‘Is climate science taking over the science?’: A corpus-based study of competing stances on bias, dogma and expertise in the blogosphere

The study of engagement as a way of positioning one’s authorial voice or dialogic perspective (Martin and White, 2005) has tended to focus on the analysis of grammatically marked stance and, less commonly, on paralinguistic devices and value-laden lexis (Biber, 2006). This paper contributes to redressing this imbalance by focusing on the bloggers’ use of lexical items for the purposes of dialogic engagement. A list of the most frequent tokens in CSBC was generated to assist with the selection of the lexical items to be analysed. Having set a cut-off point of at least 15 occurrences, the list was scrutinized to identify relevant evaluative tokens. To ensure that the analysis of my two relatively small subcorpora retained a strong focus on the most productive lexical expressions of engagement, I concentrated on selected nouns and items that function as pre-modifiers within noun phrases. Based on the frequency list, pre-modifying items within noun phrases were used in CSBC much more frequently than other word classes to negotiate intersubjectivity. Tokens belonging to more than one syntactic category (e.g. ‘objective’, which can potentially act as a noun or an adjective) were also discarded to ensure that the lexical items under analysis were semantically and syntactically comparable. Finally, the list was filtered to retain only those items used to qualify perceptions and applications of climate science, leaving out labels that can be used to refer both to individuals and policies (e.g. ‘warmist’, ‘sceptic’). Among the items featuring in the final list to be considered for analysis (Table 2), and in consideration of space limitations, this paper explores only instances of engagement realized through lexical items pertaining to the exercise of scientific expertise, i.e. bias/biases, dogma and peer review. Consequently, it leaves out tokens like misinformation or conspiracy that, while evaluative, do not refer primarily to standards of epistemological value. The centrality of peer review systems in the production of expert knowledge by weeding out scientific biases and dogmatic premises accounts for its selection alongside the other two items.

Table 2 Key lexical items for the study of intersubjective engagement in CSBC.

My analysis of bloggers’ alignment with their putative readership and the issues construed as matters of contention in their blog posts will examine the construction of engagement primarily through ‘dialogically contractive’ structures (Martin and White, 2005).Footnote 18 Dialogically contractive approaches to the negotiation of intersubjectivity “challenge, fend off or restrict the scope” of alternative positions and voices within heteroglossic contexts (Martin and White, 2005, p. 102). While they do not acknowledge explicitly what others may think about the proposition at hand, contraction-oriented resources make an important contribution towards the construction of dialogic positioning. By framing textual propositions as being up for discussion, dialogically contractive lexis construes a readership that is receptive to further argumentation and discussion, whether it agrees or disagrees with the blogger’s stance. Bias/-es, peer-review and dogma are examples of dialogically contractive lexical items featuring in CSBC that will now be analysed in turn. Specifically, they fall under the subcategory of “pronouncing” resources, for they allow bloggers to foreground their own subjectivity, while implying “the presence of some resistance, some contrary pressure of doubt or challenge against which the authorial voice asserts itself” (Martin and White, 2005, p. 128).

A Metafacet visualizationFootnote 19 (Fig. 1) for a concordance listing 102 occurrences of bias, biases and biased in CSBC reveals that these tokens are used in four of the five blogs included in the corpus. Considering that the size of CSBC-ACC is approximately four times that of CSBC-CON, the fact that the occurrence of these tokens, measured in absolute terms, is similar across the two subcorpora shows that their frequency is significantly higher in the contrarian subset in proportional terms.

Fig. 1

Metafacet visualization for a concordance featuring bias/-es/-ed in CSBC (102 lines), filtered by Internet outlet and sorted by frequency.

A search for bias* in the CSBC-CON corpus returns 34 occurrences of bias or biases—once the lines where these tokens are used as a verb have been removed from the concordance using a ‘Delete Line’ function available through the GoK interface.Footnote 20 As the number of occurrences retrieved is relatively low, the collocational patterns captured by the Mosaic visualizationFootnote 21 (Fig. 2) for this search are not scrutinized primarily with a view to discriminate between patterns on the basis of their statistical saliency. Instead, this visualization is used to examine the associations that the search item establishes with other lexical choices in its environment—as displayed in the Mosaic tiles on both sides of the search item. Ultimately, the network of lexical choices observed around the search item is analysed to establish whether or not the authorial voices in CSBC-CON and CSBC-ACC seek and manage to construct coherent authorial subjectivities through which bloggers can position themselves in the debate vis-à-vis their dialogic adversaries.

