Peer Review is no substitute for a “Red Team”

It is always useful when an alarmist rant puts the fallacy in the first sentence. Such is the case with a recent article co-authored by the heads of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU). They attack the Red Team concept and given that NAS and AGU are two of the top alarmist groups it is no surprise that they get it wrong from the start. The article is in the October issue of AGU’s magazine EOS, on page 12. The authors are NAS president Marcia McNutt and AGU president Eric Davidson.

Even the catchy title — “Red/Blue and Peer Review” — starts down the wrong road. Then the first sentence says that the Red Team exercise is “an alternative approach to peer review for evaluating climate change science.” It is actually nothing like an alternative approach and these folks know it. Their argument is just a variant of the ridiculous alarmist claim that “the science is settled” (in their favor).

The difference between a red team critique and peer review is simple and stark. Peer review is the evaluation of submitted journal articles that report specific research results. The Red Team will critique a huge assessment report that purports to summarize an entire body of science. So to begin with it is the difference between looking at, let’s say, 6 pages and 600 pages. These are very different jobs.

The purposes are also entirely different. The principle purpose of peer review is to say whether or not the submitted article should be published in the journal. Journals compete fiercely for those articles that will get the most citations, because that is how journals are measured. For this reason top journals have rejection rates on the order of 90%. Thus peer review is entirely about the citation worthiness of a specific article. It has nothing to do with the overall state of the science.

Assessment on the other hand is the very opposite. Properly done, an assessment provides a broad overview of thousands of journal articles and other research results, especially the ongoing debates that define the frontier. This is nothing like peer review.

The problem that the Red Team is addressing is that we have a number of highly biased, hugely alarmist yet official, assessments of climate change science. Internationally we have the notorious IPCC assessments. In the US there are the even worse National Climate Assessments from the US Global Change Research Program. That McNutt and Davidson specifically endorse these hugely biased assessments is not surprising.

These massive documents exhibit what I call “artful bias.” They have the same one-sided argumentative structure as a legal brief in a lawsuit and they do this very well. They present the alarmist case as though the skeptical side did not exist. They simply ignore all contrary evidence and alternative explanations. They are the very opposite of science.

Volume I of the latest National Assessment is due out next month and it is an obvious candidate for a red team critique. Or some other approach might be taken, such as having both a Blue Team and a Red Team. In fact McNutt and Davidson manage to raise some interesting questions about how the Red Team should operate.

The point is to elucidate the science in a full and fair manner, by laying bare the deep debates. Peer review of individual articles does not do this and cannot do it. Arguing that it does so is nothing but a distraction, a smoke screen. No doubt we will see more of this obfuscation if a Red Team exercise actually happens, as it should.

Nor has peer review created anything like settled science, although it sometimes gives that impression via what is called “pal review.” McNutt and Davidson say that “The state of climate science today includes…50+ years of published papers and reports, each subjected to reviewers’ skeptical eyes to ensure that published conclusions are supported by data.” That there are 50 years of papers is true. That the reviewers have been skeptical is not so true, in fact it is a glaring problem.

The deep debates are there to be found in the journal literature. To make these climate change debates visible and official is precisely the Red Team’s job. Peer review of journal articles has nothing to do with this obvious need.

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About the Author: David Wojick, Ph.D.

David Wojick is a journalist and policy analyst. He holds a doctorate in epistemology, specializing in the field of Mathematical Logic and Conceptual Analysis.

  • Jim Huston

    The Red Team should start at the very beginning: the assumption (yes, it’s an assumption, nothing more) that changes in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 cause changes in global temperature. There is NO empirical evidence to support that hypothesis; none whatsoever. In fact, the best data we have suggest exactly the opposite, at least in the special case of the extreme low temperatures and CO2 concentrations we are currently experiencing. More extensive, but lower resolution data stretching back over 500 million years show no correlation at all.

  • David Albert

    Another assumption with very questionable rationality is that the recent and ongoing increase in CO2 is man-caused. Salby, Harde, Segalstad, Joworowski, and now Dr. Ed Berry have given clear evidence that this assumption is false. So the bottom line is that humans don’t effect the CO2 content of the atmosphere very much and that content has no detectable effect on temperatures. These things need to be brought out into the light and dissected by the opposing teams to see which side stands. These are peer reviewed works that currently are just ignored by the “settled science” group.