In today’s post I want to simplify—while expanding on—one of the biggest stories I covered at The Guardian: an exposé on the growing contrarian problem, and the threat it poses to the literary integrity of science. —D. Nuccitelli
Editing a Journal for Dummies
Someone’s submitted a paper. Should I accept it?
Probably, because it’s science.
Not necessarily, though. The power vested in you as editor, censor and gatekeeper comes with a sacred duty: to protect both the reputation of the journal, and the credibility of science itself, from injury.
That’s why you should only publish sound papers, not flawed (contrarian) ones.
What technical vocabulary do I need?
Practice the following keywords until ‘editorese’ is so natural to you that you can speak it without thinking (which is how scientists speak).
‘Sound science’ refers to the science that gets the science right, and will therefore “stand the test of time.”
(Proper science should never be provisional—i.e., subject to reëvaluation in the light of future findings. That’s a sure sign of what we call crap science.)
Synonyms for ‘sound’ include ‘mainstream,‘ ‘climate‘ and ‘the.’
At the other end of the spectrum there are descriptors like ‘contrarian‘ and ‘flawed,‘ which are interchangeable.
A contrarian paper is one by contrarian scientists.
(By analogy, a flawed paper is one by flawed scientists—i.e., contrarians.)
A contrarian scientist is one who thinks he knows better than previous scientists, or has ideas that conflict with, depart from, supplement, or disrespect the boundaries of, the science we currently accept.
Pro Tip for Amateurs
Unless you’re active in the field you probably haven’t kept up with the full breadth and depth of our understanding of the climate system, or what ‘the climate system’ means. So you might be wondering how you’re supposed to know if a given climate hypothesis is mainstream or flawed.
But, you’ll be pleased to know, it’s rather easy.
Climate science isn’t nearly as complex as—say—whatever you do. So far we’ve only produced one good hypothesis (AGW). So any attempt to introduce a second idea can automatically be considered contrarian, i.e. unsound.
It’s the sun? Flawed. It’s natural? Flawed. It’s not us? Flawed. It’s [insert groundbreaking explanation which, if confirmed, would force us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the drivers of terrestrial weather]? Flawed.
How good are editors at screening out flawed (‘contrarian’) science?
That’s a good question, with a precise answer. One of the fun projects I’ve been involved in—when I’m not busy raising awareness of what happens to editors who print contrarian science—is something called consensus research, which essentially tells us how well the editorial community is heeding our threats.
Last time we checked, they were being pretty careful; for every hundred papers that made it to print, only 3 were flawed.
Beyond The Stats!
You’ve probably heard the myth that the ratio of scientific papers supporting science has been stuck at 97% for several years now, with no sign of improving.
While this is true, don’t be misled by the data (a classic rookie mistake in climate science). What the myth doesn’t want you to know is that the 97% consensus is—in scientific parlance—”strengthening.” All the time.
Unfortunately, so is the dissensus. This is what gives less sophisticated readers the impression science isn’t getting more and more persuasive every year—but I don’t have to tell you how misguided that is. Barely a day goes by that researchers don’t step in a fresh lode of data consistent with everything science has been saying all along.
And here’s the killer point:
They’re obviously not mistaken in any gross way, or they would have run out of evidence years ago.
After all, we all know that nature keeps track of how much evidence it’s given to each hypothesis and immediately stops reconfirming it once scientists have got the level of empirical vindication they deserve.
(If you’ve ever wondered why experiments only work the first few times, now you know.)
So the fact that climate science still hasn’t hit its quota—that even after 26 years, new studies are still delivering the desired findings—is the most compelling proof of how true the science is, scientifically.
Sure, science is always right, as a rule, but no science has ever been this right before.
It’s no wonder then that the denialists—and pseudobelievalist accomplices like José Duarte—feel the need to disembowel consensus studies so thoroughly. It’s not as if these debunkings are novel. I don’t think any of the long litany of methodological problems they’ve “exposed” in our paper were original, or even unexpected.
I’m hard-pressed to think of any rule of science we broke that hadn’t already been broken a decade ago, by Oreskes04. (Let us know in comments if I’ve overlooked one.)
That’s why demands for the “retraction” of our “disgraceful… scam” paper are not only tedious, but disingenuous: the study in question was a slight improvement, if anything, on the unreviewed, unreviewable one-page ‘Essay’ by Naomi Oreskes that started this whole genre, back in 2004.
But if you ask a so-called skeptic, we’re the ones responsible for violating the purity of the literature. Clearly they think that, ten years after the initial defloration, it somehow “grows back.” LOL. (But then, as long as we’re denying 200 years of radiative physics, why not deny the facts of female reproductive anatomy while we’re at it?)