Fig. 2: Mosaic visualization of bias/-es in CSBC-CON (34 lines).

Collocation strength: Local, MI3 (EXP Scale).Footnote

The ‘Collocation Strength (Local)’ operating mode has been chosen here because, by presenting each column of the Mosaic in full height, it makes it easier for the reader to gain visual access to more of the collocates that the search node attracts. The ‘Collocational Strength (Global)’ view would have delivered a scaled representation of the collocates based on their statistical significance. The height of the Mosaic titles in the global view is directly proportional to the MI3 score for each collocation, which can make it more difficult to access some of the collocate tiles in printed Mosaic visualizations.

As the mosaic in Fig. 2 shows, contrarian outlets label biases relating to climate change science as ‘pro-alarmist’ in L1 position (i.e. in the first column to the left of the search node) or attribute them to the ‘warmist’ stance associated with scientific consensus, also in L1 position. Further contrarian outlets present such biases as ‘intentional’ in L3 position (i.e. in the first column to the left of the search node) and hence partisan. Crucially, CSBC-CON outlets are keen to expose the ‘institutionalized’ (position L1) nature of biases in major institutions and corporations, some of which—like IPCC (example 1) and Google (multiple concordance lines)—are captured in the Mosaic display in Fig. 2 (positions L2 and L1/L2, respectively. Other corporations such as Wikipedia (example 2) and ABC (example 3) do not appear in the Mosaic display but fit the same pattern. The contrarian authorial voice also seeks to assert itself against what it perceives as the ideological and political nature of climate change biases, which are framed as ‘anti-conservative’ (L1), ‘heavy leftist’ (L1) and hence ‘anti-American’ (L1) (example 2).

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    Text int001459 | He is healthily sceptical of the AGW scaremongers (and has written books on the subject) and this week takes apart the crumbling edifice that is the IPCC […] John McLean has written a superb exposé of the inherent bias of the IPCC: Climate Science Corrupted […] it is an eye-opening read.Footnote 23

    Source: Turnill (2010a), published in Australian Climate Madness.

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    Text int001292 | Wikipedia has well known problems that include: the unexplained exit of respected executives and directors; the foreign control of the Board of Wikimedia Foundation and its corporate body; the leftist background of the CEO and key members of the executive team; heavy leftist and anti-American bias; tight control by the Board of the nomination, election, and certification of the editorial hierarchy; and susceptibility of the nomination and election process to fraud by the executives and/or the Board members.

    Source: Goldstein (2017b), published in Science Defies Politics.

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    Text int001410 | … the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is a mouthpiece for Labor, the Left in general and the Green agenda. OK, you’re saying, tell me something I didn’t know. Yes, yes, true, but these two examples perfectly encapsulate the blatant and institutionalized bias of the ABC, which flies in the face of its legal obligations as an impartial public broadcaster, but somehow it escapes any sanction for doing so.

    Source: Turnill (2012), published in Australian Climate Madness.

Searching for bias* in the CSBC-ACC corpus returns 38 concordance lines where bias or biases are used as nouns. The scrutiny of collocates featured in the Mosaic visualization of this subcorpus (Fig. 3) indicates that a significant number of the occurrences of bias and biases in CSBC-ACC can be observed in discussions on scientific methodology (e.g. ‘datasets’, position R4 in the Fig. 3 Mosaic) in example 4; research equipment (e.g. various types of instruments that do not appear in the Mosaic display but fit the same pattern) in example 5; research metrics—e.g. ‘bias efficiency’ (position R1) versus ‘mean-media approaches’ (position R3) and the science ‘publication’ system (position L1). Of particular note is the role that ‘industry-funded’ (position L1) research plays in the production of biased climate science knowledge, as is further illustrated in example 6.

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    Text int002567 | Moreover, each instance of the presumed onset was not randomly chosen but chosen specifically because of the low subsequent warming. We describe this as selection bias … some of the biases that affect the datasets and projections were known, or knowable, at the time.

