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Resignations, retractions and the process of science

Filed under: — gavin @ 6 September 2011

Much is being written about the very public resignation of Wolfgang Wagner from the editorship of Remote Sensing over the publication of Spencer and Braswell (2011) – and rightly so. It is a very rare situation that an editor resigns over the failure of peer review, and to my knowledge it has only happened once before in anything related to climate science – the mass resignation of 6 editors at Climate Research in 2003 in the wake of the Soon and Baliunas debacle. Some of the commentary this weekend has been reasonable, but many people are obviously puzzled by this turn of events and unsupported rumours are flying around.

The primary question of course is why an editor would resign over a published paper. Wagner (who I have never met or communicated with) explains it well in his letter:

After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.

With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements. [UAH press release. Forbes article etc.]

He clearly feels as though he, and his fledgling journal, were played in order to get a politicised message to the media. A more seasoned editor might well have acted differently at the various stages and so he resigned to take responsibility for the consequences of not doing a better job, and, presumably, to try and staunch the impression that Remote Sensing is a journal where you can get anything published.

This was nonetheless a very unusual step. Many bad papers are published (some of which are egregiously worse than the one in question here) and yet very few editors resign over the way the process was handled. (In fact, I think this is unique – the resignations at Climate Research in 2003 were not of the editors involved in dealing with Soon and Baliunas, but the other members of the board protesting at the inability and/or unwillingness of the publisher to deal with the resulting mess).

But what makes a paper ‘bad’ though? It is certainly not a paper that simply comes to a conclusion that is controversial or that goes against the mainstream, and it isn’t that the paper’s conclusions are unethical or immoral. Instead, a ‘bad’ paper is one that fails to acknowledge or deal with prior work, or that makes substantive errors in the analysis, or that draws conclusions that do not logically follow from the results, or that fails to deal fairly with alternative explanations (or all of the above). Of course, papers can be mistaken or come to invalid conclusions for many innocent reasons and that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad’ in this sense.

So where does S&B11 fall on this spectrum?

The signs of sloppy work and (at best) cursory reviewing are clear on even a brief look at the paper. Figure 2b has the axes mislabeled with incorrect units. No error bars are given on the correlations in figure 3 (and they are substantial – see figure 2 in the new Dessler paper). The model-data comparisons are not like-with-like (10 years of data from the real world compared to 100 years in the model – which also makes a big difference). And the ‘bottom-line’ implication by S&B that their reported discrepancy correlates with climate sensitivity is not even supported by their own figure 3. Their failure to acknowledge previous work on the role of ENSO in creating the TOA radiative changes they are examining (such as Trenberth et al, 2010 or Chung et al, 2010), likely led them to ignore the fact that it is the simulation of ENSO variability, not climate sensitivity, that determines how well the models match the S&B analysis (as clearly demonstrated in Trenberth and Fasullo’s guest post here last month). With better peer review, Spencer could perhaps have discovered these things for himself, and a better and more useful paper might have resulted. By trying to do an end run around his critics, Spencer ended up running into a wall.

Of course, Spencer does not see this in the same light at all. His comments both before the publication of the paper and subsequent to the editor’s resignation indicate that he thinks that he is being persecuted by (unnamed) ‘IPCC Gatekeepers’ who are conspiring to suppress his results – he even insists that this was “one damn fine and convincing paper“. As well as straining credulity to the maximum, I find this both unfortunate and curious. It is unfortunate because this attitude makes it almost impossible for him to take on board constructive criticism, and given that none of us are perfect, there are many times when doing so is essential. It is also curious because there is no evidence of any grand conspiracy, just people disagreeing with and criticising his conclusions (which as a scientist, you really just have to get used to!). It was S&B’s desire to avoid dealing with that, that likely led them to a non-standard journal, whose editor very likely followed the authors suggestions for (friendly) reviewers, whose resulting reviews didn’t do very much (if anything) to strengthen the paper.

Reactions to this turn of events have been decidedly mixed (though falling along existing lines for the most part). A few people have (I think correctly) noted that the paper itself was of ‘minor consequence’ and does not explicitly claim anything much other than correlation analysis over a short time period isn’t going to constrain climate sensitivity, and that at first glance, there was a mismatch between models and observations in a particular calculation. The first claim is actually uncontroversial (despite what Spencer would have you believe), and the second turns out to be less interesting than it first seems (see Trenberth and Fasullo’s RC post). However, the media and blogospheric interest in the paper had very little to do with the actual paper, rather it was provoked by the over-exaggerated press release from UAH and the truly absurd piece in Forbes by the Heartland Institute’s James Taylor.