If skeptics aren’t hypocrites, then why aren’t we hearing [m]any calls for Science to “take one small step to restore the credibility of the climate intelligentsia” or “exhibit a modicum of editorial integrity” or “excise the cancer of pseudoscholarship that threatens not only climate science but the entire body of knowledge if it’s allowed to metastasize” by pulling Oreskes04?
The next time someone calls Cook13 an academic abomination, do what I do: rub their double standards in their face with a link to the original and best.
Digressions aside, then, the only interesting thing about the attacks on our science is the amount of overkill involved. It seems the verdict of consensuology still touches a denialist nerve—and it’s just as raw as it was a decade ago.
So if those of us on the side of the angels appear to be churning out the same study every two years, now you know why. I’m not going to pretend it’s cutting-edge science—for all I know it’s not even science—but it is effective.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Carelessness has serious consequences. It’s a rare and disturbing event when published science is found to be flawed, or a hypothesis fails to stand the test of time.
Luckily, climate science has a famous “self-correcting” process, which begins with the termination of the offending editor. A number of other editors will then disavow the journal in what scientists call “frustration,” causing it to hemorrhage what scientists call “academic credibility.”
I wish I could tell you the magic algorithm that separates sound ideas—which you should publish—from the ones you should reject in order to avoid embarrassing science, but I’m afraid hypotheses just aren’t the kind of thing we can “test” scientifically.
(If we could test hypotheses, then the whole idea of consensus—the lifeblood of all science—would become redundant overnight! But I digress; this is a climate-science blog, not a science-fiction blog.)
All you can do is use your judgement, common sense and a handful of rules of thumb:
- In science we have something called a principle of surprise. When you find yourself reading a manuscript and thinking, “Wow! I did not know that,” that’s your warning that it is making a contrarian argument, and could damage science.
- Does it meet the Bozo criterion? Remember, they laughed at Albert Einstein—but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. So if a hypothesis seems ridiculous in your personal subjective opinion, that’s because it is. No amount of data can justify publication when your gut’s not convinced.
- Lastly, consider a powerful concept called falsifiability. To put it simply: can you think of some empirical observation that would prove the hypothesis wrong? If so, it’s too risky to publish; remember, falsifiable papers are in continual danger of failing the test of time. That’s a worry no journal wants hanging over its head.
Suppose I inadvertently publish a counter-scientific paper. Won’t it be superseded, abrogated or ‘overturned’ as soon as someone prints better science?
Er, no. No it won’t.
This misconception is common among editors whose experience is limited to the subsidiary sciences (physics, meteorology, biology, chemistry, geology, oceanography, epidemiology, atmospheric sciences, etc.).
Unless you’ve put in the many years of study it takes to become a qualified climate scientist, you probably assume we use roughly the same rules of evidence as these lesser—so-called ‘natural’ or ‘physical’—scientists.
Far from it. What you forget is that, in climate science:
- papers all have the same evidentiary weight, no matter how good they are; think of it as a ‘One Paper, One Vote’ system. (Read just about any consensus study if you want to see this system at work.) ‘Better’ and ‘worse’ don’t come into it. The only question is whether a paper counts, explicitly or implicitly, as a vote for the science or against it.
- to weigh up the evidence for and against science we triage papers into piles, and to classify a paper we only consider the Abstract. The methodology could be unimpeachably valid or laughably spurious; the data could be overwhelmingly ample or borderline-insignificant; the conclusion could be a first impression or a moral certainty; but none of this matters, because we’ll never read that far!†
- unless and until it’s actually retracted, an article is never removed from the stack it’s in, no matter how many flaws are identified by later study. Both piles of science—the one supporting science and the one denying it—will just keep ‘adding up.’ This can be summed up by the First Law of Scientific Evidence: evidence always tends to increase.
In short, once you give a green light to a contrarian paper, the damage is done.
†It’s currently the focus of heated debate within climate academia whether we should even require scientists to write full papers anymore. Thanks to a ground-breaking study by Michael Mann and colleagues in 1998, mainstream science now sees the tradition of methodological disclosure—in all its enabling detail—as an unnecessary hangover from the pre-climate (‘natural’) sciences. We’re just starting to grapple with an obvious corollary: with the threat posed by climate change becoming more and more present, can scientists really afford to waste time publishing anything that doesn’t fit in a 200-word abstract?
The peer-review system is your friend. As a busy science editor you rely on it every single day.
But what you probably didn’t know is that peer review isn’t just for rubber-stamping! With a bit of lateral thinking you can also use it for exactly the opposite purpose: to block the science you’d rather not publish.
The trick is as simple as it is ingenious. (Scientists define a trick as a ‘clever way of solving a problem.’)
