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Climategate and the peer-review process

What the science says...

The Independent Climate Change Email Review investigated the CRU scientists' actions relating to peer review. In one case, it judged their strong reaction to a controversial paper was not unusual. In another, it turned out the alleged victim had actually been spreading malicious rumours about CRU. In a third, the allegation of collusion fell apart when the full email exchange was examined. The Review concluded that CRU's actions were normal and did not threaten the integrity of peer review.

Climate Myth...

Peer review process was corrupted

"They had interfered with the process of peer-review itself by leaning on journals to get their friends rather than independent scientists to review their papers. They had successfully leaned on friendly journal editors to reject papers reporting results inconsistent with their political viewpoint. They had campaigned for the removal of a learned journal’s editor, solely because he did not share their willingness to debase and corrupt science for political purposes." (Christopher Monckton)

Exhibit No. 1 of the climate conspiracy theory is a collection of emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA), which appeared on the internet in November 2009. Though some of these "Climategate" emails can sound damning when quoted out of context, several inquiries have cleared the scientists. The most comprehensive inquiry, the Independent Climate Change Email Review, did something the media completely failed to do: it put the emails into context by investigating the main allegations. Its general findings (summarised here) were that the scientists' rigour and honesty are not in doubt, and their behaviour did not prejudice the advice given to policymakers, though they did fail to display the proper degree of openness.

One set of allegations examined by the Review is the potential corruption of the peer review process. Contrarians claim that a small group of scientists, including those at CRU, attempted to hijack the peer review process, pressuring journals to reject papers whose conclusions contradicted their own. There are three main instances in which this is alleged to have happened.

The first involved a paper by Soon and Baliunas published in Climate Research in 2003, reviewing the literature on temperature change during the recent millennium. It concluded that late 20th century Northern Hemisphere temperatures were not unprecedented, contradicting the majority of the other analyses which came before and after it. The paper was approved by four reviewers and one of the journal’s ten review editors, Chris de Freitas, but received a hostile reception from the climate science community, as is reflected in the CRU emails. For example, Jones wrote in an email dated 11/3/2003:

I think the skeptics will use this paper to their own ends and it will set paleo back a number of years if it goes unchallenged. I will be emailing the journal to tell them I’m having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor, a well-known skeptic in NZ. A CRU person is on the board but papers get dealt with by the editor assigned by Hans von Storch.

Michael Mann replied:

This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that — take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…

Contrarians have used these email quotes to argue that a group of scientists including Jones and Mann deliberately hijacked the peer review process to promote a favoured conclusion.

The second incident involved the editor of Energy and Environment, Dr Boehmer-Christiansen, who claims “[t]he hacked emails revealed attempts to manipulate peer review to E&E’s disadvantage, and showed that libel threats were considered against its editorial team. Dr Jones even tried to put pressure on my university department.”

The third involved Briffa’s actions as the editor of Holocene. In an email dated 4/6/2003, Briffa wrote:

I am really sorry but I have to nag about that review — Confidentially I now need a hard and if required extensive case for rejecting — to support Dave Stahle’s and really as soon as you can. Please

Based on this email, contrarians accuse Briffa of colluding with the reviewer to reject a contradictory paper.

As well as investigating these individual cases, the Review also commissioned Dr Richard Horton, editor of distinguished medical journal The Lancet, to write an essay about the context of peer review, published as an appendix to the inquiry report.

Dr Horton told the Review that some of the questions raised by the CRU emails “may be based on a misinformed view of the peer review process”. Peer review is quality control, not censorship. Although it is obviously impossible for reviewers to be purely objective, the decision to accept or reject is the editor’s responsibility alone; what an editor seeks from a reviewer is “a powerful critique of the manuscript”. Peer review has an important role to play: it prevents over-interpretation and ensures discussion of uncertainty and context — things which contrarians claim to be in favour of. However peer review is not infallible: “Many well-founded concepts are rejected and many erroneous ideas accepted.”

Horton wrote:

Authors and reviewers are frequently passionate in their intellectual combat over a piece of research. The tone of their exchanges and communications with editors can be attacking, accusatory, aggressive, and even personal. If a research paper is especially controversial and word of it is circulating in a particular scientific community, third-party scientists or critics with an interest in the work may get to hear of it and decide to contact the journal. They might wish to warn or encourage editors. This kind of intervention is entirely normal. It is the task of editors to weigh up the passionate opinions of authors and reviewers, and to reflect on the comments (and motivations) of third parties. To an onlooker, these debates may appear as if improper pressure is being exerted on an editor. In fact, this is the ordinary to and fro of scientific debate going on behind the public screen of science. Occasionally, a line might be crossed. [Appendix 5]

So the question becomes: did the CRU scientists cross that line? It turns out the answer is probably not. Let’s look at the three individual cases named above.

In the case of Soon & Baliunas 2003, it was not only CRU which reacted strongly to the paper. The Review recounts:

A number of review editors resigned as a reaction against the publication of what they regarded as a seriously flawed paper. The journal’s publisher admitted that the journal should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication. The Editor in Chief resigned on being refused permission by the publisher to write an editorial about what he regarded as a failure of the peer review system. [8.3]

Although de Freitas described this reaction as “a mix of a witch-hunt and the Spanish Inquisition”, the Review pointed out that there were scientific grounds given (namely, the paper “conflated qualitative data on temperature and precipitation from many sources that could not be combined into a consistent proxy record”). These counter-arguments “are strongly put, and suggest that the reaction was based on a belief, for which evidence was adduced, that the science was poor. In light of the reaction of the Journal’s publisher, we do not believe that any criticism of Jones can be justified in this regard.” [8.3]

