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From blog to Science

Filed under: — gavin @ 13 February 2011

There is a lot of talk around about why science isn’t being done on blogs. It can happen though, and sometimes blog posts can even end up as (part of) a real Science paper. However, the process is non-trivial and the relatively small number of examples of such a transition demonstrate clearly why blog science is not going to replace the peer-reviewed literature any time soon.

Way back in April 2005, I wrote a post on RC on the role of water vapour in the greenhouse effect and why it is considered a feedback and not a forcing in the IPCC sense. It was a basic enough exposition, and in lieu of finding a comprehensive paper on the components of the atmospheric greenhouse effect, I did a few very simple (even simplistic) GCM experiments to show what I was talking about. The bottom line was that CO2 was indeed an important contributor to the present day greenhouse effect, and depending on how you calculated the percentage, could account for between 9 and 26% of the effect.

This proved useful, and soon the page was being quoted quite widely. But the calculations were not very sophisticated and I started to be concerned that they were being given more credibility than they deserved – not that they were necessarily wrong (they weren’t), but because a blog post doesn’t give enough context. For instance, some people incorrectly thought that the range 9-26% was the uncertainty in the calculation, rather than two different conceptual estimates. So I started to look for ‘proper’ references for these kinds of calculations.

I had already seen a few papers that calculated the importance of water vapour, CO2 and clouds for a one-dimensional standard ‘profile’ (Ramanathan and Coakley, 1978 for instance), and I was pointed to a section in Kiehl and Trenberth (1997) that turns out to be the most useful reference. They too had used a single ‘typical’ profile. Both of these references (and a few others – like Ray Pierrehumbert’s 2007 paper which used the NCEP global distribution of water vapour and temperature) generally calculated the importance of CO2 in one of two ways – either by looking at what happened when you removed CO2, or by looking at what happened when only CO2 was operating (though rarely both) (because of the spectral overlaps between the different absorbers, the second number is always larger than the first). Invariably, the treatment of clouds was highly simplified or neglected.

What I didn’t find was any justification in the literature for the most widely quoted ‘contrarian’ view of the issue that CO2 was ‘only 2%’ of the effect. I traced this back to a book review that Lindzen wrote about the first IPCC report, but never found any actual reasoning in support of this.

So in putting together a real paper there were a number of necessary steps that went beyond what was appropriate for a blog post. First, the previous literature had to be collated and their results reported in a consistent way. Second, there were a number of differences between the more serious calculations done for the paper and the calculations done casually for the blog. We used a longer period of time (a full annual cycle rather than a single time step) to avoid a bias towards a particular part of the year. Then we rechecked that the radiation code was still giving good results at very low CO2 levels…. and it turned out that it wasn’t – and so we needed to update the code via comparisons with a more complete line-by-line model so that all the tests we were doing were within the validated range of the radiative-transfer code. Finally, we did many more tests – more combinations, different baselines – to try and ensure that the results were robust.

When it came time to submit the paper, we first tried pitching it to BAMS as a popular science piece that would try and explain the concept and clear the air (so to speak). However, for various reasons this didn’t work out (two rounds of unsatisfying reviews). I’d say it was mainly due to the draft not really being pitched at the right level for BAMS. One amusing aspect of the process was that one of the referees initially suggested that our paper wasn’t necessary because it was common knowledge that the attribution to CO2 was between 9 and 26% (sound familiar?). As it turns out, they were reading a page from UCAR which was quoting (without attribution!) from my original blog post.

There was one other interesting (and highly critical) review which objected to the criticism of Lindzen’s 1991 comment, though it is perhaps worth noting that they considered the 1991 comment to be ‘formally incorrect’.

After a period in which I was a little tired of the whole exercise (it happens), we then submitted the paper to JGR, where it had an easier passage. At the same time, the simulations we had done for the paper were also used as part of a broader paper that Andy Lacis wanted to put together for Science. Both these papers appeared in October 2010 – some five years after the initial post, 3 and a half years after the first journal submission, 5 rewrites and 11 reviews.

So why bother to turn ideas from blog posts into real papers? Well, first off, you get to do a much more thorough job. You have the time and space to check multiple variations of the method, and you can take the time to do a proper literature review. And because you have put more effort into it, it is rightly seen as more credible. It’s worth noting that in our case the paper benefited from comments from all reviewers (even the very critical one) – language was tightened up, a broader literature search was done, concepts were clarified and many of the additional issues raised were dealt with.

In turn, the more credible work on the topic forms a stable point around which to craft a critique (if desired), and hopefully provides more of substance to critique (versus a series of blog posts that can be laced with distracting commentary, conceptual errors and moving targets).

To be clear, it is not only the reviews by peers that makes a peer-reviewed paper better than a blog post. Since it is known ahead of time that there is an effort required to get past the peer-review hurdle, the resulting work is usually more reflective, more interesting, more concise and more of a serious contribution – even before it gets to the editor.