Next time a contrarian paper lands on your desk, add one small twist to your normal practice: instead of picking reviewers at random from your LinkedIn contacts, look specifically for those who are qualified in the same scientific field to which the paper itself belongs.
Then, once you’ve assembled your trusty triad of so-called relevant reviewers, ask them to scrutinise the paper in question—not just for bad spelling, but for deeper issues involving science, reasoning, data hygiene, code, arithmetic or statistics. With any luck they’ll find enough grounds to reject the piece of antiscience in front of them without even having to mention its flawed (contrarian) nature!
But if nothing particularly problematic leaps out at your reviewers the first time, ask them to check the fine print nobody ever reads: the so-called ‘Methods’ section. (This should be located somewhere between the Abstract and the Results.)
You’d be amazed how many climate studies turn out to be invalid when a competent critic actually retraces what the authors did to their data, step by step.
And rest assured, climate scientists know how imperative it is to keep contrarian science from contaminating the literature base—so they’re usually quite happy to go the extra mile here, if you ask them politely.
Admittedly, tactics like this are not for the squeamish. People are going to tell you that once you start auditing papers, you’re no better than the auditors we all condemn. But that’s unfair. You are better, because you’re trying to defend—not assault—science.
And—as the philosophy of ethics tells us—the end justifies the means.
CN contributor Stefan Lewandowsky wrote a whole essay on this great axiom of morality and how it’s guided the behavior of top climate scientists, which is well worth reading. His sections on why we have to bury the truth in a “bodyguard” of lies, why contrarians don’t deserve the same rights as the majority, and why forgery, phishing and fraud are justifiable tools in the war on minority opinion are also highlights.
Whenever I’m asked for evidence of the ethical decadence, corruption and decline of the opposite team, Steve’s article is my go-to link. These folks surrendered the moral high ground years ago.
So why is flawed science published at all?
A contrarian paper can still get into the literature in 5 ways, as my Guardian article explains:
1. Contrarians create vanity journal. As a sign of our success in educating editors, more and more contrarian authors are finding the legitimate literature off-limits to them. But rather than accept the verdict of nature and allow their science to be suppressed, these anti-scientists often stoop to starting their own flawed-science journals! The editors of these specialty journals—being sympathetic to unsound views—then connive in publishing papers that might not survive the test of time.
2. Flawed editor gets into credible journal. Because of human weakness—which scientists attribute to the fallen state of Man—nobody wants to believe sound science. It is, after all, telling us to make massive lifestyle cuts, stunt the progress of the developing world and condemn our children to pay more and have less. (I believe it was George Monbiot who observed that the science is a call not for wealth but austerity, not for more freedom but less freedom; that in short, nobody wins if we obey the evidence.)
And contrarians know this. They know that if an editor is weak enough, he or she will put human interests ahead of science by allowing evidence against it to go to print.
This, in turn, will undermine the credibility of the entire journal. (That’s how science works.)
So the real victims here are all the other scientists published in the same issue, who are now forced to redo entire studies because they can no longer trust their own articles.
3. By following the scientific method. This strategy (also dubbed ‘Contrarian Uses Scientific Method, Writes Paper and Satisfies Peer Review’) is diabolically effective.
The so-called scientific method, which you may have heard of, is basically a set of techniques and principles telling you how to reason, act and speak just like a scientist no matter how vehemently you oppose the science. It’s the perfect disguise, and all genuine pseudoscientists use it.
And when they do, the output has no trouble fooling the average editor. Like most scientists, he or she has been systematically indoctrinated to focus on method, tragically missing the real question: Does this paper support, uphold or strengthen the science… or does it attack it?
This scientific method is a threat we’re still trying to raise awareness of among climate scientists—some of whom don’t even know it exists—so they can ensure it’s never used against them or their journal.
4. Journal’s reviewers lack the proper hostility to contrarianism. One of the tricks contrarians like to steal from legitimate science is pal review, where an editor gives a manuscript not to reviewers who are guaranteed to object to every single notion the authors have, but to neutral (or even friendly) ones. I mentioned an especially disturbing case in which we suspect this may have happened, albeit accidentally:
“The editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors…”
This resulted ultimately in the printing of a climate skeptic article.
Note the spectacularly bad luck the editors had. If we assume—per consensus research—that 3% or so of scientists in the field are “sceptics” of the science then the probability of “unintentionally” picking three of them is 0.0027%. To put it another way, this should only happen once every 37,037 papers.
Unless, that is, sympathetic reviewers were expressly recruited for the mission.
But let’s not go there; that way lies conspiracist ideation. As a legitimate scientist I can only cling to coincidence—no matter how astronomically implausible—as an explanation.
