Commentary: Editors must be our gatekeepers

  • 27 August 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

IN MY last column I raised this question: how can we ensure that popular publications properly reflect ongoing science, while at the same time ensuring that unpopular viewpoints are not inappropriately censored?

In particular, I outlined the controversy surrounding an article published in a newsletter of the American Physical Society's Forum on Physics and Society. The article was written by a journalist and known climate-change sceptic whose arguments have been discredited by many climate scientists over the years. The editors of the non-peer-reviewed newsletter were not familiar with the author, who they assumed was a scientist, and had published the piece to stimulate debate.

Were it not for the web, the publication of a random article in a newsletter of a professional society would not be worth discussing. However, when an article becomes available electronically, supporters can distribute it widely, claiming that it represents a significant crack in the global scientific consensus (as US Senator James Inhofe did with the article in question).

So how can we avoid similar situations in future without being open to charges of censorship? Since I posed this question two weeks ago, all of the comments sent in response fault the editors for their failure to learn more about the author, and learn more about the issues. I have to agree with this, and go further. Editors of non-peer-reviewed journals - New Scientist included - have a far greater responsibility than those in the peer-reviewed world to filter out distortions.

The peer review process works, and it is crucial for those wanting to promote science to the public to recognise this and use it. The most common complaint of crackpots is that conventional journals will not publish their papers. There is a reason for this and it has nothing to do with censorship, but rather with scholarship.

Whenever an article is submitted for publication in a scientific journal, the onus is on the authors to convince a set of their peers that the article makes sense. If they cannot do this as they respond to referees' reports, then the stuff is certainly not yet ready for public consumption, much less publication. I had a friend who was a journal editor who said he would like to publish all articles, but only if the referees' reports appeared alongside them. It is an interesting proposal, as it might also improve the quality of refereeing.

Scientists cannot be experts on all subjects. With climate change, for example, I haven't deeply analysed the climate models used. However, I am willing to accept the current consensus for two reasons. First, the physics makes sense to me. Second, I know that the 2000 or so climate scientists linked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have worked most of their professional lives with no goal other than to understand the climate, and that their models have been deeply scrutinised by their colleagues. In the absence of compelling information to the contrary, it makes sense to trust the general features of their conclusions.

The process, being human, is imperfect. But the good stuff will eventually rise to the top. It always has. This is why there is no excuse for a popular science writer, editor or publication to present material that is outside the scientific consensus as if it were widely accepted. The public filter is not sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and creating controversy where none exists damages the public perception of science, even if it sells magazines.

Peer review is imperfect. But the good stuff will always rise to the top

Thus, in this world of immediate information access, when considering articles that the editor does not have the tools to specifically check or validate, if the relevant scientific material has not been peer reviewed and the credentials of the authors are questionable, it is most appropriate to err on the side of caution and print no information rather than misinformation. This is not censorship, it is common sense. It may mean delaying the scoop of the century, but only by a little bit, and in the long run we are all better off.

From issue 2671 of New Scientist magazine, 27 August 2008, page 46


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