Global warming: Journal editor resigns over flawed paper

Can the Earth's atmosphere shed excess heat to space?

Opinion — The debate over a flawed paper serves global warming skeptics well since it creates the illusion of an overall climate science debate

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The latest flap over climate science — and specifically about human-caused global warming — shows once again how ideological and political this issue has become, to the detriment of average citizens who are trying to understand what’s going on with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A short timeline sets the scene: Earlier this summer, global warming skeptic Dr. Roy Spencer published a paper that discussed the role of clouds in the Earth’s climate system and purported to show how the Earth’s atmosphere was more efficient at releasing heat to outer space than previously believed. Last week, the editor of the journal that published the paper resigned after saying it was flawed. BBC news covered the story thoroughly.

Even though Spencer has a record of publishing research that’s been called into question by many other climate scientists, his July paper was pounced on by the few remaining media outlets that insist on pretending there’s still a legitimate debate about the fundamental physics of global warming. Fox News and Forbes, for example, trumpeted headlines suggesting that this one paper out of thousands somehow cast doubt on the entire body of climate science that’s been meticulously compiled and scrutinized again and again … and again.

Those headlines don’t even deserve to be repeated, especially now that the editor of the journal that published Spencer’s paper resigned last week, acknowledging that the peer review of the science was flawed, that the paper was “problematic,” and should not have been published.

What’s most interesting is that Spencer and his defenders are now circling the wagons. But rather than defending the paper on its merits, they are claiming that he is a victim of scientific orthodoxy, perpetrated by what they believe is a global warming alarmist conspiracy consisting of thousands of scientists from nearly every country on the planet, led, of course, by U.S. government agency researchers, who for some reason are the favorite target of the global warming skeptics.

This works well for the global warming deniers and skeptics, because even if the debate is about a debate — rather than the actual science in question — it serves to create the illusion that there is still some doubt about the causes and consequences of increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

The flavor of this attempt to manipulate public perception is evident in a long comment thread on Spencer’s own site, following a post in which he describes his reaction to the journal editor’s resignation. First, Spencer claims his science is sound, inviting people with a background in radiative transfer or physics to read the paper for themselves. Then he goes on to blame IPCC “gatekeepers” for “pressuring a journal for daring to publish anything that might hurt the IPCC’s politically immovable position that climate change is almost entirely human-caused,” thus twisting what should be a scientific question into a political and ideological issue.

Then he goes on to attack the media and other scientists who disagree with his findings: “Apparently, peer review is now carried out by reporters calling scientists on the phone and asking their opinion on something most of them do not even do research on. A sad day for science.”

It’s another favorite tactic now used by the global warming skeptics. Since there’s not really much left to challenge in the fundamentals of climate science, why not shoot the messengers — anything to undermine public understanding of global warming.

For his part, journal editor Wolfgang Wagner said that Spencer’s paper was most likely problematic in areas of fundamental methodological errors and false claims — a fairly straightforward explanation of why he now thinks the paper shouldn’t have been published in the first place.

Here’s an excerpt from Wagner’s letter: “The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend 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.”

Spencer responds: “But the paper WAS precisely addressing the scientific arguments made by our opponents, and showing why they are wrong! That was the paper’s starting point! We dealt with specifics, numbers, calculations…while our critics only use generalities and talking points. There is no contest, as far as I can see, in this debate. If you have some physics or radiative transfer background, read the evidence we present, the paper we were responding to, and decide for yourself.”

Read Spencer’s full response.

And finally, other scientists chime in with why they think Spencer’s science is damaging. In The Daily Climate, Kevin Trenberth, John Abraham, and Peter Gleick write:

“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.”

Trenberth and his colleagues end by challenging the media to cover other scientific reports that question Spencer’s claims with the same vigor they devoted to covering his controversial paper.


28 thoughts on “Global warming: Journal editor resigns over flawed paper

  1. Thanks for the entertainment. Your article is an example of exactly the kind of exaggerated and distorted scientific ‘orthodoxy’ Spence was describing. Opinion dressed up as fact and shouting down a piece of work that contradicts your opinions by attempting to smear the person.

    At no point have you even attempted to explain what was claimed to be flawed by the peer review. Why is that? Because the peer review was solid, conducted by three respected and well published scientists.

    And you fail to mention a paper designed to counter Spencer and Braswell is being rushed out, without peer review by people who have not made any attempt to actually test the science.