Roger Pielke Sr. has accused Wagner of ‘politicizing’ the situation by resigning, but this is completely backwards. The politicisation of the situation came almost entirely from Spencer and Taylor, and Wagner’s resignation is a recognition that he should have done a better job to prevent that. Statements from Ross McKitrick that Wagner is a “grovelling, terrified coward” for his action are completely beyond the pale (as well as being untrue, possibly libelous, and were stated with no evidence whatsoever).

The question has also arisen why the paper itself has not been retracted (and indeed will not be). However, that would be a really big step. I can only think of two climate science related papers that have been retracted in recent years – one was for plagiarism (among other problems: Said et al, 2008) and the other was because of a numerical calculation error that fatally undermined the reported results. There are of course many, many more papers that are wrong, mistaken and/or ‘bad’ (in the sense defined above) and yet very few retractions occur. I think (rightly) that people feel that the best way to deal with these papers is within the literature itself, and in this case it is happening this week in GRL (Dessler, 2011), and in Remote Sensing in a few months. That’s the way it should be, and neither resignations nor retractions are likely to become more dominant – despite the amount of popcorn being passed around.

118 Responses to “Resignations, retractions and the process of science”

  1. 101
    grypo says:

    It appears Dessler 2010 is the new auditing target (fancy that!) at CA. In post 1, D10 is essentially reproduced and said not to align with Dessler’s conclusions. In post 2 D10 is critisized for using Ceres all-sky and ERA clear sky instead of both Ceres series. If so, the slope is reversed. It ends, “the questions are obvious”. And it’s all the reviewers fault too.

  2. 102

    Hey – folks in the climate science community. Grow a pair OK. Put on the boxing gloves, or better yet take out the brass knuckles.In the name of truth and consequences the harassment, offending exaggerations and complete bull is winning consequently to the point that the Obama Administration is looking Bush-like. You have a “Wednesday freak show representing half the country. My god. The attacks on your work are never defended until the lie has been republished and spoken on the net a millions times. As someone who lives in the Northeast and is getting 300% rainfall, 100, hell 500 year floods pretty consistently with in a decade now and the relationships to higher SSTs and higher PW’s time to fight like a bastard. that’s what the science says – my god stand by it and kick ass!

  3. 103
    Chris Colose says:

    grypo– ClimateAudit can only remain alive insofar as there is some sort of illusion or conspiracy to be kept alive. It is unable to persist without a “Team” or some other object of attack, and not a single post there is free of this theme. Ignore it.

  4. 104
    steven mosher says:

    Eric,

    “[Response: Mosher: There has never been any objection to the idea of ‘due diligence’ at RealClimate. The objection has been to the laughable and arrogant claim — repeated ad nauseum by you — that the idea of ‘diligence’ hasn’t occurred to anyone before, and to the offensive and unsubstantiated accusation that the mainstream scientific community have placed scientific diligence secondary to a perceived political agenda by the mainstream scientific community.–eric

    Dr. Steig a few points.

    If you read what I wrote carefully you will see that I’m not claiming that anyone at Real Climate “objects” to the “idea” of due diligence. Here is what I wrote:

    “Thank you. Over the course of the past four years quite a number of us have suggested just this type of due-diligence thing repeatedly. These suggestions which seem utterly normal to anyone who has had to work with messy datasets, conflicting datasets, and divergent models, have been routinely met with cat calls, insults, and challenges to “do your own damn science.”

    I don’t see any references there to real climate. What I am pointing out is simply this. In the past when people asked if certain due diligence was performed, those questions were met with the kind of responses I mentioned. You’ll note that I dont call those responses “objections” to the idea of due diligence. They are something else. They are not objections to the idea, they are objections to the person who raises the issue. That’s two entirely different things. Of course, that behavior is often taken as an objection to the idea itself. Hence, it’s good to see that clarified. The objection is to certain people raising the issue in a way that you don’t approve of or that makes you uncomfortable.

    Second, If you read carefully you will see that no where do I make the claim to be the “originator of this idea” In fact, in all my writing I’ve given deference to the people who taught me. I have expressed surprise when I have, on occassion, found little documentary evidence of due diligence. By that I mean no documentary evidence that due diligence has been performed. It may have been performed, but in certain cases which interest me, I have on occasion seen no documentary evidence that it occurred. I am by no means the first person to notice this. I am glad that we can both agree that testing multiple datasets is one of the ordinary things you do as a part of due diligence. It’s a good day when we can agree on that. More on that later. Rest assured that both you and martin and gavin will get full credit for the idea of testing with alternative datasets.

