One of the world's biggest climate change deniers just published a paper that scientists are calling "complete trash." So how did it pass peer review?
Image: Mat McDermott, Wikimedia
Meet one of the world's leading climate change skeptics.
Though he is not a scientist, Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brentley, is a prolific and vocal opponent of mainstream climatology. Once a Special Adviser to Margaret Thatcher, he now spends much of his time trumpeting conservative causes. He recently claimed there has been no warming for 18 years, and penned a column blaming gay people for AIDS and explaining that homosexuals have sex with up to 20,000 partners each. Practicing scientists have called his assertions "very misleading," "profoundly wrong," and "simply false." Not long ago, the House of Lords took the "unprecedented" step of demanding Monckton stop calling himself a lord.
Now Monckton has published a study in a peer-reviewed science journal, the Chinese Science Bulletin. He claims that this work refutes the robust body of climate science agreed upon by what he calls "the extremists at the IPCC," or the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which is comprised of hundreds of the world's top climate scientists. Mainstream climate science projects that the world is heading for 3-5˚C temperature rise by the century's end. Monckton says the warming will be significantly less than 1˚C, due to errors in climate modelers' assumptions.
"The true-believers know that this paper spells doom for them," he wrote me in an email. "This paper may well mark the end of the climate scare."
But Monckton is not a climatologist—he's a journalist, a classics student, and a clever builder of math puzzles. And the study has already been harshly criticized by physicists and climate scientists. So how did he get it published in a serious academic journal? That's what Gavin Schmidt wants to know. Schmidt is the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and is one of the world's leading authorities on climate change.
"I can't speak to the peer review practice at that journal," he told me in an email, "you'd need to ask them. However, the Monckton et. al paper is complete trash." Climate science is an intensely scrutinized, incredibly robust field, after all; there is a veritable mountain of evidence that supports the IPCC's claims, which each of which are fiercely pored-over themselves. In 2015, there are vanishingly few scientists who actually question the fundamentals of climate science.
"The model they use is not new," Schmidt continued, "and they arbitrarily restrict its parameters and then declare all other models wrong."
Which isn't surprising, given that Monckton is not a scientist. In fact, he has been repeatedly lambasted by actual scientists for distorting their research: Skeptical Science was moved to publish an entire list of scientists whose work Monckton has cited in order to claim that climate change isn't happening, and who have explicitly rejected his depiction of their work. It is a long list.
It seems unlikely that Monckton's latest study, whose most prestigious co-author is Willie Soon, a Harvard researcher whose work is amply bankrolled by oil and coal companies, will inspire their confidence. "It will be completely ignored by scientists," Schmidt says, "except as an example that, yes, you can get anything published if you try hard enough."
Therein lies the issue. Monckton's paper, which is titled Why Models Run Hot: Results of an Irreducibly Simple Climate Model, was the very first study announced in today's EurekAlert blast, the widely-read newsletter that science journalists subscribe to in order to keep abreast of upcoming studies. EurekAlert doesn't vet its stories for quality, and warns as much; and it's a fact of modern life that junk science gets vacuumed up alongside respectable research. The media is apt to treat it as such, especially outlets with a specific ideological bent.
maybe what we see happening online to the Monckton paper is a glimpse at the future of peer review: public, non-anonymous, fast, and vicious
Nobody seems to know a whole lot about Science Bulletin, which dropped "Chinese" from its name this year. It is co-sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and it's published by Springer, one of the major for-profit scientific publishers. All of which to say, this isn't simply a joke science rag, though it's a far cry from Science or Nature.
Monckton insists that it was examined by three reviewers: "After a commendably short review period of just three months, the paper was accepted for publication and has now been published," he told me. "We were most impressed with the fact that the reviewers, despite initial misgivings, were willing to recognize after a closer look that we had legitimate grounds to question the official profiteers of doom."
Whoever those reviewers are, their work is now being denounced by NASA and the scientific establishment. It raises the question: How hard did they look?
Last year, a "sting" headed up by Science, in which an obviously faulty paper was submitted to 304 journals, saw nearly half accept the junk science for publication. Science targeted the open access journals that charge researchers fees for publication.I reached out to John Bohannon, PhD, the Science correspondent behind the sting, and he said that he hadn't heard of Science Bulletin, and it didn't even make it onto his radar for investigation.
Furthermore, a random-paper-generating software successfully submitted scores of papers comprised of complete gibberish to journals; two major scientific publishers had to withdraw a total of 120 studies that had already been approved as a result. One of those publishers was Springer. Monckton acknowledges that there was a publication fee, as well as an open access fee, which was covered by the Heartland Institute, an organization perhaps best known for displaying a billboard that compared those who believed in climate change to Charles Manson. (I have requested comment from Science Bulletin to ask about the review process for this particular paper,and will update if and when I hear back.)
"No one is happy about the state of peer review, but it's not clear what the solution will be," Bohannon told me in an email. "One possibility is to do peer review after publication, rather than before. If a paper is both important and bad science, then it will get sorted out quickly. So maybe what we see happening online to the Monckton et al. paper is a glimpse at the future of peer review: public, non-anonymous, fast, and vicious."
The entire episode is a reminder that the peer review process is in a moment of crisis, and that the science establishment is still grappling with globalization, digitization, and the proliferation of for-profit online journals. It is useful in considering how climate denial continues to trickle into the bloodstream, even when the world's top agencies all agree that humans are warming the globe, and that, as a result, last year was the hottest ever recorded.
Once a paper is accepted for peer review, it obtains a degree of respectability—even if its shoddy claims argue the precise opposite. It's just one more way that bad science, and climate denial, stumbles on.