This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful we base policy decisions on peer-reviewed science instead of emails!
The kerfuffle over email correspondence hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit is making climate change deniers giddy. But just like all the other non-smoking guns they’ve waived around over the years, this “mushroom cloud” will soon blow away. Nothing has come to light that undermines scientific assessments of the climate system, which are firmly anchored in peer-reviewed scientific publications, not emails.
Some of the past “smoking guns” that were supposed to put the theory of human-induced climate change in an early grave are among the hot topics flying around in the hacked emails. One was a paper by Soon and Baliunas published in a peer-reviewed journal called Climate Research in 2003. That paper was supposed to put to rest the conclusion of the 2001 IPCC report that the late 20th century was warmer than any previous period in the past millennium, but it was quickly and thoroughly refuted in the peer-reviewed literature (not in emails). Another was a 2005 paper by McIntyre and McKitrick in an often-not-peer-reviewed journal called Energy & Environment. This paper had the same goal as the first one, but it too was rebutted in the peer-reviewed literature and in a report by the National Academy of Sciences (not in emails). In the emails, climate scientists complained about these papers and expressed frustration that they were published in spite of serious flaws. However, policymakers did not use these emails to help them determine America’s policy actions on climate change.
Much of the bickering in the emails boils down to scientists’ irritation over serious breaches of the normal peer review system to get denialist papers published (see here, here and here). The publisher of Climate Research (CR) admitted that the major conclusions of the paper by Soon and Baliunas “cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper. CR should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication.” The paper was so bad that three editors resigned in protest over its publication. The paper by McIntyre and McKitrick (2005) wasn’t peer reviewed at all and the editor of Energy & Environment openly stated, “I'm following my political agenda – a bit, anyway. But isn't that the right of the editor?” Scientists value the peer review process and they find it unfair and objectionable when they subject their own work to potential rejection while others circumvent this critical step in the scientific process to force low-quality research into the debate.
Luckily, none of this matters since the scientific assessments produced to inform policymakers about the science of climate change are based on peer-reviewed science publications, not on the opinions of individuals expressed in email correspondence. As happens in the normal scientific process, when the occasional bad paper slips through the peer review cracks it gets refuted through subsequent scrutiny in the peer-review literature. In the end, what may be said in emails doesn’t matter; the scientific peer-review process will prevail.
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Program Manager for Science & Impacts