Commentary

The Current Wisdom: Un-learned Lessons of Climategate

This issue of The Current Wisdom is a departure from our usual format, where Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels normally reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Instead, this Wisdom examines the reaction to a scientific paper, described in last month’s version, showing that recent annual ice melt from Greenland, while certainly elevated, does not appear appreciably different from melt values simulated for the early and mid-20th century.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

Previous editions of Wisdom, which began in 2010, are available at our blog Cato@Liberty.


To practicing scientists, the most significant revelation in the November 2009 stack of purloined University of East Anglia emails known worldwide now as “Climategate” were the plans to harass editors of refereed scientific journals who accepted papers from the (erroneously labeled) climate “skeptics.” There was also disturbing evidence of collusion between the some of the Climategate principals and more agreeable editors.

See for yourself, as revealed in the emails. Here are a few highlights. The first refers to Geophysical Research Letters (“GRL”), and was sent on January 20, 2005.

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Michael E. Mann wrote:

Dear All,

Just a heads up. Apparently, the contrarians now have an “in” with GRL. This guy Saiers has a prior connection w/ the University of Virginia Dept.of Environmental Sciences that causes me some unease.

I think we now know how the various Douglass et al papers w/Michaels and Singer, the Soon et al paper, and now this one have gotten published in GRL,

Mike

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At 04:30 PM 1/20/2005, Tom Wigley wrote:

Mike,

This is truly awful. GRL has gone downhill rapidly in recent years. I think the decline began before Saiers. I have had some unhelpful dealings with him recently with regard to a paper Sarah and I have on glaciers — it was well received by the referees, and so is in the publication pipeline. However, I got the impression that Saiers was trying to keep it from being published.

Proving bad behavior here is very difficult. If you think that Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted. Even this would be difficult…

Tom.

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Thanks Tom,

Yeah, basically this is just a heads up to people that something might be up here. What a shame that would be. It’s one thing to lose “Climate Research”. We can’t afford to lose GRL. I think it would be useful if people begin to record their experiences w/ both Saiers and potentially Mackwell (I don’t know him — he would seem to be complicit w/what is going on here).

If there is a clear body of evidence that something is amiss, it could be taken through the proper channels. I don’t that the entire AGU hierarchy has yet been compromised!

… mike

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Michael E. Mann wrote:

Hi Malcolm,

… I don’t believe a response in GRL is warranted in any case. The MM claims in question are debunked in other papers that are in press and in review elsewhere. I’m not sure that GRL can be seen as an honest broker in these debates anymore, and it is probably best to do an end run around GRL now where possible. They have published far too many deeply flawed contrarian papers in the past year or so. There is no possible excuse for them publishing all 3 Douglass papers and the Soon et al paper. These were all pure crap.

There appears to be a more fundamental problem w/ GRL now, unfortunately…

Mike

[“MM” in this case refers to a paper by Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick called “Hockey Sticks, Principal Components, and Spurious Significance”. Michael Mann is the creator of the original “hockey stick” reconstruction of global temperature]

The exchange shows key scientists discussing removing journal editors who allowed papers to be published that disagreed with their findings or methodology. They identify the suspect editors in question and then suggest collecting data on their activities to potentially be used in getting them ousted.

There is also discussion about boycotting (i.e. “do an end run around”) the offending journals. And when all else fails, they attempt to “redefine” what they consider to be the peer-reviewed literature.

These shenanigans prompted waves of nausea both within and outside of the climate community. So, has the lesson been learned that maybe it’s not a good idea to go beyond the normal rules of scientific civility and to actually cultivate a bit of climate science diversity?

No. Consider the developments since our last Current Wisdom article, “Please Sell Me Your Beach House.”

I was an author of a recently published a paper in Journal of Geophysics Research-Atmospheres, which examined the magnitude current ice melt taking in Greenland compared with a statistical estimate of what has taken place there for the past 225 years. We were able to go back to the late 18th century because of a remarkable record of weather stations established by the Danish colonists.

