Déjà vu All Over Again

Chris Mooney

This is how it begins: Proponents of a fringe or non-mainstream scientific viewpoint seek added credibility. They’re sick of being taunted for having few (if any) peer reviewed publications in their favor. Fed up, they decide to do something about it.

These “skeptics” find what they consider to be a weak point in the mainstream theory and critique it. Not by conducting original research; they simply review previous work. Then they find a little-known, not particularly influential journal where an editor sympathetic to their viewpoint hangs his hat.

They get their paper through the peer review process and into print. They publicize the hell out of it. Activists get excited by the study, which has considerable political implications.

Before long, mainstream scientists catch on to what’s happening. They shake their heads. Some slam the article and the journal that published it, questioning the review process and the editor’s ideological leanings. In published critiques, they tear the paper to scientific shreds.

Embarrassed, the journal’s publisher backs away from the work. But it’s too late for that. The press has gotten involved, and though the work in question has been discredited in the world of science, partisans who favor its conclusions for ideological reasons will champion it for years to come.

The scientific waters are muddied. The damage is done.

This basic story-line describes not one, but two high profile incidents in the past two years. One concerns climate science, the other evolutionary biology. Both are highly politicized fields, and in each case, the incentive to get something into print is considerable for those who want to carry on their political and scientific fight against the accepted, mainstream view.

Take the climate science storyline first. The most definitive account of what happened appeared in a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Richard Monastersky; the New York Times and Wall Street Journal also covered the story.

In early 2003, the small journal Climate Research published a paper by climate change “skeptics” Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which challenged the established view that the late twentieth century saw anomalously high temperatures. The paper didn’t present original research; instead, it was a literature review. Soon and Baliunas examined a wide range of “proxy records” for past temperatures, based on studies of ice cores, corals, tree rings, and other sources. They concluded that few of the records showed anything particularly unusual about twentieth century temperatures, especially when compared with the so-called “Medieval Warm Period” a thousand years ago.

Soon and Baliunas had specifically sent their paper to one Chris de Freitas at Climate Research, an editor known for opposing curbs on carbon dioxide emissions. He in turn sent the paper out for review and then accepted it for publication. That’s when the controversy began.

Conservative politicians in the U.S., who oppose forced restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, lionized the study. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe called it literally paradigm shifting. The Bush administration attempted to edit an Environmental Protection Agency report’s discussion of climate change in order to include reference to the Soon and Baliunas work. None of this should come as a surprise: The paper seemed to undermine a key piece of evidence suggesting that we can actually see and measure the consequences of human-induced climate change.

Soon mainstream climate scientists fought back. Thirteen authored a devastating critique of the work in the American Geophysical Union publication Eos. After seeing the critique, Climate Research editor-in-chief Hans von Storch decided he had to make changes in the journal’s editorial process. But when journal colleagues refused to go along, von Storch announced his resignation.

Several other Climate Research editors subsequently resigned over the Soon and Baliunas paper. Even journal publisher Otto Kinne eventually admitted that the paper suffered from serious flaws, basically agreeing with its critics. But by that point in time, Inhofe had already devoted a Senate hearing to trumpeting the new study. However dubious, it made a massive splash.

Now shift to Intelligent Design. The story is newer, and far from over. But already it’s looking like Climate Research parte deux, down to the coverage by the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Richard Monastersky.

Recently, ID advocate Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute published a review article in a little known taxonomic journal called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (that’s D.C.). Focusing on the well-known “Cambrian Explosion,” Meyer argued that evolutionary theory could not account for the appearance of new organismal forms in a relatively short period of geological time. Instead, Meyer concluded by suggesting that “intelligent,” “rational” agents may have been responsible for the “origin of new biological information.” It was the first time the intelligent design movement has published in a peer reviewed biology journal.

Meyer had sent his article to an editor, Richard Sternberg, who sits on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, which studies “creation biology” and is based at Bryan College, a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee named (fittingly enough) after anti-Darwin crusader William Jennings Bryan. Sternberg—who is reportedly no longer editor of the Proceedings—sent the paper out to three unnamed reviewers and claims they recommended publication.

Now comes the controversy. The pro-ID Discovery Institute has trumpeted the study, media coverage has begun, and evolution defenders predict ID advocates will use the study to try to get critiques of evolution into public schools by claiming they’re based on published science.

Not surprisingly, mainstream scientists are fighting back. Several have authored a devastating critique of Meyer’s paper on the blog The Panda’s Thumb and are preparing a more thorough version, presumably for publication. The critique charges that Meyer’s article systematically ignores relevant scientific literature and contains serious “errors in facts and reasoning.” The Biological Society of Washington, meanwhile, has already issued a statement noting that the article represented a “significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history” and was “inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.”

But once again, the damage has been done. The Discovery Institute defends Meyer’s work and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In response to the statement from the Biological Society of Washington, Discovery has accused the group of imposing a “gag rule on science” (never mind that Meyer’s article was beyond the scope and traditional subject matter of the Proceedings). Meanwhile, evolution defenders claim the article in question wasn’t even particularly original to begin with.

The political battle over this highly questionable paper will continue for some time.

What conclusions can we draw from these two case studies in the publication of dubious science by peer reviewed journals?

The first is that we shouldn’t exaggerate the benefits of peer review or pretend it’s an absolute guarantor of scientific truth. On the contrary, the forms, methods, and merits of peer review vary widely both by journal and by standards of practice. Peer review is an important norm in science, and groups who make scientific claims without publishing in the peer reviewed literature should be regarded skeptically on the grounds that they’re not actually engaging in the scientific process. But that doesn’t mean successfully publishing a single peer reviewed article in a little known journal ensures scientific credibility.

Another conclusion is that in scientific debates with intense political and policy relevance, we shouldn’t be surprised that both camps want to claim that the evidence lies on their side. In order to do so, scientists on the fringe will inevitably seek to bolster their credibility through peer reviewed publications. Obscure journals working in controversial areas should therefore enforce rigorous quality standards, while remaining careful not to censor new ideas or limit legitimate scientific debate. They should take the stories of Climate Research and the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington as a serious warning. These journals have now had their reputations dragged through the mud.

Finally, politicians and policymakers need to decrease the incentives for science abuse by showing that they’re unwilling to aid and abet it. So long as the James Inhofes of the world devote entire Senate hearings to single, controversial scientific papers, and announce that they shift the scientific paradigm, we will have Climate Research and Proceedings-type controversies. Instead of contested studies hot off the presses, politicians should generally restrict themselves to relying upon the conclusions of major scientific consensus documents, such as reports from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. In the long run, it would save them considerable embarrassment.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.