AGW: Science Editorial on Risk, and Impossible Expectations of Climate Change Deniers

This week’s edition of Science has a very interesting editorial on how they manage Risk when it comes to publishing papers in the journal:

HOW MUCH RISK CAN AND SHOULD A JOURNAL TOLERATE IN PUBLISHING PAPERS THAT DESCRIBE novel findings—that is, papers that could have a profoundly positive impact within and out¬side the scientific community if right, but could be broadly harmful by leading investigators in wrong directions if incorrect

In discussion with her colleagues, editor in chief Marcia McNutt found:

We agreed that publishing papers with some such risk is a good thing. Of course, a journal would love for every paper it publishes to turn out to be perfectly correct—but not at the expense of publishing papers that are all perfectly “safe.” Science moves forward by communicating findings that challenge old ideas and force us to test new theories against the evidence. The key is to contain that risk.

So in other words they remain open to “interesting” papers that challenge a consensus, but have a clear approach that blocks the wingnut papers written on toilet paper in green crayon.

She then goes on to comment:

On the other hand, scientific advances that depend on new observations are inherently limited by their availability and quality. We have only one Earth to study, not multiple independent realizations and no “control” planet from which to gain statistical reliability. The initial conditions are lost in time and cannot be determined with any certainty. Astrophysicists and ecologists, for example, face challenges in which the relevant space scales are larger than any laboratory and the time scales exceed human lifetimes. The observations available are not the ideal data set for testing the most pressing questions that need to be answered. The scientists must test hypotheses with the data that they have discovered, not the information that they want to have. And yet the questions that need to be answered are too important to be ignored merely because the definitive experiment cannot be designed.

This is fairly obvious to the majority of people – we only have one Earth, and we are constrained in what data we can, are, and have gathered. The Climate Change Deniers (or AGW if you prefer see here for why they are much the same) however have an oft used meme known as “Impossible Expectations”:

Another characteristic of movements that deny a consensus involves impossible expectations. The tobacco industry perfected this approach in the 1970s, demanding ever-more stringent levels of proof that smoking caused cancer in order to delay government regulation of their products.

So we have to acknowledge we can only work with the data we have got from the only planet Earth we’ve got and resist the deniers Impossible Expectations. However, the Science editorial went on:

…as a brilliant marine geologist once told me, “I refuse to be held responsible for prior interpretations which I have now revised based on newer and more complete information.”

So for example, we now know that whlst the globe is warming on average, not all parts will warm, and not all parts will warm equally. With the collapse of the Arctic sea ice we are seeing disruption to the jet streams that influence the UK’s weather – bringing cold wet summers for the past few years and a scorching few weeks currently. So it is not the simple assumption we’re simply going to get warmer weather and hotter summers in the UK that the climate change deniers squawk about.

The editorial also punctures another denialist meme:

I urge authors and reviewers to work earnestly with the editors at Science to make good decisions in risky matters by examining the evidence with an open, unbiased mind.

…that there is a conspiracy to only publish the approved line. There it is in black and white, they’re willing to publish ground breaking papers that upset the apple cart !

But, one of the key points she also makes is:

The encouragement of risk does not mean that Science wants submissions that are unsubstantiated by data, and clearly we must continue to strive for the highest standards in scientific peer review

And this is where the climate change deniers perpetually fall down. They don’t have the data, or if they do they’ve mis-used it and or misunderstood it. And they don’t do peer review.

All in all, one of the best editorials I have ever read, and well worth reading if you can.

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