Sunday, April 06, 2008

Frogs and blogs

I was going to write about the frogs, but the longer I delay the more stuff comes up and now this is going to be a rather lengthy post...I'll start at the beginning and see where I end up.

Via John Fleck, I see that the wheels of science have finally turned, albeit exceeding slow...

You may recall this story from 2 years ago - someone claimed that scary global warming was killing all the poor frogs. Well, now a mere two years later, other researchers have published a paper which argues strongly that climate change is at most a minor player in this process. That seemed pretty clear right at the start, to some people at least. The lesson here is that yes, science does tend to be self-correcting, but it can be a painfully slow process, and an over-hyped story will be round the world years before the more nuanced version has got its boots on. The Pounds paper has been cited by 155, including the IPCC (uncritically). This is hardly an isolated example, either (eg see also Bryden) - John Fleck has coined the phrase "the Nature effect" for cases such as this.

It is IMO notable (and this is my second point) that the paper attracted intelligent and pertinent criticism in the blogosphere immediately after publication, well before the wheels of the peer-review process started to turn. Those two blogs I linked to are both people I've had plenty of disagreement with in the past (and probably will do in the future), but as I said at the time, that doesn't mean I will jerk my knee and reflexively dismiss anything they say, just because of who said it. Unfortunately WCR rather spoil things with their unthinking endorsement of Chylek's silly paper on paleoclimate and sensitivity - it seems their critical faculties only apply in one direction. So it's definitely a case of reader beware, but the fact remains that the truth certainly can get out there a lot faster in electronic media than through peer-reviewed publication. Of course this relies on some of the bloggers having a clue about what they are writing, which pretty much requires at least some scientists to participate.

So from the POV of my post, it is timely that Nature Geoscience has published a couple of commentaries on the value (or otherwise) for blogging, with Gavin Schmidt on one side, and Myles Allen on the other. There's discussion on RC of course. Gavin puts the case well enough - I can't imagine he found it a taxing task, as the case pretty well makes itself. Given that the internet (and blogging) exists, it is hardly credible for science as a whole to turn its back on this avenue for communication. Myles struggles to pitch blogging against the peer review system, as if they are somehow in competition. Perhaps it's too easy to just say I endorse John Fleck again. So I'll flesh out the point a little with some examples. You may recall the Schwartz paper which claimed to prove that climate sensitivity was very low. Of course it was easy to see substantial problems with the paper. Months later, our Comment is still mired in the review process (it does at least seem that it will be published eventually) but my blog posts have already been repeatedly cited in discussion about the paper, usually to rebut sceptics who are promoting it as the latest proof that global warming is a myth. (Perhaps this can be dismissed as "just the web" but one can't simultaneously argue both that no-one takes the web seriously and also that it actually undermines more traditional media.) So I see no reason to regret, or apologise for, putting the evidence out in the open before it had been peer-reviewed. I also don't feel under any obligation to follow up the rather straightforward and elementary criticism of Chylek (also here) with submitted comments, although I haven't entirely ruled out the idea. Let's not forget that peer review is hardly a faultless process - I don't necessarily disagree with Myles' assessment that it's the best system that we have, but it is well known that it is strongly biased to maintain the status quo, and routinely misses substantive errors. At its best, the careful opinions of unbiased colleagues can greatly improve the clarity and content of the paper, but the minimum threshold may simply be that two of the author's pals (yes, authors generally get to suggest some reviewers, and editors may not have the energy or expert knowledge to go outside that list) glanced over the article and didn't think that it was so bad that it was unpublishable. There is not even necessarily the implication that they think it is right, merely that they think the case is arguable. So let's not get too excited over peer review as some stamp of approval or validity (or conversely, as rejection meaning a paper is necessarily wrong). It's one piece of evidence, of uncertain strength.