Thus when scientists who find themselves criticised in the blogosphere quite often ask their critics to submit their points for peer-review, the point is not to dismiss a critique, but rather to encourage the critics to make the critique as well formulated and a propos as possible. This doesn’t always work of course, but is it nonetheless worthwhile. The alternative, especially for high profile issues, is to try and deal with a multi-headed hydra of critiques that range from the ill-informed to the excellent. Unfortunately, technical commentary does not work well at the ‘speed of blog’ and conversations often take a personal turn (which only rarely happens in the literature).

The many existing critiques of peer review as a system (for instance by Richard Smith, ex-editor of the BMJ, or here, or in the British Academy report), sometimes appear to assume that all papers arrive at the journals fully formed and appropriately written. They don’t. The mere existence of the peer review system elevates the quality of submissions, regardless of who the peer reviewers are or what their biases might be. The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line – you end up with a backwater of poorly presented and incoherent contributions that make no impact on the mainstream scientific literature or conversation. It simply isn’t worth wading through the dross in the hope of finding something interesting.

In the end of course, the science will win out. No single paper is ever the last word on an issue, and there are always new approaches to try and new data to assimilate. But the papers will endure long after the plug has been pulled on a blog. I certainly think that blogs can be of tremendous value in bringing up more context and dispelling the various mis-apprehensions that exist, but as a venue for actually doing science, they cannot replace the peer-reviewed paper – however painful that publishing process might be.

207 Responses to “From blog to Science

  1. 1
    Susann says:

    Thank you for this post and for the example of the route your paper took from blog to peer-reviewed literature. I think we can all see from recent events and comments around the climate blogs that there is a great deal of ignorance and misunderstanding — and misjudgement — on the part of the lay public about the whole peer review process.

  2. 2
    James Staples says:

    I was just wondering if, maybe, it might not be a sound idea to consider the possibility that water vapor could move from the ‘feedback’ category, to a – New! Improved! All NOT Natural! – ‘forced feedback’ category; for is it not true that, as our Industrial Processes heat ever more water and release ever more water vapor, while our Agricultural Practices pump ever more fossil water to the surface, both of these sources of water vapor constitute an “anthropogenic source” that is in addition to the “natural” water vapor that you’re calling a “feedback” mechanism, because of it’s self-reinforcing nature, and that this will eventually, at least, begin to also have a kind of “anthro-forcing” effect that, I’d assume, could already be showing up in upon your equations?
    I know you’ve been taking into account the problem of increasing methane releases due to the melting of permafrost and the possibility of Methane Hydrites decomposing as the oceans warm, but you didn’t seem to mention this possibility; which amkes me wish I had a reference to one or more of the articles (might have even been in “peer-reviewed” Science or Nature) that I’ve read in which this possibility was addressed.
    I mean, isn’t it at least a concern that, as the Oceanic Surface Layers warm, that that’ll be a ‘new’ source of additional water vapor; agaiun, causing a ‘forcing’ which the ‘feedback-loop’ effect that increasing water vapor produces will then amplify.

    [Response: Surface emissions of water vapour are too small and the perturbation lifetime too short to have any significant climate effect. There are potentially a couple of exceptions – water vapour emissions into the upper troposphere (by aircraft) and stratosphere (via anthropogenic methane oxidation) are just about important enough to think about. And at the surface, increased irrigation in continental areas may affect local evaporation/latent heat transfers to affect local climate. However, the change in specific humidity as a function of changing temperature is a far bigger effect than any of these. – gavin]

  3. 3
    raypierre says:

    Just to clarify one point in this post: my own calculation of the proportion of greenhouse effect due to water vapor, in the chapter Gavin cites, was not one of the ones that used a fixed idealized profile. I love idealized profiles, and one learns a lot from them, but that particular calculation used 3D NCEP climatology, both for water vapor and temperature, and then re-did the radiative calculation with water vapor removed and water vapor re-set to saturation. It is true, though, that that calculation did not incorporate the effect of clouds (the whole question becomes a bit fuzzy once you bring clouds into the picture, because clouds affect both the greenhouse effect and the planet’s albedo). It is also true that I didn’t separately show results for water vapor alone with the CO2 taken out. There is, as Gavin says, a bit of information in doing the calculation both ways, because of overlap in the absorption features of CO2 and water vapor.

    Gavin’s post also makes the important point that many of us have faced review processes more arduous and protracted than what O’Donnell had to deal with in his J. Climate paper on Antarctica. That is never fun; sometimes the process definitely improves the paper, sometimes it is a matter of dealing with what may seem (and sometimes are, but often not) pointless criticisms. But it is something that all of us in science have learned to deal with because there is no known process that does better than peer review. And I’ll add that protracted reviews and publication difficulties are not peculiar to things that originated in “blog science.” My struggle to get my 1990’s “radiator fin” paper published comes to mind, though sometimes I wish it didn’t.

