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There’s a list of 450 “peer reviewed papers supporting skepticism of ‘man-made’ global warming” making the rounds on the internet. Let’s take a closer look at it.

When peer review doesn’t mean peer review

Take a glance at that list, and it just leaps out at you: so many of the papers are all from the same source, from a journal called Energy & Environment. I counted 79 out of the 450, all from just one journal. Now, it isn’t the case that global warming is a small, narrowly focused field of research; if it was, one might expect it to be served by relatively few journals, and this large number of papers from a single journal wouldn’t be so strange. But global warming is a very broad field of research. It draws on a large number of disciplines, from atmospheric physics, paleoclimatology, marine science and more. It should, therefore, strike you as odd that fully 17% of the skeptical papers on this list all come from the journal Energy & Environment. And what a journal it is. From wikipedia:

“The journal is not listed in the ISI’s Journal Citation Reports indexing service for academic journals, although it is included in Scopus, which lists it as a trade journal, with coverage from 1995. “

So E&E doesn’t merit a listing in JCR, and hence has no impact factor, which, for publishing scientists, can be a big deal. The quality of the journal in which one publishes can count toward ones career. E&E simply would not count, and Scopus just lists it as a trade journal, which isn’t worth much at all. To pile on still further:

“The journal’s peer-review process has at times been criticised for publishing substandard papers. Roger A. Pielke (Jr), who published a paper on hurricane mitigation in the journal, said in a post answering a question on Nature’s blog in May about peer-reviewed references and why he published in E&E: “…had we known then how that outlet would evolve beyond 1999 we certainly wouldn’t have published there.”"

What good peer review provides is confidence that what you are reading has been scrutinised by relevant experts in the field. I can’t begin to comprehend, then, who scrutinised and approved this E&E paper. Perhaps it was the timecube guy. This author wants you to know that everything we know about the sun, our “currently fashionable model” for it, is in fact wrong:

“Analyses of planets, the Moon, the solar wind, solar flares, the solar photosphere, and ordinary meteorites show that our Sun is actually the violent, ill mannered remains of a supernova that once ejected all of the heavier elements on Earth and in the solar system and now selectively moves lightweight elements into a veneer of H and He that covers the Sun’s energetic neutron core [18]. This brings the IPCC conclusions into question and, more importantly, the draconian solutions that some policymakers advocate.”

Fair enough, I suppose. If we can’t even figure out what that big glowing thing in the sky is, then we certainly shouldn’t do anything about global warming. After all, if the sun was secretly all along a neutron star, and nobody noticed, then, heck, everything we think we know about everything can be called into question. Especially the IPCC conclusions. Right?

There are standards in science, and one of them is peer review. Scientists know what it is and what it isn’t, and the review process in a sub standard vanity press journal like E&E, well, isn’t. Let’s just take the E&E papers out of this list. It’s better for it, as a lot of what remains in the list really isn’t junk.

Skepticism, or just scientists doing science?

Here’s how you know man made global warming science is not a religion: it keeps on trying to debunk itself. Here’s one way you can see it keeps on trying to debunk itself: this list of 450 papers (well, excepting the dross from E&E).

It is an accepted scientific norm that research, once conducted and reported, can be challenged. Nothing is sacred and nothing is untouchable. Accordingly, here’s a great example of just that from the list.

That’s the Richard Lindzen, climate contrarian, Professor of Meteorology at MIT, lead author of Chapter 3 of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report. He went to a symposium organised by the Charles D. Keeling, the man who first recorded the progressive atmospheric accumulation of CO2, and pretty much a rock star in climatological terms; and he presented a paper challenging the most fundamental aspect of man made global warming, that increasing carbon dioxide causes climate change. And what did the prestigious National Academy of Sciences do with that highly skeptical paper?

They published it.

And that, people, is how scientists do science.

A question of context

So here we are, 2009, 12 years later, and the idea that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause climate change is still the accepted consensus. What Lindzen wrote in 1997 didn’t overturn that consensus. It challenged it, but that wasn’t enough. The reason is that there exists a preponderance of evidence for man made global warming. This list of 450 disparate papers, many of which are from just one junk journal, does not make for a coherent scientific argument against man made global warming. In fact, the creators of the list don’t bother to explain why each paper is “skeptical of man made global warming”; and I find myself skeptical that many of these papers even come close to doing any such thing. If there is a coherent case to be made against “man made global warming”, it isn’t being made by this list.

Picking only the papers that appear to be skeptical of a topic, without considering the totality of the research published on that topic, is called cherry picking. Compare and contrast with the IPCC. It isn’t as though the IPCC doesn’t consider contrary research findings in its reviews: it does. The following example (from the TAR) shows this review process in action:

“5.1 Observed changes in terrestrial (including freshwater) species distributions, population sizes, and community composition.

The IPCC evaluated the effect of climate change on biological systems by assessing 2,500 published studies. Of these, 44 studies, which included about 500 taxa, met the following criteria: 20 or more years of data; measuring temperature as one of the variables; the authors of the study finding a statistically significant change in both a biological/physical parameter and the measured temperature; and a statistical correlation between the temperature and the change in the biological/physical parameter. Some of these studies investigated different taxa (e.g. bird and insect) in the same paper. Of a total of 59 plants, 47 invertebrates, 29 amphibians and reptiles, 388 birds, and 10 mammal species, approximately 80% showed change in the biological parameter measured (e.g. start and end of breeding season, shifts in migration patterns, shifts in animal and plant distributions, and changes in body size) in the manner expected with global warming, while 20% showed change in the opposite direction. Most of these studies have been carried out in the temperate and high-latitude areas and in some high altitude areas. These studies show that some ecosystems that are particularly sensitive to changes in regional climate (e.g. high-altitude and high-latitude ecosystems) have already been affected by changes in climate.”

Now think what would happen if the IPCC worked the same way as the creator of this “450 papers” list. We would have a list of papers showing changes in the biological parameter that were only consistent with global warming. By not considering the totality of the evidence, for and against, and putting it in context, we would get a quite false impression of the state of research. If the creator of the “450 papers” list had been given the same job, we would have a list of papers that only showed changes in biological parameters that were not consistent with global warming. Either way, it would be cherry picking, and therefore misleading. What we get from the IPCC review instead is the honestly reported finding that 20% of their datasets did not support global warming. They weren’t ignored or suppressed, but put into context, we can see that the preponderance of the datasets rather did support global warming.

It is possible for hundreds of research papers to exist that are “skeptical of man made global warming”, and at the same time, for the existence of such papers to be insufficient to overturn the consensus on man made global warming. It’s a question of putting research into context, and considering the totality of the evidence.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

What should have been done

What this topic needs is a fair review. Some group to take a look at all the evidence relating to man made global warming, for and against, weigh it up, pull out the main themes and the most well supported research findings, and report all this in a transparent and open manner. Put these “skeptical” papers in context, and provide an overview of the level of scientific certainty on the topic of “man made global warming.”

Come to think of it, the IPCC reports do just that.

This list of 450 papers doesn’t really prove anything. It scores a cheap rhetorical point, perhaps, by showing – albeit incompetently – that skepticism exists in the peer reviewed climate science literature, but really that just demonstrates that climate science is, well, science, rather than being a religion that silences all its heretics.

So please don’t be fooled by silly junk like this list. Consider the totality of the evidence, and don’t fall for the temptation of cherry picking only the research that supports your point of view.

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