    I will assume that you agree with Martin that looking at alternative datasets is normal due diligence and let him handle any arguments you have with that.

    Third, Like you I do not think that general indictments of an entire community of scientist’s is well founded or useful. It’s rather like calling all skeptics Oil Shills. Some clearly are, other’s, well, not so clear. Moreover, my main focus has been on a few, very few, isolated cases. In those isolated cases my focus has been exclusively on the sociological aspects, and institutional aspects, not the political aspects. Let’s suppose I had somebody who had challenged an engineer to take a matlab class from him. I would never look to the political aspects of this. I would look at the institutional and sociological aspects to explain the phenomena. In fact, you will find that is a common theme for me going back 4 years when I first noticed this rather odd dynamic. Frankly, I find politics and arguments about people’s politics boring.

    So peace dude. It’s a good day when we can agree on something.

    [Response: Steve: You miss my point, largely. There has never been any ‘objection to the person’ raising ideas. The objection has been to the crap that accompanies it too often. And once again you provide a nice example of this: Amidst the sober sounding language of your reply to me is yet another boring reference to the Jeff Id “matlab affair”. [Fact: my statement about matlab was not ‘challenge’. It was a response to a snide and inaccurate accusation by Jeff.] In other words, you have once again chosen to place your otherwise reasonable points in the context of cajoling language, with the obvious goal of point scoring. MY point, once again, is that your claim to have ‘finally been heard’ with respect to ‘due diligence’ is simply self-aggrandizing.–eric]

  5. 105
    Russ R. says:

    #97 Ray Ladbury

    “More years of CERES data? First, we’ve got ~40 years of data that show behavior that is strikingly consistent with what we expect from a greenhouse mechanism–and inconsistent with any other explanation.”

    I have no concerns regarding the greenhouse mechanism itself. My concerns revolve around the problem of quantifying feedbacks.

    “Second, CERES is not even the right tool for the job! Ideally, we ought to have an entire array of satellites looking at both incoming solar radiation (a la the upcoming Total Solar Irradiance Sensor–TSIS) AND measuring outgoing radiation over the entire globe.”

    Really? CERES isn’t the right tool? That’s not what they were saying when they launched the project. Why didn’t you speak up then? You could have saved everyone a whole lot of time and expense. Okay… kidding aside… To my understanding CERES measures both LW and SW radiation over the entire globe. So, knowing the outgoing SW component, you simply solve for the net incoming solar radiation.

    “And we would need about 30 years of it–because the climate, fundamentally, is not a one-box model. You need at least 2 boxes to capture the effects of the oceans or very long time-series to average out their effects.”

    Sorry… you lost me. How do you get to the 30 years number?

    [Response: CERES is a broadband downward pointing instrument. It cannot say what the incoming solar radiation is. All it can measure is the reflected solar radiation and outgoing long wave radiation. One can *infer* the albedo *if* one knows the incoming solar radiation. But that is also uncertain (though becoming less so i.e. Kopp and Lean (2011)). Nonetheless, CERES is very important for helping constrain elements of the energy budget – it just doesn’t do it all on it’s own. – gavin]

  6. 106
    Septic Matthew says:

    97, Ray Ladbury: Second, CERES is not even the right tool for the job!

    Which job? D10 (and the editors of Science) and D11 (and more editors) have claimed that the CERES data are informative about cloud effects. Are you disputing them? Cloud effects are among the effects that almost everyone agrees are poorly known. SB11, D11 and Spencer’s unpublished rejoinder to D11 make a case that the cloud effects are poorly modeled. Do you have a particular detailed critique to offer why CERES is inappropriate for D10, SB11 and D11?

    103, gavin in line: Nonetheless, CERES is very important for helping constrain elements of the energy budget – it just doesn’t do it all on it’s own.

    Oughtn’t you have been addressed that to comment 97 of Ray Ladbury? Has someone asserted that it does “do it all on [its] own”?

  7. 107
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew, CERES is a great mission, but it is limited in scope. To really measure energy balance for Earth’s climate would require a long-term progrem with probably a dozen or more satellites. Clouds are one part of that, but long time series of detailed spectra and profiles of incoming and outgoing radiation are really what we need.

    Saying a mission isn’t the right tool to do a job for which it was never constructed is hardly denigrating the mission.

  8. 108
    Doug Bostrom says:

    It’s a good day when we can agree on something.

    Probably not meant to sound like a passive-aggressive groupie.

