Thursday, March 26, 2015

Book Review - The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

Communicating science to the public is one of the goals of this page. To accomplish this we include a variety of articles, including reviews of books on scientific topics.

One such book is The Beak of the Finch written by Jonathan Weiner. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for its ability to communicate evolutionary science in language that most people can understand.
Published in 1994, The Beak of the Finch blends the ongoing work of evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant with the historical work of Charles Darwin.

Author Jonathan Weiner knows how to write a story. Beginning with the Grant's work on Daphne Major, a desolate "minor" island in the Galapagos archipelago, Weiner interweaves their exciting findings regarding beak variability in Darwin's finches with insights from Darwin's own writing and the work of other researchers. For the then 20 years (now 40 years) the Grant's and their rolling cadre of graduate students have investigated how the finches came to evolve into their varied niches. They painstakingly measured and identified every individual finch on the island and tracked them through generations. Importantly, the book explores how the birds continue to evolve in a dynamic process that sometimes pushes them in one direction, then the opposite.

For example, a once in a century drought favored those species and variants with larger bodies and beaks as only they can crack the limited hard-to-eat seeds. With vast numbers of birds dying, the survivors pass along their genes and ensuing populations show the larger sizes. But then a once in a century flood during an El Nino year reverses this trend, with mostly the smaller bodied and/or beaked birds were favored. The dynamics revealed by these two opposite extreme events  dramatically furthered our knowledge of the life histories of these birds and how speciation works in real time.

Interspersed with the historical records of Darwin and the current measurements of the Grants are side examples of other research work, some done by former graduate students who are now professors in their own right. The examples show that these processes can be observed not only in other birds, but in fish and various flies and other insects.

The penultimate chapter acknowledges that even 25 years ago scientists were already understanding that human activities were causing the climate to change. The unique location of the Galapagos - half the year warmed by the North Equatorial Current and half the year cooled by the South Equatorial Current - puts the islands in the cross sights of man-made climate change.

Despite the technical nature of the material, the story and writing are very accessible to the interested general public. I highly recommend everyone read it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How the Media Enable Climate Denial and Misinform the Public

The media have played a critical role in climate denialism.  In some cases it is overt, but in most cases the role is more subtle and a function of the differences between how the media works and how science works. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most media outlets have cut back on professional journalist staff, in particular on dedicated science reporters. Which means people who cover politics – or travel – one day are covering science stories the next. Thus, there is a tendency to have limited expertise in science topics, limited deadlines (so no time to learn), and an inclination toward “balanced” reporting (which, as we shall see, is not balanced at all).

Intentional denialism for ideological reasons

Let’s start with the role of media outlets that most easily fit into the meme – the intentional denialist media. For now, this does not include amateur blogs, though as we've seen, amateur blogs are the primary mechanism for spreading “the word” of thedenialist industry. What I mean in this section are the “mainstream media” outlets that have a decidedly denialist bent.  

There are some media outlets that intentionally push the denial of man-made climate change. They choose stories that have been placed in other outlets and ensure that they get disproportionate coverage on the most watched programs and most read online venues. The most obvious example of this is Fox News, which not only selects stories based on their “denial-appeal,” but employs pundits to feed the obfuscation machine. Suddenly some stolen emails are a constant drumbeat of largely false information in which a few words or lines are taken out of context and force-fit into the preferred narrative. And some obscure (and usually misrepresented) paper is suddenly the hot topic of conversation on every program from the sports guy in morning to the rabid political ideologue at night. Fox isn’t the only media that does this, though it certainly serves as the poster child for the practice. Joining Fox are other non-science news outlets around the world that, not surprisingly, often have a connection to the Rupert Murdoch media empire (e.g., NewsCorp, The Wall Street Journal, The Mail Online, The Daily (and Sunday) Telegraph, etc.). Bloggers and journalists on these and other venues seem to have a never ending supply of stories that just don’t pass the smell test when given even the most rudimentary scrutiny for factual, or even logical, content. But these media outlets run with them anyway and are even instructed to highlight anti-AGW viewpoints. Their intent is to present the science and scientists in the worst possible light. In other words, manufacture doubt.

