A timely reminder of the importance of peer-reviewed science

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

A timely reminder of the importance of peer-reviewed science

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This morning, the Independent Panel on Climate Change will publish its fifth report on the science of climate change.  If we were living in a rational world, this would be the moment that we stopped sleep-walking to climatic disaster for wildlife and the poorest people of the planet and started weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

But, I expect many (usual suspects) will pile into the debate and seek to rubbish the science.  This serves to create uncertainty, confusion and atrophy - exactly what the sceptics want.

Yet, the IPCC will be presenting their findings based on thousands of articles published in scientific journals.  And, as luck would have it, I was given a timely reminder of the importance of these journals by the telly on Wednesday night.

Professor Brian Cox (one time keyboard to D:Ream and fast-becoming the nation's favourite scientist) discussed the role of peer-reviewed science in his excellent Science Britannica series.   Before you are bombarded by non-scientist climate sceptics over the coming days, it is worth watching and listening to Brian.  He says...

"Publishing is the reason why science gets us to the best view as to the way nature works.  Scientific journals can be trusted...what's printed in them is as close to a statement of fact as you could ask for.  And we can trust in that science thanks to peer review... Peer review is an attempt to introduce rigour to distinguish between tested hypotheses and speculation."

And this is why RSPB staff in our recently-rated 'outstanding' science department are encouraged to publish their own research in journals - and they do so, prolifically.

In his programme, Professor Cox interviews Dr Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, about peer-review and uses the science of climate change as a case study.  Dr Campbell explains that "The climate system is enormously complex...it is only over time and a lot of scrutiny and a lot of cumulative evidence that you end up convinced that it is really happening.  I would so love to show that climate change is not happening because it threatens my grandchildren's future but we don't seem to be getting papers that show that it's wrong."

The IPCC report needs to be heard and all of us have a responsibility to respond.  

I'll offer our view of the findings as soon as I can.

  • Glossy Ibis; you don't have to look very far on the internet, in the press, etc, to find plenty of people asking questions about the IPCC and its reports.  For instance, take a look at wattsupwiththat.com and nofrakkingconsensus.com.

    Your first comment gave the impression that because you have made up your mind you want to stifle further debate.  In your second comment you say you want balanced reporting.

    As for impartial scientists - I wish!

  • Peter D. you say that the IPCC is still thought my many to be more about politics than it is about science. What do you mean by many? Lots? 50%? 50% of whom (scientists, politicians, newspaper magnates, the power industry)? I want balanced reporting and I want to hear from those who've done the research and analysed the results and, as Martin says, had them peer reviewed by informed but impartial scientists. That, I believe, is the remit of the IPCC.

  • Why, I wonder, would an expectation of balanced reporting be misplaced?  Being sceptical about man-made climate change isn't the same as denying the Holocaust!  There does need to continuing research and debate and more coverage in the news media (Murdoch press and BBC included)of the evidence and it seems to me that comments such as that by Glossy Ibis are both unhelpful and unhealthy. The IPCC is still thought by many people to be more about politics than it is about science and this latest report needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

  • An excellent comment Martin. I watched the Brian Cox programme and was impressed with the discussion with Dr Campbell. My hope is that Brian Cox's popularity will get the message across to a wider public and act as an antidote to the inevitable wheeling out of the climate change sceptics like Nigel Lawson and the Murdoch press. Let's also hope that broadcasters like the BBC don't fall into the same trap that they did with the MMR discussion and attempt, in a misplaced expectation of balance, to give equal time to the sceptics.

    I await with interest the response, if any, from the government and politicians.