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Clouds Over Peer Review

Posted on 7 October 2011 by Captain Pithart

Guest post by Jörg Zimmermann

The opponents of the current state of science regarding climate change play on a wide range of instruments. On one end there are anti-scientific tirades in mass media and blogs, on the other the instruments of scientific work are used for their own purposes. Part of this is looking for ways to trick or circumvent scientific peer review, or to reframe scientific articles to fit an agenda. The scandal over the recent article by Roy Spencer and William Braswell in the recently founded scientific journal Remote Sensing belongs to this part of the spectrum of activity opposing the climate science consensus and delivers a déjà vu, weak science and an example for the impact of reframing scientific results in mass media and blogs.

The "AGW is no problem" crowd has failed in challenging the foundations of the state of science regarding climate change. No more can any scientist doubt without appearing foolish that the Earth is warming on a global scale, or that a "greenhouse effect" exists. Gerlich & Tscheuschner attempted this, but the topic was outside their area of expertise, and the polemical style of their contribution is so remote to a serious scientific discussion of the topic that it leads to doubts regarding their basic scientific competence. The interesting part of this case is that here too there was an attempt to play the system of peer review, which is supposed to work as a first plausibility check for scientific contributions.

Here are the common tricks used to sneak pseudoscience into the peer-reviewed literature:

  1. Publication in a professional journal outside the subject area.
  2. Utilizing a friendly or politically like-minded publisher or editor.
  3. Selection of like-minded reviewers, or just having negligent or over-challenged reviewers
  4. Publication in a low-profile journal with low rejection rate - what matters is that the article can be paraded as peer-reviewed.
  5. vague discussion of the topic within the article, which allows for serious interpretation, but also for subsequent public delivery of overhyped interpretations.
  6. Correct presentation of a detail, with the possibility of illegitimate generalization in the public debate; also hyping insignificant deviations as total refutation.
  7. Papers with data that were chosen to produce a desired result, or manipulative use of theory, model and data.

Gerlich & Tscheuschner for example published in a journal outside the subject area (1), apparently had friendly editors there (2) and a friendly and negligent reviewer (3) and thus were able to publish implausible and polemic assumptions as a peer-reviewed article. Had they been right, the article had evoked a dramatical revolution within climate science, and G&T were candidates for a Nobel Prize. Quite to the contrary though, meteorologists and climatologists found the absurd work not even worthy of a rebuttal.

Essex, McKitrick and Andresen (2007) also had success with utilizing a journal with a different thematic focus. They alleged that there is no global temperature, a nonsensical statement that would have had no chance to go with a journal of meteorology, climatology or geophysics. So at least point (1) applied here, with suspicion of (2) and (3), for who should be knowledgeable about the finer details of meteorological data series and methods in a journal on non-equilibrium thermodynamics?

McLean, de Freitas and Carter (2009) on the other hand were able to publish in the fitting and respectable Journal of Geophysical Research, but their thesis of climate change being only the result of a sequence of ENSO cycles was so error-ridden and nonsensical that one must speculate about point (3). Foster et al. (2009) demonstrated that their handling of data was manipulative (point (7)).

Lindzen and Choi

Besides the blatant nonsense there are other possibilities to plant seeds of doubt. The most important method here is to play down climate sensitivity (contradicting a large body of work pointing in the other direction) and to explain global warming with alternative theories. Usually additional forcings due to cloud cover are brought up, which by some mysterious mechanism are driven by cosmic influences, solar activity or unexplained internal variability of the coupled system of the atmosphere and oceans. But here too the discussion runs for over twenty years now, so that the wiggle space is shrinking for opposing views. Three approaches from this field could be witnessed in the recent past, each one pronounced the final nail in the coffin of Anthropogenic Climate Change Theory (final nails were driven in on a weekly basis for the last two decades, which made about as much of an impact on climate change denialists as the rather weak showing of Armageddon did to Jehova's Witnesses). There was Lindzen & Choi, On the determination of climate feedbacks on ERBE data, Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L16705 (2009), using arbitrarily selected periods of tropical oceanic weather to state proof for a negative feedback on global warming from cloud cover. By choosing slightly different periods, the opposite conclusion can be drawn. Lindzen & Choi (2009) furthermore displays significant misinterpretations of the tropical climate system and of the utilization of climate models. So this falls under point (7) in the above list, but here at least experts are needed to dissect the flawed work. Trenberth, Fasullo, O’Dell und Wong, Relationships between tropical sea surface temperature and top-of-atmosphere radiation, GRL 37, L03702, (2010) not only refute Lindzen & Choi (2009), but also simplifying models in general that implicate negative feedback on global warming due to clouds.

