Science Stunner: Editor of Journal that Published Flawed Denier Bunk Apologizes, Resigns, Slams Spencer for Exaggerations

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"Science Stunner: Editor of Journal that Published Flawed Denier Bunk Apologizes, Resigns, Slams Spencer for Exaggerations"

Wow.  Double wow.  Stop the Presses, Deniers!  Your effort to deny basic climate science based on bunkum has met its match.

Here’s an editorial by Dr. Wolfgang Wagner, Editor-in-Chief of Remote Sensing, taking responsibility for the egregious blunder of publishing a “fundamentally flawed” paper by climate science denier Roy Spencer:

Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science.  Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims.  Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell [1] that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published.

After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.

With this step I would also  like to personally protest  against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements, e.g., in a press release of The University of Alabama in Huntsville from 27 July 2011 [2], the main author’s personal homepage [3], the story “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” published by Forbes [4], and the story “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” published by Fox News [5], to name just a few.  Unfortunately, their campaign apparently was very successful as witnessed by the over 56,000 downloads of the full paper within only one month after its publication. But trying to refute all scientific insights into the global warming  phenomenon just based on the comparison of one particular observational satellite data set with model predictions is strictly impossible.

For those who want the full debunking from “climate researchers and engaged observers” that persuaded Wagner, see “Climate Scientists Debunk Latest Bunk by Denier Roy Spencer.”  The key scientific point is that there are multiple lines of evidence that the climate is quite sensitive to greenhouse gases and that Spencer’s approach is deeply flawed.

For a list of the overblown hyping of this paper by the deniers, see Media Matters’ post, “Climate Science Once Again Twisted Beyond Recognition By Conservative Media.”  All of them should issue retractions, but few if any will.

While resignation of an editor over a bad decision to publish a flawed denier paper is extremely unusual, it isn’t completely unprecedented.  As Deltoid (aka Tim Lambert) points out on his blog, “This reminds me of what happened in 2003, when several editors at Climate Research resigned because of the publication of Soon and Baliunas, another paper that should not have been published.”

Wagner has much more to say that is worth reading:

Aside from ignoring all the other observational data sets (such as the rapidly shrinking sea ice extent and changes in the flora and fauna) and  contrasting theoretical studies, such a simple conclusion  simply cannot be drawn considering the complexity of the involved models and satellite measurements.

The political views of  the authors and the thematic goal of their study did, of course, alone not disqualify the paper from entering the review process in the journal Remote Sensing. As I stated in my editorial at the launch of this new open access journal [6] one of the premier goals of remote sensing as a discipline is to better understand physical and biological processes on  our planet Earth. The use of satellite data to check the functionality of all sorts of geophysical models is therefore a very important part of  our work.  But it should not be done in isolation by the remote sensing scientists. Interdisciplinary cooperation with  modelers is required in order to develop a joint understanding of where and why models  deviate from satellite data. Only through this close cooperation the complex aspects involved in the satellite retrievals and the  modeling processes can be properly taken into account….

… editors should take special care that minority views are not suppressed, meaning that it certainly would not be correct to reject all controversial papers already during the review process. If a paper presents interesting scientific arguments, even if controversial, it should be published and responded to in the open literature. This was my initial response after having become aware of this particular case. So why, after a more careful study of the pro and contra arguments, have I changed my initial view? The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature (cf. [7]), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.

Wagner points to Kevin Trenberth et al., “Relationships between tropical sea surface temperature and top-of-atmosphere radiation,” in Geophysical Research Letters, available here.

Wagner continues:

In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents. This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal. This regrettably brought me to the decision to resign as Editor-in-Chief―to make clear that the journal Remote Sensing takes the review process very seriously

Kudos to Wagner for this principled stand.  He sounds like the kind of person who should be an editor.