  4. 4

    Though sometime blog efforts really can help push the science forward, there are some big differences between blogging and science. Robert Grumbine describes the former as “having a beer”:

  5. 5
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The effective top of the atmosphere for a given fraction of IR to escape to space must be getting higher all the time and hence cooler, until it warms up enough to radiate enough to reestablish thermal equilibrium. This must he handled inside the model, but can you make it explicit?

    [Response: For a grey gas, you can write it down in a page or two of algebra and explanatory text (see the discussion of the “All Troposphere model” in Chapter 4 of Principles of Planetary Climate). For a real gas, it takes a few hundred lines of Fortran code do do it in a computationally efficient manner, or a few dozen lines of Python code to do it in a more straightforward but less efficient manner. The latter is available in the Chapter 4 scripts at (see Is that explicit enough for you? –raypierre]

  6. 6
    Edward Greisch says:

    Would you say: “The peer review process forces the workaholics to work harder.”?

    Thanks very much for the links to downloadable papers.

  7. 7
    jacob l says:

    as someone who hasn’t published anything through peer review,
    do “open journals” like Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
    give a realistic view of how peer review should work?
    do you have any better examples?
    thanks for your time

  8. 8
    Septic Matthew says:

    I certainly think that blogs can be of tremendous value in bringing up more context and dispelling the various mis-apprehensions that exist,

    Yet your narration contains an instance illustrating Mark Twain’s observation that a lie can travel half-way around the earth before the truth has even gotten started. Not that your blogged figures constituted a “lie”, or even a poor approximation, but that they became well-known before the truth even got a start. You made a good case that blogging a new result (as opposed to blogging published results) is of very little value. Not that you made a “mistake” by blogging first, but next time you might feel “once burned, twice shy”, and not repeat what you did. I know from many hours of reading, more than I want to admit, this and other blogs (especially Curry’s blog which has become an encyclopedia of misinformation), and from my own mistakes, that this is an inefficient method of distributing and acquiring information.

    I appreciate the time taken by you and other moderators and bloggers, but after your narration, and after the recent all-blog Steig/O’Donnell debate, you really might want to reconsider ever posting original work on a blog first. FWIW. I know I can’t sound humble, but this is humbly submitted.

  9. 9
    Balazs says:

    I find many blogs rather useful even for my science. I regularly visit Judy Curry, the Pielkes (Sr and Jr) and What’s Up with That, beside RealClimate. Regardless if I agree with the postings, I often find interesting references to follow (many of them actually peer-reviewed). I agree, that blog entries are not “reference-able” in the scientific sense and they should not replace traditional peer-reviewed publications.
    An interesting mold of the blogs and peer review is what a number of EGU publication tries to follow. “Hydrology and Earth Sciences” (HESS) or Geoscientific Model Development (GMD) just to name two that I am aware has an online review system, which allows anybody to comment besides the invited reviewers. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any ad hoc comments yet, but this is not the fault the publisher but the readers (including myself) who did not take advantage of the offered opportunity. I like particularly the ability to point to papers while they are in review. I see so many times papers cited as “in print” or “in review” in proposals or papers that I review, when I am actually clueless, what is the content of the cited paper. HESS and GDM also seems to be a good step in terms of revising the peer-review process, since the review comments themselves are entirely public.

  10. 10
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Thank you. Another interesting read. I think I spotted a couple of typo’s:
    1. the first sentence repeats the word “isn’t”.
    2. “…calculated the importance of CO2 is one of two ways…” should be “…in one of two…”

  11. 11
    chris says:

    Blog-derived publication is fine, but it obviously needs to conform to norms of scientific integrity. One of the elements of “peer-review” that is not often remarked on is the “self-peer-review”; i.e. most successful publishing scientists are strongly self-critical and submit work that meets personal standards of quality – these are often implicit, but widely shared in the research community – i.e. you generally know when a piece of work is good and is ready for publication.

    There are some good examples of blog-based publication that come to mind. I remember Martin Vermeer published a nice paper on analyzing sea level rise with Stefan Rahmstorf; the Rabett Run group published a critique of something or other (can’t remember sorry!), and the O’Donnell paper on Antarctic temperature trends was actually a decent attempt to expand the Steig et al analysis, if only the authors had seen it in that vein and not used it as an opportunity for an appalling display of (contrived?) neurosis.

    But this stuff does need to go through peer-review and publication. Blog science might work as (often cheap and nasty) politics, and in a better light as education, but it doesn’t really work as science until it’s properly packaged. One would hope O’Donnell et al might look back upon their paper at some time in the future and think “I’m quite proud of that”, and of course, as the post-publication peer-review process runs its course the paper will live or die according to its scientific value, while all the lemony-mouth hissy-fits associated with its blog existence will be long forgotten.

  12. 12
    Balazs says:

    In response to post#10 from Septic Mathew:

    “I know from many hours of reading, more than I want to admit, this and other blogs (especially Curry’s blog which has become an encyclopedia of misinformation), and from my own mistakes, that this is an inefficient method of distributing and acquiring information.”

    Unfortunately, that is the nature of the moder information age. No source can be fully trusted including peer reviewed publications and IPCC reports. One has to do his homework to go after each information and make educated guess about which source can be trusted.

