It’s been two months now since Climategate broke. The disclosure of thousands of emails, computer programs, and other documents from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK revealed scandalous scientific misconduct of monumental proportions–enough that it has crippled the credibility of an entire field of science (paleoclimatology) and seriously tarnished the reputations of the inner cadre of researchers in that field.
I’ve read hundreds of articles on Climategate and many of the emails, including an exceptionally helpful collection and analysis by physicist Dr. John Costella. Like many others, I’ve been stunned at the heights of mendacity, hubris, bullying, collusion, and contempt for the law, for truth and fairness, for fellow scientists, and for fellow human beings the documents revealed. In reading through the emails, one feels the need every once in a while to take a bath.
Perhaps most ironic–but why should it surprise?–is that the bullying disclosed in Climategate continued in efforts to squelch the spread of the damning information. Gavin Schmidt, of global warming true believers’ RealClimate, emailed blogger Lucia Liljegren saying,
As I am certain you are aware, hacking into private emails is very illegal. If legitimate, your scoop was therefore almost certainly obtained illegally . . . . you . . . might end up being questioned as part of any investigation that might end up happening. I don’t think that bloggers are shielded under any press shield laws and so, if I were you, I would not post any content, nor allow anyone else to do so.
Schmidt should have known that emails by researchers as part of their work under government grants are not private but are subject to Freedom of Information Acts in both the U.S. and the U.K. But when you’re trying to intimidate a foe, who cares about truth? He also almost certainly knew the emails were legitimate. Someone had managed to post them (albeit briefly) on RealClimate, and Schmidt had been able to examine them before he wrote to Liljegren. Many were his own.
The first legacy of Climategate has been obvious from the beginning. Advocates of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) alarmism would never again be able to get away with appealing to peer review as their response to every criticism. Climategate showed that the peer review process had been utterly corrupted in climate change science. Far from ensuring the quality of scientific work underlying published articles, it ensured only the conclusions–and shielded the underlying work from scrutiny.
That legacy led to a second. The world is beginning to recognize that the “scientific consensus” that recent global warming has been outside the bounds of historic variability in either rate or magnitude and that it has been driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases never really existed. It was trumped up by a self-serving inner cadre of true believers epistemologically crippled by group think and determined to vilify and silence all who dared question them. Now their control over scientific discourse in refereed journals is collapsing–or at least should be. Dissenting scientists who were cowed into silence before are coming into the open. And the mirage of consensus is dissipating.
But there is a third legacy that, despite my reading so much on Climategate, I didn’t recognize until now, and for the long-term function of science it might be the most important. James Delingpole brought it to my attention in How Climategate Killed Peer Review at Telegraph.co.uk. His article led me to Patrick Courrielche’s three-part series titled “Peer-to-Peer Review: How ‘Climategate’ Marks the Maturing of a New Science Movement” (Part I, Part II, Part III) at Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Journalism” blog.
Courrielche’s series not only provides the best concise history of Climategate (on which Steven Mosher and Thomas Fuller report at much greater length in the just-released book Climategate: The CRU-tape Letters) and shows just how devastating it is to the entire case for dangerous AGW, but also explains just how the third consequence of Climategate has come about. The failure of the vaunted peer review process to detect profound, and often elementary, errors, some of them clearly the result of dishonesty, in data gathering, data reporting, and statistical methodology was laid bare by a different process that Courrielche calls peer-to-peer review.
In traditional peer review, a scholar submits an article to a journal, whose editor then sends it out to several recognized experts in the field for their evaluation. They might point out weaknesses and call for revisions, or find it acceptable pretty much as is, or report that its flaws are so great as to disqualify it from publication. Ideally, the peer review process should be blind–the reviewers don’t know who the author(s) are, and vice versa. They should not be involved in a small network publishing in the same field. And personal commitment and opinion as to the “right outcome” of a study should be completely irrelevant.
Sadly, in climate change science, and especially in paleoclimatology, peer review has been irretrievably compromised by at least two factors. First, a scientific orthodoxy took over, making affirmation of dangerous AGW a prerequisite for publication. Second, the community of scientists working in the field became incestuous. They reinforced each other’s work and failed to interact with other specialists who might have alerted them to basic errors arising from their lack of specialized training (e.g., in statistical methods).
Along the way, the anonymity of peer review disappeared. Scientists committed to the same orthodoxy, often having previously co-authored published studies, reviewed each other’s submissions and shielded each other from serious critique. As long as the conclusions were right, the articles were recommended for publication.
As the Congressionally commissioned Wegman Report, which found that Michael Mann’s now infamous “hockey stick” graph of historic temperatures rested on cherry-picked data and basic fallacies in statistics and that criticisms of it by Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick were “valid and compelling,” rather mildly put it, “authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface. We note that there is no evidence that Dr. Mann or any of the other authors in paleoclimatology studies have had significant interactions with mainstream statisticians.”
Peer review having failed abysmally in climate change science, scientists devoted to the free exchange of ideas on a level playing ground created, probably unintentionally, a substitute: peer-to-peer review.
You might picture peer-to-peer review as a swarm of piranhas hungrily tearing apart an animal that’s fallen into their waters. The picture isn’t pretty. There’s a seething, frothing, turmoil in the water as hundreds of the voracious fish, with their rapier teeth, tear off chunks of flesh. In short order, all that’s left of the animal is its skeleton. It’s been picked clean of all the soft, edible parts.
In peer-to-peer review, the hapless animal is any published scientific study that happens to raise suspicions in a scientist reader proficient in cyberspace. He detects a soft spot in the study, attacks it, and sees where it leads. His initial reports quickly attract other peers, who look for more soft spots, or try to deepen the penetration of the first one. The hypotheses of a strong article survive, perhaps with some revisions, the peers perhaps having disclosed a few minor mistakes. A weak article gets shredded.
Peer-to-peer review is in principle really no different from how science has worked for centuries. Good scientists are notoriously skeptical. Given time, they test and re-test each other’s conclusions, and the hypotheses or theories of one generation are the discarded rubbish of the next.
What makes peer-to-peer review different is its rapidity, made possible by the medium of the Internet. Weblogs like Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit, Lucia Liljegren’s The Blackboard, Jeff Id’s The Air Vent, Anthony Watts’s Watts Up With That?, and others enable rapid-fire dissection of newly published articles by people who are absolute sticklers for detail. An author who has fabricated, fudged, exaggerated, cherry picked, or suppressed data or who has used bogus statistical methods simply doesn’t have a chance. He and his article will get ripped apart like a pig in the Orinoco River.
Truth will out. As Jesus said, “there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26).
The demise of peer review by the politicization and ideologization of science is sad, but its replacement by peer-to-peer review should be celebrated. Peer-to-peer review is the free market of ideas at its best.