Professional denial bloggers, e.g., James Delingpole (formerly of the Telegraph, now with Breitbart), Christopher Booker (Telegraph), and David Rose (Daily Mail), constantly beat the drum of false talking points fed to them by the denialist industry. They are part of the media collusion with denier lobbyists to mislead the public.

Accidental denialism

Not all media intentionally try to push the denial of man-made climate of course. In most cases the failure of the media is less about ideological bias and more about the way “journalism” works. To begin with, since most of the denialist industry comes from the realm of political lobbying, the media tend to treat climate science as if it were some sort of political philosophy. This is in direct conflict with how science itself works, where everyone’s goal is to advance our knowledge and taking that knowledge wherever the data will defensibly take us. So while science normally moves slowly and incrementally as scientists do studies to address small aspects of the bigger picture, the media are likely to treat each new paper as if it defines the science in a vacuum. The media then actively seek "the other side" to provide "balance."

This desire to provide balance almost always, in practice, leads to massive imbalance and misinformation

Consider a scenario in which a news anchor wants to discuss the state of climate science. The show's producer calls up a climate scientist well-known as an expert on at least some facet of climate. The producer will then call someone else willing to "debate the other side." Since virtually all climate scientists agree that 100+ years of published scientific data unequivocally demonstrate humans are warming the planet, the "other side" is usually some spokesperson for a lobbyist organization or one of its front groups.

You can can imagine how this debate goes. Normally the climate scientist will state the facts as have been defined by that 100+ years of science and summarized by thousands of climate scientists. Then the lobbyist spokesperson will rattle off a dozen sentences, all making false statements about a dozen topics. Since it's easier to misrepresent in bulk than it is to debunk each individually, the lobbyist will generally look more media-adroit to the viewing public. As such the viewers will 1) assume both "sides" are equally valid, and often 2) feel like the lobbying guy "did a better job" communicating than did the scientist.

And the public gets misinformed.

Lobbyists, of course, are very familiar with how to manipulate the media and the public. That's their job every day of the year. And they do it well. They don't worry about the fact that most of what they say isn't actually true; their goal is to reach the best result for their membership and swaying public opinion (and giving cover for political allies) is how they accomplish this goal.

Scientists, on the other hand, are good at science, but few scientists are as good communicating to the public. This isn't surprising since scientists historically communicate the science with other scientists through publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals. The information tends to be highly technical and hard to communicate to the public.

So the media actually aids and abets misinforming the public, perhaps not intentionally all the time, but routinely. This is exactly what the denialist industry wants.

Semi-accidental denialism

There is one more way the media misinforms the public. I've labeled this “semi-accidental,” for lack of a better word. What I mean is that the media give credence to the denial of the science simply by allowing deniers to fabricate the illusion of controversy. The creation of controversy itself isn’t accidental. Media outlets in the highly competitive 24-hour, insta-tweet “news” cycle are always looking for ways to boost ratings (which boosts ad revenues, which boosts profits). And controversy is the best way to boost ratings, even if the controversy has to be invented. Fox News has built its entire political-entertainment-oriented programming on the idea, and it has been a financial gold mine for them. Journalism be damned, we're getting ratings!

Creation of controvesy is often the primary motivation behind having two opposing views being interviewed at the same time. The interviewer intentionally seeks to create conflict so that the viewing public doesn’t doze off in the middle of the segment. While this may not reflect very well on the viewing public, it is the nature of our modern “give it to me in 140 characters or less” attention span. The media cater to it by setting the stage for conflict and ensuring that any controversial sound bites are played over and over as ticklers going to commercials. All day long.

And denier lobbyists use this to their advantage as they seek to manipulate public opinion. All day long.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Collusion Among Climate Denial Lobbyists and Their Spokespeople

An interesting thing happened as the professional climate denier industry tried to suppress the release of Merchants of Doubt, a movie based on the book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. They accidentally proved that climate denier lobbyists are in collusion to misrepresent the science - exactly what the book and movie document.

