Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Is peer review bad for science?

I have had considerable experience of peer review, both as an author (of c.300 articles) and as a reviewer and my overwhelming impression of the process is that most reviewers do not read what they review.  They just look at the conclusions of the article and if they sound right, the reviewer passes the article with just a few desultory comments.

There are some reviewers who put up detailed and apposite comments but their comments often betray an ignorance of the previous research on the subject. They may know some recent reports but not the deep background to the field.  For that reason I always tried to supply the deep background in my articles and that did seem to pay off in that about half of my articles got accepted on the first submission.

Many of the articles that were rejected were ones where reviewers seemed not to be interested in either the previous research or my findings, apparently because my conclusions were uncongenial to them

Articles that went strongly against the consensus certainly got much more negative treatment than ones that did not rock the boat

After studying the popular practice of peer review of scientific journal articles for several years, I have reluctantly concluded that peer review is bad for science. While the practice has its good side, there are several ways that it greatly impedes progress, and the bad greatly outweighs the good.

To begin with, let’s look at what peer review tries to do. The obvious thing is to block the publication of fake science. However this appears to be a rare event in most sciences. There are several million journal articles published each year, all peer reviewed, typically by two or three reviewers. Clearly these many millions of reviews did not keep any of these myriad articles from being published.

Paradoxically, however, most of these articles were in fact rejected based on peer review; many were rejected many times. Top journals often boast of having high rejection rates, like 80% or so. If this is the general practice then the average article must be submitted to something like five journals before it is accepted and published. If each submission is peer reviewed then that is a lot of reviews per article, perhaps ten to fifteen on average.

Given that all of these multiply rejected articles eventually get published, something other than simple gate keeping must be going on. This something looks to be an extremely laborious sorting process, whereby each article eventually finds the “right” journal. It is hard to see any value being added by these many millions of peer reviews. Given modern search technologies, which journal an article ultimately appears in no longer seems very important.

One negative aspect of peer review is well known. This is where gate keeping keeps great new ideas from being published. Max Planck, who discovered the quantum nature of energy, put it very nicely, saying something like “Your ideas will (only) be accepted when your students become journal editors.” This is the dark side of peer review blocking science, the novel good ideas get blocked as bad ideas.

But there are several other bad things that flow from peer review that I have not seen mentioned. These down sides are features of the incredibly time consuming and laborious nature of the practice.

First there is the huge time delay between the time a paper is written and when it is finally published. Let’s say that peer review takes four months, which is probably pretty fast. If the average paper is reviewed five times then that is almost two years of reviews before it is finally accepted. (Also, there are many other steps between these reviews, so the average might be more like four years from first submission to final publication.)

If two million papers are published each year, with an average delay of say two years each, due to peer review, that is an accumulation of four million years of delay every year. It is reasonable to believe that eliminating this vast tide of delay would dramatically speed up the progress of science.

Then there is the cost. Organizing and managing the peer review process is probably the greatest expense that journal publishers face. Keep in mind that given an 80% rejection rate, something like five articles will be reviewed for every one published. At three reviews each that means fifteen reviews per published articles.

The high cost of journals and articles is a major obstacle to access by all but the richest universities and researchers. This to probably greatly impedes the progress of science.

Then there is the huge amount of time that researchers spend reviewing each other’s articles. Reviews are expected to be comprehensive, so they probably take from 10 to 20 hours each, maybe more. If there are fifteen reviews per article published that is 150 to 300 hours of review time.

Multiply that by 2 million articles published and we get an incredible 300 to 600 million hours a year devoted to reviewing, rather that to research. Assuming that a work year is 2000 hours, this is like taking 150 to 300 thousand researchers off the job, just to peer review each other’s papers. Think of what that amount of research might create. Again, this is a huge loss to the progress of science.

Conclusion: Peer review adds an enormous amount of delay, cost and distraction to the process of science. It does not do enough good to justify these huge adverse impacts on the rate of scientific progress. Thus on balance peer review is bad for science.


Environmental Facts vs. Environmental "Fact-Checkers"

Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia, and Tom Steyer, who ran for president of the United States, are now trying to run me out of town. Abrams, Steyer, and the leaders of 17 large environmental lobbies recently asked Facebook to ban a research group that I direct - the CO2 Coalition, made up of 55 climate scientists and energy economists.

The annual budgets of these lobbies total over half a billion dollars, and Steyer alone is worth $1.6 billion. Their alarmist view of our supposedly impending environmental doom predominates in mainstream media, centering on the impact on the earth of emissions of carbon dioxide - a non-polluting, mild warming gas, and an important source of plant and plankton food.