  13. 13
    Greg Simpson says:

    The bottom line was that CO2 was indeed an important contributor to the present day greenhouse effect, and depending on how you calculated the percentage, could account for between 9 and 26% of the effect.

    This has always struck me as answering the wrong question. A better question, I think, is how much outbound radiation is absorbed by CO2 as opposed to H2O or other gases or clouds in the present atmosphere, not in some hypothetical atmosphere. Averaged over the whole Earth this should yield a single number.

    Other questions are also interesting, but what the radiation change would be with no CO2 in the atmosphere, without adjusting the amount of water vapor (especially) and other greenhouse gases for the temperature change caused by that, is not so interesting.

    [Response: That number is about 20% – I should have put that in the post. – gavin]

    [Response: But, as I said in my Physics Today article, even this 20% number gives a misleading impression of the relative roles of CO2 and water vapor, implying (if you don’t think about it) that climate might sort of only change by a fifth if you take out all the CO2. In fact, it’s a critical 20%, because without that 20%, in the Earth’s orbit most of the water vapor wouldn’t be there either, because the atmosphere would be too cold. This point was brought home clearly in the work by Aiko Voigt (cited in the PT article) which showed that if you take out the CO2 the Earth falls into a Snowball. That central point was confirmed by Lacis et al (who were unaware of Voigt’s earlier result), in their piece on water vapor vs. CO2 that appeared last year in Science (mentioned by Gavin). –raypierre]

  14. 14
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Raypeirre, thanks for your help here and in Unforced Variations!

  15. 15
    Susan Anderson says:

    I walk on eggshells here, as I am not a scientist and often comment on various fora about all this stuff. First, I would say a hearty thank you for this post, which was enlightening and delighted one physicist I showed it to, especially the bit about not being able to publish because the original work was now common understanding and didn’t need proof.

    (However, despite WitsEnd’s contretemps here, I still think her observations are interesting. Don’t know why you and she got into such an argy-bargy. She became oddly enraged, which is not like what else I’ve seen of her.)

    The point that the situation is rapidly getting out of hand and science is not keeping up with its careful approach is of some value. Scientists can’t do all this stuff, and the public is deceived because the disinformationalists have no such scruples.

    Those of us without the technical expertise can still use logic and language to point out the shortcomings of propaganda. We can learn and observe. The worldwide floods and other large weather events and Arctic distortions are of interest to people who have not given their lives to science, and in many cases would not have qualified as a high degree of ability and dedication go into a scientific career. We can call out snark.

    A useful paraphrase I’ve used is “climate is weather over space and time” (Heidi Cullen) which I know understates some of the complexities but allows the latter to be mentioned in discussions of the former without getting tangled. Ordinary people are increasingly noticing that things are getting out of whack, and are more open to these ideas than the denial industry would have you believe – I’ve noticed a distinct improvement in Joe Public’s understanding lately.

    My friendship with Feynman and scientists didn’t and don’t require me to remain silent when I talk with or about them, only to know where the gaps in my knowledge lie, and not lie about what is real and what is not.

  16. 16
    Dale says:

    Off topic but were continuing our community discussion on AGW and I was wondering if someone would send me to a link. I’ve made the point that the warming we’ve seen under the last 100 years is unprecedented. Our detractor just stated, “North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling project
    Annual ice layers formed over millennia in Greenland by compressed snow reveal information on past temperatures and precipitation levels, as well as the contents of ancient atmospheres, said White. Ice cores from previous drilling efforts revealed temperature spikes of more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit in just 50 years in the Northern Hemisphere.

    You are a global climate change religionist, a disciple. You spew dogma in the guise of science. Real Science says your claims above are balderdash.”

    I responded that I was led to understand these situations have occurred because of some extreme event but they go back to the normal trend quite soon in geological time.

    I won’t bring this up again.

  17. 17
    tamino says:

    One of the strongest advantages of peer review is that it weeds out the trolls.

    In particular, it imposes a minimum level of accuracy and logical consistency in order for results to be published. It doesn’t do so perfectly, some junk still gets through the cracks and some useful results are rejected — but the amount of just plain “noise” is so greatly reduced that at least it becomes possible to have a discussion which is not poisoned by the twin plagues of ideological propaganda, and plain stupidity.

    Blogs (at least the vast majority of them) have no such restraints on their comment threads. Hence even such an outstanding blog as RealClimate, rooted in rigorous scientific investigation and flush with genuine expertise, are constantly bombarded with rubbish. We see it all the time, and I don’t think I need to point to specific examples because they’re so damn obvious.

    That’s why I moderate my blog with such a heavy hand. I started with the “everything is welcome” attitude, but eventually I got sick of hearing the same old garbage again and again and again and again and again … you get the idea.

    Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a troll, and someone with a genuine question or lack of understanding but who is at least educable. It’s also sometimes difficult to know the difference between an irrelevant confusion, and something that might actually be insightful. But you have to draw the line somewhere. RC recently began to do so with the BoreHole, but frankly I think you guys are still too permissive in what you allow through. Then again, you might be right and I might be wrong.

    Regardless, I still suggest that misleading, misinformed, propagandist, and just plain stupid comments are one of the biggest problems for any blog that hopes to contribute to actual science. Everybody — even the village idiot — is entitled to his opinion. But my blog is my house, and freedom of speech does not entitle you to spew garbage in my house. Get your own damn blog; they’re free.

    So if you want to host a free-for-all on your blog, go right ahead. But if you want to do science, I suggest you institute at least a modicum of review. And an unavoidable aspect of review, is rejection.

  18. 18
    chris says:

    It’s worth pondering why science isn’t done on blogs (much).

    My field (molecular biology and biophysics) doesn’t have blog science of note since it’s largely experimental. [*] You can’t drill ice cores, study fossilised pollen or mutate genes by blogging.

    So it’s mostly theoretical or forms of science involving data mining and data analysis that can develop from blogs. Since the growth of science (or “science”) blogging has happened alongside the phenomenal growth of accessible electronic data, we might expect more example of these forms of blog science (i.e. analysis/reanalysis of deposited data) progressing to real published science.

    And then the broad rules of science apply. A tractable problem needs to be properly framed and explored. In fact, blogging could be a useful means for developing scientific questions that can be addressed with the resources available to the blog participants. Most good ideas for scientific study come from robust discussion of observations and data, and so long as blog participants are genuinely interested in exploring the science (as opposed to bitching, point scoring and various forms of mischief-making!), this could happen more frequently via blogging.

    Will be interesting to see whether more creative use of the wealth of electronic data to give truly novel insights, might result from some progressions of blog science into published science. Maybe this is going to be (a little bit of) the future!

    [*] …and since it’s not particularly controversial nor perceived to be threatening of political or economic interests it doesn’t attract a virtual industry of blogospheric misinformation, happily!

  19. 19

    Peer review forces the scientist to try harder, to live up to a certain standard, and to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in order to be (or not to be).

    Blog science speaks to populism. It gets a rah rah crowd of followers, while simple comment moderation lets any dissent be pushed to the side.

    Which system seems like it would work better? Which would produce more accurate (rather than more popular) results? Do we really want a system that tells us what we want to hear, truth be damned?

    I actually think that journalism needs peer review. Right now, like blog science, it’s a populist endeavor. Once upon a time journalism held itself to a rigorous standard… report the facts, let the story tell itself, and let the people decide for themselves what to do with it. In today’s world, it’s report the desired opinions, and the facts that conveniently support the desired opinions, and let the people be swayed.

    Or, report whatever the people want to hear, so they’ll come back for more.

    In any event, it’s not working. To think that science will work better if it follows the same path that has destroyed journalism is just insane.

  20. 20
    Halldór Björnsson says:

    Good post. The JGR article is very useful for clarifying the issue and for having improved numbers to refer to in a peer reviewed paper. Most publications do not allow you to reference a blog. Furthermore, in a debate there is a huge difference between saying, “you can check out this blog” or saying “you can read about it in JGR”/”Science”. Thus for those of us who occasionally have to argue the AGW case, it was both timely and relevant.

    I find it interesting that the JGR paper did not get published in BAMS. It clearly fits there given that they published (what used to be) the paper on this issue (Kiehl and Trenberth, 1997). That paper, however, was due for an update. BAMS fumbled.

  21. 21
    Xavier Onnasis says:

    Jacob @ comment #8

    I don’t know if ACP gives you a “realistic view of how peer review should work” (my emphasis). I can tell you that, based on my experience alone, browsing the ACP can give you a fairly realistic view of how the process actually does work. publishing in ACP is very much like publishing in an AGU or AMS journal. certainly (again, IMO) the reviewer comments are of equal quality and quantity.

    The articles listed at the ACP site will give you an understanding of what kind of papers get accepted. To get a partial feel for what gets rejected, search ACPD for the string “Publication in ACP not foreseen”. I say “partial” because not all papers submitted to ACP end up getting posted for comment on ACP.

  22. 22
    TimTheToolMan says:

    Regarding the comment “What I didn’t find was any justification in the literature for the most widely quoted ‘contrarian’ view of the issue that CO2 was ‘only 2%’ of the effect. I traced this back to a book review that Lindzen wrote about the first IPCC report, but never found any actual reasoning in support of this.”

    I’m fairly sure the figure of 2% was related to anthropogenic additions to CO2 and not for all of CO2 itself. Compared your own stated low end of the range being 9%, then 2% being anthropogenic in nature at the tail end of a logarithmic process seems pretty reasonable to me.