We concluded that while the melt in recent years was quite high, it probably wasn’t unprecedented. JGR uses a single-blind review process—that is, there were three reviewers who were anonymous to us, but they knew who we were. The double-blind review processes, while common in other disciplines, and relatively rare in climate science, which is probably one of the systematic problems in the discipline that created an atmosphere primed for Climategate-like storms. The fact that editors have not changed this policy in light of the Climategate emails is an ominous portent.

After our paper was published, one of the previously anonymous reviewers revealed himself through a blog entry on his website. This individual was Dr. Jason Box, geography professor at Ohio State University who has done a lot of work on the Greenland ice, and was therefore well-qualified to review our work (and in fact, was one of the people that we suggested to JGR as a potential reviewer of our paper). His blog entry was not about how a paper that he recently reviewed perhaps shed some new light on the longer term history of ice melt across Greenland, but instead was highly (to put it mildly) critical of our results as well as the review process at JGR, and for good measure, as if it was somehow relevant to the science in our paper, decided to trot out the old “denialism” war horse and to explain that he, Box, is “inspired by scientific denialism.”

Here are some excerpts from Box’s blog posts titled “selective science=pseudo science”:

“I was invited by Dr. Guosheng Liu – Associate Editor – Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR) – Atmospheres to review the article. Sara Pryor was the JGR chief editor ultimately responsible for this paper’s review.”… [Note to readers: this information is not normally revealed. Doing so is a clear attempt to incite an academic lynch mob.]

“The Editor’s decision whether or not to accept the paper would have been made sometime early 2011. This paper should not have been accepted for publication without taking into account important new data.”… [emphasis in original]

“Unfortunately, the paper represents not only a failure of the review process, but an intentional exclusion of data that would, if included, undermine the paper’s thesis.”…

“A documented campaign of climate change denialism, of which the authors Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, Michaels are a documented part, seeks to undermine the well-established science that demonstrates unequivocally the reality of anthropogenic climate change, characterized by global warming among other changes in the climate system.”…

[Questions to readers: has the author of The Current Wisdom ever said, for decades, that humans are not changing global surface temperature? Is it not the nature of science to “undermine” what is “well-established”?]

“I, Jason E. Box, am a physical climatologist focusing on Greenland ice-climate interactions since 1993. My agenda is the philosophy (a.k.a. the search for truth) about Greenland’s climate variations. I am inspired by scientific denialism to counter pseudo-science on the important topic of climate change.”

Jason Box is naming the responsible editors at JGR, saying that the peer-review process there failed, and then pointing out what evil people the authors are especially when compared to himself. What the latter has to do with the former is unclear, unless he is somehow trying to slip in that Liu and Pryor are potential denialist sympathizers.

So much for the lessons of Climategate.

Judith Curry is the Head of the Earth and Atmospheric Science department at Georgia Tech, who runs a very popular climate science blog. Her take on all of this is very interesting:

Regarding editor Gusheng Liu:

“The editor on this one was Guosheng Liu, my former postdoc and collaborator; a more honest, fair, and conscientious editor would be hard to find.”

On Box’s reaction:

“So, some climate change skeptics actually got a fair shake in the review process by an editor (Guosheng Liu), and a “consensus” reviewer is outraged.”

The “important new data” that Box said we were evading is the 2010 melt data. It is a combination of records from three different sources, which are not even available until late in the following year.

In fact, because this paper was so long in the review process (for reasons that should be obvious), we had to revise it by including 2008 and 2009 data.

We also would like to assure Dr. Box, who surely knows this, that inclusion of 2010 data, which, from preliminary data, appears to be a very high melt year (but not significantly different from other high ones) would in fact have strengthened our results. The more data one has, especially at the extremes, the more robust the subsequent model is.

At any rate Climategate lives on. Now, as then, any editor who dares to publish anything that does not imply the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-pronto risks loss of confidentiality or worse. “You’ve been warned. Back off. Once these people are mad, honest, I can’t control them.”

What an awful profession climate science has become.

Patrick J. Michaels is a Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Cato Institute.