Editor’s Apologetic Resignation Blows Gaping Hole in Over-Hyped Media Story

An editor’s public resignation over his journal’s acceptance of a controversial report illustrates both the shortcomings of peer review and the over-hyping of a study by some in the media. The first in a series of regular postings.

In case you’re just returning from a three-day Labor Day-induced off-the-grid monastic retreat, let’s get caught up: There was a big climate change story that churned all through the long holiday weekend in the U.S.

Commentary

The news broke on Friday, when the editor-in-chief of a fairly new and little known journal resigned, as reported in the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, “in response to an academic controversy triggered by his publication of a paper co-authored by a leading climate skeptic.”

The editor, Wolfgang Wagner, explained his unusual decision in this editorial, which of course kicked the hyperactive climate blogosphere into overdrive. But let’s first briefly review how this story came to be.

In July, Wagner’s journal, Remote Sensing, published this paper co-authored by Roy Spencer and William Braswell that got spun into a doozey of a headline at Forbes:

“New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole in Global Warming Alarmism”

That landed like a flare at the blog site of Matt Drudge, who sent the story aloft as only he can, where it caught Fox News tailwinds.

Never mind that, as science writer Michael Lemonick noted at the time, “the Forbes headline is way more sensational than anything Dr. Roy Spencer actually says in his new paper.” And what the Spencer/Braswell report did contain had “very basic shortcomings,” according to several authors at Real Climate. They wrote that it was “evident” the paper “did not get an adequate peer review” and “should not have been published.”

In his apologetic resignation note, Wagner agreed with this assessment but also pointedly blamed the “public media” for exaggerating the “minority view” advanced by the Spencer/Braswell paper.

Now there’s a lot of Sturm and Drang in the climate blogosphere over the appropriateness of Wagner’s action. See here, here and here for excerpts of the varied reaction.

Roy Spencer, for his part, says he rejects the main criticism of his paper (that it is full of errors that peer reviewers missed and thus should not have been published), and he asserts at his blog “that it is still one damn fine and convincing paper.”

Another intriguing angle of this story is the anticipated publication this week of Texas A&M University’s Andrew Dessler’s paper, which is considered to be a formal, scientific rebuttal to the Spencer/Braswell paper.

Taken together, all this was fairly combustible stuff in its own right, fueling instant recriminations, cheers, and conspiracy theories across the bloggy climate spectrum. Then this essay appeared, confirming the view among many that some climate scientists just don’t know when to leave well enough alone. After all, here they had a heroic character (Wagner of Remote Sensing) falling on his sword and in the process single-handedly rewriting the original media narrative of the Spencer paper. That was the story going into the weekend and it had serious, legitimate legs.

It would have been wise of certain climate scientists to let that storyline play out.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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29 Responses to Editor’s Apologetic Resignation Blows Gaping Hole in Over-Hyped Media Story

  1. > the view among many

    Many? Just the usual wackos.

    Which is to say: you should have left that piece of flame bait out. As you say, “some… just don’t know when to leave well enough alone”.

  2. Stu says:

    I noticed just today on Roy Spencer’s blog that he’s subtley fired a few shots back Dessler’s way. The feeling this gives me is an uneasy one- I really wish this debate wasn’t so personal; climate science really needs better role models right now.

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      The notion that scientists are dispassionate and their work impersonal should have been dispelled by disagreements among the Greeks 2,500 years ago. When has science ever been dispassionate and impersonal? Passion and personality are the drivers of science. Why would climate change science be exceptional, especially when large economic interests and strong public movements each are making strong politico-cultural efforts to overcome the other?

      I find it all quite exciting, confident that the turmoil will filter the foolishness and the truth will out. Not only will societies undertake serious efforts to mitigate and when necessary, plan for climate change, but the sour experience of the climate change “debate” will swing the pendulum back to a serious public regard for science and the diminution of magical thinking and greed as drivers of policy across the board.