    Science is not a zero sum game, but you try to make it so because of a political agenda. In so doing you demonstrate you have no understanding of science and like Wagner you reject anything that counters your personal biases. Perhaps you should wait until a group of scientists tries to replicate Spencer and Braswell, releases their data and method in full, and see what the findings are before jumping in and looking foolish in this way.

  2. One has to ask the question, who is sponsoring Spencer’s research? Considering who the media was that picked up the story, along with the seemingly lack of truely investagative journalists today, that in itself should cause one to stop & wonder. His-Spencer’s- reaction, reminds me of other’s that are prevelent in the media today. Just my opinion.

    1. Roy W. Spencer received his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. Before becoming a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2001, he was a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where he and Dr. John Christy received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for their global temperature monitoring work with satellites. Dr. Spencer’s work with NASA continues as the U.S. Science Team leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer flying on NASA’s Aqua satellite. He has provided congressional testimony several times on the subject of global warming.

      Dr. Spencer’s research has been entirely supported by U.S. government agencies: NASA, NOAA, and DOE. He has never been asked by any oil company to perform any kind of service. Not even Exxon-Mobil.

  3. Maybe Spencer’s paper will be disproved sometime in the future by another peer reviewed study. (Dessler’s paper coming out next week has been rushed out without peer review, which says an awful lot about how politicised and non-scientific the warmist side of the debate has become). Or maybe it will be used as the basis for developing our knowledge of climate further. This is how science works, Bob.

    To force an editor to resign (yes I know it was “voluntary” but surely you don’t really believe that) for publishing something controversial certainly is not how science works.

  4. Lead critic Trenberth says that “we can’t account for the missing heat, and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

    Bob describes this as “fundamental physics.” Since Bob rejects Spencer’s explanation, I suggest that he get in touch with Trenberth at NCAR and explain to him where the missing heat is. No doubt NCAR will appreciate Bob’s expert opinion.

  5. You also criticise Spencer for saying “Apparently, peer review is now carried out by reporters calling scientists on the phone and asking their opinion on something most of them do not even do research on. A sad day for science.” and call it shooting the messenger.

    This of course is utter nonsense. Spencer is perfectly entitled to complain that his critics should respond to his paper through proper channels, and not just run to the media with half baked comments particularly when they have very little of the subject. (Did you know for instance that Peter Gleick who you quote as immediately jumping up to attack Roy Spencer has absolutely NO qualifications or relevant knowlege at all about any of this field of work. Gleick’s forte is working on issues related to the environment, economic development, and international security, with a focus on global freshwater challenges. )

    Gleick’s criticism of Spencer carries about as much weight as yours (unless of course you have a PHD in Climate Science).

    As for ad-hom attacks Trenberth and co go for the jugular :-

    “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.”

    Even if this was true (and Spencer has shown this not to be so) what relevance does this have? If Trenberth thinks Spencer’s work is so faulty it should be easy for him to disprove it through proper scientific channels. Spencer’s track record with the UAH , NASA and NOAA prove in any event that he is not some charlatan.

  6. ‘stevengoddard’ completely misses the point that the reason Spencer’s paper should not have been published is not that it was controversial, but that it was fundamentally flawed.

    1. That’s because, as I said, ANY debate serves the climate skeptics, since it creates the ILLUSION of debate about fundamental climate science and thereby confuses the public.

      1. That is called a disagreement. Papers which disagree get published all the time. That is the difference between science and religion.

        There must be no debate. Debate is bad for science and democracy.

        “I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, arraigned personally before this tribunal, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General against heretical depravity throughout the entire Christian commonwealth, having before my eyes and touching with my hands, the Holy Gospels, swear that I have always believed, do believe, and by God’s help will in  the future believe, all that is held, preached, and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. But whereas — after an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture”

        1. I consolidated your last 2 comments into one, for the sake of brevity. Also, seems to me like there’s plenty of good, open debate on this topic in a wide variety of forums, so I really don’t understand your point. I haven’t seen anyone say that Spencer shouldn’t be published, or that he should be silenced or shipped to a Gulag … it sounds like some other papers will be coming out to take up the debate … you’re artificially creating an issue of censorship where there is none.

          1. The price for publishing Spencer is to lose your job as editor. Your eyes and ears are closed tight as a drum.

            For 60 years, Wegener’s theory of continental drift was called fatally flawed by 97% of earth scientists. Scientists are wrong all the time Bob. You should learn something about science if you are going to write about it.

