Archive for February, 2011

RealClimate libel threat

February 22, 2011

The publishers of the journal Energy & Environment have threatened libel action against the RealClimate blog because of remarks they made about the peer review process in E&E.

The key quote that upset them, from this post, was:

“The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line.”

I think it is somewhat cowardly of E&E to threaten this libel action as it is often used to silence critics when their arguments can’t be refuted with evidence (see the RealClimate post for examples and then go and sign the petition to reform English libel laws).

If E&E can defend their peer review system, then I think should do so. What would be even better is if E&E took the plunge and opened up their peer review process and became a model for other journals. After all, many of the “skeptics” who have published in or are on the editorial board of E&E have called for the peer review process to open up. Here’s a great opportunity to make some progress on that front!

I wrote their publishers a letter explaining my view:

Dear Bill Hughes,

I have just read the letter that you sent to RealClimate regarding their criticism of the peer review process in E&E. I am disappointed that you consider a libel threat a valid response to their post.

Indeed, if E&E has a robust peer review process then this opportunity could be taken to open that process up. In doing so, you could not only refute the claims made by RealClimate but also become a trailblazer for a system to replace the current model of anonymous/closed peer review, which is often criticised for favouring the consensus view on subjects like climate change.

I look forward to an imaginative and constructive response from E&E.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Russell

A look back at QED: a science and skepticism conference

February 14, 2011

First things first: QED was great fun, entertaining and fascinating. It was a great event and the organisers deserve a big pat on the back. I would definitely try to go if it’s on again next year.

However, as a relatively new follower of the Skeptic movement – I always held back because the way “sceptic” is used in relation to climate change – I thought it might be worth noting down a few of my impressions from the conference.

A bit more context…

I realise it was relatively short event but I felt that a trick was missed by not having a longer introduction about what Skepticism is, what it’s for and what its big challenges are. These issues sort of came up at various points during the event but it might’ve been nice to have a reference point for everything that followed.

A little bit too ghosty…

Of the 12 1 hour sessions in the main hall, 2 were about ghosts (maybe 2.25 if you count the bits in Bruce Hood’s talk). I guess ghosts are quite fun and there are some serious issues related to them (e.g. exploitation of vulnerable people) but it felt like a bit too much. Surely there are other issues we should be thinking about?

A couple of odd quotes…

…and, oddly enough, both from Eugenie Scott. These were just a couple of things that were tweeted quite a bit by attendees and made me think. First up:

“Science is organised common sense”

I think I understand the point Eugenie was trying to make here – that science isn’t some distant, abstract thing that non-scientist can’t get to grips with – but this description just didn’t work for me. How does this describe quantum mechanics, Avogadro’s law or even evolution? It just makes science sound so… boring. Science is usually beautiful and unexpected – nothing even close to common sense.

“Evolution is the history of the Universe”

So this was a phrase that Eugenie re-used from a talk that she had previously given where she had to sum up her discipline in 7 words. Assuming that she was talking about evolutionary biology, then at face value this description massively overstates the scope of that field. I’m sure physics and chemistry play some role in the universe too! If inspiration was the order of the day, then surely being the “…history of life” is pretty important too. I’m probably being far too literal but I was really surprised at how well it was received by the audience, which is more the reason that I thought I should make this point than criticising Eugenie.


Simon Singh tried to tackle what I would consider one of the big issues facing Skepticism – that the word “skeptic” is beginning to be understood more widely as “contrarian” rather than someone who simply ask questions. In climate circles, some people use “denier”, “septic” or worse to refer to those who do not accept the IPCC-based consensus on climate change but I’m not that keen on being offensive. All the same, it’s often useful to have term to refer to that community. I’m not sure I agree with Simon that numpty should be that term but at least it got raised!

Again, just to sum up, I thought the event was brilliant. Simon Singh and Jim Al-Khalili gave brilliant physics talks. Helen Keen was wonderful and Jon Ronson and Chris Atkins gave insights into worlds that I knew little about.

Just thought I’d make a few points.