Prestige journals and their prestigious mistakes

On June 24, the journal Nature Scientific Reports published a paper claiming that Earth’s surface was warming by more than what non-anthropogenic sources could account for because it was simply moving closer to the Sun. I.e. global warming was the result of changes in the Earth-Sun distance. Excerpt:

The oscillations of the baseline of solar magnetic field are likely to be caused by the solar inertial motion about the barycentre of the solar system caused by large planets. This, in turn, is closely linked to an increase of solar irradiance caused by the positions of the Sun either closer to aphelion and autumn equinox or perihelion and spring equinox. Therefore, the oscillations of the baseline define the global trend of solar magnetic field and solar irradiance over a period of about 2100 years. In the current millennium since Maunder minimum we have the increase of the baseline magnetic field and solar irradiance for another 580 years. This increase leads to the terrestrial temperature increase as noted by Akasofu [26] during the past two hundred years.

The New Scientist reported on July 16 that Nature has since kickstarted an “established process” to investigate how a paper with “egregious errors” cleared peer-review and was published. One of the scientists it quotes says the journal should retract the paper if it wants to “retain any credibility”, but the fact that it cleared peer-review in the first place is to me the most notable part of this story. It is a reminder that peer-review has a failure rate as well as that ‘prestige’ titles like Nature can publish crap; for instance, look at the retraction index chart here).

That said, I am a little concerned because Scientific Reports is an open-access title. I hope it didn’t simply publish the paper in exchange for a fee like its less credible counterparts.

Almost as if it timed it to the day, the journal ScienceNature‘s big rival across the ocean – published a paper that did make legitimate claims but which brooks disagreement on a different tack. It describes a way to keep sea levels from rising due to the melting of Antarctic ice. Excerpt:

… we show that the [West Antarctic Ice Sheet] may be stabilized through mass deposition in coastal regions around Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. In our numerical simulations, a minimum of 7400 [billion tonnes] of additional snowfall stabilizes the flow if applied over a short period of 10 years onto the region (~2 mm/year sea level equivalent). Mass deposition at a lower rate increases the intervention time and the required total amount of snow.

While I’m all for curiosity-driven research, climate change is rapidly becoming a climate emergency in many parts of the world, not least where the poorer live, without a corresponding set of protocols, resources and schemes to deal with it. In this situation, papers like this – and journals like Science that publish them – only make solutions like the one proposed above seem credible when in fact they should be trashed for implying that it’s okay to keep emitting more carbon into the atmosphere because we can apply a band-aid of snow over the ice sheet and postpone the consequences. Of course, the paper’s authors acknowledge the following:

Operations such as the one discussed pose the risk of moral hazard. We therefore stress that these projects are not an alternative to strengthening the efforts of climate mitigation. The ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is and will be the main lever to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. The simulations of the current study do not consider a warming ocean and atmosphere as can be expected from the increase in anthropogenic CO2. The computed mass deposition scenarios are therefore valid only under a simultaneous drastic reduction of global CO2 emissions.

… but these words belong in the last few lines of the paper (before the ‘materials and methods’ section), as if they were a token addition to what reads, overall, like a dispassionate analysis. This is also borne out by the study not having modelled the deposition idea together with falling CO2 emissions.

I’m a big fan of curiosity-driven science as a matter of principle. While it seemed hard at first to reconcile my emotions on the Science paper with that position, I realised that I believe both curiosity- and application-driven research should still be conscientious. Setting aside the endless questions about how we ought to spend the taxpayers’ dollars – if only because interfering with research on the basis of public interest is a terrible idea – it is my personal, non-prescriptive opinion that research should still endeavour to be non-destructive (at least to the best of the researchers’ knowledge) when advancing new solutions to known problems.

If that is not possible, then researchers should acknowledge that their work could have real consequences and, setting aside all pretence of being quantitative, objective, etc., clarify the moral qualities of their work. This the authors of the Science paper have done but there are no brownie points for low-hanging fruits. Or maybe there should be considering there has been other work where the authors of a paper have written that they “make no judgment on the desirability” of their proposal (also about climate geo-engineering).

Most of all, let us not forget that being Nature or Science doesn’t automatically make what they put out better for having been published by them.