For those not familiar with Merchants of Doubt you can read my review of the book or watch the trailer for the movie:

Oreskes and Conway carefully documented the science denial tactics of one of professional denier lobbying group, the George C. Marshall Institute. The Institute was started by Ronald Reagan appointees as lobbyist selling his lasers in space defense system dubbed "Star Wars." That program never got off the ground (let alone into space), so the Institute turned to denying whatever science issue was causing their paying customers grief, like smokestack emissions causing acid rain, CFCs causing ozone depletion, second hand smoke causing cancer, and now, greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. In all cases the Institute knew it was denying the science, and in all cases they were wrong, but they did it to service their corporate benefactors. You may have missed these previous episodes of climate denial, but you probably know that one of the denialist industry's favorite "skeptics" is Roy Spencer, who just happens to sit on the Board of Directors of the George C. Marshall Institute.

So you can see why the professional denial industry would be eager to suppress the movie, which features blunt interviews with professional denier spokespeople Fred Singer (who previously denied smoking caused cancer) and Marc Morano (a political operative with a long history of far right wing attacks on politicians, the science, and scientists). The book and movie note that both, along with others, have received substantial support from the denial industry lobbyists.

Which gets us to an interesting revelation as these deniers scrambled to attack the movie. Take a look at the following email distribution list:

The list comes from an email string in which Fred Singer asks his buddies in the climate denial industry how to attack Naomi Oreskes and/or the movie director Robert Kenner. The emails themselves are revealing in that they show how they plan to harass the principals - remember that Singer and Morano and others agreed to be interviewed for the movie. But even more revealing is that all the major "independent" climate deniers are in collusion with each other.

This isn't actually a surprise. While deniers claim that there are many people who dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus, the truth is that there are a very small number of lobbyist-associated scientists and political operatives that are the focal point of denial - exactly as the book and movie document. You can see that the list includes the handful of scientists who act as skeptics, along with the people on whose behalf they act - paid lobbyists like Morano, Horner, Milloy, Ball, Taylor and Bast, and key disinformation outlets like Monckton, Delingpole, D'Aleo, Goddard, and Watts. They work together to create falsehoods and misinformation about the science, feed it out onto the media at all levels, and then encourage the amateur deniers to unskeptically plagiarize the misinformation so that it saturates the blogosphere.

In fact, these people and the lobbying organizations and their front groups are closely linked in collusion. The following shows just a subset of the supposedly "independent" scientists who act as "skeptics" for the lobbying industry. All have multiple connections to lobbyists and front groups.

But it doesn't stop there. The key players are actually connected to a web of front groups and secretive funding lobbyists.

And what is the goal of this network of denial? To "manufacture doubt." As Marc Morano admits in the Merchants of Doubt movie and others have documented repeatedly, the tactics of climate denial lobbyists, the ones they have used for every episode of science denial going back to the tobacco companies denying smoking causes cancer, are:

The email distribution list demonstrates that this denial network works in collusion to misinform the public and provide cover for policymakers (most of whom are already receiving substantial campaign donations from fossil fuel and libertarian/conservative interests directly). The denial lobby network routinely communicate with each other and plan their attacks, which is why when the lobbyists seed a particular misinformational talking point into the blogosphere it immediately saturates the internet with the same misinformation. It's an intentional strategy.

More on Exposing Climate Denialism in future posts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How peer-review works...(Part 4: Using the internet to bypass peer review)

Part 4 of this series on how peer-review works...and doesn't work focuses on the power of the internet to rapidly spread the message of published papers to the public - and why that often elevates inconsequential papers to a level of importance that isn't warranted. Click on these links to read Part 1 (basics of peer review), Part 2 (when peer-review goes wrong), and Part 3 (abusing the system) of the peer-review series.

