The Sciences

When Climate Skeptics use Pseudonyms

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSep 16, 2016 11:48 PM


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Retraction Watchreveals that a 'contrarian' paper on climate change has been withdrawn after it emerged that the authors submitted it under pseudonyms - in fact, their own names spelled backwards:

The withdrawn paper, about predicting surface temperatures of planets, appeared in Advances in Space Research in August, 2015, and is authored by 'Den Volokin' and 'Lark ReLlez'... climate scientist Gavin Schmidt pointed out on Twitter that the authors’ names are eerily similar to another pair who have published climate papers together: Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller.

That's interesting enough, but what follows really got my attention: Retraction Watch say that

Volokin referred us to this 2013 “Anonymity in Science” piece published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by “Neuroskeptic,” a neuroscientist who pens a blog under a pseudonym.

In that paper I advocate the use of anonymity and pseudonyms in some kinds of scientific communications. So how do I feel about this case? I'm not thrilled to find my work being referenced by people who seem to be climate change deniers. On this blog I've previously pointed out errors in a climate skeptic article; I defended a paper that enraged climate skeptics by painting them as conspiracy theorists; and I described climate skeptic journalists as ridiculous. I consider it to be a dangerous and misguided movement. However, I do think that climate skeptics like everyone else have a right to a fair hearing and fair peer review. These authors may have felt that their reputation as climate dissidents meant that journals would be prejudiced against their work. If so, they may have felt that pseudonymous submission was a solution - and I support them in that because I think it is a solution for such cases. No matter how tempting it might be, we shouldn't judge papers by their author lists, but by the soundness of their methods and arguments. As I said in my paper:

Anonymous contributions... are more likely to be judged fairly. An argument ought to be evaluated purely on the strength of its merits. However, it can be difficult for readers to do this when the name of the author is known: their reputation, personality, and other characteristics also enter the equation. An anonymous argument, by contrast, can only be evaluated objectively.

In this case, the 'Volokin/ReLlez' paper seems to have been accepted by the journal on its merits - rightly or wrongly - but then retracted due to an 'authorship issue' i.e. the pseudonyms. Now, perhaps the retraction was justified on the grounds that the authors breached some 'real name' policy of the journal, but even so, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and I'm not in favor of such policies. In science, what matters is what is claimed, not who's claiming it.

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