Archive | Politicizing Science

Was a Scientific Journal Canned for Disagreeing with the IPCC?

Copernicus Publications, “the innovative open access publisher,” recently announced it was terminating one of its journals, Pattern Recognition in Physics due to concerns about the journal’s editorial practices.  PRP was not even one year old.  It seems the problems began when the journal’s editors agreed to a special issue on “Pattern in solar variability, their planetary origin and terrestrial impacts,” in which the issue’s editors had the temerity to “doubt the continued, even accelerated, warming as claimed by the IPCC project.”[*]According to the original explanation offered by Martin Rasmussen of Copernicus Publications, as reported by JoNova, the expression of this conclusion was a motivating factor for the “drastic decision” to terminate a journal. A letter to one of the editors also expressed “alarm” that a paper in PRP would question the IPCC.

If Copernicus indeed shuttered a journal because of disagreement with the conclusions expressed in a published paper, it would be quite shameful.  But is that what happened? In a revised statement, Rasmussen notes “the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis, which we regard as malpractice in scientific publishing and not in accordance with our publication ethics we expect to be followed by the editors.” Whatever the merits of the papers at issue (and even some climate skeptics were unimpressed), it appears that PRP did violate accepted peer review norms in producing the special issue — as Anthony Watts details here — and concerns were raised about the journal last year.  So it appears Copernicus did have sufficient grounds to reconsider its production of PRP.  Given the wording of Rasmussen’s initial statement, however, questions remain about what prompted the publisher’s decision.

[* The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-sponsored, intergovernmental entity that produces periodic reports on climate change.]

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Mann v. Steyn Mulligan

On December 19, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals effectively erased Michael Mann’s initial court victory in his defamation lawsuit against Mark Steyn, National Review, Rand Simberg and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Here’s how Mark Steyn pithily summarizes the developments:

1. Dr Michael Mann’s lawyer, John Williams, filed a fraudulent complaint falsely representing his client as a Nobel Laureate, and accusing us of the hitherto unknown crime of defaming a Nobel Laureate.
2. After Charles C W Cooke and others exposed Dr Mann’s serial misrepresentation of himself as a Nobel Prize winner, Mann’s counsel decided to file an amended complaint with the Nobel falsehood removed.
3. Among her many staggering incompetences, DC Superior Court judge Natalia Combs-Greene then denied NR’s motion to dismiss the fraudulent complaint while simultaneously permitting Mann’s lawyers to file an amended complaint.
4. The appellate judges have now tossed out anything relating to Mann’s original fraudulent complaint, including Judge Combs-Greene’s unbelievably careless ruling in which the obtuse jurist managed to confuse the defendants, and her subsequent ruling in which she chose to double-down on her own stupidity. Anything with Combs-Greene’s name on it has now been flushed down the toilet of history.
5. So everyone is starting afresh with a new judge, a new complaint from the plaintiff, and new motions to dismiss from the defendants. That’s the good news.
6. The bad news is that Mann’s misrepresentation of himself as a Nobel Laureate and Combs-Greene’s inept management of her case means that all parties have racked up significant six-figure sums just to get back to square one. In a real courthouse – in London, Toronto, Dublin, Singapore, Sydney – Dr Mann would be on the hook for what he has cost all the parties through his fraudulent complaint. But, this being quite the

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Study Linking GMOs to Tumors in Rats Retracted

In September 2012, Food & Chemical Toxicology published a peer-reviewed study purporting to show that rats fed genetically modified corn had a higher incidence of tumors than those that were not.  This was significant, as this study was the first to find evidence of an adverse health effect in any mammal species from the consumption of GM foods.  The study immediately faced a wave of criticism from scientists and experts in the field, who noted the paper’s many methodological failings.  In response to such criticism, Food & Chemical Toxicology retracted the paper on November 28, after the paper’s authors refused to withdraw it on their own. The authors are now threatening suit against the journal, and anti-GMO activists are organizing a boycott, but the editors are standing their ground.

UPDATE: Hoisted from the comments, here’s more from Ars Technicaand an early critique of the study at Respectful Insolence. [...]