As noted in Part 3, sometimes the peer-review system can be abused. Two big examples are the outright fraud of Andrew Wakefield and the "pal review" scheme of Chris de Freitas that allowed Willie Soon to get his start fronting papers for oil industry lobbyists. Another abuse of the system is the creation of a "pal" journal for skeptics called Energy & Environment in which their Editor-in-Chief admits following her "political agenda" rather than scientific veracity.

These examples occurred early in what is now the ubiquitous presence of blogs where anyone can post anything they want. As noted by science authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America,"There's tons of information available [on the internet], but much of it is crap."

Blogs, of course, are not peer-reviewed, but some blogs can be reliable sources of discussion about the science. See here for how to tell reliable from unreliable blogs. But blogs have also been used to intentionally elevate inconsequential published papers to an undeserved iconic status, often to spread misinformation.

The recent publication of a paper in the Chinese Science Journal is a good example. An unknown journal with unknown standards of peer-review published a paper ostensibly about climate science by the fake "Lord" Christopher Monckton, the now infamous Willie Soon, David Legates, and William M. Briggs, all four of whom are well-known climate deniers who do little actual climate research. The paper argued that their simple model (despite deniers always dissing models) with arbitrarily restricted parameters that essentially gave them the results they wanted was used to declare that all the other more sophisticated models used by real climate scientists were "wrong." The paper was laughable on its face, completely unsupported by its own data, full of errors, and wildly over-interpreted. In the past, most such papers would simply be ignored because they don't stand up to scrutiny. More on why this time was different in a moment.

Another paper that got more attention than it deserved was one by Roy Spencer and William Braswell published in the journal Remote Sensing in 2011. Again a simplified model with questionable parametization dramatically over-interpreted results into some unjustified damnation of all the other science to date. The paper didn't stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the Editor-in-Chief resigned, stating that the paper had been sent out to reviewers best known for denying the science than doing it. Similar work by the authors had already been found lacking. Ironically, the paper Spencer is best known for is one in which he and co-author John Christy made major errors that, when corrected by others, reversed their initial conclusions. Like Willie Soon, Spencer and Christy are associated with oil-industry and libertarian lobbying groups.

There are other examples of seemingly inconsequential published papers, but many many more examples of papers that were never published, that somehow take on a life of their own in the blogosphere. Suddenly a paper that doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny is hailed as "blowing gaping holes in global warming alarmism" in an Op-Ed by a paid lobbyist lawyer. To any educated and informed person the immediate response is something akin to "huh??"

Sometimes the oddest things go viral in the Facebook and blogosphere world. Often we don't understand how something "caught on" (like the gold vs blue dress meme), but in the case of climate denial the virality is intentional and a product of public relations/lobbyist networks designed for exactly that purpose. The process is the same as used by the tobacco industry to deny smoking causes cancer. It goes roughly like this:

1) Professional denier lobbyists seed their network of media transmitters.

These are often Forbes, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and various other right wing media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch and like-minded media moguls. Often the pieces are written by other lobbyists (e.g., lobbyist/lawyer James Taylor of the Heartland Institute). These outlets usually have a "go-to" guy who will write up intentional misinformation about the paper (or a blog); such "go-tos" include Christopher Booker, David Rose, Matt Ridley, and James Delingpole who essentially relay the lobbyist talking points into the main-stream media.

2) Professional front groups further saturate the blogosphere.

Industry supported blogs like Climate Depot, Watts Up With That, Climate Audit, JoNova, and others make sure the professional lobbyist talking points get out to the ideologically motivated amateur climate deniers. Often these professional front groups will print verbatim what was seeded by the paid folks in step 1. These front groups also may pay people to be "sock-puppets," that is, commenters on Facebook and other blogs to insert and reiterate denier misinformation into the public discussion.

3) Amateur climate deniers plagiarize and completely saturate the blogosphere

The reason the professional lobbyists and front groups spend so much time putting out misinformation is that they know the amateur climate deniers won't understand it enough to see how obviously bogus it is. Professional deniers also know that most amateur deniers simply don't care that so much of the information is so blatantly, and laughably, false. Professional deniers, in fact, count on this willful ignorance. So amateur deniers simply parrot and plagiarize the talking points fed to them and repeat it ad nauseam no matter how many times the falsehoods are corrected.