      • Stu says:

        It’s probably just blog burnout. That and/or an admittedly idealistic view about science. As post modernists I reckon we need that kick in the face… to be able to turn to science to give us an answer that might just be different from the one we imagined, to relish in that. Away from politics, away from the personal.

        Don’t mind me, I’ll be all better tomorrow.

  3. Shub says:

    I’ll certainly be as engaged in the Yale threads of my posts as I am over here.

    Alright, delete this post of mine then. Or even better…’moderate’ it.

    The main story, which you missed as usual, are the links between Wagner and Trenberth, and why Trenberth might have been in a position to precipitate this action.

    You have to read Maurizio Morabito’s blog to learn the story.

    Go ahead Kloor, show your engagement. Delete this post.

  4. Tom Fuller says:

    The last round in this series of blow and counterblow seems to have been a conscious effort by the recently constituted Climate Rapid Reaction Team to counter skeptical reaction to events. I believe Trenberth, author of the Sept. 2 letter, is a member of the Team.

    They need to learn quite a bit more about media reaction teams. First, react, don’t repeat. Second, don’t make it personal. Third, use citations not accusations. They didn’t. They’re paying the price.

  5. Marlowe Johnson says:

    And here I was thinking that we’d finally have the chance to agree on something Tom. It’s been a while. Can you help me with the whole ‘team’ membership list? That way I can discount/ignore what they say that much quicker.

    Keith, IMO, this issue, much like the Wegman affair is a pretty useful event in terms of smoking out the ‘skeptical heretics’; or at the very least getting a better sense of where their ‘tribal’ allegiances lie. One wonders how RPJr or Curry would react if one of the ‘Team’ members had submitted the paper and behaved the way that Spencer is at the moment. The asymmetrical treatment that non-Team members get from that crowd is certainly interesting to watch…

  6. Tom Scharf says:

    I really don’t get this whole apology thing. This is just way out there. That is throwing up red flags left and right. Something really doesn’t smell right with that.

    The media goes crazy on pro-AGW articles on a much more frequent basis (Global warming = mental illness, tornadoes, hurricanes, mass extinction of species, etc.). A scientist or a journal cannot control media reaction, and over-hyping a paper for media attention is par for the course.

    It is pretty clear this is just another p***ing match between academics, but also reinforces the argument of inappropriate influence over journals for political purposes. There are certainly better more appropriate ways to respond to what one believes to be bad science.

    In engineering, I have found it greatly improves effectiveness to de-personalize technical disputes. Make the arguments over the science, not the person, do not attack the people, but the technical problem. Using terms such as “his design”, “their problem”, “her mistakes” makes it personal, and people respond accordingly. Simple nomenclature changes “the problem”, “the fix for the design”, “the issue with the science is…” makes all the difference sometimes.

    The team is just a bit too insecure with its science when it finds it necessary to (over)react in this fashion.

    • PDA says:

      Tom S., both sides do this.

      You need look no further than “the team is just a bit too insecure” for an example of personalizing the dispute.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        Ha ha – touche

        “The science would seem to be not standing on very firm ground when it is necessary to refute critics in this manner”

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    What would be really interesting is if we heard from any or all of the peer reviewers of the Spencer paper.

    Beyond that, what especially interests me is how this whole episode illustrates yet another example of the weird, symbiotic relationship between mainstream media and the blogosphere.

    There are plenty of examples where studies have been irresponsibly hyped by journalists who have written stories playing up the dangers of…you can fill in the blanks.

    In this case, it was largely the conservative media hyping a contrarian scientific finding that a journal editor belatedly finds so flawed that he feels resigning is the only way to restore his credibility and that of the journal that published Spencer’s paper.

    What’s the best that could come out of this? Perhaps as Chris Mooney suggests in a post he wrote today (at Desmog Blog) on this affair, it “is to make people more aware of the nature of bias and its subconscious (and frankly, biological) underpinnings. At that point, just maybe, we can begin to realize that weird “science” gets published sometimes, and even gets pounced on in the press…but that still doesn’t mean you should listen.”