    [Response: Numbers can’t just be randomly assigned to different issues just because that is ‘reasonable’. – gavin]

    [Response: And what’s more, you can’t just randomly pick a denominator to make whatever you’re comparing to look small. If you’re going to look only at the radiative forcing due to anthropogenic CO2, you need to compare that not to the TOTAL water vapor radiative forcing already there, but the ADDITIONAL “anthropogenic” water vapor forcing that comes from the extra water vapor that a warmer atmosphere contains. Based on standard estimates of water vapor feedback, you’d get a comparison that is more or less 50/50 water vapor and CO2 if you did the calculation this way. –raypierre]

  23. 23
    Ron Taylor says:

    Gavin, this is superb. It gives a better demonstration than anything else I have read of why one can trust the integrity of peer reviewed science. That does not mean it is always pristine, but it is far, far better than any other approach to science that has been suggested. And while some criticisms are valid, they, in the end, come down to nit-picking.

  24. 24
    skept says:

    (Layman question, a bit off topic) How precisely do we know WV absorption-emission in far infrared OLW (wavenumbers less than 650 cm) and its relative contribution to Earth radiative budget ? I’ve read in the past some papers about incoming direct measures (eg FIRST), but I ignore if there are for now some results and comparison with estimation from line-by-line transfer models. By advance thanks.

  25. 25
    David B. Benson says:

    Probably relevant to Gail Z. as well as many others:

    Massimo Pigliucci
    Nonsense on Silts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    Univ. Chicago Press, May 2010.

  26. 26
    jacob l says:

    Xavier Onnasis thankyou for your reply!
    I was looking for an example I could learn from.
    If I understood you correctly the stuff from the E.G.U. is such material. again thankyou

  27. 27
    Chris Colose says:

    skept (#30)

    This is a good question, and exploration of the far-IR water vapor domain and continuum absorption is not resolved. I attended a seminar last year in Wisconsin where Dr. David Turner gave a talk on this issue and the RHUBC campaign that deals with this (Turner was my professor for a class in Atmospheric radiation in Madison). I haven’t followed RHUBC aside from that seminar and a paper I looked at but you can find more information about this issue at

    Hope that helps

  28. 28
    skept says:

    #33 Chris : great, thank you for the Turner and Mlawer paper!

  29. 29
    Carl Zimmer says:

    I’m curious about the psychological dimension of going from blog to scientific paper. Scientists often display a strong aversion to getting scooped. Does that interfere with openly discussing your ideas before they’re in a journal?

    [Response: There are a number of issues here: a) general themes in your research – these develop over a long time and end up being restated and evolve over many publications, so there is no scooping problem, b) specific analyses – this could be more problematic, but if you are either doing something quite novel, or are doing it with tools that you work with all the time (like a specific climate model), the danger of being scooped is small. A new set of simulations with the GCM to look at a specific question can’t really be repeated by someone else before you get around to publishing for instance. A data analysis of a sample only your group has taken likewise. A specific data analysis of public domain data might be more of a problem, but once done, is done. I can clearly state I have never been scooped on an research idea, other people might have different experiences (and I’ve certainly heard of specific instances – though involving conference presentations rather than blogs). – gavin]

  30. 30
    M says:

    TimTheToolMan: When you say, “fairly sure”, what do you mean? Because if you go to the source that Gavin linked, it states “It is hard to realize from this report that about 98% of the natural greenhouse effect is due to water vapour and stratiform clouds-CO2 contributing less than 2%.” That’s kind of hard to read any other way. Did you read it? If so, how did you interpret it differently? If not (and it is behind a paywall, so it is understandable that you might not have), how you can be “fairly sure” about the meaning of a statement that you haven’t read? Humility would suggest a phrasing more like “is it possible that Lindzen meant “.

    I grant you that Lindzen has been better about his 2% number this decade. 2009: “Even a doubling of CO2 would only upset the original balance between incoming and outgoing radiation by about 2%,”, and similarly here in 2005:

    That “only” is a rather poorly justified modifier, of course – if some mad scientist were to threaten to turn the Sun up 2% (or down 2%) that would be cause for serious concern. Nor does it take into account feedbacks, which presumably can double the baseline effect or more…


  31. 31
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Carl Zimmer,
    While I do know a couple of scientists who have been “scooped” as it were, it usually doesn’t keep them from talking at least in broad outlines about their research. In most research, about 98% of the effort gets summarized very succinctly in the methods section–and in even less detail in a blog post. It’s the technical details that take the most time. In most cases, by the time you are ready for a blog post, most of those details would have been worked out. The review process will then take up an additional 98% of the time you’d originally budget for publication.

  32. 32
    DeNihilist says:

    Argh, I can’t find the reference, sorry. But a (I believe) sociologist gave a talk recently, and basically said that peer review is needed, because of our (human) tendency to not see our own shortcomings. It is in peer review, where your weaknesses are made known.

  33. 33
    John E. Pearson says:

    Fifteen years ago I thought that peer-review was arcane and unnecessary. I thought that papers could simply be published in the xxx archives and that the important papers would simply float to the top. I no longer think that, primarily because of the attack on climate science. There are attacks on science from politically motivated people from the extremes of all political spectra. The attackers of climate science have the luxury of being well-funded and every idiotic word they utter gets repeated, repeated over and over and over and … by the far right echo chamber.

