Saturday, June 16th 2012, 6:10 PM EDT
The head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has referred to its work as the gold standard, based on its oft-made claim that it only surveys work published in peer-reviewed professional research papers.
Interestingly, Albert Einstein’s famous 1905 paper on relativity was not peer-reviewed. It is therefore quite clear that peer-review is not a precondition for excellent, indeed epoch-making, scientific research.
So what is a peer-reviewed (also termed refereed) research paper?
Peer-review is a technique of quality control for scientific papers that emerged slowly through the 20th century, only achieving a dominant influence in science after the Second World War. The process works like this. A potential scientific author conducts research, writes a paper on his or her results and submits the paper to a professional journal that represents the specialist field of science in question.
The editor of the journal then scan-reads the paper. Based upon his knowledge of the contents of the paper, and of the activities of other scientists in the same research field, the editor selects (usually) two persons, termed referees, to whom he sends the draft manuscript of the paper for review.
Referees, who are unpaid, differ in the amount of time and effort that they devote to their task of review. At one extreme a referee will criticize and correct the writing of a paper in detail, including making comments on the scientific content; at the other extreme, a referee may merely skim-read a paper, ignoring obvious mistakes in writing style or grammar, and make some general comments to the editor about the scientific accuracy, or otherwise, of the draft paper.
Neither type of referee, nor those who lie between, pretend to check either the original data or the detailed statistical calculations (or, today, complex computer modelling) that often form the kernel of a piece of modern scientific research.
Each referee makes a recommendation to the editor as to whether the paper should be published (usually with corrections) or rejected, the editor making the final decision regarding publication based on this advice.
In essence, then, peer-review is a technique of editorial quality control. That a scientific paper has been peer-reviewed is absolutely no guarantee that the science it portrays is correct. Indeed, it is the very nature of scientific research that nearly all scientific papers require later emendation, or reinterpretation, in the light of new discoveries or understanding.
Scientific knowledge, then, is always in a state of flux. Much though bureaucrats and politicians may dislike the thought, there is simply no such thing as “settled science,” peer-reviewed or otherwise.
During the latter part of the 20th century, Western governments started channelling large amounts of research money into favoured scientific fields, prime among them global-warming research. This money has a corrupting influence, not least on the peer-review process.
Many scientific journals, including prestigious internationally acclaimed ones, have now become captured by insider groups of leading researchers in particular fields. Researchers who act as editors of journals then select referees from within a closed circle of scientists who work in the same field and share similar views.
The Climategate email leak in 2009 revealed for all to see that this cancerous process is at an advanced stage of development in climate science. A worldwide network of leading climate researchers were revealed to be actively influencing editors and referees to approve for publication only research that supported the IPCC’s alarmist view of global warming, and to prevent the publication of alternative or opposing views.
Backed by this malfeasant system, leading researchers who support the IPCC’s red-hot view of climate change endlessly promulgate their alarmist recommendations as “based only upon peer-reviewed research papers,” as if this were some guarantee of quality or accuracy.
Peer-review, of course, guarantees neither. What matters is not whether a scientific idea or article has been peer-reviewed but whether the science described is right, i.e. accords with empirical evidence.
So what about the much-trumpeted, claimed “gold standard” of strict use of peer review papers by the IPCC? Well, this has been completely exposed by Canadian investigative journalist Donna Laframboise, who showed that an amazing 30% of the articles cited in the definitive Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC were from non-peer-reviewed sources, including such writings as student theses and environmental lobbyist reports.
Therefore, the repetition of the “we-only-use-peer-reviewed-information” mantra that is so favoured by lobbying and government-captive scientific organizations signals not just scientific immaturity but also a lack of confidence, or ability, to assess the scientific arguments about global warming on their own merits and against the empirical evidence.
Bob Carter is a palaeoclimatologist at James Cook University in Australia and Chief Science Advisor to the International Climate Science Coalition.