Displeased with the refutation of their paper, Lindzen and Choi tried to publish a sequel in the high-profile journal PNAS, playing on Richard Lindzen's membership at the publishing body, the National Academy of Science (Stoat has background information). Point (3) was tried here, when Lindzen and Choi chose two objectors to the scientific standard model: Will Happer, a physicist that never published on climate topics, and Ming-Dah Chou, Lindzen's co-worker in establishing the Iris hypothesis, in effect reviewing his own theory. When PNAS sent the work to four of their regular reviewers, this resulted in four rejections, in part due to grave errors, in part due to the paper not addressing the critique of their former paper by Trenberth et al. (2010). The latter was probably also the reason for the paper not getting into Geophysical Research Letters as a direct answer to Trenberth et al. (2010), as originally planned.

Real conspiracy theorists can be identified by immunizing themselves at such a point using crank theories. According to Lindzen, his work is flawless, and the unanimous rejection can only be explained by an IPCC-controlled conspiracy, which uses peer review to deflect all legitimate criticism. This excuse resides roughly on the same level as "dog ate my homework"; for there are ample works critical of the IPCC stance that made it into the peer-reviewed literature, and it is easy enough to read the peer reviews and find out about the weaknesses of Lindzen & Choi's paper. An amended version was finally published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, making Lindzen's allegation of an IPCC conspiracy blocking his work seem quite paranoid. Another question is the scientific quality of the article. Andrew Dessler explained how the notion that clouds could drive cooling or warming of tropical oceans, instead of warming or cooling of the oceans driving cloud formation, is not compatible with the data at hand. And at the same time thus addresses another publication.

Spencer and Braswell (2011)

Lindzen & Choi was only the prelude to the Spencer & Braswell (2011) scandal. They, too, insisted on clouds working as a strongly negative feedback on global warming. One would assume that Spencer and Braswell necessarily had to mention Lindzen & Choi (2009) and Trenberth et al. (2010), for the latter had very definitely shown that a negative cloud feedback could not be demonstrated using selected episodes and simplified models. However, this was not the case. Furthermore, Spencer & Braswell's statements are very strong in their conclusions (refutation of IPCC stance), while using rather weak data and simplified models (further details here and here). This already hints to points (5) and (7) in above list, as demonstrated by denialist blogs welcoming the study as proof for a climate sensitivity much lower than accepted by the IPCC, thus ruling out predominantly human-caused global warming. The refuted work of Lindzen & Choi (2009) was promoted in the same way. Spencer & Braswell (2011) being published in Remote Sensing, which does not normally touch on the topics of climate data or climate science, was another alarm signal (point (1) above applies). The scandal erupted when Wolfgang Wagner, the journal's editor-in-chief, resigned. In his statement he came to the conclusion that the paper should never have been published due to the above mentioned flaws, which have been discussed in detail elsewhere. RealClimate gives a synopsis of Lindzen & Choi and Spencer & Braswell, relegating to Dessler (2011), which demonstrates in detail how the two papers run contrary to the reality of temperature flows above the oceans.

Wagner also mentioned the problem of failed peer review, as the three reviewers seemed to have been of the same conviction as Spencer, thus fulfilling point (3) in the above list: the peer review was not really independent; an objective reviewer would likely have asked why Trenberth et al. (2010) was not mentioned. A critical reviewer would furthermore likely not have seen the point of publishing the re-incarnation of a refuted hypothesis. That Spencer & Braswell did not address responses to their hypothesis that were known to them might be more damning than their flawed analysis, the vague results of which were subsequently overhyped.

