Thursday, December 10, 2009

Much Ado About Blogs: Anarchy vs. Tradition

As we all know blogs have become a fashionable means of communication made possible by modern technology. The question is, ‘What does this mean for science?’. Is it a reasonable means of communicating science to an open global audience? Is it a reasonable means for intra scientific discussions? How do we keep values from tarnishing scientific objectivity? Can they operate as an alternative to the peer review process associated with journals? And, of course, many more questions.
Here we can address a few of these question.

First, what is the perception, from climate scientists, concerning the traditional means of peer reviewed journals as a means of communicating findings in the climate sciences?*
One of the questions in this regard asked a sample of climate scientists if the quality of published peer reviewed papers in climate science has changed over the years. The results are shown on Figure 1.

Figure 1. Perceptions of Quality of Peer Reviewed Climate Science Papers

If we exclude the value of 4 as the perception of no change in the quality of papers we find that approximately 20% of the sample seem to think that the quality of papers has declined and approximately 43% claim the quality has improved. Is this cause for concern or a case of sour grapes? Crosstabs seem to indicate this not to be the case, i.e. it is not those who have not published claiming the quality of journals to have deteriorated and vice versa.

What about the perception of the role of values in what finds its way into peer reviewed journals?

Figure 2. The Perception of the Role of Values in Peer Reviewed Publications

Again, excluding the value of 4, the data indicates that approximately 58% of the sample perceive journals to have remained value neutral while approximately 23% see journals tending towards being value oriented.

Finally, concerning traditional means of science communication, the sample was asked just what leads to success in peer reviewed publications. These results are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Factors of Success for a Peer Reviewed Paper.

The data seem to indicate that the sample perceives scientific rigour as the major contributor to the success of the acceptance of a paper.

Now let’s return to blogs, the new kid on the block so to say. Do scientists (climate scientists) perceive that making discussions of climate science open to potentially everyone through the use of blogs is a good idea? As indicated in Figure 4 more scientists think it is a good idea than scientists who do not think it is a good idea.

Figure 4. Is the Discussion of Climate Science Being Open to Everyone Through the Use of Blogs a Good Idea

A quick look a figure four seems to suggest that overall the sample of scientists were slightly more in congruence with blogs and open discussion being a favorable idea.

But what of the quality of blogs? Figure 5 provides some elementary insight into the perceptions of climate scientists.

Figure 5 The Quality of the Scientific Discussion of Climate Change on Blogs Is?

Whoops! No so good there. While blogs are perceived of as being a good idea, there seems to be some question as to the quality of material found on blogs.

So how would climate scientists rate blogs compared to the traditional peer reviewed article in terms of being value laden? This data is presented in Figure 6.

Figure 6. The Quality of the material on Blogs as Compared to Peer Reviewed Journal Articles

Well, it would appear that the sample of climate scientists seem to see blogs as being much more value laden than peer reviewed journals. And one should note, much more available to a general audience. Campaigning for a specific scientific/political position?

The first thing that comes to mind is the recent discussion concerning censorship of publication in peer reviewed journals brought to light by Climategate as it has come to be known. No role for values in peer review? The role of values on blogs, no question. Let’s face it folks, in the instance of politico-science, those instances where science enters Real Politik, values will never be excluded.

But back to blogs as a means of disseminating scientific findings. No doubt they are useful in cases of non- (politically) controversial scientific discussions. But what can we say about their role in the likes of the discussion of climate science?

* All data is taken from the survey of climate scientists (Bray and von Storch, CliSci 2008 - full report available at with an international sample size of 373 climate scientists. For the sake of avoiding controversy, I will refer to these scientists as the sample, not necessarily as the climate science community.


MikeR said...

There were a significant number of respondents who felt that that peer reviewed journals _did_ publish based on conclusions reached, and that they are value-oriented. I wonder if they are the same ones who are more on the "skeptical" side about some of the other questions asked? That would an important correlation - those who agree with the slant of the journals presumably will feel that they are nice and fair.

Bishop Hill said...

I'm not sure about your conclusion that blogs are good for non-controversial science only. The lesson of Climategate is that when a hypothesis is hotly contested, peer review can be subverted and used as a means of gatekeeping. Here, blogs come into their own.

Anonymous said...

How can one generalise about blogs when there is such a spectrum. At one side we have Real Climate and Tamino's Open Mind (considering only those blogs who claim to address the 'real' science). In the middle we have Climate Audit, Lucia's Blackboard and The Air Vent, which to this observer seem to be truly neutral in their consideration of the issues, notwithstanding that they often come up with challenges to the 'real' science blogs. Then there are the sceptical blogs, some of which are clearly serious scientific blogs as well.

Wouldn't a serious discussion about blogs seek to differentiate those blogs that engage in advocacy for AGW from the sceptical blogs?

And wouldn't it be clear that different sectors of the climate scientist population would likely have differing attitudes towards the different blogs?

My hunch is that depending on the audience interviewed, some climate scientists would consider Real Climate "value-oriented" and Climate Audit "Value Neutral" and a different sample of climate scientists would maintain the reverse position.

PS I am posting as Anonymous, 'coz that is the only name your system allows me to post as.

Anonymous said...

I believe the conclusion in relation to figure two is incorrect. 10%, not 58% consider the journals value neutral, 90% consider the journals to be value biased to some degree. That's quite serious, and hardly a rining endorsemnent of their objectivity.

TCO said...

Bishop Hill makes a trivial, but expected logical mistake. Yes, Mann and the like were unethical in peer review (sharing confidential papers, trying to squash stuff or rush comments through). However, that DOES NOT mean that skeptical papers can not be published.

1. There are a WEALTH of journals out there. Not just in the earth sciences but also parallel fields of biology, statistics, economics, etc. There was a time when Raveau's solid state lab avoided certain US journals because of the fierce competition with Bell Labs over new high-Tc finds. But they STILL PUBLISHED!

2. The denialists (McI, Eschenbach, etc.) don't write proper white papers. They don't use references. They don't write clearly. They intermix silliness. They just don't prove that they even have a decent paper which was rejected. When you do see their written attempts, they are often last minute and literally amateurish. I'm embarresed for them. You don't need a Ph.D. to write a good science paper. I did it as a beginning grad student. Just read the Notice to Authors, glance over some books that describe the objective of science literature, read a few papers...and then WRITE GOOD ARCHIVAL QUALITY EXPLICATION!

But instead...we get silliness...and then we get those like Bishop Hill, who claim "the man is keeping us down". And you have those like McI who won't assert it themselves...and have years ago denied that they were being kept down/admitted that they weren't writing submissions. But then they let those like BH make assertions like this without correction. And also make snarky remarks about litchurchur.

The whole thing is a disgrace to me as someone who is FAR to the Palin right of McI or the other sillies...but who believes in Roman-judge like truth...whichever way it cuts (against or for my side).