O’Donnellgate

In my second review, I wrote that “O’Donnell et al. have substantially improved their manuscript … and clarified a series of items that led to some confusion on my part.”

With respect to O’Donnell’s lengthy discussion of the technical aspects of the difference between our papers, I’m not complaining. It is possible to have a disagreement — or even to be wrong — about the technical aspects of a paper without being ‘duplicitous’. The dependence of any analysis on the technical aspects of the methodology are completely legitimate subjects of discussion, and it is important to be clear about what does and what does not depend on those choices. People who want to see what the data are saying about the real world will focus on the similarities, people who are focussed on proving people wrong will focus on the differences. This is how O’Donnell and I can (legitimately) disagree about what their results mean.

The reality is that editors, not reviewers, make decisions about what is acceptable and what is not. Any comments I made as a reviewer of O’Donnell et al.’s work would have been weighed against what other reviewers said (and obviously were, since the main criticism I had of the paper was not ever addressed), not to mention the responses of the authors themselves. And the decision about what content eventually winds up published is still ultimately up to the authors. If the authors feel that they are being bullied into presenting their results in a particular way (as is the allegation here), then they have the choice to withdraw the paper and submit it elsewhere, or complain to the editor. But once they have signed off on the paper, it is their paper, and blaming someone else — reviewer or editor — for its content is simply passing the buck.

It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that the *main* criticism I had of O’Donnell’s paper was never addressed. If you’re interested in this detail, it has to do with the choice of the parameter ‘k_gnd’, which I wrote about in my last post. In my very first review, I pointed out that as shown in their Table S3, using k_gnd = 7,

“results in estimates of the missing data in West Antarctica stations that is further from climatology (which would result, for example, from an artificial negative trend) than using lower values of k_gnd.”

Mysteriously, this table is now absent in the final paper (which I was not given a chance to review).

Some months ago, O’Donnell cordially (though quite inappropriately) asked me if I was one of the reviewers, and also promised not to reveal it publicly if I didn’t want him to. I told him I was, but that I would prefer this not be public since the ‘opportunity for abuse’ was simply too great. Talk about prescience!

Many of my colleagues have warned me many times not to trust the good intentions of O’Donnell, Condon, and McIntyre. I have ignored them, evidently to my peril. But you know what has given me the most pause? The fact that a number of my colleagues and many otherwise intelligent-seeming people still seem to treat these guys as legitimate, honest commenters, whose words have equal weight with, say, those of Susan Solomon or J. Michael Wallace, or, for that matter, Gavin Schmidt or Mike Mann or myself. As a reporter wrote to me today “it’s simply impossible for a lay observer to make a judgement on his/her own.” Really?!

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. Perhaps the utter silliness of the shrill accusations that O’Donnell made against me — based on a version of the facts, in his head, that are demonstrably and unequivocally false, coupled with the fact that he then retracted them (or at least has promised to do so), will help more people see what the steadily growing list of other scientists who’ve been accused by McIntyre and his associates of plagiarism, dishonesty, data manipulation, fraud, deceit, and duplicity have been telling me for years: these people are willing to say anything, regardless of the cost to others’ reputations and to the progress of legitimate science, to advance their paranoid worldview.

I’ve even got a name for the clarity this affair would seem to offer: O’Donnellgate.

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