Spencer reacted like Lindzen: the dismissive reaction of the professional world, or the resignation of the editor-in-chief with his statements elevating the Spencer & Braswell (2011) publication to a scandal are not seen by Spencer as a hint that there could be problems with his hypothesis. Rather he defiantly declares that only one error could be attributed to him in his entire scientific career, and that the peer-reviewed journals were in cahoots with the IPCC to keep critical works out. The fault was not with him, but with almost all other scientists in the field. With this statement Spencer did not quite succeed in driving the final nail into the coffin of the theory of man-made global warming, but at least managed to bury the last remains of his own scientific respectability. As a bonus, he delivered a déjà vu: Hans von Storch and half of the other editors of the journal Climate Research resigned in 2003 after one of their editors (Chris de Freitas) had rubber-stamped a botched paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. Then, too, the peer review process had been undermined (points (2) and (3)), then, too, the journal's reputation had suffered, then, too, the denialist scene paraded Soon and Baliunas as witnesses that laid bare the global warming hoax. Soon & Baliunas (2003) described the climate change of the last millenium as the result of changes in solar activity by cobbling together different proxy data for precipitation and temperature so as to create the impression that there were times in the last thousand years that were notably warmer than the late 20th century. The flaws in the work were so grave that they were described as "ludicrous" or "absurd" by specialists.

An IPCC conspiracy?

Some questions remain: shouldn't the opponents of the state of climate science take issue with their witnesses to the prosecution (such as Lindzen, Spencer, Svensmark, Soon, Douglass, the Idso family, McKitrick) having great problems to publish their dissenting interpretations in reputable journals? Shouldn't it give them pause that scientists in line with the accepted state of science publish more, are cited more, and produce works more relevant to the topic? Shouldn't it make them think that the road to publication for papers supporting their view most often involves friendly editors or reviewers, journals concerned with a different subject area, or even fringe publications like Energy & Environment (which as a journal of sociology publishes a plethora of denialist contributions that purport to deal with topics in natural sciences, with an editor-in-chief that publicly states her mission as setting up an opposite view to the IPCC)? Shouldn't it strike them as odd that for at least two decades new publications are declared to falsify the theory of climate change, but that the professional world never takes heed of these?

If one does not come to the conclusion that the fraction unconvinced of AGW has long since grown into an esoteric circle, similar to the opponents of evolution, the theory of relativity or vaccination, to the adherents of homeopathy, anthroposophists, or various conspiracionists, one has to assume that scientists worldwide are in their majority participants in a great conspiracy to suppress truth and to erect an IPCC One World Government.

Reading between Lindzen's and Spencer's lines one gets the impression that at least regarding this conspiracy theory they are drawing near:

"...there is a bust-gut effort going on to make sure that either (1) no scientific papers get published which could get in the way of the IPCC’s politically-motivated goals, or (2) any critical papers that DO get published are discredited with any and all means available." (Roy Spencer, September 5, 2011)

This article originally appeared as "Wolken über der Fachbegutachtung" on Jörg Zimmermann's blog Globales Klima. Translated by Peter Hartmann.

