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Correction to climate change study highlights flaws in peer-review process

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“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Scientists and journalists alike were reminded of that oft-quoted phrase by famed cosmologist Carl Sagan when authors of a study published in Nature admitted this week that they needed to issue a correction. The study was widely covered by outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC and Scientific American.

While the correction, which has yet to appear, may provide fodder for climate change skeptics, many in the scientific community are praising the authors for their quick action after recognizing their error. And some believe this is a reminder that there are inherent flaws in journal publication.

The study was led by Ralph Keeling, a professor in the geosciences research division at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Using a novel method that measures oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air from around the world, the researchers concluded Earth’s oceans are absorbing 60 per cent more heat than estimates by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I accept responsibility for these oversights.– Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Soon after it was published on Nov. 1, independent researcher Nic Lewis wrote there was a “major problem” with the study. While Lewis acknowledged that its method was novel and “certainly worthy of publication,” he found errors in the calculations that, he concluded, underestimated the uncertainty of the findings.

Three days later, the authors acknowledged the error, said they were redoing the calculations and preparing a correction to be published in Nature. The new calculations are expected to bring the oceans’ heat absorption rate more in line with IPCC estimates. 

“These problems do not invalidate the methodology or the new insights into ocean biogeochemistry on which it is based, but they do influence the mean rate of warming we infer, and more importantly, the uncertainties of that calculation,” Keeling said in a response published on the website Real Climate.

“I accept responsibility for these oversights, because it was my role to ensure that details of the measurements were correctly understood and taken up by co-authors.”

Nature says it’s looking into the matter “carefully.”

We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously and will issue an update once further information is available,” the weekly journal said in a statement to CBC News. 

Imperfect system

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks errors in science journals, believes that, while the error was unfortunate for the authors, part of the issue lies in the amount of faith the public — and journalists — put in the peer-review process.

“Science is done by human beings,” said Oransky. “When we start to think about peer review as a magical process that, somehow you put in something that may have some issues, but somehow the peer reviewers find all the problems, and then we should trust everything that’s peer reviewed, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

He still believes in the process, but says it’s not the catch-all that scientists and journalists believe it is.

“We need to stop thinking… that just because something is peer-reviewed means that it’s a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Oransky said.

Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University says the public and journalists put too much faith in the peer-review process. (CBC)

An important thing to consider, says Keeling, is that peer reviewers aren’t necessarily equipped to carefully pore over calculations. They may not even be experts in that field, particularly if the paper spans different disciplines, as was the case with this one. 

“It didn’t get seen by every audience that should have seen it, so perhaps we should have sent it to some of these other audiences for review,” Keeling told CBC News.

“That would perhaps be a lesson that I take from this: that particularly in a paper like this, it should have been circulated among other colleagues even informally. That would’ve been helpful.”

With division running deep between climatologists and those who believe they are simply being alarmist, there’s the danger that other studies will be dismissed as a result of this or any other study where an error has been made.

But Oransky says that it’s hot-button topics — like climate change, vaccines or GMOs — that are usually scrutinized far more closely than other topics. This, he says, could be a good thing, but if errors are present, it doesn’t invalidate the research or the issue.

“What happens now is, ‘See? The climate change researchers made a mistake.’ So you have this logical fallacy that everything that they’ve ever done is flawed and we can’t trust any of it,” Oransky said.

“Well, that’s not true either. We don’t live in a binary world, and we do ourselves a disservice when we act like it.”  

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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