    • Jeff Norris says:

      Keith
      Maybe you should revisit some of your previous post

      If a journalist writes a story that is viewed as giving aid and comfort to them–the deniers–then you might as well be one of them. Or, if one of your colleagues writes such a story and you don’t quit in protest, then what good are you?
      http://www.collide-a-scape.com/category/media/?submit=view

      We are not just ruled by idiots, we are reported on by idiots too.
      http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/10/07/idiot-watch/

    • Tom Gray says:

      Sorry, guess I do not understand. The CERN paper on the influence of cosmic rays on cloud formation is currently being given very similar treatment to Spencer’s paper–hailed by a variety of conservative media as refuting the entirety of science behind anthropogenic global warming)–even though it seems quite clear that it does no such thing. Isn’t it obvious that there is a conscious, organized effort among a number of columnists and media outlets to flog a particular type of story on a particular subject? Sure, there are lots of individuals out there pushing questionable material about their own pet viewpoint, but this seems to me to be in a different category. It is systematic, organized, persistent, and repetitive.

      • Fred says:

        The theory behind the CERN experiment (developed by Henrik Svensmark) is that solar influences are a/the primary determinant of climate change. Proponents of this theory have suggested that the warming observed during the later part of the 20th century was due to an increase in solar activity during that time (dubbed the “modern maximum”) rather than caused by CO2 increases. AGW proponents have claimed that CO2 levels drive climate change and that solar influences may have been determinative in the past, but are currently completely overshadowed by CO2.

        That the cosmic ray explanation of climate change is directly competitive to the CO2 levels explanation is made clear in this presentation by the physicist Nir Shaviv:

        http://www.sciencebits.com/CO2orSolar

  8. Menth says:

    I’m just glad that Kevin Trenberth got his apology letter -poor guy, hope he’s feeling better.

    • stan says:

      If Wagner’s truly weird letter wasn’t enough to tip off the faithful that the fix was in, the apology to Trenberth has to do it. Not even the most committed of believers can try to massage that away without sacrificing all credibility.

  9. Dessler’s paper is now out, and it appears that Roy Spencer has been caught red-handed hiding data.

    http://bbickmore.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/roy-spencer-persecuted-by-own-data/

      • Stan,

        A single stats class should have disabused you of any notion that McIntyre’s arguments have merit. R^2 might be low because 1) the data are scattered (which they are) OR 2) the slope is low (which it also is). That’s why a competent scientist (like Dessler) would calculate a 95% confidence interval for the slope (which he did) instead of relying solely on R^2.

        So the facts are that 1) Dessler reported the uncertainty in his slope determination just like he should have, and 2) Spencer and Braswell left out all the contrary data they SAID they analyzed.

      • And did you notice that the criticism about the correlation values was directed at a PREVIOUS paper of Dessler’s, rather than the current one? McIntyre doesn’t seem to want to deal with the fact that Spencer and Braswell clearly left contrary data out of their paper. He seems to be saying that if he can find any reason to doubt the statistical significance of Dessler’s results (which Dessler explicitly reported), then hiding data is ok. Sure.

  10. Fred says:

    Lubos Motl has a devastating critique of the Dessler paper at his website, here:

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2011/09/andrew-dessler-clouds-dont-reflect.html

    If Dessler’s very weak and unpersuasive article is all the team can muster, Spencer and Braswell’s findings stand. Add to it Lindzen and Choi as well as the CERN results on Svensmark’s theory and “global warming” theory is on its way out.

    • PDA says:

      Oh goodness, yes. Detection of spectral radiance emitted to space consistent with “greenhouse” gas concentrations, the magnitude of GHG radiative forcing larger than that of all other known forcing agents, observed temperature changes similar in magnitude to those estimated from forcings, the observed pattern of temperature changes match the GHG pattern better than that of all other known forcing agents… versus a couple of papers and a blog post that confirm your preconceptions.

