Red/Blue and Peer Review – Eos

Healthy skepticism has long formed the foundation of the scientific peer review process. Will anything substantively new be gleaned from a red team/blue team exercise?
Definition of peer review from Credit: Pixabay/Free-Photos

By Eric Davidson and Marcia K. McNutt 2 August 2017

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy have recently proposed to use an alternative approach to standard peer review for evaluating climate change science, one that is patterned after the red team/blue team exercises developed in the military. In this approach, a red team attempts to penetrate a blue team’s defense. However, if the idea is to have the red team poke holes in the mainstream scientific community’s (the blue team) consensus on climate change, it discounts that such challenges have already been applied thousands of times while that consensus was gradually developed. A little history of climate science explains why.

We are old enough to remember when many, if not most, scientists were skeptical that the human impact on climate could be distinguished from natural climatic variation. The journey from the healthy skepticism that existed 40 to 50 years ago to today’s well-supported and widespread scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate is a remarkable story of the integrity of the scientific process.

The Long Journey from Skepticism to Consensus

Following theoretical predictions of the climatic effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) made by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in the 1890s, the first good observational record of increasing atmospheric CO2 began in the late 1950s as part of the International Geophysical Year. Modern climate science started in the 1960s, when general circulation models under development were modified to incorporate the effects of CO2 and water vapor to understand their impact on climate [Forster, 2017]. Not long thereafter, scientists systematically considered what else might explain the new warming trends that started in the 1970s and that continue today.

A number of hypotheses were evaluated from the 1970s through the 1990s. For example, solar scientists concluded that although solar variation (sunspot cycles) does modestly affect climate from one decade to the next, the effect is far too small and too cyclic to account for a multidecadal trend in warming. Similarly, other skeptical scientists hypothesized that expanding cities—with all their asphalt, concrete, and steel—were causing a heat island effect that could be influencing temperature measurements because weather observation stations that had at one time been outside cities had ended up being right in the middle of them. That hypothesis was also disproven, and surface temperature is now also measured on buoys in remote oceanic locations to minimize such an effect. Volcanoes were also studied both as warming agents from their CO2 emissions and as cooling agents from the particles they eject into the stratosphere. Scientific analysis showed that the former effect is very small relative to burning fossil fuels and that the latter effect persists only for a few years after the very largest subaerial volcanic eruptions.

…(read more).


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