By contrast, the CO2 Coalition's annual budget is half a million dollars. Like all scientists and economists who ask for any proof of the looming apocalypse, we are excluded from mainstream-media discussion. You might wonder: how did the Steyer-Abrams crowd even notice us, let alone conclude that we posed a threat to their enforced consensus, which calls for an end to the affordable, reliable energy that powers over 80 percent of the world?

The answer is found in the work of a Silicon Valley computer entrepreneur named Eric Michelman, who became fabulously wealthy creating a modification of the computer mouse. For more than a decade now, Michelman has devoted his wealth to squelching media debate on climate change - a successful dry run for the cancel culture that we see engulfing many other issues today. 

In 2016, Michelman was the founding and lead funder of a group called Climate Feedback, whose purpose is to "fact-check" and label as "false" any and all deviant thoughts about fossil-fueled climate catastrophe. The group has been certified as an unbiased source on climate issues by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which was founded by the Tampa Bay Times and operates the left-leaning PolitiFact. At some point, Facebook turned its censorship oversight over to the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network.

That's when our organization's problems started.

In September 2019, a "false" label appeared on Facebook when the Washington Examiner posted an article I had written there with Dr. Patrick Michaels, our senior fellow and a former president of the American Association of State Climatologists. The op-ed described the poor performance of climate models that had projected alarming increases in future temperatures. The "false" label triggered a wave of censorship from Facebook's algorithms, blocking reposting and advertising.

The detailed, scientifically referenced letter we wrote to Facebook that soon got the label reversed is almost identical in form and argument to responses this summer to similar Climate Feedback censorship written by environmental writer Michael Shellenberger, Dr. Michaels (after a televised appearance on Fox's Life, Liberty, and Levin), and climate statistician Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. All of us agree: Climate Feedback is biased, sloppy, and often just flat wrong. For example, in its "fact-checks," the group blatantly contradicts the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's finding that there has been no statistically significant increase in rates of sea-level rise, hurricanes, droughts, and floods during the carbon emissions era that began with the dramatic industrialization after World War II.

Climate Feedback is Michelman's third major attempt at promoting climate alarmism and silencing opposing views. First came the Climate Change Education Project, in 2008, followed by the More than Scientists campaign in 2015. When he set up that campaign, Michelman said:

It's about showing the science is settled. Studies consistently show that 97 percent of scientists agree. We want the public to both hear from them that, yeah, this is settled, but also see scientists for who they are. They're our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and community members. They're people with kids, and they're worried about the future. When they say, "I'm concerned about climate change and I think we need to act on it," you can understand they're saying it because they have kids just like you do.

Since Michelman had decided that the science was settled in favor of a 97 percent consensus on catastrophe before he even founded Climate Feedback, his group should never have been let into a network of "unbiased" reviewers. And its performance shows why.

I'm all for debating with Climate Feedback. For 15 years as a professor at American University, I invited to my classes on climate statistics and mathematical modeling many of the groups whose leaders signed the recent letter to Facebook calling for us to be banned. But there was no response because the cancel culture doesn't believe in debate. It believes in silencing its opponents by denying them a platform. We'll hold on as long as we can. I believe that the truth will out-even against "fact-checkers." 


Under President Trump, Americans are breathing cleaner air

Andrew Wheeler

Poor air quality was one of the main motivations for creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, when six of the most common air pollutants – carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide – known as "criteria" pollutants, were often at dangerous levels for public health in many cities.

When the president called me in 2018 and asked me to take over at EPA, he told me to continue to clean up the air and to push through deregulatory actions because he knew that we could do both at the same time.

And we have done just that.

Under President Trump’s leadership, EPA is announcing that combined emissions of criteria pollutants, which can harm public health and the environment, and their precursors have dropped 7% from 2017 to 2019.

Our latest air progress report shows a remarkable decrease in air pollution – both over the past three years and in the past half-century. This data shows conclusively that the U.S. can continue to have world-leading air emission reductions for our citizens alongside economic growth.

Since 1970, the combined emissions of the six criteria air pollutants and their precursor pollutants have dropped an incredible 77%, while the United States GDP grew 285%. In other words, today’s air is 77% cleaner than it was in 1970, which provides immense benefits to all Americans.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA established National Ambient Air Quality Standards for each of the six criteria air pollutants in order to protect human health. Areas of the country that meet these standards are considered to be in "attainment" of those standards; areas that do not are designated as being in "non-attainment." In addition to the human health and welfare implications of failing to meet the standards, there are economic implications as well, making redesignation a goal that addresses many problems at once.

