Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

That Wobbly Foundation: Peer-Reviewed Research

Last July, when a deeply flawed inquiry into Climategate issued its report, an appendix authored by Richard Horton was included (see pp. 126-143 of this 160-page PDF). Horton is the editor of The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Subtitled A Brief History of Peer Review, this appendix implied that climate skeptics have put peer-reviewed scientific literature on a pedestal. It suggested that climate skeptics argue that if research has been peer-reviewed it is “special and sacred” and that if “evidence has not been peer-reviewed, it is next to worthless.”

Horton then proceeded to make mincemeat of these ideas. In one memorable passage he wrote:

Peer review does not replicate and so validate research. Peer review does not prove that a piece of research is true. The best it can do is say that, on the basis of a written account of what was done and some interrogation of the authors, the research seems on the face of it to be acceptable for publication…Experience shows, for example, that peer review is an extremely unreliable way to detect research misconduct. [bold added]

It’s too bad Horton got the positions of climate skeptics and climate activists totally backward. The world champion of the notion that peer-reviewed research is sacred is actually Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

He’s the person who told a journalist that, because the information contained in a discussion paper released by India’s environment ministry hadn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal it should be thrown “into the dustbin” (see the last line here). He’s the person who assured a committee of the North Carolina legislature:

…everything that we [at the IPCC] look at and take into account in our assessments has to carry [the] credibility of peer-reviewed publications, we don’t settle for anything less than that. (see p. 2 here)

Moreover, it is climate scientists such as meteorologist Michael Mann who’ve dismissed their critics by attempting to hide behind the shield of peer-review. When asked, in 2003, to respond to concerns expressed in an article written by a former US Defense and Energy Secretary, Mann haughtily replied: “I am not familiar with any peer-reviewed work that he has submitted to the scientific literature.”

The notion that one’s concerns are inconsequential unless they’ve been written up in a proper scientific paper and published in a peer-reviewed journal comes from the warmist / activist / alarmist side of the fence. It has long been a central plank in their argument.

In 2006 Andrew Dessler, a Texas professor who specializes in the physics of climate change, declared (on a website) that the public shouldn’t consult websites when seeking global warming information since, unlike IPCC reports, they weren’t “based entirely on peer-reviewed literature.”

In 2008 physicist Joe Romm, writing under a headline that promised The cold truth about climate change, told readers that the IPCC “relies on the peer-reviewed scientific literature for its conclusions, which must meet the rigorous requirements of the scientific method…”

In 2009 Australian marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg described the IPCC process to a reporter as “always using the peer-reviewed literature as the base.” Philip Duffy, a physicist with 20 years climate modeling experience, asserted in 2010 that a “core principle of the IPCC is that only peer-reviewed literature is cited.”

Taking their cue from the above, journalists and others have spread this peer-reviewed equals trustworthy mantra far and wide (see a couple dozen examples here).

They continue to do so. A week ago, an Australian blogger compared climate skeptics to people who believe the Earth is flat, who oppose vaccinations, and who “believe that cigarette smoke does not kill” (backup link here). The reason this blogger is so certain climate skeptics are wrong is, in his words:

…the litany of peer-reviewed research by people who are scientists that tell the truth. [italics in original]

But wasn’t Horton – speaking as the editor of a peer-reviewed journal – crystal clear on this point? Did he not explicitly say that the peer-review process does not prove that a piece of research is true

And here, today, is Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, declaring in a newspaper opinion piece that the science is clear because:

…research papers have been peer-reviewed by other scientists to make sure the findings are accurate. [backup link here]

Did Horton not, in fact, explicitly state that the peer-review process does not validate research? Did he not then go much further and warn us that peer-review is an extremely unreliable way to detect research misconduct?

Horton would surely be striking a blow for sound public policy if he were to send Gillard a copy of his famous appendix asap.


h/t Tom Nelson


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