This process can take an insignificant paper and make it the most important thing on Earth. The fact that most papers usually only examine a small piece of a huge puzzle is either ignored or lost to ignorance. In the past, insignificant or faulty published papers would simply fade away; today those same papers may be given a false level of importance. These are joined by papers that aren't even papers - blog posts, propaganda pieces, opinion pieces, and even random quotes taken out of context and given an entire story line completely divorced from (and often opposite of) the actual story.

And this is done intentionally by the climate denier lobbyists.

[Note: Peer-review graphic can be seen larger at]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What the Rajendra Pachauri Harassment Accusations Mean to the IPCC and Man-Made Climate Change

In a word - nothing. But let me explain for those unfamiliar with the IPCC and how Rajendra K. Pachauri became its chair, and why the current accusations are irrelevant to man-made climate change.

For those living in a vacuum, the blogosphere has been saturated with reports that now-former IPCC Chair Pachauri has been accused of harassment by a woman employed by his unrelated energy institute called TERI. Pachauri has denied the allegations and the case is likely to take some time to reach a conclusion. As such, Pachauri resigned from his position at IPCC and apparently is on leave from his position at TERI.

The first thing to keep in mind is that all of this involves TERI, not the IPCC. As we all know, the IPCC is the climate organization that all climate deniers love to hate, attacking it constantly because they don't like the state-of-the-science summarized in its periodic reports. This is yet another irrelevancy they will use to attack the science. You can read more about how the IPCC works and the denialist attacks on it here. Pachauri's term as chair was due to end this year anyway, and given that the most recent set of reports just came out and the next aren't due for nearly 7 years, his somewhat early departure isn't particularly meaningful.

By let's take a look at how Pachauri came to be chair in the first place, which explains why climate scientists aren't so unhappy to see him depart. Pachauri was elected to the chairmanship in 2002. That date is important to the story, the gist of which is the following.

Prior to Pachauri, the IPCC was chaired by Dr. Robert T. Watson, an actual atmospheric scientist who had been chair for about six years. Then George W. Bush was elected President of the U.S., and consistent with his long-time family oil interests, appointed Philip Cooney as the head of his Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ). A lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, Cooney would seem an odd choice for the CEQ, but his purpose would soon be evident. Cooney left the administration in 2005 after being caught doctoring climate reports to downplay the science in favor of his oil industry handlers. Upon resigning he immediately took a job with oil giant ExxonMobil.

But Cooney's dishonesty wasn't the only Bush administration attack on climate science. There was the matter of Robert Watson, who was up for renomination as the chair of IPCC, but the oil industry wanted him out. President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, both deeply indebted to the oil industry (Cheney had been CEO of Halliburton prior to VP), willingly acted on industry behalf to remove Watson. After all, who wants an actual climate scientist to chair the organization summarizing climate science, right?

Enter Arthur Randol III, a senior adviser for ExxonMobil. As detailed in a 2002 article by noted science columnist Andrew Revkin, Randol, in a memo directed to the Bush administration, issued his instructions and asked whether Dr. Watson could "be replaced now at the request of the U.S." Not long after, Watson was out and Pachauri was in as the new chairman of the IPCC.

Pachauri is an industrial engineer and economist, not a climate scientist, so was thought by the oil industry to be more amendable to the industry position. That turned out not to be the case, as the science speaks for itself no matter who is nominally in charge of the process. As described earlier, the IPCC has a very small staff charged mostly with "herding cats," i.e., an administrative function focused on coordinating the volunteer work of thousands of climate scientists around the world as they work unpaid for up to 7 years collating, evaluating, and summarizing the tens of thousands of new climate research papers since the last IPCC review. These thousands of scientists work in teams to summarize the data. Their drafts are then reviewed by other scientists, as well as anyone else who requests to review the reports prior to publication. All comments (yes, even from climate deniers) are addressed, and each set of reports receives thousands of comments (which is why the reports take so long to be finalized).

