Scientific journals are still credible

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By Chick Keller

I see my name in a “Guest Column” from the July 9 Monitor where my friend Don Peterson writes about troubling aspects of the global warming issue.

His approach is different from the past in that, instead of discussing the science, he impugns editors of scientific journals.  Here he treads on dangerous ground.  For, if journal editors can be found to have purposefully rejected scientific papers simply because they do not agree with their opinions, where would it all end?  Once we come to believe that journal editors do this for global warming, we must logically decide that they will do it for all science.

The result is that one can no longer give credibility to anything in scientific journals.  Does anyone really believe this?  I respectfully think not.  So let’s look more closely at Don’s specific concerns.  He thinks he sees such bias, but what evidence does he cite?  None.  Perhaps we ought to look at the literature. First, are there are any papers that call into question aspects of global warming studies?  If editors are keeping them out, there ought to be few, but in fact there are many.  Not a week passes but I am told about such papers.  Let me cite a few.  First of all, noted climate critic Richard Lindzen has published several over the past decades attempting to show drying in the upper atmosphere, which would slow global warming.  John Christy and his co-authors have published a large number of papers criticizing most other attempts but theirs to determine global temperatures both from satellites and at the surface. Roger Pielke Sr. regularly publishes work on surface changes that he feels are not adequately taken into account in explaining where the warming is coming from.

There is an entire literature attempting to show solar influences that exceed the “accepted” amounts.  Fred Singer periodically is published in Science and elsewhere — not science, but comments against global warming.  

I could go on. On the other hand, are there examples of papers that were rejected simply because they disagreed with the “accepted” thesis?  None that I know of, but, since papers on both sides are regularly rejected or sent back for revision, some critical papers probably get rejected for good reasons.  But perhaps Don has some specific scientific papers in mind?  I regularly e-mail back and forth with many climate critics and have debated Fred Singer as recently as two years ago, but they never have made these accusations.  Certainly if there were some such papers, we’d all be talking about them.  

On the other hand, a few years back a paper appeared claiming that all the other reconstructions of northern hemisphere temperatures in the past 1,000 years or so were wrong, and it gave “evidence” to the contrary.  

The paper was accepted and published in a journal that caters to critics of global warming, and subsequently highlighted by Senator Inhofe on the floor of the United States Senate.  The paper was not a good one and was easily countered by several scientists.  Further, its publication resulted in the resignation of 6 of that journal’s editors in protest. Editorial bias the other way?  There is a final aspect to all of this.  Actually a fair number of critical papers are being published that are largely in error.  Some of our best climate scientists, instead of working on new ideas, have to spend large amounts of time working out the errors and publishing what is really the case.  

So, again, far from some bias against such papers, they seem to get published even though clearly in error, and answering them is taking precious time away from badly needed research.

And, far from having “an agenda” many scientists from the so-called “pro” side publish work that is constantly causing reassessments of what causes global warming and by how much.  Susan Solomon, senior author of the IPCC’s chapter on attribution of global warming, seems to have turned against the “accepted” thesis of greenhouse gas forcing in a recent publication that suggests a larger-than-previously-thought influence of water vapor in the stratosphere, to the effect that much of recent lack of warming may have been due to reduction of stratospheric water vapor, and a significant part of warming in the 1990s may have been due to increased water vapor in the stratosphere, not CO2.  This doesn’t seem like part of a concerted effort to push an agenda by those “in charge.” Neither is the series of recent papers by Kevin Trenberth and colleagues, attempting unsuccessfully to close the global energy budget.

Finally several committees, boards, etc. have recently been reporting their findings as to whether the authors of the now infamous emails (Climate Gate) unduly influenced IPCC conclusions about the impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases on recent warming.  None of these suggest any improper editorial activity.  My experience is that the scientific community is so independent that any such bias would have been aired very quickly.  Nothing of the kind has happened.

My friend Don Peterson is clearly concerned about editorial decisions.  He is right to always be on his guard.  Published science has no credibility if his concerns turn out to be substantiated.  But I find no substance to his concerns, and am saddened that apparently without clear evidence he has chosen to air his fears as being accurate.  A comment on rhetorical tactics.  It is not uncommon that, when opponents in a debate cannot counter with good evidence, they sometimes resort to the time worn, “argumentum ad hominum” where they call into question the credibility of the other side.  Having followed the arguments pro and con for some 25 years and seen all the major ones against shown to be inaccurate, I am not surprised that global warming critics have been driven to this stratagem.  I hope Don and others will ask some hard questions of those who are doing this. A thoughtful discussion of global warming debates appeared recently in Science, June 4 issue, p. 1230.  It is a review of 8 recent books about what has been going in in the debate.  I recommend it to anyone having Don’s concerns and looking for some perspective on this important issue.