5. Flawed paper is published in off-topic journal. While authors of legitimate science papers only send them to the 1 or 2 journals most relevant to the subject matter, flawed scientists are known to submit to publications that barely even deal with climate science! (Dog astrology journals are a favorite target, for example.) The point of this maneuver is twofold.
Because the rules of science, evidence and even statistics vary from field to field, the editorial staff at these “off-topic” journals may lack the competence to tell flawed from sound climate science. (The qualities that make a climatology paper credible don’t necessarily make for convincing dog astrology.)
Second, in scientific ethics a contrarian paper—unlike a mainstream one—can be refuted informally. The rebuttal doesn’t even have to be written down, let alone submitted to a refereed journal, to be “taken seriously” (as the scientific expression goes)! When a paper goes against science, simply stating out loud your objections to it is all it takes to debunk not only the work in question, but any similar study attempted in the future.
Trouble is, the editorial staff at an unrelated journal may not have been in the room when the discussion took place, leaving them unaware that an entire genre of contrarian studies now stands orally discredited. I reported a case just like this:
“The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.”
How do peer reviewers tell if a paper is contrarian or not?
So, you’re just a humble referee/reviewer? No worries—you can still detect flawed (and suspicious) papers more or less the same way editors do. For instance:
You are contrarian: This increases the likelihood that contrarian authors are targeting your journal as we speak. Suspect every paper.
You are flawed: See above.
The lead author is your biological son: This is often a sign that you’re involved in a nepotistic plot, a type of conspiracy by which contrarians hope to get the imprimatur of legitimacy onto their science. Given the disreputable nature of such science it stands to reason that the lead author is usually one of your bastards. He may even be your supposed “nephew,” which is presumably a euphemism: remember, the practice gets its name from the special treatment given to a Pope’s quote-unquote nephews (nepotes).
What my Guardian story revealed was a culture of contrarian corruption that would make the Borgias blush:
“In addition [to violating this understanding], the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis, which we regard as malpractice in scientific publishing and not in accordance with our publication ethics we expect to be followed by the editors.”
I couldn’t make this stuff up.
The paper tries to put natural effects down to natural causes: The causal closure of the physical world is a telltale premise whose adoption can only mean one thing in climate science: that a contrarian is trying to bamboozle you with magical, medieval thinking.
Perhaps you come from a scientific background in which it’s permissible—even desirable—to offer natural explanations for natural phenomena; perhaps you come from (say) the natural sciences. If so, you probably have no idea how laughable the idea sounds to a climate scientist.
What contrarians don’t want you to know is that anthropogenic global warming is not just the only thing climate scientists have discovered, it’s also their ruling paradigm. In other words, the unnatural nature of everything that happens in nature (since 1900 or so, at any rate) is a kind of conceptual framework outside which it literally doesn’t make sense to do climate science!
Opponents of the climate have violated this paradigm on at least one occasion:
In another example, a new journal called Climate published a fundamentally flawed paper by Syun-Ichi Akasofu that used unphysical magical thinking to try and blame global warming on natural causes. Fortunately the journal soon thereafter published a rebuttal by myself, John Abraham, and colleagues…
As I said, however, the absurdity of this will probably be lost on non-climate scientists.
By reading it: Sometimes, as a last resort, you just have to suffer through the paper itself, or at least the Abstract, to answer the key question:
Does it corroborate existing science—the AGW narrative, in effect—or not?
If not, science would describe the paper as contrarian. It can be shown (though the blogosphere as a medium doesn’t permit the formal proof to be expounded here) that all contrarian papers are flawed papers, and ipso facto must be rejected—a rule of thumb which has spared the climate community many an illegitimate insertion when all else failed.
A word from the author
The idea for today’s post came from a reader who emailed:
Dear Prof. Nutticelli [sic],
As publisher of one of the world’s most popular scientific journals I’ve followed with interest your writing at The Guardian. It’s no wonder Climate Nuremberg spotted your talent. (Congratulations on the new gig!)
By “popular,” I mean “academically prestigious as a consequence of the huge number of copies sold in newsagents every month,” or to put it another way, “scientifically credible.”
And by “popular,” I mean “very popular.”
How science works is an old question, but your take on it is truly novel.
For instance, in your story on the danger posed by contrarian manuscripts you define a good paper as the kind that will “stand the test of time,” or else it doesn’t deserve to be published.
That blows my mind. I’ve never looked at it that way; I doubt any scientist has.
Your article is full of such gems. But they tend to go over the heads of our editors at [journal]—who aren’t quite as high-information or scientifically-savvy as the typical Guardian reader. Could you perhaps dumb it down a bit? What journal editors need is a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ to hold their hands through the stressful experience of finding an antiscientific science paper on their desk.