3 September 2011

So Much For That Huge Hole in Climate Science

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Most real news organizations ignored the paper published in a rather obscure journal, but Murdoch's outlets made much of it.

Below is the editorial in REMOTE SENSING today announcing that the paper written by Spencer and Braswell, was deeply flawed and should not have been published. The story (as of Friday evening U.S. time) is now the most viewed on the BBC World-wide website and to say it was a major topic of conversation in the Earth science world would be an understatement. If researchers in a particular field begin to feel a refereed journal is not conducting rigorous peer review, they tend to go elsewhere  to publish their papers, and it can be the end of the journal, so today’s announcement and resignation were not entirely unexpected.

Climate change deniers desperately need something published in a peer-reviewed journal to give legitimacy to their obviously (Count the number of times you see the word “Al Gore”) political based arguments, but in the last few years this has almost disappeared. Science has moved on to questions that are not yet answered, and this one certainly is. The few recent papers trumpeted by political ideologues on twitter (and the web) have been in rather obscure journals, perhaps in hope that a sloppy peer review process will allow it to slip by. They are not published to further the science, but as a piece of meat to those who find the science very incompatible with their world view.

The deniers can find almost nothing in the mainstream media to support their beliefs anymore except on Murdoch’s news outlets, and those in the science world have continued to pillory them with detailed (item by item) complaints of biased journalism. News Corp. outlets are the media of choice for the anti-science crowd and can count on good ratings and high readership from those looking for reinforcement of their beliefs. Perhaps this explains why the original paper was ignored or buried by almost everyone else in the mainstream media, although several media outlets did report that the paper was being heavily criticized by science community and I expect there was a storm of protest to the journal (REMOTE SENSING) that published it.

Tweets like this were common on twitter.

Editorial by Dr. Wolfgang Wagner the editor of Remote Sensing

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.

The article in Forbes was actually written by a writer at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that puts on conferences for climate deniers.

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.

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. 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.

I live in Huntsville and can tell you that UA Huntsville is an excellent university and they have a great atmospheric science department, so it’s sad that the university is the subject of such bad publicity-albeit in this case they have only one person to blame. The lesson here is this: If you send in your political or religious beliefs dressed up like scientific research, you will find that the science world can be very rude.

Note: The highlighting in this post in mine.