It bears repeating, however, that Spencer committed one of the most egregious blunders in the history of remote sensing — committing multiple errors in analyzing the satellite data and creating one of the enduring denier myths, that the satellite data didn’t show the global warming that the surface temperature data did.

It also bears repeating that Spencer wrote in July, “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

That doesn’t mean Spencer’s new paper on remote sensing was a priori wrong, but it means his work on the subject does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, as most climate journals would know.

Indeed, as climate scientist Peter Gleick puts it in his post:

There is a famous saying in science: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In this case, the arguments for climate change are backed up by such an astounding degree of science and evidence, that one, or even a few, papers that claim to refute the science of climate change deserve careful scrutiny. As the author of Skeptico notes:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.  The evidence for the extraordinary claim must support the new claim as well as explain why the old claims that are now being abandoned, previously appeared to be correct.”

Precisely.

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45 Responses to Science Stunner: Editor of Journal that Published Flawed Denier Bunk Apologizes, Resigns, Slams Spencer for Exaggerations

  1. Anne says:

    Wagner should be drafted to continue as editor-in-chief after demonstrating this type of integrity and courage. It is just this sort of principled and honest scientific journalist that need to be at the helm of key climate publications. If I had a vote, I’d say give him his job back, perhaps even with a raise and a couple of atta-boys.

    • In one sense, I agree: Dr. Wagner has exhibited honor and commitment that is too often lacking these days. However, there is still a competency issue. How did the three-member review panel consist solely of individuals who were climate-change deniers? Certainly, even a cursory review of the views of the authors and the panel members should have sent up red-flag warnings.

      • Gary says:

        I agree completely. In fact that was my first thought when I began to read this (on a sports forum of all things) this morning. Two denialists write a paper and three denialists make up the review committee? I smell skunk.

        If Wagner did not appoint the reviewers himself, whoever did should be next on the chopping block.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    I… uh… Oh, wait… nope.

    Hmm.

    Honestly, I’ve got nothin’ after reading this stunner.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      I second your comment, Lou.

      • Ginny in CO says:

        Mike, Lou, either you know it all, or you are out of your depth.

        Truly informed people might have bypassed the article. Given the issues of scientific publishing in recent years, I would bet someone with knowledge of the problems is more likely to check out the details.

        I’ve been pretty disgusted with some of the stupidity that occurs in scientific publishing. Also with the incredible ignorance in the general public on the difference between hypothesis and theory. (I have to grab my arms when I hear ‘just a theory’ to prevent physically assaulting the speaker.)

        The emergence of open source journals on the web is potentially a viable check and balance to the older, conservative, reputation protecting print journals. If they truly follow the rigors of scientific publishing.

        In action and words, Dr. Wagner has been exemplary in upholding the basic principles of scientific research, dissemination and discussion. That example alone makes this stunning and worthwhile.

  3. Ames Colt says:

    Bravo Dr. Wagner. But it sounds as if the journal committed the fatal flaw of utilizing reviewers recommended by the authors! Huge blunder and, given the controversial nature of such a paper, reason enough to expect such a resignation.

    • Joan Savage says:

      I agree.
      In branches of science I know more about, an editor of a scientific journal is expected to work from a list of genuinely independent peer reviewers, professionals who are willing to provide a service that is unpaid and sometimes stressful.

      Even though Remote Sensing is a new journal, and doesn’t command the cachet of reviewing a paper for Geophysical Research Letters or Science, the editor-in-chief still should have required his editors to obtain the services of independent reviewers.
      If the paper is an unfamiliar topic (and this one looks marginal to the nuts and bolts of remote sensing), usually one of the minimum three reviewers can be someone in the authors’ corner, but not all the reviewers.

  4. Chris Winter says:

    So what happens with the journal now? I presume someone else is acting editor, or will be soon. Let’s hope he has as much integrity as his predecessor.

    • Sally G says:

      Good point. The employee with the most integrity, though seemingly not the one providing the best oversight, just fell on his sword to protect the magazine. May it prove worthy, and may those responsible for selecting reviewers take the lesson to heart after their collective sigh of relief.

  5. Jay Alt says:

    A reference librarian just told me that Remote Sensing is not among the 14,000 journals listed by ISI, the Institute for Scientific Information. But they are peer-reviewed and only 3 yrs old so it may not be surprising they aren’t listed.
    ISI rankings are used by faculty to evaluate the work of potential new hires, tenure reviews, etc.

  6. Why would any journal publish a Spencer paper ever again?

  7. KarlB says:

    So do editors have the final say on peer review or do the reviewers? Odd sort of scientific review if it’s utlitmately up to the final say of sole editor. What is the point of us reviewing papers?
    Shouldn’t the paper have been challenged in a more scientific way? Finally, how will science progress if we only publish what is at present accepted by the majority, that is so dangerous to the freedom of scientific thought and looks more like politics.

    • Leif says:

      Long term credibility of the paper author/s should be considered up front. Often debunked submissions need extra scrutiny. IMO

      • KarlB says:

        So why no rebuttal? I would have thought identifying errors in a scientific paper and calling the scientists to answer the specific errors of the paper within the journal itself is the way to make progress in science.
        All the rest of this, resignations and name calling (no matter where it comes from) is outside of science and really belongs to the world of politics and media.
        I would imagine the three scientists involved in the peer review will not be very happy about having their scientific integrity called into question and I must confess if I had one of my reviews treated by an editor in such a fashion I’d be heading to my lawyers! To have a review accepted then damned in such a unprofessional, high media profile and obviously un-scientific manner is highly questionable.
        I wonder if there is more to this story than we are being allowed to know at the moment?

        • Joe Romm says:

          The “more to this story” is that Spencer probably got to name his reviewers (not uncommon) and the editors weren’t sophisticated enough to figure out they weren’t representative of the full spectrum of scientific understanding (that is uncommon).

          To elaborate, as Wagner wrote, “as the case presents itself now, the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors.” Yes, “unintentionally” — but not presumably not totally by accident.

          You don’t have to read between the lines to figure out what Wagner means. It is quite common for an author to be is asked to suggest potential reviewers, as I said. But it is is quite uncommon for a journal to fail to notice the sample is not representative.

          • Michael says:

            That’s a bit unfair.

            Spencer no doubt chose a more uncommon avenue for publication for this very reason – that the editorial staff would not be so familiar with the work area that they’d realise that someone was pulling a fast one re: the reviewers.

            You could criticise them on this basis, but their core ‘mistake’ was that they acted in good faith towards the author.

            On the other hand, Spencer has a major ethical deficit.

  8. cervantes says:

    A bit surprising that he resigned, actually. Editors of scientific journals generally depend heavily on reviewers and pretty much intervene only when decisions are a close call. They have very demanding day jobs and they can’t really provide more than general oversight.

    Quite a few papers have been retracted over the years but I can’t remember an editor resigning because of it. On the other hand, this incident certainly doesn’t speak well of the reviewers.

    • Hank says:

      That’s the thing of it. Why resign??
      Skeptics are putting a heavy spin on this as we speak, saying he was pressured to resign for having the gall to publish a paper that went against the consensus.

      [JR: Scientists are skeptics in that they are open to change their minds based on the facts. The disinformers you write of just make crap up. Why would you put any credence in anything they say?]

  9. Jim Botsford says:

    Interesting.

    Forbes posted a very good article about this. I was glad they were adult enough to do so.

    I’m not posting a link because I’ve been bumped before for linking.

    Anyway, look it up.

    Jim

  10. Tim says:

    It is good to see the editor owning up to his responsibilities here. It is worthwhile pointing out a few things:

    Remote Sensing is a two-year-old open access journal. It is likely to be way down the ‘food chain’ of journals in this area. Given the enormous proliferation of new journals that has been going on in many scientific fields, it is likely that the journal has never had any papers that are terribly important in the field – and perhaps it never will. A lot of editorships in journals like this are accepted because the editor wants to burnish his/her c.v. These facts are likely to be exactly why Spencer chose this kind of journal in the first place. Most of the papers are probably solid, but far from the best stuff coming out of the labs from which they originate. Consequently, you can catch reviewers doing a cursory job because they aren’t going to give their closest attention to papers that even their authors consider to be ‘archival’. Finally then, it may be that the editor resigned because he thought , “to hell with this, I’m enduring a storm of criticism all for a second- or third-tier journal editorship. I didn’t sign on for this.”

  11. Dan L. says:

    The hysterical foaming is already underway at Anthony Watts’ place, of course, where Spencer is claiming he’s a victim of the giant IPCC conspiracy. This is, of course, a direct insult to the integrity of Dr. Wagner, who emerges as the honorable figure in this whole sorry spectacle.

    • muoncounter says:

      Spencer’s posturing should serve as a reminder of his declaration of intent: “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

      Spencer’s credibility as a scientist is nil. A man of integrity would immediately retract his paper; instead, he creates a smoke and mirror conspiracy. Now we can watch how some of his fellow travelers in the denialosphere behave in the coming days.

    • bratisla says:

      An editor resigns because of his bad article, and *he* is the victim.

      Next stop : “sea ice extent, contrary to what I imply, is going towards an absolute minimum , this is obviously a plot from polar bears and walrus against me ! I’m a victim ! “

      • Mike Roddy says:

        How in the world could anybody pay attention to a statement from Anthony Watts? He’s the brown standard (diarrhea shade) for anything to do with climate change.

  12. Lazarus says:

    I remember debating about this paper on Paul Hudson blog where I did suggest that the journal it appeared in had no speciality in the subject of Surface Temperature Feedback – message 95;

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/paulhudson/2011/07/a…t-heads-for-sa.shtml

    I wonder how much coverage this will get in the skeptic press. I suspect it will still be quoted as sound science and I certain that there will be conspiracy theories about why this editor really resigned.

  13. Michael T says:

    Here is a lecture that Jim Hansen gave back in 2007:

    How Sensitive is the Earth’s Climate?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDQ4Y5yGN5o&feature=channel_video_title

  14. John Tucker says:

    Shocking really. Totally scandalous to the denier movement.

    Why is Spencer still employed by a public university – If he is so dishonest/incompetent? In the sciences, free speech is confined to reasonable explanations and proven foundations.

    Universities that put forward a opinionated foundation for scientific research and advancement are the worst offenders. They need to be called out, not only for their disrespect of science but also for such incompetent error in understanding the contrast that exists to the empirical in the Humanities.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      They operate by different rules at the University of Alabama, John. The Regents need to satisfy the born again constituency, a major bloc in that part of the world. Many Alabamians are chafing that U of A professors don’t teach Intelligent Design.

      Spencer is the next best thing. U of A needs money, from alumni and legislators. Roy is s a little bone they throw, to the chagrin of fellow professors. Limbaugh and Watts pounce, as if Spencer and Christy were respected scientists, and not the goofy propagandists that they actually are.

      U of A isn’t all bad. Hey, their football team won the national championship a couple of years ago!

      • Nick says:

        U of A Tuscaloosa…

      • John Tucker says:

        You are not kidding either :

        “Twenty years ago, as a PhD scientist, I intensely studied the evolution versus intelligent design controversy for about two years. And finally, despite my previous acceptance of evolutionary theory as ‘fact,’ I came to the realization that intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism. . . . In the scientific community, I am not alone. There are many fine books out there on the subject. Curiously, most of the books are written by scientists who lost faith in evolution as adults, after they learned how to apply the analytical tools they were taught in college.” ( http://www.ideasinactiontv.com/tcs_daily/2005/08/faith-based-evolution.html )

        I want to cry

      • Leif says:

        Universities can only justify supporting the likes of folks like Spencer by accepting the mime that there is an honest debate on global warming. That view is getting harder and harder to intellectually justify in the light of mounting evidence. It is only a matter of time until the cat is out of the bag. (Hopefully soon enough.) Even the Church is staring to comprehend the moral dilemma, (way late IMO) but awareness is inexorable. The awareness tipping point is near, IMO. When the wall shatters it will be spectacular. It is incumbent on progressives to spit reality in the face denial as continuously as FOX does. Thank you Joe…

  15. chris wiegard says:

    I think there is a moral component to this. The denial faction is quick to accuse mainstream climate science of hoaxing, of “cooking” the science. Yet they have trouble putting together a science paper that passes objective quality measure themselves. Pot call kettle black? No, more like pot call refrigerator black.

  16. Nick says:

    “He was a hack, anyway, blah blah blah…”

    Otherwise, great development! Bravo, Dr. Wagner.

  17. Andy says:

    Any reason why the ‘peer reviewers’ of this paper are not waiving anonymity and stepping forward to defend it?

  18. Russell says:

    Wagner deserves thanks for acting to conserve both the integrity of peer review and the honor of the scientific profession, but must at all costs be kept from shaking hands with Fred Singer, lest the annihilation radiation vaporize everything inside the Beltway.

  19. WySage says:

    The journal, Remote Sensing, actually has (had?) a good reputation. The subject was split from another MDPI open journal, Sensors. Sensors has a current ISI impact factor of 1.7, which is very good among interdisciplinary remote sensing journals. The editor-in-chief selects the associate editor, and the associate editor has the task of selecting reviewers. This journal requests the authors to provide names of qualified reviewers and also names of people who have a conflict of interest. The associate editor does not have to select the reviewers from the names the authors provide. Typically, the associate editors get names from the literature cited section. Potential reviewers are sent an email requesting their help, and many decline to be a reviewer. The associate editors are under a time deadline to get the reviews and decision to the editor in chief. The associate editor would know who the best people are in a given discipline, but could have been very reluctant to make a request of these busy people.

    The associate editor made the mistakes in this case. Editor-in-chief Wagner resigned and did not blame the associate editor. This shows more character than simply resigning.

  20. Mike says:

    I actually bought and read Spencer’s book “Blunder” – I got a used copy through Amazon. He said Steve Martin should play his roll when they make the movie about him. What an ego.

  21. Scott says:

    I wonder how much money the sloppy denier cadre pulls down compared to the careful climatologist cadre.

  22. james corbett says:

    Willingness of the right to ignore science is not part of a legitimate “peer reviewed” scholarly debate, it is in the DNA of the Republican Party. All candidates (except Huntsman) raised their hands when asked if they believed in “creationism.” Martin Luther’s quote, “Reason is the greatest enemy God has,” resonates with the right. From the economy, where they embrace the “Laugher curve,” which has been demonstrated to be false over and over, to global warming and creation, the right simply doesn’t trust “experts.” They would prefer to get their advice from “Joe the Plumber” and elect incurious George, Bachmann, Palin or some other idiot than elect a thoughtful well-educated critical thinker. “From the gut” is a right wing mantra and the results are manifest.

  23. Martha says:

    Oh, the deniers will come up with counterspin –

    “He was pressured by the scientific establishment, which has a vested interest in lying to us about global warming.”

    “If he’s resigning because he made a mistake, how can he be trusted now?”

    etc.

  24. matt carmody says:

    Deniers are able to get their credentials, those who have any, by keeping their views quiet while in graduate school and in their post-grad work. Right up until after defending a dissertation and receiving their doctorates, they don’t appear on the radar of the scientific community.

    A few core people in their ideological orbit know there are a group of “scientists” available to push the agenda with genuine credentials, but the work they’ve done to get those degrees are not connected with climatology.