Short-Circuiting Peer Review In Climate Science

  • Date: 08/06/14
  • Peter Wood, Rachelle DeJong, National Association of Scholars

How reliable are the scientific findings on which the Environmental Protection Agency bases its proposed regulations?   According to a new research report, many of the findings connected to the EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions may be compromised by a short-circuiting of peer review.

That question and that answer may seem far afield from NAS’s usual concerns, but there is an important connection.  Or actually three important connections.  Much of the science involved is university-based research.  The problems surfaced by the new report reveal weakness in academic peer review.  And NAS is engaged in an in-depth examination of the campus sustainability movement.

But first things first.  NAS holds no position on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  As an organization, we are neither supporters nor skeptics of the thesis.  Likewise we have no policy position on whether the EPA should regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather, we are a body devoted to maintaining academic standards and protecting academic freedom.  And it is in that light that we are troubled by the recent research from the Institute for Trade, Standards, and Sustainable Development (ITSSD) that indicates that much of the U.S.-sponsored research behind the “scientific consensus” on global warming may be less rigorous than its advocates would have the public believe.

The Campus Sustainability Movement

Before we turn to ITSSD’s report, however, let’s consider the campus context, where enthusiasm for the AGW hypothesis runs high.  That enthusiasm fuels the campus sustainability movement, though the movement has other concerns as well.   What makes sustainability so popular on college campuses?

First popularity begets popularity.  The movement has all the advantages of being successful.  Second, the sustainability movement is the heir apparent of the much older environmental movement. As such it enjoys the good will of everyone concerned about clean air and water, fighting pollution, and keeping toxins out of our lives.  Third, the sustainability movement serves as a wheelhouse for many of the progressive causes that animate politically-minded college students. Third-wave feminism, managed economics, social justice, and issues of identity groups all find an ideological home within the concept of “sustainability.”

But those three elements—self-reinforcing popularity, the glow of old-style environmentalism, and the cachet of progressive politics—wouldn’t go very far without the motor of belief in looming world-wide catastrophe as a result of manmade global warming. Very few of the students who subscribe to this thesis command the knowledge of physics, atmospheric science, chemistry, oceanography, and computer modeling to have well-founded opinions on whether AGW is real.  Rather, they have to rely on the authoritative-sounding claims coming from scientists and government officials.

So it indeed matters a great deal how credible those claims are.

ITSSD Skepticism

On Tuesday the ITSSD (pronounced itz-d) released a white paper that questions the value of a number of influential scientific research projects. ITSSD waded through a dense thicket of federal acronyms and legal documents to determine how much money taxpayers have spent on federally-funded climate research and how rigorous and useful that research has been. ITSSD concluded that on numerous counts, government research agencies and their constituent university researchers compromised the peer review process that is the foundation of intellectual standards in scientific research and that is also required by U.S. law.

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