    Source: Kirby (2018), published in DeSmog UK.

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    Text int001332 | In fact, NOAA scientists were using the scientific method to identify the bias that exists in temperature measuring instruments and making their data more accurate by taking this bias into account. We all apply this same process when we compare the results of different bathroom scales, time pieces, meat thermometers, or fuel gauges in cars.

    Source: Gunther (2018), published in Union of Concerned Scientists.

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    Text int001354 | … American Coal Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Monsanto, the American Enterprise Institute, and, of course, the Alliance. The report follows a familiar pattern, generally calling into question the science behind the health impacts of [insert pollutant here], frequently based on a convoluted and biased modeling effort masquerading as science. If you’re familiar with the Disinformation Playbook, then what’s in the Alliance’s paid-for report will sound familiar …

    Source: Cooke (2018), published in Union of Concerned Scientists.

    In the preceding examples, CSBC-ACC bloggers make use of ‘pronouncing’ lexical items like bias to acknowledge the heteroglossic diversity of approaches to the study of climate science, and construct a coherent authorial voice to challenge the biased nature of the dialogic alternative at play, i.e. contrarian science. Such accusations of bias, however, are articulated differently in each subcorpus. Contrarian bloggers place particular emphasis on the ideological dimension of the biases underpinning the mainstream scientific consensus endorsed by institutions and corporations—mobilizing non-epistemic values in an indirect role (Douglas, 2009). By contrast, CSBC-ACC voices seek to legitimize their own stance by foregrounding the unsavoury sources of contrarian scientific funding, and the weaknesses of the methods and protocols used by climate change deniers. But with core experts having to play an increasingly activist role in defense of their work, CSBC-ACC bloggers occasionally draw attention to the ideological and/or political dimension of contrarian biases. In example 7, for example, biases are reframed as desirable strategies to redefine social values and accelerate the pace of progress in public life.

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    Text int000181 | Are our water resources managed by what’s measurably in the reservoir, or whether we feel that glass is half full or half empty? Did the US Department of Defense develop a climate change strategy based on whimsy, or on data and analysis? Yes, bias can be introduced when values come in to play, and this can be a good thing (e.g., when society decides to recognize the intrinsic value of species or landscapes, or intangibles like well-being) or a bad thing (e.g., when we only value what certain messengers have to say and devalue all others).

    Source: Spanger-Siegfried (2016), published in Union of Concerned Scientists.

Fig. 3: Mosaic visualization of bias/-es in CSBC-ACC (38 lines).

Collocation strength: Local, MI3 (EXP Scale).

My analysis has so far shown how each group’s authorial subjectivity is underpinned by a distinctive line of attack against alternative positions. CSBC-CON voices conceptualize climate science biases as value-driven flaws; for CSBC-ACC bloggers, on the other hand, biases result from the use of unsuitable instruments, poorly designed protocols or modelling exercises—as illustrated in examples 4–6. In the remainder of this section, I aim to test whether the corpus-assisted methodology adopted in this study can yield further insights into the differences between the strategies that contrarian and acceptor bloggers deploy to construct intersubjectivity, focusing on two additional pronouncing lexical resources, dogma and peer-review—both of which are directed at tacitly or explicitly identified counter positions.

A search for dogma* in CSBC returns a 16-line concordance. The Metafacet visualization in Fig. 4 brings into sharp relief the uneven distribution of dogma across subcorpora. 12 occurrences of the term are found in two CSBC-CON blogs (Science Defies Politics and Australian Climate Madness), even though their combined size in terms of numbers of tokens is approximately a third of the size of DeSmog UK, the only CSBC-ACC blog where dogma is used.

Fig. 4

Metafacet visualization for a concordance featuring dogma in CSBC (16 lines), filtered by Internet outlet and sorted by frequency.

