An Interactive History of Climate 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 visualise 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 visualisation that very cleverly packs an incredible amount of information into a single, user-friendly graphic. The visualisation displays the number of climate papers published each year, sorted into skeptic/neutral/pro-AGW categories (more on these categorisations 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.

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 visualisation 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 visualisation with a link to the paper. In one succinct visualisation, 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 categorised

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 categorised 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 categorised as neutral.

So yes, categorisation can get a little complicated and there'll 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 visualisation a first step, not a final destination. While we have over 4000 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 visualisation, 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" categorisation). I'm sure there will be much discussion on the issue of categorisation and how it can be more robust and clearly defined.

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

Note - the short URL to An Interactive History of Climate Science is

Posted by John Cook on Tuesday, 31 May, 2011

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