  34. 34
    TimTheToolMan says:

    raypierre writes ” If you’re going to look only at the radiative forcing due to anthropogenic CO2, you need to compare that not to the TOTAL water vapor radiative forcing already there, but the ADDITIONAL “anthropogenic” water vapor forcing that comes from the extra water vapor that a warmer atmosphere contains.”

    So are you saying that Lindzen’s figure was for CO2 + feedbacks? That appears to be argumentative considering its difficult enough to find the reference at all let alone know exactly how it was calculated and what its based on.

    Perhaps you could quote the original reference you’re using to criticise his assesment so we can all be sure Lindzen was making his statement with reference to feedbacks? Because if he’s not then his figure might well be reasonable and it might be better to NOT criticise him for making the statement afterall.

    [Response: No, I’m not making a statement here about what Lindzen might or might not have meant. Since he didn’t write down any equations, you don’t get to know, do you. The most straightforward construction on it is that he was making a statement about the net greenhouse effect of CO2 vs H2O, but pulling a number out of who knows where. My comment was directed instead to the apologists for Lindzen, who tried to justify his statement by comparing the incremental anthropogenic radiative forcing to a completely arbitrary number picked to make the result look small. Heck, why stop there? Why not compare the anthropogenic radiative forcing to the whole Solar output? That would give you a really small number, and it would make about as much sense. –raypierre]

  35. 35
    TimTheToolMan says:

    M writes : “It is hard to realize from this report that about 98% of the natural greenhouse effect is due to water vapour and stratiform clouds-CO2 contributing less than 2%”

    OK, I hadn’t seen the reference. What Lindzen writes there may well be literally correct. However the link to H2O feedback (if there is one at the “observed” levels) obviously isn’t figured into his statement.

    [Response: No it isn’t correct (where is the justification?). H2O feedback has nothing to do with it. – gavin]

  36. 36
    jyyh says:

    During my studies someone said something like ‘Peer-review is the way scientists teach each other. That’s how different disciplines came to be, as experts on one specific subject examine each others work in a competitive environment.’

  37. 37
    Eli Rabett says:

    One of the things blogs like this can do is point out where some teaching is necessary, which is what happened in Gavin’s case. He saw that not on the lay public, but many of his colleagues needed a better resource, and he provided it. Bob Grumine’s pub analogy is not bad.

    Well done Gavin

  38. 38
    TimTheToolMan says:

    Gavin writes : “[Response: No it isn’t correct (where is the justification?). H2O feedback has nothing to do with it. – gavin]”

    Where is the context? Is he talking about anthropogenic CO2 or all CO2?

    [Response: All CO2. His house testimony at about the same time makes the same, unsupported and incorrect, claims: “It is worth noting that the major greenhouse substance is water in the form of water vapor and layer clouds — which accounts for over 98% of the current greenhouse effect.” and “(recall that CO2 contributes only about 1% to the greenhouse effect and
    model errors are far larger than this)” and “1. Water vapor and layer clouds account for over 98% of the greenhouse effect.” There is no ambiguity about what he was claiming. And no ambiguity in saying it’s wrong. – gavin]

  39. 39
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    TimtheToolMan #40 Rubbish. Unless Lindzen has made the statement in a peer-reviewed journal, it carries no weight whatsoever. Why should anyone waste their time finding your references for you?

    [Response: Well, it’s even worse than that. Even with some things that are posted on blogs, there are enough details of the calculation given that you can at least understand what the basis of the argument is. Lindzen doesn’t even give that. -raypierre]

  40. 40
    Jacob Mack says:

    Jacob 8, there are better journals in that deal with atmospheric physics and chemistry that are peer reviewed. Simply perform a quick google scholar search, or speak to a local librarian. Having said that, not all non-peer reviewed science is bad science, it may in many instances be harder to tell.

  41. 41
    TimTheToolMan says:

    “Why should anyone waste their time finding your references for you?”

    Because they make public claims about those statements. And there is no way for people like me who dont have access to those references to verify what’s being said.

    There have already been enough “out of context” and “without proper understanding” claims make in climate science recently.

  42. 42
    Chris Colose says:

    Just in case TimTheToolMan is not convinced we’re interpreting Lindzen properly, he quite clearly said in a testimony (to a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee) that removing all the CO2 in the atmosphere would generate a cooling of just 2 C. This is a completely made-up number and ignored the Voigt and Marotzke work as well as the Lacis et al experiments which were published before the testimony.

    [Response: Wow, that’s a spectacularly outrageously wrong statement even by Lindzen’s standards. I’d like to include that in my Lindzen notes for some future post. Do you have a link to the testimony? I’d like to read it myself. –raypierre]

    It’s fine if he disagrees with published greenhouse attribution and sensitivity estimates, but in non-refereed circles and hearings he never even gives the impression of uncertainty, unless the uncertainty is against the ‘pro-AGW’ people. I have never heard him express any real doubt about his own low sensitivity or low-CO2 contribution ideas.