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Mann v. Steyn — Mann Wins Round One

Last year, the noted (and controversial) climate scientist Michael Mann sued National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress for blog posts written by Mark Steyn and Rand Simberg and posted on National Review Online and CEI’s OpenMarket blog, respectively.  I blogged about the case in these four posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.  Because the suit was filed in D.C. Superior Court, it was subject to D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute, which is designed to discourage nuisance defamation suits.  Accordingly, the defendants filed motions to dismiss the complaint.  On July 19, Judge Natalia Combs-Greene of the D.C. Superior Court denied these motions.  Barring a reconsideration or interlocutory review, this case could head to trial.

In her two orders (NRO/Steyn, CEI/Simberg), Judge Combs-Greene characterizes the this as a “close case.”  She recognizes Mann qualifies as a “public figure,” at least in the context of climate policy debates.  This requires that Mann show that the allegedly defamatory comments were made with actual malice — i.e. actual knowledge that the allegdly defamatory claims were false or reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the claims made.  Despite this high burden, Judge Combs-Greene ruled against the defendants on their motion to dismiss. In her view, both sets of defendants made statements that alleged or implied facts that could be defamatory or otherwise actionable, e.g. that Mann engaged in fraud or other disreputable conduct. She further concluded that, despite the “slight” evidence of actual malice “at this stage” of the litigation, “[t]here is however sufficient evidence to demonstrate some malice or the knowledge that the statements were false or made with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were false.”  As discovery could produce sufficient evidence to support a claim of [...]

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Profile of Judge Ed Korman

The New York Times has a nice profile of Judge Ed Korman, the judge who faced down HHS in the Plan B case. See Jonathan Adler’s posts, here, here, here, and here. Whatever one thinks of the merits, it takes great fortitude for a district judge to stand up to a recalcitrant administration. As for Judge Korman’s judicial philosophy: “I basically share Bork’s view that the Constitution should be interpreted based on the understanding of the framers of Constitution.” Korman is a first-rate judge. [...]

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Obama Administration Drops Plan B Appeal

Yesterday the Obama Administration announced it would drop its appeal of a district court ruling ordering the Food and Drug Administration to make Plan B contraception available over-the-counter to women and girls of all ages.  According to the FDA, the pill will become available as soon as the manufacturer submits an application for OTC sales without sales restrictions. [...]

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“Judge Rips Obama’s Right-Wing Plan B Stance”

Salon has an interesting report on Tuesday’s court hearing before federal district judge Edward Korman in which the Administration sought to defend its newly announced policy of limiting the over-the-counter availability of Plan-B contraception  to females 15 and older instead of removing all restrictions as Korman had previously ordered.  A taste:

This morning, Korman repeatedly slammed his hand down on the table for emphasis, interrupting the government counsel’s every other sentence with assertions like, “You’re just playing games here,” “You’re making an intellectually dishonest argument,” “You’re basically lying,” “This whole thing is a charade,” “I’m entitled to say this is a lot of nonsense, am I not?” and “Contrary to the baloney you were giving me …” He also accused the administration of hypocrisy for opposing voter ID laws but being engaged in the “suppression of the rights of women” with the ID requirement for the drug.

The Administration is also appealing Korman’s order. [...]

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The FDA’s Two-Track Response to Plan-B Ruling

Last month, a federal district court rejected the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision not to allow the sale of Plan-B contraception over-the-counter to females under 17. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded. On Wednesday, the FDA announced it would allow Plan-B to be sold over-the-counter to females 15 and older. Then on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it would appeal the district court’s ruling overturning the prior policy. The Justice Department claims the appeal is necessary to defend the integrity of the FDA’s drug approval process, and the agency’s ability to base its decisions on expert “scientific judgments.” Yet as Ronald Bailey notes, the whole reason the Administration’s Plan-B rules ended up in court in the first place was that political officials overruled the FDA’s expert judgment. Further, as I noted here, drug approval decisions necessarily involve policy considerations, and cannot be resolved by science alone. [...]

