Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

climate science and public scrutiny

Eric Holthaus writes in Slate about a new climate study led by James Hansen that argues that we are likely to see ocean levels rising higher and far more quickly than has been expected. To say that the study is frightening is to master understatement.

But right now I just want to call attention to how the study is being presented to the world:

One necessary note of caution: Hansen’s study comes via a non-traditional publishing decision by its authors. The study will be published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an open-access “discussion” journal, and will not have formal peer-review prior to its appearance online later this week. The complete discussion draft circulated to journalists was 66 pages long, and included more than 300 references. The peer-review will take place in real-time, with responses to the work by other scientists also published online. Hansen said this publishing timeline was necessary to make the work public as soon as possible before global negotiators meet in Paris later this year. Still, the lack of traditional peer review and the fact that this study’s results go far beyond what’s been previously published will likely bring increased scrutiny. On Twitter, Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist whose work focuses on Greenland and the Arctic, was skeptical of such enormous rates of near-term sea level rise, though she defended Hansen’s decision to publish in a non-traditional way.

It’s interesting that Holthaus says that this decision calls for “a note of caution”: we need to be careful before placing any trust in studies that haven’t been peer-reviewed. And that’s true — but not the primary lesson to be taken from the decision Hansen and his co-authors have made.

Hansen et al. are saying that having their conclusions — and the data from which they drew those conclusions — evaluated in as ruthlessly public a way as possible is infinitely more important than keeping any possible errors secret or achieving maximal prestige through publishing in a Big Journal. They are saying: What we believe we have discovered matters enormously, and therefore we want to expose everything we have done to the most rigorous possible scrutiny. That means opening their work to the world and saying: Go at it. When Holthaus says that this decision “will likely bring increased scrutiny” — well, yes. Precisely the point. Feature, not bug.

So whatever you think about what’s happening to our climate — and therefore to “our common home” — I don't see how you can’t applaud the way Hansen and his co-authors are handling the presentation of their work. This is science done in the most ethically responsible, and most ethically urgent, way imaginable. Every scholar ought to pay close attention to how this scholarship is being put before the world — and everyone who shares “our common home” ought to pay attention to how the ongoing public peer-review plays out.


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