  43. 43
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Dr. Pierrehumbert. That’s what I like about Real Climate: you guys are Reggie Piranha: \He nailed my head to the floor, but he was always fair.\ I learned something then. Thank you.

    [Response: Not really meaning to nail anybody there, just being short and sweet. By the way, I forgot to mention that the non-calculus version of the radiating level climate calculation is in the introduction to the greenhouse effect in Chapter 3 of Principles of Planetary climate. A very similar discussion is in Archer’s book, “Understanding the Forecast.” –raypierre]

  44. 44
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Oh dear, they were actually called Doug and Dinsdale :\

  45. 45
    Ray Ladbury says:

    TimTheToolMan: Lindzen stopped worrying about “reasonable” a long, long time ago. Now he shoots for the straight-face test. That’s the only way I can rationalize some of his statements, such as those about putative warming on other planets being evidence against anthropogenic causation. Compounding the sin, these arguments were made in front of lay audiences in the closing arguments (no rebuttal) of a debate. If Dick Lindzen told me it was sunny outside, I’d take my umbrella.

  46. 46


    And there is no way for people like me who dont have access to those references to verify what’s being said.

    Please re-read what you wrote there, several times.

    Re-read your other comments. Not the responses, just your comments.

    This is the whole point. Lindzen (or a blogger) gets up and makes vague, unsupported statements, and you unquestioningly accept them. You even go beyond that, giving him the benefit of the doubt, defending his position, struggling to find ways to qualify what he said to make his position tenable.

    You are told that his statements are in contradiction with a vast body of knowledge accumulated by an array of scientists in multiple fields working over many, many decades, while his own statements are unsupported by observations, calculations, mathematical reasoning or data of any sort. In some cases his statements are even (heavily) contradicted by the published literature.

    His statements are made in speeches and presentations that are not subject to contest. The contrasting statements are made in the peer-reviewed literature for anyone to read, and if possible contradict and refute (and yet he has not succeeded in doing so, even though he has no difficulty himself in getting published in journals).

    And yet you demand references and citations for the refutations of Lindzen’s statements. At the same time you in no way demand the same level of backing from Lindzen himself… not even close.

    You really, really should stop and think about your own position and behavior. I’m not criticizing you. I honestly, truly want you to think about this with as objective and rational an approach as you can muster.

    When you see the statements “CO2 is causing dangerous warming” and “CO2 is less than 2% of natural greenhouse effect in the atmosphere,” do you have an emotional reaction to either one? Do they evoke different reactions? Are you completely rational in your responses?

    Please recognize exactly how un-skeptical, over-committed and invested in one outcome most “skeptics” truly are, to the point of internal contradiction (like giving Lindzen a free pass, then demanding explicit references to be able to accept that he is wrong). Recognize tendencies in your own thinking which will tend to draw you away from recognizing the truth, wherever it may lie, and fight those tendencies.

    This isn’t a sports event, or a patriotic war. This isn’t a good situation in which to pick sides, root for your team, and be a good, unwavering “fan” (or “patriot”), cheering on your team colors, win or lose. This isn’t an argument over beers about whose team can boast the most prolific scorer ever put on the field, with a reflexive need for you to loyally defend your team’s players in the face of any evidence to the contrary.

    Everyone who lives on this planet needs to get this right. Being wrong has consequences.

  47. 47
    Ron Taylor says:

    Balazs #14 wrote: “No source can be fully trusted including peer reviewed publications and IPCC reports. One has to do his homework to go after each information and make educated guess about which source can be trusted.”

    That “homework” would require the expertise to evaluate the adequacy of the work of the world’s top experts in climate science. That is simply impossible, unless you are one of them. When they do that it is called peer review. That is why we should trust peer review. The people capable of doing the evaluation do it for us.

    The alternative is simply the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.

  48. 48

    50, Ron Taylor,

    In the distorted words of Walt Kelly and Pogo:

    “We have met Dunning-Kruger, and he is us.”

  49. 49
    Theo Kurtén says:

    jacob l:
    I agree with Xavier, peer review in ACP/ACPD is pretty much similar to peer review elsewhere, at least in the journals I’m familiar with (mainly within the field of physical chemistry / chemical physics / molecular physics / computational chemistry). The openness tends to make the reviews perhaps a little more formal and a bit more polite, both of which are IMHO good things. Out of the review systems I’ve seen, ACP’s is arguably the best. (The only “downside” is that if you submit there, and get rejected in the “discussion” stage, your paper is still available for everyone to see on ACPD – which may prevent publication elsewhere. This can also be a good thing, as it discourages authors from submitting low-quality stuff to ACP.) Jacob Mack, did I misunderstand your comment of do you think there is something wrong with ACP? If so, what?

  50. 50
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Lindzen

    Gack. Even the ‘’ detailed CO2 calculations page only sez:
    “Lindzen (5.3 °C clear sky, 3.53 °C with 40% cloud)”