly papers.

Back to the topic of global warming.  In my line of work, I’m often asked to comment on various claims about climate change.  The first thing I do when I read an editorial or blog entry is to check to see if the claims have been published in the scientific literature.  If not, my response is usually along the lines: “I don’t see why I should bother to read it if the authors couldn’t be bothered to put it through scientific peer review.”  My reasoning is not that such material is necessarily wrong.  But without any scientific review I have no assurance that anyone has checked to see if the equations are right, data sources correctly cited, figures properly attributed, or other workers’ conclusions fairly represented.

Nobody claims that the global warming debate has ended among editorial writers, media pundits, bloggers, and politicians.  The calculation of the mass of CO2 produced from burning a gallon of gasoline was the subject of a vigorous debate on the Albuquerque Journal letters page a while back.  This is a question that a decent high school chemistry student should be able to answer, but the highly-opinionated letter writers were not able to resolve their differences–despite the fact that reaction stoichiometry is settled science.

Likewise, a competent high school physics student understands how the greenhouse effect works, called conservation of energy – also settled science.   It has been known for over a hundred years that adding CO2 to the atmosphere increases its infrared opacity, and when this happens, more energy from sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere than escapes.  The atmosphere must heat up, on average.  There is no scientific debate about this fact, and nobody has ever published a “zero-warming” theory to explain how it could be otherwise.

What is not settled is the degree of climate change, and in the peer-reviewed scientific literature there is a healthy, open, honest, and active scientific debate going on.  The best scientific estimate of the amount of warming (when CO2 levels double, which is likely to happen this century) is about 3 ºC.  There are those who disagree, and have published the basis for their disagreement.  The most useful assessments are not limited to the best estimate, but include quantification of the uncertainty, which is one of the hallmarks of honesty in science.  There is a broad range of possibility, from below 2 ºC to greater than 6 ºC.

One recent paper estimates a likelihood of about 2.5% that average temperature increases could exceed 8 ºC; a change that would probably lead to the collapse of global ecosystems, loss of civilization, and possible human extinction (nothing to lose sleep over).  There is no way to prove or disprove these quantitative estimates, other than to wait and see what happens.  That said, a scholarly paper (emphasis on scholarly) that gives longer odds for civilization than for a shuttle launch cannot be ignored.

Recently, opinion pieces have been published that masquerade as scientific literature.  Most notably is a document published by the Heartland Institute (a right-wing pressure group) for an organization called “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” (NIPCC), a play on the name of the IPCC, which publishes summaries of mainstream peer-reviewed science.  After reading a few sections of the document, I remembered a comment from a fellow scientist and friend of mine: “Pseudoscience is like spoiled food; you don’t have to eat it all to know something is badly wrong.  Just a few bites will do.”

The authors’ use of loaded words like “fearmonger” and “hype” were the first whiff of spoilage.  Rhetorical devices are rarely if ever seen in a scholarly paper.  This suspicion was borne out by close examination of figures re-plotted by NIPCC from peer-reviewed sources.  The original data were misplotted, modified, and misrepresented.  Important information was removed, and in at least one case, a data point was fabricated.  The NIPCC report is an example of pseudoscholarship at its worst.

Just as serious a blunder was the unwillingness of the authors to concede any uncertainty in their beliefs.  As scientists, we all have a professional obligation to be honest about what we know and what we do not know.  We must err on the side of caution.  Climate change must be treated like all real but uncertain threats.  To ignore that possibility is reckless.

For any debate to be called scientific, the entire spectrum of expert opinion must be taken into account, and two questions must always be asked of us:  1) How certain are you that you are correct?  2) What is the worst thing that can happen if you are wrong?

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3 Responses to Scientific scholarship vs. pseudoscholarship

  1. Scott Mandia says:

    Edited by S. Fred Singer (the George Costanza of science) and Dr. Craig Idso (one peer-reviewed publication in the past 6 years) and is the latest attempt by Heartland to discredit the well-established scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming. The publication claims that there were 35 contributors and reviewers. Of these 35, only 22 have credentials that relate to one of the climate sciences. Several of these people also do not have any published articles in peer-reviewed journals related to climate. 22 does not stack up well against the 800+ contributing and 450+ lead authors of the IPCC report.

    As Carl Sagan often stated, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” When the overwhelming majority of climate experts state that human activities have dominated modern climate change, the NIPCC should have shown extraordinary evidence to support its claim that nature and not human activity causes climate change. Of course, as with much of this document, the evidence is quite flimsy and never approaches that of extraordinary. Much of what is being represented in this document has been thoroughly discredited by experts in climate science at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/11/not-the-ipcc-nipcc-report/ and http://www.realclimate.org/wiki/index.php?title=RC_Wiki.

    For example, the document suggests that cosmic rays are influencing climate by contributing to low cloud formation with the following statement: “Empirical evidence suggests very strongly that the main cause of warming and cooling on a decadal scale derives from solar activity via its modulation of cosmic rays that in turn affect atmospheric cloudiness. According to published research, cosmic-ray variations are also responsible for major climate changes observed in the paleo-record going back 500 million years.”

    Observations from satellites and model simulations do not support the cosmic ray hypothesis as a major role in low cloud coverage and climate change. Realclimate.org has visited this topic several times with the most recent called Why the continued interest?

    Skepticalscience.com has also visited this topic and summarizes the lack of a link at the thread It’s cosmic rays which concludes that the science says: “While the link between cosmic rays and cloud cover is yet to be confirmed, more importantly, there has been no correlation between cosmic rays and global temperatures over the last 30 years of global warming.”

    Regardless of which research one chooses to consider regarding cosmic rays, there is certainly not enough evidence to hang one’s hat on when using this hypothesis to claim that nature and not humans are causing the modern day climate change. If there were many scientists showing irrefutable data to support this claim, then perhaps the NIPCC’s claims might hold water. The cosmic ray hypothesis is certainly not “extraordinary evidence” and appears to be nothing at all.

    The final nail in the coffin of this report is that it actively promotes the Oregon Petition Project which is a complete fraud. One cannot take this report seriously for this single fact alone.

  2. greenfyre says:

    At the risk of self-promotion, my take on the “settled science” question was to unpack the false dichotomy fallacy that it uses.

    @ “nobody is compelled to accept the conclusions of a paper just because it has been refereed” hmmmm, somewhat tangential, but wrt refereed science (ie the dominant paradigm vs a single paper) it is a nuanced issue insomuch as I think there is a professional responsibility that in the absence of a defensible counter hypothesis [something the Deniers have never had] one should defer to (albeit not necessarily agree with) the dominant paradigm, no?

  3. Thank you for eloquently pinpointing the difference between science and those who oppose it by adopting much of its language but disregard its process. A master of this methodology is Bob Carter. Despite his claim to scientific veracity, the rhetoric and absence of concession of uncertainty is found on every page of his book “Climate: The Counter-Consensus”.

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