Congratulations to The Bulletin on its new editorial policy of publishing only science-based opinions on climate change. It is a small but important step toward sustainability of planet Earth, not to mention Bend’s ski season.
In light of the new policy, readers wanting to comment on climate should know how to recognize science-based information, especially because the internet can be a megaphone for those whose profits or authority are inflated by disinformation.
If you peeked beneath the hood of science, you would see an engine running on “peer review,” whereby a researcher submits work to a journal, and an editor assigns two to four experts to review it. Reviewers generally have a record of peer-reviewed publications in the same field — i.e. they are validated scientists.
A reviewer scrutinizes the research for its experimental design, data analysis, and the validity of its conclusions. If a paper has fatal flaws, such as poor data or ignored alternative interpretations, it will be rejected.
You might ask, “Can peer reviewers be trusted to be impartial?” That is a good question. Sometimes, science moves forward more slowly than usual because scientists get stuck in an established worldview and are resistant to novel ideas. For example, the theory that a meteor caused the extinction of the dinosaurs needed a long time to be taken seriously by many paleontologists.
But if a study is sound, acceptance will follow, especially if additional data validate its findings (as it did with the meteor extinction). Scientists who persist with novel findings gain the satisfaction of producing new knowledge; they achieve prominence in their field; and they may earn a higher salary or additional grant funding. Thus, if a researcher had quality data conclusively indicating humans don’t cause climate change, she or he would be positioned for fame and fortune.
You might also ask, “Then why aren’t scientists motivated to make fake discoveries?” Occasionally, this does happen — it is called “scientific misconduct.” There are various safeguards against it.
First, a scientist can lose his or her job if caught. This happened, for instance, to a Harvard cognitive scientist who was accused of manipulating data on monkey behavior.
Second, scientific experiments generally have to be replicable; findings that can’t be replicated have lower credibility or are ignored, as occurred a few decades ago with cold fusion.
Third, most peer-reviewed studies must disclose their funding because, for instance, drug studies funded by pharmaceutical companies are more than four times more likely to find a favorable result than independently funded studies (j.mp/2vEPs2L).
Fourth, peer-reviewed articles receive the attention of countless additional experts after publication. I once published a paper pointing out flaws in a study that modeled the evolution of a pathogen that sterilizes mosquitoes. Peer-reviewed journals do not like it when their studies are found to be flawed, and will endeavor to prevent it during initial reviews.
Fifth, in the case of complex topics like climate change, large expert panels may convene to try to discover if a scientific consensus exists. This has been done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes thousands of scientists. The IPCC has concluded that humans are causing the planet to warm, with very few dissenters. Many independent experts in agreement provide another safeguard against individual fraud.
When lay people are not equipped to ascertain the quality of scientific information, peer-review offers a shortcut to credibility. You can learn to distinguish a peer-reviewed journal here: j.mp/36WHRcK . Good newspaper or internet articles, letters, and opeds should identify their scientific sources of information. Responsible editors also should scrutinize how the information, even if peer reviewed, is interpreted.
Science is not perfect, but for the reasons discussed above it has high standards of quality control. In a November 2019 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Nature, scientists warned that climate change poses “an existential threat to civilization”
(j.mp/2SdDbdn). Their warning should be taken very seriously.