As well as dredging up the old "Overselling Climate Change" thing, Myles also gets some digs in at our exchanges. I'm sort of surprised he wants to bring it up again, but I guess he couldn't resist the chance for a few snide comments. Probably I would have done the same had the boot been on the other foot :-)

Unfortunately one commentor on RC has already misinterpreted what he wrote. Where he says "needless to say, our response is not" [available to read as a rebuttal of the criticism], that should not be interpreted, as that reader did, to mean "our adversary is censoring our comments" but rather "needless to say I'd rather my responses are not made public". Of course I'd be very happy to publish the full set of exchanges here, and Dave Frame has already commented several times on my blog with no censorship - I think I even left up all of the hate mail from their colleague Carl Christensen, although I may have deleted some of his more abusive "anonymous" comments. I agree that blogs are a rather one-sided forum (usenet was better, but has been effectively destroyed by trolls) but there's nothing stopping him putting his stuff up on his own web site or the Arxiv or anywhere else he wants to. Alternatively, if he truly thinks that no non-peer-reviewed material should ever be communicated to the public, he could start by taking down the massive amount of non-peer-reviewed stuff up on the CPDN website, and their bulletin board. No, I'm not suggesting that would be a sensible step forward. but it's hard to see how else to interpret
"If, as a scientist, you feel you have to communicate non-peer-reviewed opinions to a journalist or member of the public, then stick to communicating one-to-one and make it clear you are speaking off the scientific record. Better still, don’t"
Hopefully Chris Randles will be along in a minute to explain how I'm misreading that :-)

It's pretty clear that for one reason or another journals don't like to publish comments (eg read Doswell and Errico on peer-review in general and comments in particular). Here's another anecdote I've never blogged about. It is an arithmetic error I spotted in Levitus' seminal ocean heat content paper way back in 2002. It's a just a simple error in a linear regression, so the facts are not in doubt - I was persuaded in the end (see the linked thread) to write a couple of sentences to Science pointing it out but the editor decided, aided by an extraordinary volume of bluster from the original authors, that it was not worth publishing. The data have long since been superceded but it annoyed me at the time that both Science and the authors themselves were quite happy to see a simple arithmetic error (which just coincidentally happened to exaggerate the ocean warming, and showed a rather better agreement with models than the correct analysis would have done) remain uncorrected in the literature and be used in further analyses. (Yes, looking back at that episode I now see I was rather naive at the time, having only recently shifted into climate science. I am sad to say that such behaviour would no longer strike me as unexpected.) But the idea that I should somehow be morally obliged to censor myself because an editor didn't want to devote any space to publishing that small correction is patently absurd. Equally silly is the suggestion that I should not point out the glaring errors in Chylek without feeling obliged to write a short paper. It's a shame that comments seem to be taken as such a personal insult - as I've said before, the only scientist who's never made a mistake is one who's not done any science, although I'm not suggesting that all mistakes merit a published correction (journals would be overwhelmed by trivia). But I know of two recent cases where people declined to co-author a comment due to concerns about offending the (more powerful) recipient. In both cases the potential author was untenured, and one of them explicitly cited that as the major factor in their decision. It's hardly a sign of healthy science when people are too scared to say what they think, on blogs or elsewhere.


Unknown said...

This is exceedingly thoughtful. I hate the fact that blogs and the proliferation of news sites allow folks to more easily tune out facts that don't jibe with pre-existing beliefs. Recall that Darwin's Bulldog wrote: 'My business [science] is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations.'

EliRabett said...

You touched on this, but having been involved in one case and peripherially involved in another, arXiv may usefully become a place to put technical comments on papers. They should then come up in google scholar at least

James Annan said...

Sure, but if the original authors decline to reply in public then it will still be the case that "nevertheless, our response is not [available]" :-)

EliRabett said...

Ah but there is always the dread Google bomb. . .they can run but they must post.

Hank Roberts said...

Is the phrase in quotation marks

"our adversary is censoring our comments"

actually a direct quote? Or what you think the unnamed commenter (appears to link to JF?) meant?

-- Hank Roberts

James Annan said...

Well spotted, I fixed the link. It was Martin Lewitt (comment 14 in that thread) who thought Myles was claiming I had censored him.

Martin Lewitt said...

Apologies. Gavin's correction is undated, I hope it was posted quickly so that few were mislead.

James Annan said...

I think it was. No fault on your part anyway - it was Myles' (deliberately?) ambiguous phrasing that lead to the confusion.