The repeated use of the argument from authority by environmentalists

23 02 2010

H/T Catallaxy blog.  See

Catallaxy’s Samuel J has posted an interesting article by Frank Furedi on potential problems with the peer review system.  Frank talks about bias and double standards amongst reviwers.  He mentions the possibility that the publishing of certain reserach may be delayed by the peer review process.  And he highlights some IPCC hypocrisy.

What caught my attention however were the examples of well known scientists using peer review as an argument from authority.  ie: it seems like certain scientists will dismiss data simply because it is not peer reviewed.  And conversely it also seems that certain scientists regard all peer reviewed articles as infallable. 

As someone who has one whole peer reviewed article to his name 🙂 in the field of chemistry (I did an honours year at uni), I do think the peer review system is essential.  For example, peer review performs some very basic functions such as checking formatting or checking the legibility and labelling of figures. 

However once again we see evidence for environmentalists using the argument from authority, in a similar way as the consensus argument.  This argument is over used especially by politicians, the media and general public.  It seems prominent scientists are doing it too.  This is bad news considering the immense power of government common to our modern world. 

Here are a few of examples of the argument from authority from Frank’s article:

1) Boasting of his <George Monbiot’s> encounter with an opponent who challenged him to a debate on speed cameras, he wrote that “I accepted and floored him with a simple question”.  And predictably the question was: “Has he published his analysis in a peer-reviewed journal?”

2) Andrew Dessler, a climate-change researcher, also sought to floor his opponent, who apparently wrote a “denier op-ed” in The Wall Street Journal, by dismissing its value on the grounds that this newspaper is not peer reviewed.

3) Climate alarmists do not simply boast of their monopoly over peer-reviewed outlets, they also do their best to call into question peer-reviewed outlets that dare publish research that challenges their crusade.

When Cambridge University Press dared publish Bjorn Lomborg’s The Sceptical Environmentalist, it faced bitter criticism from campaigners who hinted that something had gone wrong with this publisher’s system of review.

4) As Reiner Grundman argued in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Politics, the IPCC “characterises outside critics as unscientific as they do not publish in peer-reviewed literature”.

Frank claims that the recently exposed poor standards of climate science can be explained thusly:

Sadly, there are far too many researchers for whom science has become an instrument for the realisation of a higher cause. As a result they are scientists in name but moralisers in practice.

I agree, however I think the problem is also epistemological.  These scientists probably don’t understand that the argument of authority is not scientific and it is not sound logic.




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