Considering this in the context provided by Richard Horton’s paper, the Review concluded that “this scale of reaction is not unusual in contested areas […] The Review makes no judgement or otherwise about the correctness or otherwise of the Soon and Baliunas paper, but we conclude that the strong reaction to it was understandable, and did not amount to undue pressure on Climate Research.” [8.3]

In the case of Energy and Environment, the Review Team “see nothing [in] Boehmer-Christiansen’s evidence that supports any allegation that CRU has directly and improperly attempted to influence the journal that she edits.” Furthermore, the emails actually show that Boehmer-Christiansen had been accusing CRU of scientific fraud, and “Jones’ response to her accusation of scientific fraud was appropriate, measured and restrained.” [8.4]

In the case of Briffa’s actions, when the Review examined the full email exchange they found nothing to support the interpretation of collusion in rejecting contradictory ideas:

It appears to reflect an Editor with a strongly negative review in hand, and who presumably had read the paper, asking for confirmation that the paper should be rejected, possibly to reduce one of the many complications that assail an editor; and in view of the delay in communicating to authors, hoping for  a strong decision from the referee. On receiving a second, more equivocal review, he offers the authors the opportunity to re-submit. [8.5]

The Review’s conclusion on the peer review allegations was as follows (its emphasis):

On the allegations that there was subversion of the peer review or editorial process we find no evidence to substantiate this in the three instances examined in detail. On the basis of the independent work we commissioned (see Appendix 5) on the nature of peer review, we conclude that it is not uncommon for strongly opposed and robustly expressed positions to be taken up in heavily contested areas of science. We take the view that such behaviour does not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication. [1.3.3]

Despite being heralded as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming”, Climategate did not even demonstrate small-scale corruption of the peer review process, let alone on the scale of the climate science community. In any case, the CRU scientists reviewed only a small part of the large body of evidence for anthropogenic global warming. That mountain of evidence cannot be explained away by the behaviour of a few individuals.

Last updated on 24 December 2010 by James Wight.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. "Peer review process was corrupted" This is an argument I'm coming across more and more. Not so much with climategate, although that does come up, but with sceptics who say that climatologists and scientific organisations are lying about climate change to secure government funding. Where can I find evidence to debunk those allegations?

    [DB] Ask them for verifiable specifics.  Then come back here.

    The argument on the face of it strains credulity.

  2. Chris, try Taking the money for granted. Very often this 'government funding' stuff is about researchers funding a lavish personal lifestyle by pocketing grants. Not the way it's done.
  3. Interesting article on Soon: Climate sceptic Willie Soon received $1m from oil companies, papers show
  4. I was on a, uh, less than credible anti-science blog recently, and some of these guys in the comments were absolutely berating me for not believing that the journals were taken over by eco-radicals. I was skeptical and repeatedly asked for evidence of this, but only got a reference to what looks to be an opinion piece by Dr. Lindzen from 2008. Title: "Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?" Now, I guess the best way to deal with this type of widespread accusation is to treat it like a conspiracy theory? I mean, it is sad that people will go to these lengths to conclude that their blog conducts better science than the peer reviewed literature, but there you go. I stood my ground, and made mention that there are a whole host of other groups outside of the journals that also have analyzed the science and deemed climate change a credible threat (US Department of Defense, US Climate Action Partnership, etc). So, I guess this is the appropriate response (before backing away in utter surprise).
  5. Otter, the best thing to do is ask those people to imagine what the world (and the practice of science) would be like if what they believed were true. It would mean that these dozens of journals across many disciplines stopped publishing any science that did not agree with the "eco-radical" ideology. Now, in order for this to be a bad thing, scientists would have to be producing science that didn't agree with the eco-radical position. These scientists, if they existed, would undoubtedly be talking to each other constantly--through email, blogs, conferences, etc.--and they would undoubtedly, by now, have begun to discover the "eco-radical" journal editor agenda (identified already by these comment stream nutters who've never written a formal hypothesis in their lives). They would then have a choice: continue to work but not publish (bye bye job - and integrity), speak out, seek legal counsel, or start a new journal. None of this has happened. Or, rather, it has allegedly happened to a couple of people whose scientific work has been found lacking and who, in fact, have acknowledged the poor work. There is no widespread call for journal editors to step down. The halls of academia are not filled with whispered bitterness at the eco-radical agenda. Quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority of scientists are, by the comment nutters' definition, "eco-radicals." They all have secret code words and communication networks, and they're all "watermelons." I mentioned Tamino's blog to a statistician colleague of mine in the context of finding examples of essentially Dunning-Kreuger. He gave me a surprised look and noted that this climate stuff had been effectively put to rest rather robustly over a decade ago. Yes. It has. Yet there are still a few nutters (the paid and the psychologically needy) and plenty of people who don't know enough to know that the nutters are nutters. The internet: damned with it and, thanks to corporate-controlled mass media, damned without it. But of course, the actual best way to respond is as you have done: ask for evidence. It never shows up.
  6. DSL, thanks for the support and ideas on how to logically approach this. From a logical perspective, I suppose I had a decent idea how to respond. My main questions for evidence centered around the following question. Why hasn't this story been blown wide open by an investigative journalist or a huge government inquiry? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I wanted to kind of test my debate skills and I remained calm/rational throughout, but I probably won't be going back.
  7. Otter For some significant set of the 'skeptics' there is no beating them. That global warming is not dangerous/not happening is to them, an axiom. By virtue of that 'fact' the peer review process must be corrupted and any morsel of information that could possibly be taken to be indicative of such corruption is unreservedly true and able to be extrapolated to all of climate science. I was once a regular on one such blog until I realised that it was negatively affecting my mood.

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