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Blogs, of course, are not peer-reviewed, but some blogs can be reliable sources of discussion about the science.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]