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Judge Orders FDA to Make Plan B Contraception Available Over-the-Counter Without Age Restrictions

This morning, a federal district court judge overturned the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to maintain limits on access to Plan B contraception by girls under the age of 17.  As I noted here, the Food and Drug Administration had initially decided to grant a petition urging a removal of the age restrictions but was overruled by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  Today’s decision overrules the Secretary’s decision on the grounds that it was “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable,” and the judge accuses HHS of “bad faith” and “intolerable” delays in considering the initial petition that prompted this litigation. The opinion is here and a related order is here.  The opinion’s conclusion summarizes the case as follows:

The decisions of the Secretary with respect to Plan B One-Step and that of the FDA with respect to the Citizen Petition, which it had no choice but to deny, were arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. I decline to direct a remedy comparable to that which I directed in my 2009 opinion, such as directing that emergency contraception be made available without a prescription  but with the current point-of-sale restrictions to women whom studies have demonstrated are capable of understanding the label and using the product appropriately. As I have previously observed, the obstructions in the path of those adolescents in obtaining levonorgestrel-based emergency contraceptives under the current behind-the-counter regime have the practical effect of making the contraceptives unavailable without a doctor’s prescription. Consequently, the decision of the FDA denying the Citizen Petition is reversed, and the case is remanded to the FDA with the instruction to grant the Citizen Petition and make levonorgestrel-based emergency contraceptives available without a prescription and without point-of-sale or age restrictions within thirty days. On remand, the FDA may determine whether any new labeling is reasonably necessary.

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The “Marcott Mess”

A recent paper in Science  reconstructing climate records for the Holocene received substantial media attention because it showed a gradual cooling for several thousand years followed by a dramatic uptick in temperature in the past 100 years. This uptick seemed to replicate the blade of Michael Mann’s “hockey stick,” and was highlighted in media reports on the study.  Not so fast.  In response to questions about the study’s methodology, one of the study’s authors has acknowledged that the study’s conclusions with regard to the past 100 years are not reliable.  In a “Q&A” posted on the RealClimate blog, Harvard’s Jeremy Shakun says: “the 20th century portion of our paleotemperature stack is not statistically robust, cannot be considered representative of global temperature changes.”  In other words, the study may tell us something about the Holocene, but it doesn’t tell us much of anything about the past 100 years.  But then why didn’t the press release about the study or any of the news reports on the study say so? Why didn’t the authors clarify this point with reporters until now? Roger Pielke Jr. discusses why this is important. More from Andrew Revkin here.

No, this does not show that climate change is a scientific fraud.  What it does show, however, is that some are willing to “sex up” climate science findings to feed sensational media coverage, and end up undermining confidence in climate science.  Given that there is still much we do not know about climate change — including why mean global temperature has been flat for the past ten years — undermining confidence in climate science can (further) undermine its ability to inform policy.  Climate science has taken some significant hits in the past few years.  It doesn’t need any more. [...]

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Science, Political Ignorance, and Deference to “Authoritative” Experts

Economist David Friedman has an insightful post on the problems inherent in deferring to the views of “authoritative” scientific bodies:

A pattern I have observed in a variety of public controversies is the attempt to establish some sort of official scientific truth, as proclaimed by a suitable authority—a committee of the National Academy of Science, the Center for Disease Control, or the equivalent. It is, in my view, a mistake, one based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. Truth is not established by an authoritative committee but by a decentralized process which (sometimes) results in everyone or almost everyone in the field agreeing.

Part of the problem with that approach is that, the more often it is followed, the less well it will work….

The first time it might work, although even then there is the risk that the committee established to give judgement will end up dominated not by the most expert but by the most partisan. But the more times the process is repeated, the greater the incentive of people who want their views to get authoritative support to get themselves or their friends positions of influence within the organization, to keep those they disapprove of out of such positions, and so to divert it from its original purpose to becoming a rubber stamp for their views. The result is to subvert both the organization and the scientific enterprise, especially if support by official truth becomes an important determinant of research funding.

I. The Dangers of Deference to Biased Experts.

Friedman makes two important points here. Scientific truth cannot be established by the endorsement of an authoritative body such as the NAS or the CDC. And if people start to take the pronouncements of such expert bodies as gospel, there is an obvious potential for abuse. [...]

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Is the Climate Less Sensitive than We Thought?