  9. 109
    PeteB says:

    For those asking about observational constraints on climate sensitivity, there is quite a bit summarising the work in this area in AR4 WG1

    9.6 Observational Constraints on Climate Sensitivity

    http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch9s9-6.html

    9.6. Summary of Observational Constraints for Climate Sensitivity

    http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch9s9-6-4.html

    “…Results from studies of observed climate change and the consistency of estimates from different time periods indicate that ECS is very likely larger than 1.5°C with a most likely value between 2°C and 3°C. The lower bound is consistent with the view that the sum of all atmospheric feedbacks affecting climate sensitivity is positive….”

  10. 110
    Septic Matthew says:

    107, Ray Ladbury: Saying a mission isn’t the right tool to do a job for which it was never constructed is hardly denigrating the mission.

    No, but it is denigrating D10.

    If CERES is appropriate for D10, then it is appropriate for SB11.

  11. 111

    96, Russ R,

    [Sorry, I got busy yesterday and forgot to reply.]

    but I don’t entirely agree with your objection to a “simple single equation box model”. The equation being used (i.e. “change in temperature * heat capacity = net energy transfer”) is pretty fundamental for a closed system over a period of time.

    This highlights exactly my two problems with it, and totally ignores the third.

    First, the period of time is far too short to draw any conclusions about “climate”, given the amount of noise in the system and the minor degree of forcing in that time span. I calculate, for a change from from 2000 to 2010 of 370 ppm to 390 ppm, a direct CO2 forcing without feedbacks of 0.076˚C. This does admittedly ignore any lag in forcing from prior increases, but then again Spencer’s premise is that there is no such warming in the pipeline because the cloud forcing/feedbacks respond almost instantly to control things. This is particularly true when you consider that many feedbacks result from much longer time frames.

    Second, and far more importantly, as you yourself said it is a good model for a closed system. The injection of CO2 is an external forcing. It’s tipping the balance… although I will admit I’m not entirely clear on how Spencer determined his ∆Focean and ∆Rcloud values, and so whether or not those values included the “observed” external forcing of CO2 changes in that decade as an inherent part of the inputs.

    Third, no matter what adjectives you apply to it, the model is far too simple. There is no way in the universe a four term equation is going to accurately model a multidimensional, complex problem like the climate, closed system or not. I dare you to suggest that you could test the flight worthiness of a new airplane design with a similar equation as your only tool. It may be a good model for a 10 year ENSO cycle, but nothing more.

  12. 112
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Septic Matthew, Are you being deliberately obtuse? The proper tool does not exist at present–nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future given the attitude of idiots who control the purse strings.

    The data for CERES are interesting, but a few years of data from a single satellite in Low-Earth Orbit is NOT going to give you a definitive answer. I am sure Dessler would agree with that–and probably even Spencer, at least if he weren’t writing a press release.

  13. 113
    steven mosher says:

    Dr. Steig:

    Thanks for your response. You wrote:

    “[Response: Steve: You miss my point, largely. There has never been any ‘objection to the person’ raising ideas. The objection has been to the crap that accompanies it too often. And once again you provide a nice example of this: Amidst the sober sounding language of your reply to me is yet another boring reference to the Jeff Id “matlab affair”. [Fact: my statement about matlab was not ‘challenge’. It was a response to a snide and inaccurate accusation by Jeff.] In other words, you have once again chosen to place your otherwise reasonable points in the context of cajoling language, with the obvious goal of point scoring. MY point, once again, is that your claim to have ‘finally been heard’ with respect to ‘due diligence’ is simply self-aggrandizing.–eric]

    I think I’m beginning to get a clearer picture, thank you. You don’t object to the idea of due diligence ( that was never really an issue ). You don’t object to the people per se. You object to the ‘crap’ that accompanies it. So, you don’t object to who asks for due diligence, you don’t object to due diligence, you object to the way people ask for it or to extraneous features of the request. My point in raising the “matlab” incident was this. I wanted an example to clearly show you that ‘politics’ has never been any part of my discussions. You think my reference to the affair is boring. That may be. But I think there is something there that may actually be illuminating. I try to look at problems like that with an eye toward sociology and the institutions involved. You read Jeff as ‘snide’. And you don’t see your response to him as a challenge. I don’t argue with that. I try to understand that. Let’s look at the text, reminding ourselves that there isn’t really any right or wrong here, just different ways of reading the same text:
    JeffId

    A link to my recent post requesting again that code be released.
    [edit]
    I believe your reconstruction is robust. Let me see the detail so I can agree in public.