The chair of the IPCC merely oversees the coordination process while the reports are being prepared, and then serves as a central spokesman for the results reported. The chair can only reiterate what the science says. So in essence, it isn't particularly relevant who chairs the IPCC, only that the process of compilation and summarizing of the state-of-the-science is completed by relevant climate scientists. Which is what happens.

One more point to keep in mind is that the IPCC merely reports on what has been published, i.e., the IPCC itself doesn't conduct new studies. Most of it comes from the peer-reviewed literature, though some government and non-peer-reviewed data and analysis are also cited when relevant and reliable (not surprisingly, this gray literature is more common in the policy-oriented volumes of mitigation and economic impact, whereas the vast majority of the physical science volume is comprised of peer-reviewed scientific studies). In addition, while IPCC compiles all the scientific literature worldwide, specific scientific climate research organizations such as NOAA, NASA, CRU, and others conduct their own research, and all agree that more than 100 years of data unequivocally demonstrate that human activities are driving the warming of our planet. The science stands on its own, no matter who the IPCC chair happens to be. So Pachauri's departure is essentially, meh, in meaning.

That said, the United States and the world now have an opportunity to support the appointment of a real climate scientist to take over the chairmanship of the IPCC. Most critical is the ability to accurately communicate the state-of-the-science and to manage the process such that governments feel confident taking action to deal with the challenge of our lifetimes.

The science says that action is necessary, and now. It's time the U.S. and others move forward on that action.

[Note: This post appears a day earlier than the normal Thursday posting schedule; next week will return to the normal schedule. Also, next week will return to Part 4 of the series on how peer-review works and doesn't work. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 can be read by clicking on the links.]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How peer-review works…and doesn’t work (Part 3: Abusing the system)

This is a continuation of the series on how peer-review works…and doesn’t work. Part 1 looked at the basics of how the peer-review process works for scientific papers - what it does, and what it doesn't do. You can read the entire Part 1 article here. Part 2 looked at what happens when peer-review goes wrong. You can read the entire Part 2 article here. Now we’ll take a look at some cases where the peer-review system has been abused. 

Before starting Part 3, however, it must be stressed that any inadequacies so far discussed are exceptions to the rule. Peer-review almost always does what it is supposed to do – a first screen to make sure papers represent legitimate research and are fully documented so that they can be assessed by the larger scientific community. It’s rare that peer-review “fails” (see Part 2). It’s even rarer that papers are retracted once they are published. A study published in 2012 examined the 2047 retractions of papers indexed in the PubMed database (mostly biotechnology papers). That sounds like a lot until you realize that this was out of over 21 million published papers in that database, meaning less than 0.01% of published papers were retracted. Retraction is rare even though the bar for retracting papers has been lowered (i.e., it's much easier and faster to retract now than previously).
That said, let’s look at the cases where papers have been published that probably shouldn’t have been. The new problem of “open access journals,” i.e., those journals who publish for a fee, was mentioned in Part 2. The biggest concern here is that some of these “journals” are simply predatory publishers that will post online anything that is sent to them as long as the fee is paid. These predatory journals will likely disappear as people refuse to be associate with them, especially since they obviously aren’t really peer-reviewed. So while they may be a big headache right now, likely they will weed out the bad eggs through, not ironically, peer pressure. 

Which gets us to the real problem. The following examples highlight some of what can happen when unscrupulous people try to take advantage of the system. 