The full concordance of dogma in the CBSC-CON corpus (Fig. 5) provides further evidence that contrarian bloggers seek to discredit climate science by framing this form of knowledge as value-laden, rather than evidence-driven. Climate science is conflated with ‘dogma’ (line 1) or, more elaborately, with ‘climate (change) (cult) dogma’ (lines 2–5). The fact that these lexical items are often preceded by the article ‘the’ (lines 2–4, 9–11), the possessive adjective ‘its’ (lines 5–7), or the demonstrative determiner ‘this’ (line 12) emphasizes that a single, unquestioning belief has taken over the systematically organized body of knowledge and practices that scientists would be normally expected to subject to critical scrutiny and revision. It can be further observed that contrarian bloggers occasionally use ‘science’ and ‘dogma’ in each other’s co-textual vicinity as a strategy directed against their dialogic adversaries. Specifically, contrarians frame the use of ‘science’—complete with the strong connotations of respectability that the term typically evokes—by mainstream climate change experts as a cloak to conceal the flaws of their ‘dogma’ (e.g. line 5: ‘calls its dogma science’; line 6: ‘calling it “settled science”’). As understood by the contrarians’ authorial voice, the climate change dogma is politicized and does not lend itself to scrutiny; on the contrary, it demands being accepted as undisputed truth and stands in opposition to sound research where values are used in a direct role (e.g. line 6: ‘refuses to debate its dogma’; line 7: ‘declared its dogma to be the undisputed truth’; and 12: ‘prohibiting scientific research that contradicts this dogma’). As a result, those subscribing to the climate change dogma are ‘blinded’ (line 1) and ‘brainwashed’ by it (line 9).

Fig. 5

Concordance lines (dogma) extracted from CSBC-CON and ordered alphabetically by the word in position 1 to the left.

The argument that warmist biases are firmly embedded in policy-making processes and corporate strategies—as articulated in CSBC-CON discourses—is consistent with the dialogic construction of climate change dogma by contrarian bloggers. CSBC-CON voices, for example, attribute the responsibility for the development and reinforcement of the climate change dogma to ministers (e.g. line 1, ‘she’—which refers back to Australian Senator Penny Wong); multilateral institutions and organizations (e.g. line 2: ‘lawless UN agencies’; and line 3: ‘the IPCC or UNFCC’); corporations (e.g. line 4: ‘Google’); and climate alarmists (e.g. line 6: ‘alarmist movement’; line 7: ‘climate alarmism’ and line 9: ‘global warming alarmism’). Interestingly, the contrarian trope that business giants are aligned with left-wing stances on climate change, as discussed in my earlier analysis of CSBC-CON discourses on scientific biases, is also used here to decry the pervasiveness of the climate dogma (see line 4, expanded in example 8). In trying to contest their dialogic alternative, CSBC-CON voices take the characterization of climate science as a value-driven form of knowledge one step further, framing it along religious lines—whether by presenting global emissions as a ‘sin’ requiring ‘repentance’ (line 3, expanded in example 9), or comparing the contrarians’ challenge to climate science with Galileo’s actions in defiance of the ‘Catholic Church’ (line 8, expanded in example 10).

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    Text int001050 | … the Main Part of the San Francisco AI Google Search has an internal state which includes a huge knowledge base that’s probably heavily skewed toward the left and is certainly accepting climate cult dogma as fact. Since 2011, Google Search has been demoting in search results websites that disagreed with its “facts.”

    Source: Goldstein (2017a), published in Science Defies Politics.

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    Text int001034 | The climate change cult has its own eschatology—calamities, catastrophes, and the end of the world caused by global warming. To avoid this horrible end, we have to repent (i.e., accept the climate change cult dogma), stop sinning (releasing CO2), and generously pay whomever the IPCC or UNFCC will tell us to pay.

    Source: Goldstein (2015), published in Science Defies Politics.

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    Text int001575 | If Rudd had any idea of the history of science (or in fact about anything at all), he would have realized that it was Galileo who was in the position of today’s climate sceptics, bravely proposing a scandalous sun-centred model of the solar system in the face of the religious dogma of the Catholic church (or in the present analogy, the High Church of Global Warming), which stood firmly by the biblical, faith-based, earth-centred model. And for this (ultimately correct) interpretation of the workings of the solar system, Galileo was sentenced by the Pope to house arrest…

    Source: Turnill (2009), published in Australian Climate Madness.

