This is still a weather/climate/Laura blog, right? So why am I posting about the recent study in Pediatrics that investigated the cause of Mary’s blindness?
In a word…
I love that scientists can continue to connect their work to their fond childhood memories of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books (or watching the TV show). I love that fans of the books can get to talking about science when a cool investigation comes out.
For those who are catching up, a team of medical researchers put their heads together to try to diagnose the the illness that caused Mary’s blindness. The article, which I first saw at USAToday, has made an appearance on the front page of CNN’s website, not to mention a host of other news and blog sites (CBS, New York Times, LiveScience, Detroit News, NPR, People, and UK Daily Mail, just to name a few). If you’ll pardon the pun, it has gone viral! And all because a medical school student remembered hearing about scarlet fever when she read the books as a kid and connected it to her medical school education later in life. I totally get it.
The ever informative Nancy Cleaveland pointed out that another researcher came to a different conclusion in a project that was discussed in the Homesteader newsletter (chicken pox). Nancy wondered why this new study is gaining traction over the old one, and it gives me a great opening to talk about the scientific process a bit.
Scientists trust peer-reviewed articles above all others. These articles, published in very specialized journals, are given to at least 2 or 3 specialists in that field to review. Let’s take my area of specialty as an example, because I can discuss it knowledgeably. Eventually, I will submit pieces of the work I’ve done to one of the well-regarded journals in my field — probably the Journal of Climate. The article will be reviewed by people who have very specific expertise in the very specific aspects of my study — statistical analysis of data, using modern data to investigate historical events, and global climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña. Those reviewers will tear apart my data, scrutinize my methods, and dig into my conclusions, checking along the way that they think I’ve used the right data and the right techniques, that I’ve used those data and techniques correctly, and that my conclusions are supported by those data and techniques.
Not one of my reviewers, though, will be a Laura expert. If I want to get those parts correct, I have to run it by some of my Laura expert friends first.
Peer review is the best process we have to show other scientists that we are doing credible science. It is not a flawless process. One of the primary ways that mistakes get into peer-reviewed literature is when the material is not in the specialty area of the journal. If I’m using a paper from the Journal of Climate, I’m not going to use it to verify, say, the life cycles of frogs. I’m going to use it to verify climate techniques, and if the article happens to discuss the life cycles of frogs in relation to climate, I’m going to pretty much take their word that the frog stuff is all right. Likewise, when I publish a paper in the Journal of Climate, the reviewers will take for granted that I got the Laura stuff correct, because it’s outside their areas of expertise. The paper will be credible as a climate paper, but it would be questionable for hard-core researchers to use it as, say, a literary analysis of Laura’s storytelling techniques, because it wasn’t reviewed as a literary paper.
I trust the medical analysis of the new study because it passed peer review of other doctors. The authors did their due diligence to get Laura’s story right, but I don’t necessarily turn to this paper as the final word on Laura’s story. I do think, though, that we can turn to it as a credible medical explanation of what happened to Mary. Until another explanation passes through peer review and makes it into a medical journal, it’s the best explanation that we have.
That is how science works! We trade evidence among specialists as we work toward getting the best explanation that current evidence can give us.
I make this point because from time to time, confusing information about climate change sneaks through peer review. It often sneaks through in journals that don’t specialize in climate and don’t have reviewers who have expertise in climate. They take the leap of faith that the authors got the climate stuff right, while focusing on their expertise in, say, coral reef biology in a journal that focuses on marine biology. Most authors do their due diligence to get the rest of the story correct. Some authors have an agenda, or just don’t have all the knowledge that they should, and they put information into those papers that goes against the evidence known in the climate field. It’s important to know where the body of evidence is pointing when it comes to science. It’s also important to know which sources are credible.
We continue to add evidence to the research on just about every weather and climate phenomenon out there. Sometimes, the evidence is in good agreement, such as the overwhelming body of evidence that humans are increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is causing warming that is causing all kinds of changes to weather patterns, ocean currents, and plant and animal life. Sometimes, the evidence is murky and unclear, like whether or not the number of tornadoes will increase as climate changes. Climate change will have all kinds of impacts on our health, and climatologists and doctors will have to team up to publish papers, to make sure that we get both the climate and the medical science right!