The Washington Post is reporting that a recent Trump appointee to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released unauthorized climate papers bearing the imprint of the Executive Office of the President. These papers, called the “Climate Change Flyers,” questioned the seriousness of climate change. After my eyes rolled back into place, my first thought was disbelief that narrative is still out there. It is 2021. The Earth is sending obvious signals, and a clear consensus exists in the scientific literature. Speaking of peer review literature, it is our version of a “clinical trial” in the science world.
According to Jason Samenow and Andrew Freedman of the Washington Post Capitol Weather Gang, who broke this story, the papers issued by the NOAA officials claim, “that human-caused global warming “involves a large measure of faith” and that computer models are “too small and slow” to produce meaningful climate simulations.” There were concerns about late term appointments to NOAA as the agency geared up for the National Climate Assessment report. However, I leave it to others to discuss that part of the story. My goal is to make you aware of caution flags when consuming science reports.
I use the context of clinical trials because we are all struggling through the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has ravaged lives, lifestyles and our economy. The ray of hope is the rapid development and distribution of vaccines. However, those vaccines had to go through clinical trials. What are clinical trials? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, they are the, “primary way that researchers find out if a new treatment, like a new drug or diet or medical device (for example, a pacemaker) is safe and effective in people.” In other words, the U.S. government was not going to allow COVID-19 vaccines to be administered to people until their efficacy and side effects were evaluated.
We have a process in other corners of science too. It is called peer review. Angelo State University’s website has a great definition: “Articles are written by experts and are reviewed by several other experts in the field before the article is published in the journal in order to ensure the article’s quality.” In many cases, this process happens through an anonymous process. The process is designed to prevent untested, opinionated, or flawed methods from being published. Most scientific journals also have a mechanism, using the same peer review process, to dissent or debate scientific results.
In the world of climate science, I am often amused by contrarian attacks on the peer review process. Yet, when a single paper found in the very peer-reviewed literature they just criticized supports their narrative, it is shared and cited with vigor. The process certainly has room for improvement, but most experts agree that it is still the most effective barrier to bad science.
There are other published outlets that may look “official” or “vetted” but exercise caution with them. Here are some of the most common ones:
- Blogs. Blogs, like the one you are currently reading, can be factual (or not), provocative, and clarifying but should not be taken as a replacement for a peer-reviewed article.
- Grey Literature. Grey literature, as defined by a Duke University website, is “manifold document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats that are protected by intellectual property rights, of sufficient quality to be collected and preserved by libraries and institutional repositories, but not controlled by commercial publishers; i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.” These reports may not be vigorously reviewed by peers or if so, by a “friendly” set of reviewers.
- Opinion pieces. This type of writing is very prevalent, and it’s pretty obvious what they are designed to do.
- Tweets and Posts. I am a huge fan of social media, and good science discourse can often be found in a credible “Tweet storm” or Post. The Internet has “democratized” the ability to share science data, information, and opinions. However, I consider material on social media to be “digital grey literature” (at best) unless anchored in peer review.
My advice when consuming science information is to be cautious of the packaging. Focus more on the content, how it was evaluated, and intent. To be clear, my goal herein was not to slight these other formats. Heck, I am using one of them right now. The goal was to increase your literacy on the “wild, wild, West” of science information out there. You wouldn’t take a COVID-19 virus researched and developed by some guy in his basement with Wikipedia. We have to think this way about all science information.
By the way, the Washington Post reports that the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not clear or approve the aforementioned papers even though they claim to be copyrighted by the office.