The fact that denier science is rejected by the peer-reviewed literature is not evidence of bias, or conspiracy

Climategate has renewed calls that the peer-reviewed literature is either biased against global warming deniers, or is actively conspiring to prevent those with dissenting views from publishing their work. But the fact that this is happening is not evidence that such bias or conspiracy exists, as Michael Tobis writes:

Starting from a blank slate, it looks like this. If a legitimate consensus has emerged, people like Michaels [and other climate change deniers] should be ignored in general because what they are saying is inconsistent with the state of knowledge. If it hasn’t, maybe (just maybe) they shouldn’t be. The fact that very little “skeptical” stuff (say, pointing to a sensitivity much below 2 C per CO2 doubling) is in the literature thus has two basically plausible explanations. One is that there is a conspiracy to keep them out, and the second is that the evidence is already in excluding the position so that very few serious papers are on offer.

There is nothing unusual about the second case. On the contrary, it happens almost every time science makes progress. If everyone who claims a conspiracy among peer reviewers in any science had a column in the Wall Street Journal, there would be very little room for financial news. The reasons the Journal picks Michaels over all the other probable cranks is left as an exercise for the reader.

So is there a test for the outsider to apply as to which condition is actually happening? Jim Lippard proposes one.

The creationists used to make similar claims about being locked out of the peer-reviewed literature, but when challenged, could never produce the rejection slips.

There seem to be a number of climate skeptics who have no problem getting published and cited–they happen to also be the ones with relevant credentials and expertise.

I think the burden of proof is on the conspiracy theorist. My cursory review of the CRU emails shows the main concern in discussions about peer review is bad work getting published (e.g., the 2003 Soon and Baliunas paper in _Climate Research_, which was admittedly, on the part of the editors, a failure of peer review to allow it to be published).

_Energy & Environment_ [a journal which is not highly regarded by mainstream scientists -mt] regularly publishes articles by climate skeptics. What work published there was rejected by a more reputable journal and is a game-changer on the scientific debate?

Bad science is routinely rejected by the peer-reviewed literature, in fact this is what gives the peer-reviewed literature value. The fact that deniers like Michaels can’t get their work published isn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that the peer-reviewed literature is biased, or that it actively conspires to keep out dissenting views. What they need to show is that good research was rejected. If their research isn’t very good, perhaps because it contradicts a large body of established theory without presenting enough data to support such claims, or if it contains obvious errors, then such research should be rejected. Just as creationism, anti-vax, HIV/AIDS denialism research is also routinely rejected.


3 thoughts on “The fact that denier science is rejected by the peer-reviewed literature is not evidence of bias, or conspiracy

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  1. Well, good science gets rejected, too — a function of there being more people trying to get published than there are slots in which they can be published (as well as some referees being jerks). So, third possibility: being rejected could just mean not being published yet.

    That said, if there really was a serious climate change denier research program, then at this point, we should expect to find some kind of significant publication record, if they’d been seriously trying to get published. Individuals can be kept out of the journals just by luck of the draw, but a whole approach, if viable, can’t be. Sooner or later, someone would get something in, and that beachhead could be used to get more work accepted.

    So, the third possibility holds in some cases, but it probably doesn’t hold when it comes to climate change denialism, given that denialism has been around long enough to overcome the bad odds of getting published.

  2. Some denialism does get peer-reviewed published, but rarely in anything like a good journal (Soon, Baliunas 2003 is now infamous for this). Also, the peer review process isn’t perfect. Sometimes some whoppers make it through earnest peer review.

    Just because a paper is published, doesn’t mean it’ll survive scrutiny of course.

    The thing about conspiracy theories that makes them so isn’t that they are provable, but that they aren’t verifiable while also remaining remotely plausible.

  3. @ ADHR

    This third option is also a possibility, but as you point out it is very unlikely that this is happening to deniers.

    @ Mark

    Yep. As RealClimate said years ago, peer-review is necessary, not sufficient.

    Anything that changes the picture of what we know significantly should be viewed with skepticism; one needs to wait to see what, if any, effect it will have (this can take a few years). Several times new data that conflicts with what we know has been shown to be wrong, and the old theory was shown to be right. This happened with UAH satellite data and the ARGO buoys, amongst others.

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