            BTW – the geniuses at Real Climate predicted that Lake Powell would be just about dry by now.

      2. “…since it creates the ILLUSION of debate about fundamental climate science and thereby confuses the public.”

        That is a circa 1997 talking point straight off the inside dust jacket sleeve of Ross Gelbspan’s “The Heat is On” book, (repeated widely and frequently) with the explicit accusation that skeptic scientists know what they say is false, but are paid to say what they say by fossil fuel industries.

        From all the work I’ve done to figure out where that accusation came from and what evidence the accusers rely on for proof, it looks ever more like we have the opposite situation: folks on the IPCC / Al Gore side are bending over backwards to create an ILLUSION that no debate exists and that there are no legitimate skeptic scientists.

        1. Personally, I think there are some legitimate climate-science skeptics who are doing good work probing established findings.

          Factually, some of the studies and research that purport to challenge established climate science have been funded either directly or indirectly by fossil fuel interests.

          I think most legitimate climate scientists welcome good research on any aspect of the topic. I don’t know enough about IPCC politics to comment.

          Finally, there are many hundreds, probably thousands of scientists with a lot of integrity and expertise who have separately come to the same conclusions about the effects of greenhouse gases on the world’s climate. I don’t like the smear tactics used to impugn their reputation. The idea that there is some sort of global scientific conspiracy to promote global warming alarmism is simply ludicrous – and especially to repeat the charges (which you didn’t do) that they do it to keep research money coming.

          I happen to know a lot of scientists, and none are in it for the money. Yeah, they’re trying to make a living, like the rest of us, but there’s no shortage of things to research.

          I feel pretty strongly that a lot of climate scientists who are most alarmed by global warming would actually be relieved if someone tomorrow offered definitive proof that they are wrong, because better than anyone, they understand the implications and potential consequences of cooking the planet in our own waste gases.

  7. One further comment, Bob.

    Roy Spencer (and I guess you don’t know this) is actually a believer in AGW. He has no disagreement at all with the basic physics.

    He believes that increasing CO2 will lead to a small degree of warming. Where he disagrees with Trenberth is if there will be large positive feedbacks as Trenberth claims. There is no evidential proof for Trenberth’s claims, simply computer models and of course the recent temperature record does not support this view either (hence Trenberth’s wondering where all the “missing heat” has gone).

    Far from the “science being settled” many scientists are far from convinced about such positive feedbacks.

    Trenberth’s reaction shows beyond doubt that he is not interested in the science but solely in the message.

    1. I think that’s been discussed at length in Wagner’s letter, at Real Climate and on Spencer’s own blog … and many other forums — but hey, if you can’t be right, you can always have the last word, so be my guest, but maybe next time try to condense your thoughts into one concise comment rather than spamming this blog with a string of soundbites.

        1. I’m not a scientist so I’ll refrain from commenting directly on the paper. I did read it, and the basic idea of the atmosphere being more efficient at releasing heat than some models indicate seems to make sense, superficially. But it appears that many scientists, much smarter than I, say that the research and conclusions are flawed. I know that scientists haven’t yet figured out every single aspect of how the system reacts to GHG and other input and I think Spencer’s effort to explain that would be valuable if it were based on good science. It appears not to be, but if other papers come out with similar results and they’re accepted by the scientific community, I’ll be sure to report on that.

          1. A laughable response, Bob, You don’t understand the science and yor remarks betray your political motivation. Very weak.

  8. Goodness Bob, all I did is take a nap because I’m old, but you sure aroused the Sunday crowd here about. I have to agree with you, I haven’t read any rebuttals other than defending Spencer. Such is life in the Rockies this Labor Day weekend.

      1. Resorting to ad homs is a pretty good indication that you are losing the argument.

        Your belief about Spencer is based on one article from Trenberth at Real Climate. A more recent Real Climate article directly contradicts Trenberth’s claims.

  9. Nice opinion piece. Don’t let the turkeys get you down, Bob. In 10 years or so, everyone will agree that climate change is real and bad, and that they knew it all along. Just like smoking.

  10. Much of the science is theoretical therefore most of the theories are based on theories. Every story and every blog has its own agenda, believer or skeptic and when the opinion differs attack the person. The science of Global Warming is not settled and the research must continue and if papers published are proven to be wrong, so be it. The world was flat once.

  11. Interesting article @ the BBC News of 2 September 2011 in the Science & Environment section. It also lists a few of the organizations Prof Spencer belongs too. This may have a bearing on his opinion[s].

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