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. A very well written article - which covers a history well worth reading.
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  2. Spencer & the Christian Right Spencer: There is a bust-gut effort going on to make sure that either (1) no scientific papers get published which could get in the way of the IPCC’s politically-motivated goals, or ... I need to be careful and respectful here, but that reference to IPCC politically-motivated goals rang alarm bells for me. It is this sort of comment that is precisely the kind of code language that sections of the Christian right use for their one-world government bogey. These people are the Sarah Palin types who embrace rapture theology and conspiracy theories. Following my suspicions I Googled "Roy Spencer", and came up with this disturbing article, which states: Spencer is listed as a "scientific advisor" for an organization called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA). According to their website, the ISA is a coalition of religious leaders, clergy, theologians, scientists, academics, and other policy experts committed to bringing a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development. In July 2006, Spencer co-authored an ISA report refuting the work of another religious organization called the Evangelical Climate Initiative. As a proAGW Christian, I identify with the Evangelical Climate Initiative, rather than the anti-science Interfaith Stewardship Alliance which Spencer supports. It is not my purpose here to debate theology (those who may wish to can find me at Roy Spencer apparently is a committed Christian. That is no crime, and I cannot say what his specific religious beliefs may or may not be. But it is food for thought, isn’t it? Is it possible that Spencer’s (-snip-) science is driven by dodgy theology?
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Inflammatory snipped.
  3. Not so sure, alan. Roy's also been known to make some pretty out there statements on political orientation as well. I'd be more inclined to see him as picking and choosing which (kinds of) organisations to align with given his personal propensities. (Whatever they may be.) There are plenty of conservative religious and political organisations. It's a personal matter which ones to accept, acknowledge, agree with or espouse. And, once chosen, also a personal matter whether to be one of the crowd or to put yourself out there. Which got us very quickly into realms best left to sociologists or psychologists or whatever.
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  4. We'll have to keep repeating this until it's common knowledge at every local bar: Spencer and McKitrick are signatories to the Cornwall Alliance Declaration: Signatories which has as two of its statements of faith: 1.We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history. and 1.We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming. Spencer places his faith before science. He's not a scientist....he's a wolf in sheep's clothing.
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  5. One common trick is to put non-peer-reviewed papers to arXiv (a well-known preprint server for papers that already have been peer-reviewed and waiting to be published) to achieve a status of scientific publication. Gerlich & Tscheuschner paper was there ages before it was published. McIntyre & McKitrick have used this trick too.
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  6. People like Spencer and Lindzen seem to be a strange version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. From Wikipedia : The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. (My emphasis) Perhaps they just suffer from a Superiority Complex ? Or is it Self-Serving Bias ?
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  7. adelady wrote: "Not so sure, alan. Roy's also been known to make some pretty out there statements on political orientation as well." For a large segment of the 'right' in the United States politics = religion = science = economics; God said, 'be fruitful and multiply' and gave Man stewardship over the Earth ('religion'). Ergo, it is impossible that exercising our stewardship by burning coal in order to improve our quality/quantity of life would have any negative consequences ('science'). We are commanded to grow our numbers and this can only be done by allowing unfettered growth in industry, therefor all regulation on industry is harmful ('economics'). Those who oppose these obvious truths and God's plan are thus inherently on the wrong side ('politics'). Seem implausible? I've seen many, including Roy Spencer, make those arguments. Unfortunately, these people have never understood that 'separation of church and state' was meant to protect religion from politics as much as the other way around. By insisting on merging the two they've allowed their religion to be re-written to serve political ends. The problem is that Spencer and others like him >ARE< scientists... but with impenetrable ideological blinders. They have the training and the ability to do scientific work, but they will NEVER be able to see the truth of things they 'know' to be false. Thus, they end up doing a sort of 'pseudo science' as described in the article. It is a mistake to think that these people are being guileful. They BELIEVE that their absurd papers have really disproven significant AGW. They BELIEVE that there is a vast conspiracy suppressing this fact. That is WHY their arguments are so often ridiculous... because they cannot see the flaws in their position because they 'know' a priori that it must be correct. That is why they make predictions which turn out to be so spectacularly wrong. If they KNEW that their position was incorrect they'd take care to make their arguments difficult to prove one way or the other. Their predictions would all be very long term or vague enough to allow 'wiggle room'. In short, if they were deliberately trying to deceive others they'd do a better job of it. The problem is that they've already deceived themselves, and thus have no way of seeing how wrong they are... even when it is pointed out to them. Of course, this isn't true of ALL the deniers. Some of them certainly do know they're full of it. Just alot fewer than you might tend to think.
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    [DB] Please refrain from the usage of all-caps.  Thanks!