The core of our nation’s air quality success has been due to true partnership with our states. Since the beginning of 2017, 21 areas in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have moved from non-attainment to attainment, easing lending and permitting restrictions for hundreds or even thousands of local businesses. These cleaner areas include places as large as Chicago and Indianapolis and as small as Williamson County, Illinois and Fulton County, Ohio. Another eight areas are likely to move into attainment in the next 12 months.

Achieving attainment means lower sulfur, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone and lead emissions for millions of people across the Great Lakes region. This is especially important for children, whose lungs are still developing, and those who suffer from respiratory conditions like chronic bronchitis and asthma – many of the same conditions that make COVID-19 viral infections more dangerous.

Since 2000, concentrations of fine particulate matter, which is sometimes referred to as PM2.5 or soot, have dropped by roughly 40%. A great deal of this progress has taken place in low-income communities and neighborhoods across this country. Average United States fine particulate matter levels are five times below the global average, seven times below China’s levels, and well below France, Germany, Mexico, and Russia.

Even after such significant progress, we are not resting on our laurels. EPA is developing a new standard for heavy-duty trucks, referred to as the Cleaner Trucks Initiative. This rule will further reduce NOx emissions from heavy-duty trucks by working closely with states and the private sector. This action will be key to helping many remaining nonattainment areas reach attainment in the coming decade.

Consistent with my goal of increasing the public’s access to information, EPA updated and relaunched our air quality website – AirNow.gov – last month. Our improved website reports real-time air quality using the official United States Air Quality Index, which tells the public how clean or polluted the air is, and steps they can take to reduce their exposure to pollution.

AirNow.gov will keep the American public better informed of real-time air quality conditions at the local, state, national and international levels.

As EPA’s 50th anniversary approaches this December, we can take pride that Americans now have significantly cleaner air, land and water than in the past. The Trump Administration is proving that environmental protection and economic prosperity can go hand-in-hand.

With the safe, responsible reopening of our economy underway, our country has already proved that building a strong economy can be achieved alongside meaningful environmental progress. With President Trump’s continued prioritization of clean air, EPA will ensure this progress continues.


Reform for Australia’s environment laws

Some rationalization

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley will prioritise the development of new national environmental standards, further streamlining approval processes with State governments and national engagement on indigenous cultural heritage, following the release of an interim report into Australia’s environmental laws.

Professor Graeme Samuel’s interim report established that the existing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 has become cumbersome and does not serve the interests of the environment or business.

“Not surprisingly, the statutory review is finding that 20-year-old legislation is struggling to meet the changing needs of the environment, agriculture, community planners and business,” Minister Ley said.

“This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of every-day Australians. We can do both as part of the Australian Government’s COVID recovery plan.

The Commonwealth will commit to the following priority areas on the basis of the interim report:

Develop Commonwealth led national environmental standards which will underpin new bilateral agreements with State Governments.

Commence discussions with willing states to enter agreements for single touch approvals (removing duplication by accrediting states to carry out environmental assessments and approvals on the Commonwealth’s behalf).

Commence a national engagement process for modernising the protection of indigenous cultural heritage, commencing with a round table meeting of state indigenous and environment ministers. This will be jointly chaired by Minister Ley and the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.

Explore market based solutions for better habitat restoration that will significantly improve environmental outcomes while providing greater certainty for business. The Minister will establish an environmental markets expert advisory group.

In line with the interim report findings, the Commonwealth will maintain its existing framework for regulating greenhouse gas and other emissions, and would not propose any expansion of the EPBC Act in this area.

The Commonwealth will take steps to strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with States and Territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring. It will not, however, support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator.

The report raises a range of other issues and reform directions. Further consultation will be undertaken regarding these.

“I thank Professor Samuel for his work and for his very clear message that we need to act,” Minister Ley said.

“As he works towards his final report, we will monitor its progress closely, while we continue to improve existing processes as much as possible.

“It is time to find a way past an adversarial approach and work together to create genuine reform that will protect our environment, while keeping our economy strong.”



For more postings from me, see  DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC and AUSTRALIAN POLITICS. Home Pages are   here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here.  

Preserving the graphics:  Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere.  But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases.  After that they no longer come up.  From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site.  See  here or here


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