Posted by: Barry Bickmore | September 2, 2011

Remote Sensing Editor Resigns Over Spencer/Braswell Paper

A few weeks ago, there was a big media frenzy over a new paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, published in the journal Remote Sensing.  The paper claimed to show, via some satellite data, that the climate models used by the IPCC are way off the mark.  Big news, right?  However, it turned out that Spencer had, for the umpteenth time, botched his statistics.  To summarize, Spencer and Braswell 1) compared a 10 year period of data with 100 year periods in the models, instead of breaking the 100 years into 10 year periods, 2) didn’t put error bars on the data or the model output, and 3) didn’t plot some of the models that did a better job at reproducing the data.  If they had done all this the right way, they would have seen that the models do a decent job, although some are better than others.

Another criticism of Spencer and Braswell’s paper was their choice of venue, the open-access journal, Remote Sensing.  Now, some of these for-profit, open-access journals are a bit shady, and routinely publish things that should have been rejected with prejudice, but it’s usually hard to tell until they have been around a few years.  The bigger worry was that Remote Sensing hasn’t published a lot of climate science in the past.  In such a case, the editors handling the manuscript probably aren’t climate specialists, and may not know who the best reviewers would be.  Often, authors are allowed to suggest some good reviewers, and if the editors don’t know who would be better, or that the suggested reviewers are all buddies of the authors, they might just ask the suggested reviewers.

It turns out that this was very likely the case here.

The editor of Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner, has now published an editorial in which he 1) describes how the peer review process failed in this case, and 2) announces his resignation in an attempt to save the reputation of the journal.  Here’s the money quote.

In hindsight, it is possible to see why the review process of the paper by Spencer and Braswell did not fulfill its aim. The managing editor of Remote Sensing selected three senior scientists from renowned US universities, each of them having an impressive publication record. Their reviews had an apparently good technical standard and suggested one “major revision”, one “minor revision” and one “accept as is”. The authors revised their paper according to the comments made by the reviewers and, consequently, the editorial board member who handled this paper accepted the paper (and could in fact not have done otherwise). Therefore, from a purely formal point of view, there were no errors with the 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. This selection by itself does not mean that the review process for this paper was wrong. In science, diversity and controversy are essential to progress and therefore it is important that different opinions are heard and openly discussed. Therefore editors should take special care that minority views are not suppressed, meaning that it certainly would not be correct to reject all controversial papers already during the review process. If a paper presents interesting scientific arguments, even if controversial, it should be published and responded to in the open literature. This was my initial response after having become aware of this particular case. So why, after a more careful study of the pro and contra arguments, have I changed my initial view? 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. 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.

UPDATE 1:  Read more about this from Joe Romm (and others linked from his blog) and Leo Hickman at The Guardian.  The BBC has now picked this up, and makes the same kind of points I did about how things work when you submit your work to an off-topic journal.  Media Matters has now picked it up.  More comments on Ars Technica.  Peter Gleick has a blog post up about this at the Forbes magazine site.  You may remember that the original media frenzy about S&B’s paper was started with a Forbes blog written by James Taylor, from the Heartland Institute.  Interestingly, the Forbes homepage has bumped Peter’s blog off in favor of less viewed entries already.  Could they be sensitive to the fact that they are guilty of letting some non-scientist shill for a right-wing “think-tank” interpret climate science for their readers?  John Nielsen-Gammon (Texas State Climatologist) has similar insights to mine about the likely course of the review process in this case.

UPDATE 2:  Andrew Dessler has just published a paper that exposes certain aspects of Spencer and Braswell’s paper that, well, ticked me off, for one thing.  It’s a bombshell.

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  1. I encourage readers to wade through the entire letter of resignation. Mr. Wagner also expresses frustration at the way the paper was hyped by the climate change denier echo chamber, and names (a few) names.

    • Most interesting is Wagner pointing out Spencer himself, and Spencer…completely ignoring that and in essence stating that he can’t help how the media runs with his results. Right…

  2. [...] Barry Bickmore writers about it here. [...]

  3. Fascinating stuff. It’s bizarre that Forbes ran a (very good) article from Gleick on the subject, considering their normal extreme denialism (i.e. giving Pat Michaels a regular blog).

    • Agreed. Maybe “opinionwashing?” They had a piece just a few days ago about how the CERN work is likely to overturn the scientific consensus on climate.

  4. Let’s see…IPCC so far is WRONG by predicting a 0.2C increase each decade for the next two decades, now Trenberth is panicked because mother nature is not cooperating with IPCC prediction and and says the missing heat “MAYBE” in the deep oceans. Maybe? Maybe?!
    What would YOU say if the skeptics said “maybe”?! Oh wait–do as I say, not as I do–of course, that’s the rule and I must not forget it.

