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An Interactive History of Climate Science

Interactive Graphic SOURCE: Paul D, Skeptical Science

Skeptical Science has a nifty new interactive tool that maps the history of climate science literature in a very simple, visual way. While it is still a work in progress, the tool begins to make clear that the majority of scientific literature over the years has been either neutral or positive on the question of anthropogenic global warming, or “AGW”–whether human activities are causing the planet to warm.

While scientific questions are not answered by majority vote, the tool is nonetheless a fun and useful way of displaying and accessing a long history of scientific literature. When you click on the circle for a given year, you can actually get a list of all the scientific journal articles in that category that were published that year, with a link to the journal for each. Very useful.

You can play with the interactive climate science history tool here, and the article about it below is republished from Skeptical Science.

For years, I’ve been casually accumulating a database of peer-reviewed climate papers. A few months ago, some Skeptical Science contributors began brainstorming creative ways to visualize this database – a kind of visual sequel to Naomi Oreskes’ famous Science paper on consensus. Paul D decided to take it a step further and began programming a Javascript visualization that very cleverly packs an incredible amount of information into a single, user-friendly graphic.

The visualization displays the number of climate papers published each year, sorted into skeptic/neutral/pro-AGW categories (more on these categorizations shortly). What really blew me away is the slider at the bottom — drag it from left to right to observe the evolution of climate science research from Joseph Fourier in 1824 to the flood of research in 2011.

[Click on image to access visualization with slider].

How the Interactive History of Climate Science works

The Interactive History of Climate Science displays the number of climate papers published in each year from 1824 to 2011.

Each year is represented by a circle with the size of the circle determined by the number of papers. By moving the slider, you change the “current year” – more years are shown as you slide from left to right. The visualization begins with the slider parked in 1824 when Joseph Fourier first published General remarks on the temperature of the terrestrial globe and the planetary space.

Mouseover any circle and a small box displays the year and number of papers published in that year. Here’s the cool part – click on any circle and all the papers published that year are displayed beneath the visualization with a link to the paper. In one succinct visualization, Paul D has managed to cram in an incredible amount of information, with links to thousands of climate papers. It captures the ethos of Skeptical Science – multiple layers of information with both a user-friendly version for the layperson and a more detailed layer allowing deeper exploration.

How the papers are categorized

We took a different approach to Naomi Oreskes’ Science paper who sorted her papers into “explicit endorsement of the consensus position”, “rejection of the consensus position” and everything else (neutral). In the case of Skeptical Science, the backbone of our site is our list of climate myths. Whenever a climate link is added to our database, it is matched to any relevant climate myths. Therefore, each link is assigned “skeptic”, “neutral” or “proAGW” whether it confirms or refutes the climate myth.

This means a skeptic paper doesn’t necessarily “reject the consensus position” that humans are causing global warming. It may address a more narrow issue like ocean acidification or the carbon cycle. For example, say a paper is published examining the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs. If the paper finds evidence that ocean acidification is serious, the paper is categorized as pro-AGW and added to the list of papers addressing the “ocean acidification isn’t serious” myth.

There are a large number of neutral papers. Neutral does not mean to say each paper was unable to resolve the climate myth. Sometimes, a paper is relevant to a number of climate myths and the results are mixed as to whether it endorses or rejects all the myths. In many cases, the paper doesn’t directly set out to directly resolve the myth or the paper has a regional emphasis rather than global. Some papers are about method development more than obtaining a final result. Papers that met any of these criteria are often categorized as neutral.

So yes, categorization can get a little complicated and there willl be a blog post shortly discussing these issues in more detail. I’m starting to think Naomi’s approach was the better way to go!

How we built the database of peer-reviewed papers

The database of peer-reviewed papers is a crowd sourced effort. Special credit must go to Ari Jokimäki and Rob Painting who both submitted thousands of papers to the database (the horse race between the two was fascinating to watch). Ari runs AGW Observer, a blog that keeps track of peer-reviewed climate papers, so he had a huge collection at his fingertips. I also highly recommend his Twitter account which announces new climate papers on a daily basis and there’s been a continuous flow of papers in the Skeptical Science Daily Climate Links email.

How you can join the crowd sourcing effort

You can help by joining the crowd sourcing effort. To add peer-reviewed papers, you can use our web based form or the Skeptical Science Firefox Add-on. I’d suggest using the Firefox Add-on – if you can get into the habit of adding any climate links as you browse around, you’ll make this data collecting geek very happy! Check out how you’re doing by comparing how many papers everyone has submitted (I’ll probably revamp this page, add some more features and extra layers of information).

We consider this visualization a first step, not a final destination. While we have over 4,000 papers in the database, that is just the tip of the iceberg with many more papers yet to be added. As well as build the number of papers, we’d like to experiment with different ways of displaying the papers. In addition to the visualization, you can also view all the papers grouped by skeptic/neutral/proAGW and grouped by which climate myths they address. But I’m sure there are other creative ways this data could be displayed (eg – by using the categories each paper falls under, it should be possible to determine which papers fall under Naomi Oreskes’ “reject/endorse the consensus” categorization). I’m sure there will be much discussion on the issue of categorization and how it can be more robust and clearly defined.

If you have any ideas on how this information could be organized and displayed, post a comment here and we’ll discuss it further (Paul D’s visualization could have gone in many different directions). As with any social media phenomenon, anything is possible when a community starts brainstorming.

John Cook is the editor of Skeptical Science, where this article originally appeared.

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