Publication of the recent Opinion piece by Nicola Scafetta and Bruce West struck me as potentially blurring the distinction between a peer-reviewed journal article and an opinion piece. Presumably, opinion pieces are held to a dramatically lower standard than journal articles are in terms of peer review, burden of proof, and weight of scientific evidence. Yet publishing something dubbed “opinion” that contains scientific declarations of fact or scientific assertions effectively blurs the crucial distinction between opinions and peer-reviewed research articles. Physics Today’s audience seems to have a broad focus and therefore to be less likely to evaluate the substance of the scientific claims raised in that or similar pieces.
As has been noted in journalism circles, from the perspective of the public and no doubt elements of the science community as well, “the distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded.” 1 The same may well be true for scientific journals; distinctions between opinions and research articles are largely meaningless to those outside science, and that blurring may misinform public perceptions.
The net effect is that the scientific community is more or less obligated to respond to scientific claims made in opinion pieces just as if they had met the standards of scholarly peer review. The burden of proof then switches from those making claims to the science community at large for disproving each and every such claim.
I urge the editors of professional science journals, including Physics Today, to revisit their policies and procedures regarding what constitutes an article versus an opinion. Such distinctions are not without consequence.