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Cool climate paper sinks journal editor


The editor of the journal Remote Sensing resigned today, saying in an editorial that his journal never should have published a controversial paper in July that challenged the reliability of climate models used to forecast global warming. The paper, by Roy Spencer and William Braswell of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, proposed that climate researchers have likely made a fundamental error by overestimating the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse-gas pollution.

The climate-research blog Real Climate and other mainstream researchers complained that the paper was itself fundamentally flawed, but the Remote Sensing article garnered support from climate skeptics and significant press attention, thanks in part to an overly hyped press release. The editor of Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner of the Vienna University of Technology, said he now views the paper as “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 seriously.”

In the unusual editorial, Wagner says “from a purely formal point of view, there were no errors in the peer review process. But, as the case presents itself now, the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors.”

Wagner says he initially supported the publication of the paper but changed his mind after studying the arguments made for and against it. “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.” The authors, he said, ignored those criticisms and the reviewers did not pick up on that fact.

Spencer fired back on his own website, saying that he stands behind the paper: “The paper WAS precisely addressing the scientific arguments made by our opponents, and showing why they are wrong!”

Retraction Watch notes the curious point that the paper has not been retracted and asks whether it was necessary for Wagner to resign.

The story has echoes of a case I covered back in 2003 for the Chronicle of Higher Education. At that time, Hans von Storch resigned after 4 days as editor in chief of the journal Climate Research over a paper that claimed the Middle Ages were warmer than today—a paper that von Storch said he came to learn was seriously flawed. But in the case of Climate Research, von Storch resigned over a dispute about how to handle manuscripts in the future. He criticized the standards of some of the editors working for the journal.

In the case of Remote Sensing, though, Wagner praised the journal in his editorial, which only adds more intrigue to the case.


  1. Report this comment

    Bishop Hill said:

    Most sceptics believe that the scientific literature is largely closed to them. It is clear that the authors of the Climategate emails believed this too. The Remote Sensing affair is merely confirmation of what we already knew.

    The Russell panel of course exonerated the CRU scientists of misconduct in the area of peer review based on the word of Phil Jones alone.

    Many people are invoking Lysenko with regard to climate science today. This seems reasonable under the circumstances.

  2. Report this comment

    Marc Hendrickx said:

    In lieu of the flawed publication of Steig et al., 2009 (Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year. Nature 457, 459-462) and the debunked Hockey Stick study, will we now see a similar walk out of embarrassed editors from Nature?

  3. Report this comment

    William Baird said:

    This is a curious business. I am a chartered environmentalist and, I suppose, pre-disposed to accepting the view that ‘climate change’ isoccuring.

    However, the behaviour of so-called ‘climate scientists’, makes me distrustful of anything they say. It seems to me that freedom of expression and view, let alone freedom of experts to have their scientific findings aired, are being denied by those who would have us believe in ‘climate change’.

    Surely, if the science is ‘settled’ these people should positively welcome contrary views, as these could only result in a clearer statement and acceptance of their ‘science’.

    The fact that Tremberth, Jones, Mann et al fight so hard to silence other views seems to me to proove more forcibly than any peer reviewed study ever could that the ‘settled science’ is, for whatever reason, nonesense.

  4. Report this comment

    alex said:

    @ Bishop Hill

    The peer review literature is largely closed to them? Spencer has a pretty impressive publication record to that can refute that. The only evidence that the authors of the climategate e-mails believed this were expressions of their outrage against papers that they believed egregiously pitifully flawed. They are entitled to their opinion. And papers that genuinely have such severe flaws should not be published. I see no evidence to confirm the idea that similar attitudes would be applied to papers with only minor flaws.

    Invoking Lysenko is done by everyone in any bitter uncivil scientific debate. Its nothing more than mudslinging. Environmentalists invoke it all the time when mentioning climate skeptic “denier research”.

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    dmitry said:

    It is interesting that some editors still publish controversial articles. Apparently possibility of shame and resignation is not enough to prevent them.

    Perhaps scientific community should reestablish punishments that had better tracking records through the history. In particular, certain punishment involving an oxidation process seems to be most appropriate for climate skeptics, deniers and their supporters. With that punishment and with the funding sources traced down and redirected back to the mainstream science this skepticism nonsense can finally be eradicated.

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    JMurphy said:

    It’s rather strange how some can see conspiracies, dodgy behaviour, output from climate scientists that they don’t want to accept (let alone acknowledge as being proper science), and some form of hidden obstruction via peer-review; while praising those like Spencer who are open about their political and religious beliefs, and who produce work (via any form of peer-reviewed output they can find which will allow them to print their work, despite the lack of a connection to their work) which is refuted almost as soon as it comes out – or which leads to resignations from within the Journals, from people who don’t wish to be associated with the way the peer-review system has been undermined and cheapened !

    You couldn’t make such bare-faced double-standards up.

  7. Report this comment

    Edwin Loftus said:

    Does it give anyone else a chill to see skepticism regarding AGW theory constantly denegrated with the appelation, “climate deniers”? When have we seen this before? Skepticism is an integral part of scientific process and true science should welcome it, but ever since non-scientist Al Gore named AGW “settled science” those who disagree have been labelled “deniers”. I’m also curious about how “peer review” and “publication” worked their way into scientific process. I researched the history of these, so my curiousity is not about how they got to that position, but why there is not a storm of protest from the scientific community regarding the rise of these unscientific qualifiers?

    Finally, how many pro-AGW papers published by this and other journals include AGW skeptics in their review process? My experience says – zero. But the standard put forth here says that would be unprofessional. Which is it?

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    Brian Angliss said:

    Contrary to what Bishop Hill and others are claiming, the affair with Remote Sensing shows that editors of journals without expertise in climate-related science should be very cautious about publishing climate papers.

    Wagner wrote in his editorial “the editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors.” What’s the probability that this occurred accidentally given the fact that the majority of climate scientists qualified to review Spencer and Braswell’s work accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of human-driven climate disruption? Instead, it is far more likely that the Remote Sensing editors relied on suggestions by Spencer and Braswell themselves, making this whole debacle an example of “pal review” by critics who themselves complain about supposed pal review by Dessler, Trenberth, and the many others.

    What does it say about those who complain about a supposedly corrupt peer review process (as Spencer did as recently as yesterday) when one of their own might have committed the same sin? Perhaps the supporters of Spencer and Braswell would do well to put down the stones they’re presently casting about.

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    Paul said:

    R. Spencer and W. Braswell do not deny that that 7+ billion people on the planet will have large effects on the ecosystem. Their contribution to science is pointing out that our current data set is too sparse to statistically draw firm conclusions from as to quantify exactly what those effects on the ecosystem will be. In Feb 2009, the NASA satellite intended to provide this remote sensing data, – the OCO – or Orbiting Carbon Observatory, crashed. While a relaunch is planned in 2013 – we are still at least a decade away from having a statistically robust data set to answer global ghg ecosystem questions. IPCC politics masquerading as ‘science’ not-withstanding – the error bars are still larger than the result.

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