    [Response: What is there about the sentence, “The code, all of it, exactly as we used it, is right here,” that you don’t understand? Or are you asking for a step-by-step guide to Matlab? If so, you’re certainly welcome to enroll in one of my classes at the University of Washington.–eric]

    The point I would make about this is not the one you might think I would make. I would not take issue with your characterization. Your response to jeff is not a “challenge”. I would ask.. does the fact that one of these people is a engineer and the owner of a company, used to getting documents he asks for, and the other a scientist used to friendly private requests from colleagues have anything to do with the obvious breakdown in comity? And further what can we do to make this situation better? Personally, I’d rather fill out a standard request form for data and code than write a email or a blog post. Maybe a discussion for another day. Finally, I think I should have been clearer. I’m not saying that “I’ve finally been listened to” I’m saying that we, we, you and me Dr. Steig have something we can agree about. That’s a good thing. Not “you” finally listened to “me”. We. we agree. That’s a good thing.

    [Response: Steve, you characterization of the interaction between me and Jeff is not even close to accurate. He wrote vitriolic comments on his blog about my ‘refusal’ to release code, when in fact I had pointed him to the only thing that I could possibly have imagined that he meant by ‘code’. His initial request was polite, but my polite response to him didn’t satisfy, so he started blogging about it. Bullying people (as he was doing) and then acting all surprised why they get tired of it and start responding (mildly) in kind, is simply not being ‘polite’.–eric]

    [Response: Steve, by the way, I should have responded to your actual question, which was “Does the fact that one of these people is a engineer and the owner of a company, used to getting documents he asks for, and the other a scientist used to friendly private requests from colleagues have anything to do with the obvious breakdown in comity?” The answer, of course, is that the breakdown in comity had nothing whatsever to do with whether Jeff was an engineer or a football player. I am used to getting friendly requests, both public and private, from people who have not previously accused me of fraud, deception, idiocy etc. I am not used to be accused of all these things and then getting ‘polite’ requests from the very same people making those accusations. Well, actually, I have grown accustomed to it. But at the time of the incident you refer to, I was quite new to the style of discourse. –eric]

  14. 114
    MarcH says:

    In regard to Dessler 2011, GRL state about papers in press:

    “Papers in Press is a service for subscribers that allows immediate citation and access to accepted manuscripts prior to copyediting and formatting according to AGU style. Manuscripts are removed from this list upon publication.”

    The AGU Authors Guide states: “Once the figures pass technical requirements, your final figures and text will be combined into a PDF file that is placed on the journal’s Papers in Press page. Papers in Press is a service for subscribers that allows immediate citation and access to accepted manuscripts prior to copyediting and formatting according to AGU style.”

    The Publishing Guidelines state:
    “An author should make no changes to a paper after it has been accepted. If there is a compelling reason to make changes, the author is obligated to inform the editor directly of the nature of the desired change. Only the editor has the final authority to approve any such requested changes.”

    As the changes suggested by Dessler are greater than “copyediting and formatting” it seems the paper must be withdrawn and a new version submitted and reviewed. Any comment?

  15. 115
    Septic Matthew says:

    112, Ray Ladbury: Septic Matthew, Are you being deliberately obtuse?

    I think that’s a good note on which to end.

  16. 116
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    MarcH:

    Here is what Dessler told Spencer he will change:

    “I’m happy to change the introductory paragraph of my paper when I get the galley proofs to better represent your views. My apologies for any misunderstanding. Also, I’ll be changing the sentence “over the decades or centuries relevant for long-term climate change, on the other hand, clouds can indeed cause significant warming” to make it clear that I’m talking about cloud feedbacks doing the action here, not cloud forcing.”

    Somehow I don’t think the paper will be withdrawn over either having or not having those changes included. Although if they don’t allow the changes to clarify Roy’s views he will use it as a cudgel in his next paper on the subject. Good luck getting that published Roy!

  17. 117
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The denialists must find ways to change the subject to anything but They are wrong as usual. They have even cooked up a complaint that the paper is evil because it was published to soon after SB11. The ever alert Skeptical Science group has it covered in spades: http://skepticalscience.com/Conspiracy-Dog-whistling-Dessler2011-GRL.html.

  18. 118
    jrh says:

    Mr. Steig,

    I am not used to be accused of all these things and then getting ‘polite’ requests from the very same people making those accusations.

    Some people don’t seem to know how to engage in scholarly exchange. You are a better person than I am. I would have ignored those requests. Plus competent researchers in my area of research would be able to write their own code for existing and the proposed methodologies.