HARPER: Media should be more skeptical of academic work

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A scandal concerning academic journals that could unravel theories and practices from acoustics to climate change rattled scientists this month throughout the world.

This serious breakdown in the scientific world should herald much greater scrutiny in the media, particularly as it pertains to the environmental claims of academics and scientists. Moreover, the media need to treat such academic work with greater skepticism.


SEE ALSO: HARPER: A lack of coverage when media giants misbehave


Sage Publications, one of the most prominent publishers of academic work, announced last week that it was removing 60 papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control, which deals with the science of acoustics. The company discovered that a researcher in Taiwan manipulated what is called “the peer-review process,” which is a system through which other experts read material before it is published.

Among the many problems in the Sage case, one author gave glowing reviews to his own paper under a pseudonym.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, science author Hank Campbell extended the argument to the health field. Mr. Campbell noted that a 2011 report found that two-thirds of 67 key studies analyzed by researchers couldn’t be reproduced.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and responsible for $30 billion in annual government-funded research, held a meeting to discuss ways to ensure that more published scientific studies and results are accurate. He highlighted the problem in a recent article in Nature.

“What hope is there that other scientists will be able to build on such work to further biomedical progress” if no one can check and replicate the research, he and co-author Lawrence Tabak wrote.

So if such problems exist in acoustics and health, what about the possibility of climatology? You won’t find out anything from the British Broadcasting Corp. or the Los Angeles Times because they have banned anyone from getting time and space to criticize climate change theories. It appears many media organizations believe climate change needs no further examination to take as fact looming dangers from economic catastrophe to global weather disasters — predictions that are based primarily on computer modeling.

Nevertheless, a former computer modeler for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described his 10-year tenure in a column in The Wall Street Journal as being akin to a lawyer, taking sides when evaluating evidence to prove a point.

“The climate debate is heating up again as business leaders, politicians and academics bombard us with the results of computer models that predict costly and dramatic changes in the years ahead,” Robert Caprara wrote.

One of his first projects involved an assessment for the EPA to determine whether upgrading sewage treatment plants actually led to greater pollution because larger numbers of people moved to the area.

That’s what he found, but it wasn’t the answer his boss, who sought more money for building sewage plants, wanted to hear. After three tries and adjusting the assumptions and permutations, Mr. Caprara delivered the data his boss wanted.

“My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client’s position. The opposition will build its best case for the counter argument and ultimately the truth should prevail,” he wrote. “There is no denying that anyone who makes a living building computer models likely does so for the cause of advocacy, not the search for truth.”

That would be a good thing to keep in mind for those who write about climate change and deny the opposition an opportunity to present their views to the public, particularly when the U.S. government is prepared to spend billions of dollars on trying to stop or deal with climate change.

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com and on Twitter @charper51.

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