A Questionable Paper Published, an Editor Resigns…What Else is New?

By Chris Mooney | September 6, 2011 11:38 am

My latest DeSmogBlog piece is about the flap over the Roy Spencer paper in Remote Sensing, which was covered by conservatives as if it was a paradigm shift overturning all of climate science, but turned out to be substantially less than that…and now an editor has resigned over it being published at all.

The thing is, this kind of stuff happens now and again–regularly enough that we ought to expect it. It has happened before on climate, it has happened on “intelligent design,” and it outright caused the whole vaccine-autism flap.

Here’s what I have to say over there:

The real problem here, for the most part, is not the journals or the scientists. They police themselves adequately, albeit rather slowly. The real problem are the media.

Any well trained science journalist knows that one study proves nothing—precisely because of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and so on. If there aren’t a bunch of studies out there, by a bunch of different authors, all converging on a point—or if there isn’t a meta-analysis, a consensus assessment report, and so on—you had better be very careful. Humans are too prone to biases—even scientists—to treat any single study as a new truth.

It’s just looking for trouble.

But who cares about science journalists these days, and the skills they’ve learned over those long careers? The media is shedding them like dandruff. And then there’s Fox News, where they cover the climate issue as if every day is scientific opposite day. (Thereby, of course, playing to the biases and self-serving motivations of their viewers.)

You can read the full item here.


Comments (14)

  1. TTT

    They tipped their hand too soon this time when all of their frenzied linking led to an op-ed on Yahoo.

  2. Somite

    I wonder what commenters like Johnny, ThomasL and Nullius think about this. In other threads this paper was vehemently defended as exposing a “gaping hole” in the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

    And since I am commenting any way let me recommend this excellent TED lecture.


  3. Nullius in Verba

    “…when all of their frenzied linking led to an op-ed on Yahoo.”


    As opposed to a showy resignation by an environmental modeller citing an internet blog post that made an argument against an entirely different paper by different authors, using a reference that gave no supporting evidence for the statement and that didn’t even contradict what Roy Spencer’s paper had actually said? A statement that actually supported Roy’s hypothesis?

    We have on the one hand a scientific paper that – as the resigning editor affirms – passed a normal peer review, and most of the media ignore it entirely. And on the other hand, we have a rather vague, mildly ranting editorial with virtually no technical content apparently based on an unnamed blog post somewhere, and it’s solid gold. The matter is settled, the status quo restored, the heretic definitively dealt with. What a relief!

    Both sides do it. Both sides think only the other side does it. It’s far too early yet to draw any conclusions on the question. But do carry on, please.

    “I wonder what commenters like Johnny, ThomasL and Nullius think about this.”

    You’re always welcome to ask.

  4. Somite

    And there’s more:


    “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[5] 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.

    This trend continues: On Tuesday the journal Geophysical Research Letters will publish a peer-reviewed study by Texas A&M University atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler that undermines Spencer’s arguments about the role of clouds in the Earth’s energy budget.”

  5. Nullius in Verba


    It seems quite remarkable that they can draw such conclusions even before the paper is published! That’s even better than drawing final conclusions after only one study!

  6. Joe

    Living in the upper midwest my whole life, I’ve seen the affects of climate change first-hand. I’ve also fought very hard to keep even the mentioning of intelligent design out of our public schools. As far as injecting newborns and infants with bolus doses of organic mercury (autism-vaccines), that’s where we split paths Chris.

  7. Hugo Schmidt

    I hate to be contentious about this, but remember this?



    Any well trained science journalist knows that one study proves nothing—precisely because of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and so on.

    Could this, perchance, apply to the following? http://www.skepticalscience.com/what-co2-level-would-cause-greenland-ice-sheet-collapse.html

    A journal with an impact factor of 0.115. Compared with 3.951 for Remote Sensing.

  8. Somite

    The paper used as a basis for the blog post on skeptical science is this:


    from a journal with an impact factor of 3.641. What is your reference for the IF of Remote Sensing? According to this list it doesn’t even register:


  9. Hugo Schmidt

    GAH! Okay, that’s me eating crow.

    On the list I originally looked up the Cryosphere, it confused Impact Factor and SNIP. When I looked up Remote Sensing on Elsevier, I got it mixed up with Remote Sensing of Environment.

    Boy is my face red…

  10. Somite

    Those are different journals. “Remote Sensing of Environment” is 3+. Remote Sensing still doesn’t register an IF.

  11. Hugo Schmidt

    I know – that’s why my face is red.

    Sorry about all this.

  12. Incredulous

    It happens in all scientific reporting. The press puts out some wild junk in an interpretation of some paper (that they often have no real idea about) and it gets spewed out on the news wires. I just cringe when I hear the news with the stuff that is done in medicine.

    That said, I think the editor is being a drama queen. If the paper is bad, retract it. If the science is bad rebut it. Resigning as editor accomplishes nothing except getting a bit of press over it.

  13. Somite

    No problem Hugo! The conversation is what’s important.

  14. Bob Koss

    I think Wagner was between a rock and a hard place. The S&B paper passed peer review and hasn’t been withdrawn. If Internet postings can cause editors to resign they evidently have reached an equal or higher status than formal peer review. Or perhaps there is something going on behind the scenes.

    The oddity of Wagner resigning over publication of S&B and at the same time issuing a personal apology to Trenberth crys out for further explanation. I suggest Wagner might be worried about Trenberth’s ability to exert a negative impact on Wagner’s work with the International Soil Moisture Network. Trenberth just happens to be Chairman of GEWEX which provides support for Wagner’s work.

    The Daily Climate is published by Environmental Health Services which says Michael Mann is advising them over the next year while he is on sabbatical from Penn State. That Trenberth was able to get his puerile screed published there is unsurprising. You may notice Trenberth is the only author on that piece who can reasonably claim to be climate scientist.



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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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