On Dec. 10, Randy Schekman, a UC Berkeley professor, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The day before, he published an op-ed in London’s Guardian, titled “How journals like Nature, Cell, and Science are damaging science,” in which he announced that he will henceforth refuse to send manuscripts for peer-reviewed consideration to these prestigious science journals.
Schekman’s accusation is that these journals are distorting science by being biased towards the “flashiest” research, i.e. papers that generate headlines such as “Global Warming Will Kill Billions, Scientist Finds,” rather than the best research.
Do science journals’ propensity for flashy research result in biased research?
This matters more than one might think, because governments and universities disproportionately make their award and funding decisions based on the research published in the prestige journals.
So, if Science and Nature differentially publish flashy research, and publishing there will deliver funding and tenure, scientists are naturally going to gravitate toward trendy topics and produce flashy research. It’s a cycle that perpetuates Armageddon-style headlines that compel politicians to disburse more money, for more research, ultimately buying a beach house for the doom-saying scientists.
This leads to the question: do the journals’ propensity for flashy research result in biased research?
Unfortunately, yes; especially when it comes to climate science.
Just take a look at Science’s “Perspectives” pieces, which are really opinion pieces posing as literature reviews. Despite the fact that global warming has been prominent for about 25 years now, Science has yet to publish one Perspectives piece summarizing the body of refereed science indicating that far too much warming may have been predicted.
That should not be the case, because every new forecast of climate change should have an equal probability of producing a more or less dire result. That’s what happens with weather forecast models as new information comes in. Once it has been established that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide should raise surface temperature a certain amount, each new piece of information should either raise or lower the forecast.
But scientists aren’t incentivized to look under the less-flashy rock. In fact, they threaten their own well-being if they do.
If scientists aren’t doing their due diligence, is Schekman right that the journals aren’t doing theirs either? It’s easy to find out. I reviewed 13 months of both Science and Nature, and sorted every article or story about climate change or its impact into three piles: worse, better, or neutral compared with previous studies.
Of the 115 entries, 23 made the “neutral” pile, 83 were in the “worse” stack, and nine were in the “better.” The probability of the journals not having a bias is as likely as a coin being flipped 92 times and showing heads or tails fewer than nine times.
The number is: 100,000,000,000,000,000.
You can look this up in a binomial probability table, which shows the average number of times you have to flip a coin 92 times to get this result.
The obvious “publication bias” by these two journals is very troubling, because the resultant public funding and tenure could have some pretty nasty consequences.
This creates horrific effects, especially when the issues are policy-related. Summaries of the scientific literature are used to guide policymakers, but if the published research is biased, then so must be the summaries; leaving policymakers no option — not being scientists themselves — but to embrace what is inevitably touted as “the best science.”
Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth “Scientific Assessment” of climate change, which is, in effect, a massive literature review. Since the most prestigious journals carry the most weight, the literature that is reviewed is itself biased. The result? Even the most accurate and comprehensive review must create a biased picture.
The result is very bad policy: cap-and-trade schemes, carbon taxes, and ugly windmill and solar arrays that produce little power but appeal to the politician’s need to “do something.” All ultimately driven by scientists behaving rationally, but badly.