  8. May I add another factor: 8. Tunnel effect. If you submit your paper to enough journal, it is likely that it will pass simply because their is a low probability the editor and the reviewer did not spot your error.
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  9. Nice, Jörg. "Gerlich & Tscheuschner attempted this, but the topic was outside their area of expertise, and the polemical style of their contribution is so remote to a serious scientific discussion of the topic that it leads to doubts regarding their basic scientific competence." You could have been a little firmer on G&T, though. Science of Doom stomped on it/them extensively a while back.
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  10. "McLean, de Freitas and Michaels (2009) on the other hand..." Shouldn't that be McLean, de Freitas and Carter (2009)?
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  11. And let us not forget the ongoing train wreck that is Wegman and Said (yes, more plagiarism). That is the same Wegman who tried to discredit Mann with the help of McIntyre.
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  12. Respectfully, I do not understand how the claim in the article that 'They, too, insisted on clouds working as a strongly negative feedback on global warming.' is supported. I've read the paper, and I understand their point to be that feedback cannot be accurately 'diagnosed' from the observed data. This is quite different than saying that coulds work as a strongly negative feedback on global warming. Now, if the article is not correct on this point, there is a problem with the rest of the argument made here about Spencer 2011 ignoring the prior literature as well.
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  13. Speaking of Bob Carter, and as an example of a paper published in a journal outside the subject area, I offer this travesty: Knock, Knock: Where is the Evidence for Dangerous Human-Caused Global Warming? (PDF)
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  14. Sorry, I should have stated that Carter's paper was published in Economic Analysis and Policy - the journal of the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia.
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  15. MarkB @12, Yes, their paper did not state that there was a strong negative cloud feeback. They did not have to. They just had to have a paper that spoke the the could feedback and then the dog whistling could start. The press release from UAH was part of that. In that press release, Spencer misrepresented and overstated his findings. He also stood by quietly while people James Taylor (a lawyer) from the Heartland lobby group even further misrepresented and distorted his research in a ridiculous article in Forbes. There is a term for "skeptic" papers like this-- Trojan Horse papers, and they are used by the misinformation machine to confuse and fabricate debate. This fiasco has all been covered at SkS and elsewhere. I suggest reading Dr. Wagner's letter in the link provided in the previous sentence.
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  16. It seems a lot of the published research by the Sceptics floats there own alternative hypothesis. Im not seeing much that actually tries to specifically refute mainstream published work. One assumes they simply cant. I admire Lindzen, but I dont think its possible to take Spencer seriously, not given the comments in item 4 above.
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  17. [DB] Please refrain from the usage of all-caps. Thanks!
    You can achieve the same effect with italics, as shown here.
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  18. Lord S @14. Even allowing for the laughable standard of Carters 'paper' - and it really is good for a giggle - surely the economics journal in question would reject it just based on its tone & language!
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  19. re comment #4, Dave123 Your point about Spencer being a signatory of the Cornwall Alliance declaration is very interesting -and would explain a few things about powerful non-scientific motivations for the way he goes about science. But... I've just had a look at their site and can't find any reference to him. Can you please post how you made the connection between Spencer and the Cornwall Alliance?
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  20. Scrap that last -found it. On the site I see that Spencer co-authored this paper at the Cornwall Alliance. A quick skim suggests it is similar to his other offerings.
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  21. Problems with peer reviewed publication, in science and medicine, were pointed out as long ago as 2003. This article is well worth re-reading: Peer trouble How failsafe is our current system at ensuring the quality and integrity of research? Not very, says John Crace The Guardian Tuesday 11 February 2003 The solution of on-line open peer review seems to answer the problem. European Geosciences Union (EGU), sister organisation to American Geophysical Union (AGU), has brought out a whole series of online publications; EGU Open Access Journals Papers are published online along with editor-appointed-peer reviews, either anonymous or open. An online open review takes place with input from qualified scientists. Authors answer the comments and may modify papers accordingly. Finally the paper is either rejected or published in final version online and in print with copies to permanent archives. This appears to me the best possible way to conduct scientific research. It ensures qualified people conduct the review process and findings can be refined down to a widely accepted version. Criticisms can be answered before the final publication. It seems there is little scope for plagiarism or pseudo science. Moreover, the results of timely research can reach a global audience rapidly. Hopefully this can mark the end of the specially invented pseudo scientific publications intended to mislead the gullible. It appears to be the scientists' own Skeptical Science peer review publication system.
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  22. Micawber Nature and others attempted open peer reviews back in the 90s. There's also a critique of the process by Rothwell, P. M. (2000). These days publication is being seen as less of an endorsement (rightfully so) and more of a final barrier of entry to where the true critiquing occurs.
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