Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Climate denialism harms speculative science

I want to follow up on Eli's comment below that "There is a place between blogs, arXiv and Science for really speculative papers, but the authors need to strongly defend themselves." Yes, and Hansen's paper is properly occupying that place, assuming it can stay defended.

But then, think about a speculative paper that went for the mirror-opposite side of the spectrum, saying "what if we've been wrong about everything about climate change and here's a negative feedback mechanism previously undiscovered that will safely limit things." Let's further assume this turns out not to be a Galileus paper but a Bozo paper, as seems likely. The normal consequences of publishing something that's wrong is bent, by denialism.

Normally, the bad consequences of publishing a paper in a scientific journal that turned out wrong are minimal - you only wasted some space that could've publicized a useful scientific result (possible exception for applied science like medical journals, but even there a single wrong study is unlikely to immediately change medical practices). With that minimal downside, why not publish something that questions everything on the chance in ten thousand that it turns out to be right?

Climate denialism, OTOH, means publishing a wrong paper that questions whether we have a problem will cause damage to the real world, because denialists will use their considerable power to magnify it beyond its importance. Just as a lie can fly while truth limps, a wrong paper will fly just as fast when used by liars and the self-deceived.

Papers like Hansen's aren't too harmed, except for being published more hastily because denialists have used up the last 30 years that could have bought us more time to think. It's speculative work in the other direction that's harmed by the misuse from denialists.

Where that leaves journal editors is less clear - what if it really is the Galileus paper they're considering? We'd really want it published. I guess where it leaves the editors is that they should invest a little extra effort in trying to figure out where the paper falls on the Galileus-Bozo spectrum.


Victor Venema said...

Normally, the bad consequences of publishing a paper in a scientific journal that turned out wrong are minimal - you only wasted some space that could've publicized a useful scientific result

No, you also waste the time of the reader. Depending on your level of expertise, it can take a lot of time until you notice what is wrong with an article. If you find it is interestingly wrong, that would be productive time, but if the article is simply wrong and should never have passed peer review, you just wasted a lot of your time.

Imagine a large part of the scientific literature having the quality of WUWT posts. The literature would lose its usefulness and a scientists would be forced to concentrate on a small number of studies by a few people they know and trust. In result science would become more authoritarian, more disciplinary and it would become harder for an outsider to challenge the current consensus. Scientific progress would slow.

I would hope that a journal editor does not take the climate "debate" into account. If there is no article in the scientific literature to base their nonsense on, WUWT & Co. will simply make something up out of the blue. Science cannot stop that. America has to solve its culture war.

E. Swanson said...

Steve Koonin has a new op-ed today in the New York Times:

The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks

As is his usual presentation, there's only half the situation presented. This one demands a reply from the rabbit and other concerned bunnies who know the facts. An op-ed would be great. I'm going to toss out a letter, though my success rate in several such efforts has been zero...

Anonymous said...

Steve Koonin is a liar and an asshole that should be summarily fired from whatever pissant institution that has the utter lack of respect for science to keep him on.

David B. Benson said...

What is the other half?

EliRabett said...

Spread the word