The three concordance lines featuring occurrences of dogma in CSBC-ACC come from blogs posted in DeSmog UK. The fact that dogma is presented in these three instances (examples 11–13) as part of quoted statements enclosed in double quotation marks signals that this lexical resource is being used to construct a ‘dialogically expansive’ position (Martin and White, 2005)—in contrast to contrarian bloggers’ efforts to head off alternative views through contractive strategies. The use of dogma by DeSmog UK voices represented in CSBC-ACC through dialogically expansive structures can therefore be said to “actively make allowances for dialogically alternative positions and voices” (Martin and White, 2005, p. 102), decoupling “the proposition from the text’s internal authorial voice by attributing it to some external source” (Martin and White, 2005, p. 111). By using this expansive strategy, CSBC-ACC bloggers engage directly with individual contrarian voices, foregrounding the extent to which the latter’s involvement in this heteroglossic setting is driven by ideology and prejudice. Climate change acceptors thus manage to ground the viewpoints of contrarian authoritarian voices (represented by a former Australian Prime Minister in example 11; a British political strategist and lobbyist associated with the Vote Leave campaign in example 12; and a Brazilian diplomat appointed by President Jair Bolsonaro in example 13) in overt manifestations of subjectivity—ultimately exposing the extent to which the resources deployed to construct CSBC-CON’s dialogic stance are at odds with discursive conventions in scientific debate.

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    Text int002583 | In 2013, Howard said climate “zealots” had turned the issue into a “substitute religion”. Abbott, who trained to be a Roman Catholic priest, called climate change a “post-Christian theology” and said the decline of religion in society had left a hole in which other forms of “dogma” could take root. Measures to deal with climate change, which Abbott said would damage the economy, likened to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”. “At least so far,” he said, “it’s climate change policy that’s doing harm. Climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than …

    Source: Mathiesen (2017), published in DeSmog UK.

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    Text int002562 | … contemporary cultural debates in the UK and was founded by Ukip Assembly Member Peter Whittle. The New Culture Forum argues that the right has won the economic argument but that the liberal left still dominates the cultural space, with its website saying the group was created to “challenge the dogma and relativism of the establishment and redefine the parameters of the cultural and political debate”.

    Source: Farand and Hope (2018), published in DeSmog UK.

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    Text int002594 | … the point of paroxysm over the last 20 years with the ideology of climate change, the climatism,” he wrote in the blog post. This movement gathered data “suggesting a correlation” between rising temperatures and CO2, he claimed. They “ignored data suggesting the opposite… and created a ‘scientific’ dogma that no one else can contest or he will be excommunicated from good society—exactly the opposite of the scientific spirit.” His claims contradict not only the vast majority of climate scientists but also the consensus among world leaders.

    Source: Mathiesen (2018), published in DeSmog UK.

Moving on to peer review, the analysis examines how the contrarian and acceptor dialogic positions align themselves with the very system designed to recognize and confer expertise on individual scientists and organizations. Technically, references to peer review systems should not serve to advance pronouncing strategies, whether contractive or expansive. While the term invokes a backdrop of heteroglossic diversity where certain views prevail over others, peer reviews are envisaged to help holders of different views to negotiate an agreed intersubjective stance based on widely accepted epistemic traditions. In other words, the integrity of the peer review system should in principle remain outside the bounds of dialogic confrontation, insofar as it should mobilize epistemic values in a direct role. Consequently, examining how authors in each subcorpus choose to characterize the impact of peer review evaluations on policy-making and social perceptions of climate change should reveal whether bloggers engage with the peer review culture (process) in the same way as they do with the science that peer reviewers choose to endorse or contest (output).

A Metafacet visualization (Fig. 6) for a concordance listing 19 occurrences of peer review in CSBC shows that this lexical item is present in both subcorpora and that its frequency is proportionally higher in the contrarian blogs, given that the size of the CSBC-CON subcorpus is only a fourth of its CSBC-ACC counterpart. A Mosaic visualization based on a 7-line concordance of peer review in the CSBC-CON blogs (Fig. 7) indicates that references to the peer review system are strongly associated with ‘alarmism’ (position L1 in Fig. 7 mosaic) in general, and ‘IPCC’ (position R4) in particular. The biased nature of peer reviews, as perceived by contrarian bloggers, explains the occurrence of lexical items like ‘corruption’ (position L3) or ‘skewing’ (position L2) in the vicinity of the search term, and the labelling of these instruments of evaluation as ‘schmeer-reviews’ (position R1, expanded in example 14). Contrarians’ scepticism towards peer reviewing also accounts, for example, for the differentiation made between ‘proper’ (position L1) peer reviews and ‘pal reviews’ (not captured in the mosaic display in Fig. 7)—the latter being an important tool to quash scientific dissent (example 15).

