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Monday, March 09, 2009

Case study in OA literature helping to resolve a public controversy

In his February 15 column, George Will asserted the widely-circulating claim that climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting global cooling.  Climate scientists quickly jumped in to correct him and the blogosphere lit up with the debate.  Many of their corrections cited a peer-reviewed article definitively demolishing Will's canard:  Thomas Peterson et al., The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, September 2008. 

The controversy caused the Peterson paper to rise to number 1 on the American Meteorological Society list of most downloaded papers.  (Thanks to Dan Collins.) 

For a neutral review of Will's claims about climate change, see Carl Zimmer's columns in Discover Magazine for February 27 and February 28.

Comment.  I like this story.  A peer-reviewed OA article helped correct a widely-read error.  If the definitive treatment of the issue had been TA, fewer people would have been aware of it.  Citations and even links would have been less helpful in spreading the word.  Climate change skeptics could more easily have stood their ground and pushed FUD.  But because the definitive treatment was OA, journalists and bloggers could write about the story, consult the primary literature, and point interested readers to the same source.  Non-specialists, and non-professionals without university access to TA literature, could see for themselves what the specialists were saying, without having to trust a journalist or blogger to interpret it for them.  I'm sure the Peterson article didn't settle the controversy in the sense of converting all the doubters, especially the doubters unwilling to look at the evidence.  But it injected evidence into a public controversy which owed its origin in part to the lack of evidence, and it showed which position had the evidence on its side.