The Art of Correction: A Blog Post Corrects Nature

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

This post is not about climate change. Do not make it about climate change. Instead, it is about a surprising moment, where a blog post forces changes to a Nature publication.

A group of international scientists is walking back major claims they’d made in the journal Nature about the rate at which the earth’s oceans are warming. A newly published note from the study’s co-author, Ralph Keeting, makes it plain that these researchers still believe the oceans are warming at an alarming rate, but they now acknowledge that procedural mistakes “that came to our attention” created an unacceptably large margin of error in their results.

Where did Lewis debunk the doomsayers? No, not in the esteemed pages of Nature but in a blog post at a website called Climate Etc., a small, dissenting dot in the vast universe of online science discussion. Lewis wrote: “The findings of the…paper were peer-reviewed and published in the world’s premier scientific journal and were given wide coverage in the English-speaking media.” He went on: “Despite this, a quick review of the first page of the paper was sufficient to raise doubts as to the accuracy of its results. Just a few hours of analysis and calculations, based only on published information, was sufficient to uncover apparently serious (but surely inadvertent) errors in the underlying calculations.”

(you can read Lewis’ post here: A major problem with the Resplandy et al. ocean heat uptake paper | Climate Etc.).

Of note the scientists who made the mistake thanked Lewis:

“The more important message is that our study lacks the accuracy to narrow the range of previous estimates of ocean uptake,” Keeling said in an email. He thanked Lewis for pointing out the anomaly.

This is how scientists are supposed to treat critics, even the ones far outside the mainstream. They are supposed to respond to critique without defensiveness, acknowledging mistakes and fixing errors. This is exactly what they did here. This should only increase our confidence in their work. Everyone one makes mistakes, but everyone does not correct them.

So do worthless arguments on the internet help anything? I want to draw attention to the wording on our disclaimer:

Notice, this was not an argument between non-professionals on the internet. Rather, it was a carefully stated and thoughtful blog post by a skeptic, far outside the mainstream, without appropriate credentials. To their credit, scientists responded by retracting. Moreover, we have our own story on this regarding a population bottleneck of humans in the distant past (@glipsnort, @Agauger, Heliocentric Certainty Against a Bottleneck of Two?). This sort of course correction is why I think Peaceful Science is so important. We want to be a place to enable this sort of creative and meaningful engagement with real critics.

Science is best when we engage critique in good faith, retracting errors as we find them. This, I hope, becomes a new pattern in origins. It is the standard I aim to live by here at Peaceful Science.

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