Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The path of climate science and the dissenting views

A scientific finding is not necessarily correct just because it appears in the peer-reviewed literature. There are a number of reasons. For one, not all journals are created equal. Some have less stringent review process. Some are more willing to accept papers from outside the editorial board's field of expertise or mandate. It's also important to remember that our scientific knowledge develops over time through trial and error via experiments done in the field, in the lab and on computers. Any one paper, no matter the author, no matter the journal, is not the law on a subject.

The trajectory of the publications and accumulated knowledge on a subject is going to be a better measure of scientific knowledge than the existence of one contrary publication, much like the multi-decadal temperature trends is a better indicator of what's happening to the climate than one year's weather.

A news story, I won't bother to link to the story, cited this list of "450 peer-reviewed papers supported skepticism of man-made global warming".

There are a few publications in well-respected scientific journals on the list. The large majority of those do not actually question the role of human activity in climate, rather point to complexity of climate change or the policy options(e.g. Zeebe et al. 2009 in Nature Geoscience). A large number are published editorials that do not actually contain any science. Many are from Energy and the Environment, a journal which advertises for papers skeptical of climate change, or Climate Research, where editors resigned because of a breakdown in the peer review process. And there are also papers from "Irrigation and Drainage", "Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology", "Latvian Journal of Physics and Technical Sciences", "New Concepts in Plate Tectonics", "Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons", "Iron and Steel Technology" and "The Electricity Journal".

The list is being used to claim that there is widespread disagreement among scientists disagree about climate change. It is actually evidence for the exact opposite. Even if you included all 450 papers as relevant, critical analyses of the evidence for human influence on the climate, they would represent a minute fraction of the papers published on climate change in the past thirty years. In that way, it is evidence that the accumulated knowledge has led in another direction.

There's also a more common sense way to think about this list. If there really was so much disagreement about climate change in the scientific community, would the people who compiled this list needed to have included the articles from "Iron and Steel Technology" and "Topics in Catalysis"?

No comments: