The Damaging Impact of Roy Spencer’s Serially-Wrong ‘Science’

In his bid to cast doubts on the seriousness of climate change, University of Alabama’s Roy Spencer creates a media splash but claims a journal’s editor-in-chief. 

The science doesn’t hold up.

by Kevin Trenberth, John Abraham, and Peter Gleick

Reposted from the Daily Climate

The widely publicized paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, published in the journal Remote Sensing in July, has seen a number of follow-ups and repercussions.

The latest came Friday in a remarkable development, when the journal’s editor-in-chief, Wolfgang Wagner, submitted his resignation and apologized for the paper.

As we noted on when the paper was published, the hype surrounding Spencer’s and Braswell’s paper was impressive; unfortunately the paper itself was not. Remote Sensing is a fine journal for geographers, but it does not deal much with atmospheric and climate science, and it is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should have received an honest vetting.

Friday that truth became apparent. Kevin Trenberth received a personal note of apology from both the editor-in-chief and the publisher of Remote Sensing. Wagner took this unusual and admirable step after becoming aware of the paper’s serious flaws. By resigning publicly in an editorial posted online, Wagner hopes that at least some of this damage can be undone.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the science conducted by Roy Spencer and colleagues has been found lacking.

Spencer, a University of Alabama, Huntsville, climatologist, and his colleagues have a history of making serious technical errors in their effort to cast doubt on the seriousness of climate change. Their errors date to the mid-1990s, when their satellite temperature record reportedly showed the lower atmosphere was cooling. As obvious and serious errors in that analysis were made public, Spencer and Christy were forced to revise their work several times and, not surprisingly, their findings agree better with those of other scientists around the world: the atmosphere is warming.

Over the years, Spencer and Christy developed a reputation for making serial mistakes that other scientists have been forced to uncover. Last Thursday, for instance, the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres published a study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Ben Santer. Their findings showed that Christy erred in claiming that recent atmospheric temperature trends are not replicated in models.

This trend continues: On Tuesday the journal Geophysical Research Letters will publish a peer-reviewed study by Texas A&M University atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler that undermines Spencer’s arguments about the role of clouds in the Earth’s energy budget.

We only wish the media would cover these scientific discoveries with similar vigor and enthusiasm that they displayed in tackling Spencer’s now-discredited findings.

— Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

— John Abraham is a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering in Minneapolis, Minn.

— Peter Gleick is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Photo courtesy Roy Spencer.

Related Post:

“We now know, of course, that the satellite data set confirms that the climate is warming , and indeed at very nearly the same rate as indicated by the surface temperature records. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when pursuing an innovative observational method, but Spencer and Christy sat by for most of a decade allowing — indeed encouraging — the use of their data set as an icon for global warming skeptics. They committed serial errors in the data analysis, but insisted they were right and models and thermometers were wrong. They did little or nothing to root out possible sources of errors, and left it to others to clean up the mess, as has now been done.

“So after that history, we’re supposed to savor all Roy’s new cookery?  That’s an awful lot to swallow.”

20 Responses to The Damaging Impact of Roy Spencer’s Serially-Wrong ‘Science’

  1. KarlB says:

    What puzzles me is why should Wagner and the publisher feel they had to apologise to Trenberth in particular, why not just generally to the scientific community if they felt they had erred so badly.

  2. Peter Mizla says:

    Dr. Spencer’s prime responsibility as he ‘sees it’ is to protect the free enterprise system and the Tax payers from an obtrusive government.

    Strange-in the end- the resistance to admitting climate change, and the protecting od special interests hardly protects tax payers- but makes them more vulnerable to costs that we all will have to pay as climate change progresses.

  3. Joe Romm says:

    I suppose because Trenberth had previously published articles explaining why Spencer’s analysis was wrong.

  4. Wes Rolley says:

    There was an almost universal lack of coverage of Typhoon #12 (Talas) and it’s path of destruction in Japan. Like Irene in the US, the damage was from a heave rain maker that moved slowly ashore in Wakayama Prefecture. However, the precipitation records make Irene look like a desert sprinkle.

    Unlike the typhoon in 2004, Typhoon Talas’s damaging punch came in its slow, dragging speed, giving it ample time to dump a record amount of rainfall on the region. For instance, 1,652.5 mm of rain fell on Kamikatayama, a small village in Nara prefecture, on Sept. 4, the most rainfall in a single day within a 72-hour period, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. That is the equivalent of about 5 ft 5 inches of water in simple depth terms.

    Japanese language TV last night reported a location with 1,800 mm.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    “We’ve had blow-downs before, just nothing this size,” said Henry Schienebeck, a third-generation logger and executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association in Rhinelander.

  6. Mr B says:

    Question: Was something like this submitted to the media outlets involved? Were reporters contacted regarding how disputed this was? If we’re concerned with the impact of widely publicized papers, it may be worth considering that most people (likely including ambivalent-at-best politicians) get their news from mainstream third-party sources. And all many of them need is occasional ‘affirmation’ that the core science is FAR from settled.

    Maybe just wishing that the media will cover these matters accurately and equitably is not enough anymore. It’s sad that scientists have to take more time to get journalists to do their jobs, but what is the alternative?

  7. Joan Savage says:

    As meteorologists, climatologists and the public together develop a vocabulary for extreme weather, the conversation can extend more easily to the models, cloud effects and so forth. Flawed research goes the way of the Edsel, under market conditions!

    AGU blogger Dave Petley has spoken up for more ways to describe a hurricane, particularly the water component.

  8. KarlB says:

    OK, I accept that, so why not invite Trenberth to write a rebuttal for the journal? Wouldn’t that be the scientific method in action. It all seems a bit too, well, drastic.

  9. We can examine the science endlessly and reach the same conclusions. And contrarian-scientists who continue to make the same mistakes over-and-over, will be corrected by both peers and superiors. The tiresome work of re-examination takes a lot of time and attention. Almost as if this was purposefully distracting.

    But at some time it is just necessary to label someone either a villain or science-saboteur.

    To me it looks like Spencer continuously worked hard to gain such titles, seems like he wears them easily.

  10. Take a look at how the local media here in Huntsville covered it:
    (Have a glass of wine first Joe ;) )

    UA Huntsville still has their orginal highly misleading press release online

  11. Jim Eager says:

    Look on the bright side: Spencer’s reputation as a credible scientist is now toast.

    The next time some brain-dead septic brays “NASA study blows hole in global warming clams” remind them of this sordid little episode.

  12. Pangolin says:

    Do you seriously believe for a second that the denial-sphere isn’t going to be quoting Roy J. Spencer for the next twenty years? They simply DO NOT CARE if there statements hold to any standard of accuracy.

    Every day on WUWT there is some troll completely misrepresenting some paper as proof that there’s global cooling or some other such tripe usually in direct contradiction to the author’s comments.

    The insanity will continue for a long, long time.

  13. Joe Romm says:

    Well, it will continue long enough to all but ensure catastrophe. I do expect it will start to drop in about 5 years give or take and nosedive in the 2020s. Not that the hard-core anti-science folks will change their tune, but reality will intrude for more and more.

  14. Charles says:

    “Do you seriously believe for a second that the denial-sphere isn’t going to be quoting Roy J. Spencer for the next twenty years? They simply DO NOT CARE if there statements hold to any standard of accuracy.”

    I think you are right, Pangolin. This episode will, I suspect, likely go way beyond the likes of WUWT. The entire denialosphere, including Inhofe, etc. will use this episode to claim gatekeeping, censorship, conspiracy … and a bunch of people in the public are going to believe these claims, just as they still buy into climategate despite the 7 inquiries which found nothing wrong.

    None of that has any bearing on the accuracy, validity, or reliability of the science. The denialosphere is ramping up to attack AR5 as soon as it is released, and this episode is already being used by Spencer to cast doubt on the validity of AR5.

    As you suggest, Joe, things are not likely going to change for about a decade (around the time of AR6?), assuming the effects of AGW become so pronounced by then that denial is all but impossible.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    Your last sentence, “we only wish the media would…” kind of took the wind out of your piece.

    We have learned that wishing and hoping won’t get ‘er done. It’s past time to bypass traditional corporate media and get the word out through blogs, political actions, and product boycotts. There is no alternative.

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    On the morning of Sept. 4, the Wakayama Prefecture city of Shingu recorded 132 millimeters of rain over a one-hour period.

    Nara District Meteorological Observatory officials said that about 30 millimeters of rain had continued to fall in southern Nara Prefecture — a unique characteristic of the latest typhoon. Between the start of the rain and 1 a.m. on Sept. 5, rainfall of 1,808.5 millimeters fell in Kamikitayama, Nara Prefecture, while the Mie Prefecture town of Odai and the Wakayama Prefecture town of Kozagawa recorded torrential rainfall of 1,620 millimeters and 1,149 millimeters, respectively.

  17. Pangolin says:

    “Gatekeeping” is an accusation? Isn’t gatekeeping the purpose of scientific journals. The journals editors declare that “we publish research that fits only these standards as decided by these designated arbiters.”

    If scientific journals aren’t “gatekeeping” I might as well decide all issues by flipping a coin. I can’t possibly research the data and do the analysis myself on more than one or possibly two very narrow topics. I need a trusted source.

    Gatekeeping is the benefit of journals.

  18. Jim Eager says:

    Get a grip Pangolin. Of course the denialsphere will continue to quote Spencer, and we will now be able to point out to those observing the conversation that Spencer has thoroughly discredited himself as a scientist. It’s those observers we need to convince, not the denialsphere.

  19. Crank says:

    Of course, you realize that Wolfgang Wagner’s resignation will just be trumpeted as further evidence that “alarmists” have a stranglehold on science publications and are conspiring to ensure that the “true science” can’t get published anywhere?

    Once the echo chamber has been constructed, the only thing you hear is the echoes…

  20. Chris Winter says:

    Almost 1.7 meters of rainfall in one 24-hour period at the village of Kamikatayama, says the WSJ.

    1.7 or 1.8 m of rainfall from a single storm is mind-boggling. Imagine if conditions had been right for hail.