At DotEarth, Andrew Revkin summarizes recent research that is leading to some to conclude that the climate is less sensitive to greenhouse forcing than previously thought.  He writes:

on one critically important metric — how hot the planet will get from a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of greenhouse gases, a k a “climate sensitivity” — some climate researchers with substantial publication records are shifting toward the lower end of the warming spectrum.

There’s still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a “benign” situation, as some have cast it.

But while plenty of other climate scientists hold firm to the idea that the full range of possible outcomes, including a disruptively dangerous warming of more than 4.5 degrees C. (8 degrees F.), remain in play, it’s getting harder to see why the high-end projections are given much weight. . . .

The reason it’s worth working to clarify what’s going on is that a lower climate sensitivity could substantially expand the timescale on which decarbonization of humanity’s energy menu would need to take place to blunt climate change. This could raise the odds of a Thornton Wilder ending to our “large-scale geophysical experiment.”

This does not mean we should stop worrying about global warming.  As I’ve noted before, even if a doubling of carbon-dioxide-equivalent will produce warming at the low end of conventional projections, it is still a serious concern (even from a libertarian perspective).  But it’s also important to get the science right, and not base policy on exaggerated fears or implausible scenarios.  And more importantly, given the enormous difficulty of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in the near-to-medium term, it would be good news if the rate and [...]

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Exaggerating Species Extinction – The Sequel

In 2011 I noted a report in Nature suggesting that species extinction rates have been overestimated. A new report in Science has similar implications, suggesting that fears many species will go extinct before they are even discovered are overblown. Specifically, the study suggests many common estimates exaggerate the likely number of species and presume greater extinction rates than can be verified. The abstract for the new study, “Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct?” reads:

Some people despair that most species will go extinct before they are discovered. However, such worries result from overestimates of how many species may exist, beliefs that the expertise to describe species is decreasing, and alarmist estimates of extinction rates. We argue that the number of species on Earth today is 5 ± 3 million, of which 1.5 million are named. New databases show that there are more taxonomists describing species than ever before, and their number is increasing faster than the rate of species description. Conservation efforts and species survival in secondary habitats are at least delaying extinctions. Extinction rates are, however, poorly quantified, ranging from 0.01 to 1% (at most 5%) per decade. We propose practical actions to improve taxonomic productivity and associated understanding and conservation of biodiversity.

The study itself is behind a paywall, but Science Daily has more here. (Hat tip: Ronald Bailey)

That global species extinction rates may have been exaggerated does not mean that extinction and biodiversity loss are not serious problems. I believe they are. While I am unconvinced by the arguments that a loss of biodiversity threatens humanity — largely because the available empirical evidence suggests otherwise — I believe that species extinctions impoverish the world in which we live, and support efforts to protect biodiversity, so long as they are suitably protective [...]

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Did White House Suppress Science on GMO Salmon?

Jon Entine details the evidence that the White House forced the Food & Drug Administration to sit on a scientific assessment concluding that approval of a genetically modified salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies would have “no significant impact” on the environment. After Slate published an investigative report, the FDA quietly released assessment last Friday, over six months after it had been completed.

The seven month delay, sources within the government say, came after discussions late last spring between Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’ office and officials linked to Valerie Jarrett at the Executive Office, who were debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon. Genetically modified plants and animals are controversial among the president’s political base, which was thought critical to his reelection efforts during a low point in the president’s popularity. . . .

The hurried release of the Environmental Assessment last Friday capped a frenzied two days behind the scenes at the White House and FDA. Within hours after the Slate article and leaked document were posted, an administration official notified the FDA that the administration was dropping its indefinite hold. “The White House had no place to hide,” said a government source. The “final” draft environmental assessment is identical to the document leaked to the GLP, but is dated May 4—two weeks later. . . .

According to sources, the White House political block—a direct violation of numerous ethics regulations and possibly of federal laws—was instituted over the objections of scientists at the FDA, but with the awareness of HHS Secretary Sibelius, her senior adviser Andrea Palm and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and its director John Holdren, who is responsible for enforcing “science integrity” across government agencies. . . .

FDA scientists and staffers say they were instructed not to

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