    Dana and Barry tell me that the “models are pretty much right” but have to explain that “MAYBE” the missing heat is in the deep oceans. If the models were “pretty much right”, then tell me, why do they have to tell me that “MAYBE” the “missing heat” has mysteriously escaped to the deep ocean? Well guys, MAYBE the deep ocean is where the tooth fairy lives with Santa’s elves. Don’t forget Elvis. Just maybe…

    And we must remember we can’t trust a decade of satellite data but tree rings from a thousand years ago.

    20 years from now I predict a major motion picture made on how many people fell for this garbage…breath-taking!

    Look, guys, all this really doesn’t matter anyway. Obama is a no-show on climate and the next prez will be republican so there’s no way out! You’re painted into a corner. So now you can’t say “See! we stopped global warming! The world is so much better now!”

    I must now depart your la-la land and back to real world and have a great weekend. Go Cougars!

  5. Meanwhile, in the real-world U.S., record high temperatures are crushing record lows this summer, in a trend that dates from the 1980s and appears to be accelerating, as shown by the two graphics here: . In July, Oklahoma had the hottest month ever recorded by any state: .

  6. [...]  This worked out well for them, at first, because it appears the editor handling the manuscript probably ended up just choosing the reviewers suggested by [...]

  7. [...] Remote Sensing Editor Resigns Over Spencer/Braswell Paper - Barry Bickmore [...]

  8. [...] Deseret News has published an article on Wolfgang Wagner’s resignation over the Spencer and Braswell paper Remote Sensing published.  Since it’s a local paper, [...]

  9. No one seems to have noticed that the proper course, when a scientific error has been published, is not to resign but rather see to it that a rebuttal is published addressing the actual science. Wagner’s resignation does not achieve this.

    Instead, since Trenberth has an important role in overseeing research Wagner is involved in, the latter’s email apology to the former looks more like an admission of such a calculation – thereby sullying any weight his resignation would have achieved. CYA matters where money-funding is concerned.

    Furthermore, Spencer has released all of his model analyses, supporting his contention that his RM piece was not deceptive.

    Finally, since Dessler and Spencer have turned to collaborating instead of ignoring the other surely looks more like a “Denier” win than a loss – since Dessler and his friends like Barry claim to represent the “orthodox” high ground.

    In fact the largest change in climate science matters appears to be the rapid engagement with “Denialist” forces since climategate, instead of the old habit of ignoring them.

    Somehow these latter day facts have not yet merited Barry’s attention on his blog.

    Methinks he is behind the curve – on these, as well as related climate controversies.

    • Hi Orson,

      1. Remote Sensing did publish a rebuttal by Trenberth, Fasullo, and John Abraham.

      2. Wolfgang Wagner works in Austria, and doesn’t do anything related to climate. So how, exactly, does Trenberth hold his purse strings? I have no idea, but I’m guessing you can’t produce a source for this information.

      3. Spencer’s model analyses support exactly what Trenberth, Fasullo, and Dessler said they support. In other words, the missing data completely undercut Spencer’s main points. I don’t know if he’s just too blinded to see it, or what, but Spencer has never really answered the main charges. See my comments (and others’) on Spencer’s blog. I don’t think he intentionally hid data–he is just mentally/emotionally incapable of seeing that any set of data doesn’t support low climate sensitivity.

      4. I would hardly call what Spencer and Dessler are doing “collaboration.” They had a conversation.

      5. Points 1 and 3 above did make it onto my blog. You just didn’t read it. Points 2 and 4 would never make it onto my blog because they are based or ridiculous assertions by you.

  10. [...] Last year, there was a paper published by two scientists, Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell, in a journal called Remote Sensing. In this paper, Spencer and Braswell claimed that data from NASA satellites proved that global warming wasn’t real. Investigation into the paper found that it was rife with inaccuracies and possibly even fraud. Everyone wanted to know how they managed to get such an obviously flawed paper published. The answer was they hand-selected their reviewers, people they knew would support their claim and approve the paper, no matter what kind of scientific flaws it had. The editor resigned as a result of this incident. [...]

  11. [...] Barry Bickmore of Brigham Young University and John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist, both observed that Remote Sensing has a policy of allowing paper authors to suggest their own reviewers, a policy that can have serious consequences for a journal like Remote Sensing that may lack climate expertise. Bickmore noted that if a journal’s editors “don’t know who would be better, or that the suggested reviewers are all buddies of the authors, [the editors] might just ask the suggested reviewers.” Nielsen-Gammon speculated, “You don’t suppose the managing editor simply chose three referees from the list that Spencer and Braswell provided? Well, I do.” [...]

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