Response to Willie Soon: How can we legitimize scientific consensus?

Over the weekend, news broke that a skeptical climate scientist, Wei-Hock Soon, has accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry while neglecting to disclose those interests in his papers.

What particularly struck me about this piece was a quote from Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes: “The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate… Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.” The story of Wei-Hock Soon speaks to a broader problem: that the illusion of scientific debate can be crafted and manipulated, then used in the political arena.

It’s a problem that bridges two scales: individual studies vs. governing consensus. Individual studies often hold disproportionate weight in creating the illusion of scientific debate. The media and general public love single studies, particularly ones that are surprising or go against the grain. Specifics are powerful. A new finding is news, a growing body of evidence towards a general idea is not.

Of course, all science is an iterative process of back and forth. Theories as big as evolution and general relativity cannot be said to be certain. There is always open room for dissent — and often dissent is productive, begetting new strains of thinking. But there are scientific ideas — like anthropogenic climate change — backed by a large consensus, and that consensus should hold a certain amount of weight when a single critic speaks up against the grain.

Scientists like Dr. Soon poke holes in the consensus. They serve as talking heads that politicians can use to further broader agendas. These scientists take advantage of the fact that science is never a closed book. They play off the public’s perception that science is too complicated to be understood or questioned. Scientists can intimidate non-scientists in a way that makes non-scientists feel unentitled to ask for lucid explanations. “Just take my word for it, it’s complicated,” is the message.

To combat this, we should find ways to better consolidate and legitimize consensus, then stack consensus up directly against individual studies. How can we give a platform to voices that contextualize individual studies? One option is post-publication peer review, a topic that my friend Wudan Yan recently reported on for Hippo Reads, a publication between academia and lay audiences.

As more of the scientific publication process migrates on-line, post-publication peer review and other methods for scientific dialogue are beginning to emerge as a powerful tools. More journals are providing on-line platforms for experts in a field to comment on or respond to an individual study. I recently wrote about one example, an on-line debate over studies on the origins of mysterious fairy circles in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. The same journal published the original article, then a critical response, and then a rebuttal from the original authors again.

Options like post-publication peer review are promising because they provide the opportunity for more conversation and transparency. Contextualizing individual studies has a lot of potential for increasing scientific literacy. Accessible post-publication peer review platforms could empower journalists, general audiences and even other scientists to think more critically and holistically about individual studies as they come out. Let’s envision this as creatively as we’d like. “Something like a Yelp for science papers?” my professor suggested. It’s not an outrageous idea. After all, there already exists a Twitter for science papers.

Image: Pixabay / User geralt

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