The most famous example of “pal review” as discussed in Part 2 is the publication of a climate related paper by Soon and Baliunas in the journal Climate Research in 2003. The paper was shuttled through the review process by fellow climate denier Chris de Freitas, an editor for the journal. Once published, the paper was roundly criticized by the scientific community as unsupportable on its face. Further review revealed that Soon and Baliunas were funded by the fossil fuel industry, that the conclusions stated were inconsistent with their own data (which were inconsistent with reality), and that de Frietas had a history of pushing through papers by climate deniers despite their obvious failings. Details of the controversy can be read here. Since then, Soon and a small group of lobbyist-associated authors have been implicated in a series of questionable papers that misrepresent the science. Often these papers are published in a journal called Energy and Environment, a non-science pal-review type of journal where the editor has acknowledged papers are published based on political motives. 

Following publication of the Soon and Baliunas paper described above, and also in one or two other cases where apparently fraudulent papers were published in peer-reviewed journals, senior editors chose to resign. While reputations of any scientists involved can be severely damaged, for some this doesn’t appear to matter much as long as the lobbyist funding continues (e.g., Soon was recently accused of violating basic ethics conventions by failing to disclose his fossil fuel industry funding in a paper he co-authored with the usual band of climate deniers). 

There isn’t much that can be done about such papers other than to keep strengthening peer-review standards, a difficult proposition given the thousands of journals that now compete for papers to publish. Sometimes the papers are retracted, but as noted above, retractions are rare, though increasing.  

This latter point can actually work against legitimate scientists. In the past, scientific papers were scrutinized and critiqued by other scientists, and that feedback helped move the science along. Now the papers are more accessible to the general public through blogs, the public is more likely to get a "spun" version of the paper than the actual science. While press releases by the scientific organizations may be poorly worded, the real problem is when bloggers, either intentionally or unintentionally, get the gist of the paper's findings wrong. So the public may be misinformed. Worse, the papers are read by political and lobbying interests, which would be okay if they honestly evaluated the science. But that isn’t the case. Most political operatives and lobbyists have a particular policy view and are not hesitant to misrepresent the science if they feel doing so will help them achieve their preferred policy action – which in most cases is no action at all. These operatives and lobbyists can exert tremendous pressure on journals that, at least in one recent case, can lead to legitimate, scientifically robust, papers being retracted solely because the journal feared an expensive legal battle with lobbyists. This sets a dangerous precedent. 

In addition, there are many cases of politicians saying things about science that are not scientific. Senator James Inhofe is notorious for arguing that the science of man-made climate change is all a hoax, originally basing this politically convenient opinion on the 2003 Soon and Baliunas paper, which many suggest was the main motivation for the paper being funded by the petroleum industry. Not surprisingly, Inhofe’s home state of Oklahoma is highly dependent on the oil and gas industry and that industry routinely lavishes upon him significant campaign funding. This is true of other politicians as well. And yes, health and environmental advocacy groups also financially support their preferred politicians and feed them information that supports their advocacy. The main difference is that health and environmental lobbyists generally pressure politicians to listen to the scientists while fossil fuel lobbyists generally pressure politicians to listen to, well, the fossil fuel lobbyists and their small cadre of associated scientists who disagree with the vast overriding consensus of the science. 

But that’s a topic for another post.  

To recap, the last three weeks have taken a look at the peer-review process – what it is, and what it isn’t. We’ve looked at some ways that peer-review can “fail,” and some ways that people have abused the process. Due to the space limitations of a blog format, these discussions are necessarily incomplete. The links provide more detail on some of the points being made, but there are many others that could also be discussed in greater depth. The main points to understand are that peer-review is merely the first step in the scientific evaluation process, and only after publication can the greater scientific community scrutinize the studies being presented. Sometimes bad papers get published, but most of the time they are inconsequential. Attempts at fraud do happen, and while relatively rare, can have significant impacts (e.g., see Andrew Wakefield).
Overall, peer-review works, and is necessary. There are challenges for the future because of predatory practices related to the “open access” nature of the worldwide web, but these are likely to be worked out so that some combination of public access and quality assurance can be achieved. 

In Part 4 we'll take a look at how some papers that might have been inconsequential in the past can now be artificially elevated into a level of importance they don't merit. We'll explore the role of the internet in making this happen, both for good and for evil.

[Note: Peer-review graphic can be seen larger at