Thousands of research papers have been published on different aspects of the science of climate change. Developing an accurate picture of the state of scientific knowledge requires sorting through and assessing the potential insights offered by these papers.
That’s what comprehensive assessments, like the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC’s most recent summarized and full reports and the National Academy of Sciences reports attempt to do. The credibility of these efforts is built on the inclusion of a broad range of independent experts, representation of the full range of credible scientific research, and an openness of the process and the participants to reassessment of their views in the face of new or contradictory evidence. The result is our most accurate depiction of what is known and not known about the state of climate science.
It remains possible, however, to select a relatively small handful of papers from among the many thousands in a way that presents a vastly different picture of the state of scientific understanding. This type of cherry picking isn’t very effective for arguments within the research community because scientists draw on the larger body of knowledge when assessing the merit of individual papers or the arguments that rest upon them. Cherry picking can be highly effective in misleading non-experts such as politicians, journalists, and the public, however.
It is important to realize that not all papers carry equal weight. Some papers have been more fully vetted by the research community and some results more widely reproduced. Different journals can have higher or lower standards for the work that they publish. Developing an accurate assessment of scientific knowledge requires distinguishing among conclusions that can be valid, invalid, or somewhere in between.
Is it ever appropriate to select individual papers that disagree with the conventional wisdom? Definitely! Sometimes a paper can be ground breaking. Sometimes a single paper conflicts with what we thought we knew and holds up after further scrutiny. But it is highly unusual for a paper to invalidate all the insights of previous research.
Instead, new research usually makes incremental contributions to our knowledge or provides a glimpse of new understanding that will only unfold fully through careful additional research efforts. Since some papers can be more credible than others and since some more weight than others, rejecting some and emphasizing others can make sense. How can we do that wisely? We conduct a careful and inclusive assessment.
The claim that one paper, or even a handful of disparate papers, undercut a comprehensive scientific assessment such as those by the IPCC or the National Academy of Sciences is dubious. Individual papers simply don’t carry the same weight as a broadly inclusive and comprehensive assessment process.
For this reason, appeals to individual papers, particularly those that supposedly disprove the findings of comprehensive assessments, should be looked at with skepticism.