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    Text int001469 | IPCC quotes WWF (again) … gets it wrong (again) Peer-review, schmeer-review. Half of the IPCC’s last report was based on stuff like this, papers from deep green advocacy groups like WWF which happened to fit nicely with the IPCC’s pre-conceived agenda of climate alarmism. And they’ve been caught with their pants down yet again, this time on the …

    Source: Turnill (2010b), published in Australian Climate Madness.

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    Text int001400 | … that one of the key scientific reports on which that conclusion was based was not subjected to those proper, rigorous processes and that “corners were cut” in order to rush it through. But that’s OK isn’t it, because the consensus boys don’t have to bother with tedious inconveniences like proper peer-review. Just ask the IPCC. Anyway, they can rely on “pal-review” if they get stuck. And the hypocrisy of the EPA is breathtaking, casually brushing aside the criticisms as a trivial irrelevance. Can you imagine the outrage if this had been a sceptical report? Double standards exemplified.

    Source: Turnill (2011), published in Australian Climate Madness.

Fig. 6

Metafacet visualization for a concordance featuring peer review in CSBC (19 lines), filtered by Internet outlet and sorted by frequency.

Fig. 7

Mosaic visualization of peer review in CSBC-CON (7 lines). Collocation strength: Local, MI3 (EXP Scale).

A Mosaic visualization based on the output of the 12-line concordance for peer review in the CSBC-ACC corpus (Fig. 8), on the other hand, features peer review at the centre of a very different network of lexical relations. A detailed scrutiny of the concordance confirms that acceptor bloggers associate peer review with the established process of academic publishing, under which scientists submit and publish their work in journals that uphold rigorous standards and editorial policies based on epistemic values—unlike the case reported on in example 16, involving a journal run by a ‘climate science denier editor’. The occurrence of items evoking more negative connotations—e.g. ‘sloppy’ (position R3 in Fig. 8 mosic) and ‘corruption’ (position R4)—in the vicinity of peer review is, again, attributable to the use by CSBC-ACC bloggers of an expansive engagement strategy to convey the speech of a directly referenced dialogic adversary (example 17: ‘Melanie Phillips … argues that … the peer-review process gets sloppy…’).

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    Text int001997 | The publisher of an academic journal beloved by climate science deniers has been revamped to ensure it meets industry standards of peer-review and editorial practice. Its climate science denier editor has also stepped down. Long a home for papers that cast doubt on climate science and the seriousness of climate change, Energy and Environment was recently bought by publishing behemoth SAGE. As part of the acquisition process, …

    Source: Hope (2018), published in DeSmog UK.

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    Text int002589 | Science is Turning Back to the Dark Ages

    In this comment piece by Melanie Phillips, a right-wing British journalist and commentator, she argues that science has lost much of its academic integrity and rigour as scientists cut corners: the peer-review process gets sloppy, corruption pervades institutions, and conformity drives biases. However, this piece itself somewhat fails in its ‘scientific integrity’ and ‘rigour’ as it echoes the above Times article on the “exaggeration” of ocean acidification.

    Source: Mandel (2016), published in DeSmog UK.

Fig. 8

Mosaic visualization of peer review in CSBC-ACC (12 lines). Collocation strength: Local, MI3 (EXP Scale).

On the whole, the contrarian stance on peer reviewing is consistent with its pronouncements on biases and dogmas. Challenges are mounted against the interference of the scientific and political establishment with climate science, and the instrumentalization of peer reviews to legitimize a partisan “conduct of the climate science system” (van Rensburg, 2015, p. 141)—rather than against the material practices that embody the work of producing climate science knowledge before it is submitted for peer scrutiny. Consistency can also be observed in the way acceptor bloggers construct their dialogic position on peer reviewing, drawing attention to the practices that underpin the production of knowledge in legitimized knowledge networks and exposing the subjective pronouncements that voices on the contrarian side of the debate mobilize to construct their intersubjective stance.

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