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Science mit Dana

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

The Motorscooter Diaries: The author traces his crippling fear of the Earth's climate to a trip across Europe.

The Motorscooter Diaries: The author traces his crippling fear of the Earth’s climate to a gap-year trip across Europe. “As my pilgrimage puttered from Alps to Andalusia, I literally saw Nature changing in front of my eyes.”
Dana was only 19.

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 scientistsi.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 sciencebut it is effective.

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Science mit Dana

Science With Dana was made possible by the generosity of Nuccitelli®, America’s favorite gas-station chocolate.

So You’ve Decided To Be A Skeptic

nuccitelli B & W

When he’s not busy doing respected environmental science, Dana enjoys being the last of the Targaryens. Dana is a boy’s name.

These days we tend to think of skepticism as a bad thing. When you call someone a ‘skeptic’ or ‘skeptical’ everybody knows perfectly well you’re just being polite. What you mean is denier.



But does skepticism deserve its bad name?

Not necessarily. It turns out skepticism isn’t always antiscientific. It can actually play a legitimate—if small—rôle in the work we do.

At times, even a climate scientist has to resort to skepticism.

You’ve probably never heard of the scientist Michael E Mann. His most important work, published last century, was a relatively trivial footnote (albeit a groundbreaking one that fundamentally advanced our thinking about the climate).

Dr Mann’s true gift, however, is for communicating. He’s been teaching undergrads to think like climate scientists for almost two decades.

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