      I agree. It’s no contest. I’ll suit up for the coming ice age.

      • Fred says:

        It is not that GHG’s play no role in determining climate, rather it is that manmade CO2 is not capable of producing harmful warming. The Svensmark-inspired CERN experiments are progressing in the direction of demonstrating that indirect solar effects are an important driver of climate change. They, rather than CO2 increases, may account for the late 20th century warming.

        Going forward, the AGW CO2 theory predicts ever-increasing temperatures. The cosmic ray theory predicts cooling due to a recent and projected downturn in solar activity. So you may be right to suit up for cooler times ahead. Its a better bet than stocking up on air conditioners.

    • Motl’s “critique” is incredibly stupid. Here’s his main point:

      “So the only thing that the IPCC needs to do in order to debunk the heretical paper is to publish a paper claiming that the clouds don’t reflect any sunlight!”

      No, Dessler (and Spencer and Braswell!!!) were talking about the net change in what clouds do (they both reflect and trap radiation) in response to outside forcing.

  11. @Keith Kloor

    What would be really interesting is if we heard from any or all of the peer reviewers of the Spencer paper.

    After Wagner’s “three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors” smear against them, why on Gaia’s green earth would they want to run the risk of tarnishing the reputations they have earned via their respective “impressive publication record[s]” (not to mention that of the “renowned US universities” at which they are based)?

    What would be really interesting to me though, Keith, is to know why you did not take Wagner to task for failing to contact Spencer and Braswell before making his decision – and blindsiding them with this “editorial”.

    After all, you were certainly up in arms earlier this year when – according to your high standards – Fred Pearce comitted the cardinal sin of failing to contact Gavin Schmidt in order ascertain whether Pearce was “interpreting [Schmidt's] E-mail correctly.”

    • Keith Kloor says:

      Hilary Ostrov,

      Actually, I would think the three reviewers might want to publicly defend their reputations in lieu of Wagner’s public criticism of them–esp if they felt he was wrong.

      As for the protocols involved in Wagner’s decision, that was outside the scope of this particular post. But I certainly think that he gave journalists much to follow up on–including your assertion of “blindsiding” Spencer and Braswell.

      Lastly, the example you cited from a previous post of mine earlier in the year is not equivalent to this episode.

      • in lieu of Wagner’s public criticism

        Hmmm … my dictionary translates “in lieu of” to “instead of” as in “in lieu of flowers, please send donations to …”. What does your dictionary say?!

        But I certainly think that he gave journalists much to follow up on–including your assertion of “blindsiding” Spencer and Braswell.

        Yet I’m not aware of any journalists who have spoken about the blindsiding, are you?

        Lastly, the example you cited from a previous post of mine earlier in the year is not equivalent to this episode.

        Actually, I quite agree. That incident was an example of you making a mountain out of a molehill (and demonstrating a double standard, to boot!) This one, however, was far more serious – at least for the reputations of Spencer and Braswell (and those of the reviewers, should their names ever come to light).

        Don’t know if you’ve been following the latest developments on this matter, btw; but it seems that there were several serious errors in Dessler’s paper. And he’s now doing a significant revisions (some of which are with Spencer’s assistance.) So much for GRL’s “peer reviewers” and editorial decisions, eh?

        I don’t move in such circles, but some of my best friends do. In the words of one, “such major revisions after a paper has been accepted and in press is unheard of”.

  12. Steve Short says:

    Hhhhhhmmm censorship eh. Yale too! How interesting.

    Well how about just the last two references (to support Spencer and Braswell):

    http://rossmckitrick.weebly.com/uploads/4/8/0/8/4808045/mmh_asl2010.pdf

    http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~qfu/Publications/grl.fu.2011.pdf

    Let’s see if you expunge this.