The three puzzles do have a connection. The first was my morning’s five minutes of news on the ABC, which referred to the arrival in Hobart of a ‘Russian’ ship that had been caught in Antarctic ice, and how the passengers were going through quarantine and customs. Not a word about its having been billed as the ‘Australasian Antarctic Expedition’, retracing Mawson’s trip a century earlier and seeing how climate change had altered the measurements that Mawson had then made. Not a word about how four ice-breakers had been called to help, two of which had been caught in the ice themselves for a few days.
OK, a news broadcast can’t put in everything, but I did think this one was unnecessarily vague. And who, I keep wondering, is going to foot the bill for all the transport and catering done for the passengers, first to Casey base, and then to Hobart? My wife thinks the passengers should look at the fine print on the passenger tickets. My guess is that the good old Australian taxpayer will finally have to cough up. Apparently the University of New South Wales had backed or guaranteed the expedition, so that UNSW will probably be the first port of call for those wanting costs.
It was an odd coincidence that on the same morning I learned that Professor Chris Turney, the leader of the ‘AAE’, had been honoured with an award by the Australian Academy of Science. And in the evening he was asked some direct questions by Leigh Sales on the 7.30 Report, and managed not to answer any of them.
A day or so earlier I learned that the Guardian newspaper had ‘revealed’ that anonymous billionaires had been funnelling $120 million into denialists, and wondered why none of this money had come my way, since I have been called a ‘denialist’ for years. Since the source for this claim seemed to be Greenpeace I shrugged sadly. Greenpeace itself seems to be rather well funded, and probably feels that it is unfair that it should have any rivals, since its purpose is to save the planet, and whales.
I shouldn’t leave this little puzzle without giving readers who might not have read the Guardian piece the flavour of its cutting-edge investigative journalism: ‘a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to [a] highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives’. No wonder I don’t get any of this anonymous money — I’m just not part of this vast network, and I don’t know anyone who is.
The final puzzle is about ‘peer review’. A commenter on this website pointed out to me that a journal I had mentioned had a low impact factor. For those who don’t know, the impact factor of a journal refers to the number of times papers published in it have been referred to in other papers. It is a proxy for the relative importance of journals in precise fields, and can’t be used sensibly to compare journals in different fields. In fact, it is an accounting device used by governments to try and make sense of the relative importance of universities and researchers in the handing out of research funds.
Having spent a decent part of my working life on editorial boards, operating peer review systems and acting as a consultant about them, impact factors seem to me be virtually meaningless, since they are subject to so many influences. Wikipedia has a good essay on them, which should deter anyone from taking them seriously.
A great deal of respect is paid to peer review by defenders of the orthodoxy, usually by challenging critics to subject their own views to peer review, as though this is the bar you have to jump. It isn’t, of course, and another correspondent on the same subject provided a crisp summary, which I happily repeat here:
The aim of peer-review is merely a “sanity check” for publishers who might know very little about a subject and don’t want to publish papers that are nonsense. The approval of the two or three reviewers does not mean that the entire scientific field will think the paper to be brilliant. A good reviewer is completely agnostic and looks only at how the ideas are expressed, whether there are fundamental mistakes, and whether the claims accord with the data. A good reviewer will also encourage the publication of well-argued radical thoughts because this exposes the scientific field to new ideas.
The same writer also argues that it doesn’t matter who it is that puts forward a hypothesis. The real test is whether or not it seems to make sense, and whether or not it accords with data, observations and evidence. I quite agree, and I would have thought this approach to be standard within higher education. Perhaps things have changed since I was last teaching (25 years ago), let alone since my final undergraduate year (55 years ago).
But if I have learned anything over that time, it is that we really learn when we discover that we were wrong. And we learn that we are wrong when our favourite theory collapses in the face of the evidence. It puzzles me that so many defenders of the orthodoxy, especially those who have some claim to be well educated, can persist in a view that is counter to the evidence that is available to us.