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Gaming the Peer Review System, Part III: A Hostile Takeover

Mon ,26/03/2012

A group of Skeptics once managed to take over an editorship at a peer-reviewed journal  and publish articles hostile to mainstream climate science. With the help of politicians and large funding sources, the hostilities have continued to this day.

Skeptics: Science values its skeptics as they make science strong and they sometimes make valuable contributions by opening new fields for investigation. True skeptics follow the methodologies and the ethics of science, which requires they subject their work to review by their peers and divulge conflicts of interest. There are some skeptics, particularly in the areas of climate science, who violate the ethical principles of science for money and power. To separate those from true skeptics, they will be designated here as “Skeptics”. They are usually just ignored by scientists, but there are problems when a Skeptic becomes a journal editor. 

Journal editors are almost completely responsible for seeing that articles are properly reviewed and scientifically sound before they are published. Some journals, such as  Energy and Environment, cater to Skeptics such as Sallie Baliunas, Patrick Michaels, Ross McKitrick, Stephen McIntyre, Roger Pielke Jr., Willie Soon, and Steve McIntyre; who publish articles there that would not be accepted by legitimate journals. The editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, once said “the journal I edit has tried to keep this debate [climate scepticism] alive”.  Articles published in Energy and Environment are not taken seriously, but Skeptics hostile to climate science once managed a takeover of a reputable journal. An analysis by John Mashey showed the Skeptics managed to publish fourteen articles in Climate Research before they were caught gaming the peer review system.

Takeover: The takeover began in 1997, when Chris de Freitas became an editor at the reputable journal, Climate Research. There were 10 editors for the Journal and each worked independently, so it was possible for one editor to shepherd papers through the peer review process and see that they were published. The first paper  from a Skeptic, edited by de Freitas was by Patrick Michaels. The paper seemed to agree with the scientific findings of the IPCC reports, but it cast doubt at the end by concluding “this finding, instead adds further support to the emerging hypothesis that the Earth’s climate is not necessarily changing in a deleterious fashion”. Over the next six years, Chris de Freitas edited and published a series of fourteen papers by Skeptics who were interested in developing Dr. Michael’s “emerging hypothesis”. The articles caused so many complaints from scientists that some of the other editors questioned Dr. de Freitas about the quality of the papers he edited. He replied that they were on a “witch hunt”.

Restoring Order: The hostile takeover was uncovered after the fallout over a paper written by Sally Baliunas and Willie Soon. The paper reviewed the literature on the climate science of the last 1000 years, and concluded that the global warming in the 20th century was not unusual and that natural forces, rather than man’s activities were the cause. An important piece of their evidence was the Medieval Warm Period, which they claimed was warmer worldwide than the latter 20th century. But there was obviously something wrong with the paper. There were no accurate temperature records in Medieval Times, the Americas had not yet been discovered, and much of the Southern hemisphere was unknown. Proxy records from multiple sources show that the Medieval Warm Period amounted to only a small hump in the Earth’s temperature record. Shortly after its publication, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a press release from thirteen of the scientists whose work was used in Baliunas and Soon’s paper, saying Soon and Baliunas seriously misinterpreted their research. The thirteen scientists then coauthored a paper explaining exactly why the Baliunas and Soon paper was in error.

 All this caused quite a furor at Climate Research. Five members the editorial board eventually resigned in protest and the newly hired chief editor, Hans von Storch stated the paper had serious errors and should never have been published. Tom Wigley, who often reviewed papers for Climate Research, wrote, “I have had papers that I refereed (and soundly rejected), under De Freitas’s editorship, appear later in the journal—without me seeing any response from the authors.” All this was followed by an unusual public statement from the publisher, acknowledging flaws in the journal’s editorial process. Under pressure, Chris de Freitas resigned shortly thereafter, and papers from the Skeptics stopped appearing in Climate Research.

Extended Hostilities: That should have ended the matter, except that some politicians found the conclusions of Baliunas and Soon’s paper to be advantageous to the fossil fuel industry to whom they owed allegiance. Political pressure was put on regulatory agencies to accept the results of the paper, in spite of its obvious flaws and distortions. The EPA was unwilling to include the paper in its assessment of climate science, so Sen. James Inhofe (R – OK) scheduled a meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee to examine the paper.

At the EPW hearing, Michael Mann represented the scientific viewpoint, presenting evidence from multiple sources showing that the Medieval Warm period was not uniformly worldwide and resulted only in a small hump in the Earth’s temperature record. Dr. Soon stood behind his work and, in response to a direct question about his funding sources, testified that he had not received any funds that might have biased his objectivity. However, the paper lists the American Petroleum Institute as a major source of funding. Documents received later from the Smithsonian Institution in response to FOIA requests, revealed that since 2001  Dr. Soon has received over $1 million in funding from oil and coal interests.

Sen. Inhofe was upset by the turn of events and tried to get him fired – Michael Mann that is. At Sen. Inhofe’s insistence, the University of Pennsylvania, a Quaker University, conducted two investigations into Dr. Mann’s research and found no misconduct. A 2010 Science article reviewed the investigations, declaring “Michael Mann is cleared, again. “ Dissatisfied with the ruling, Sen. Inhofe has tried to get the attorney general to charge Michael Mann with fraud. It doesn’t get much more hostile than that. Sadly, for the first time in history, scientists are collecting a legal defense fund to defend scientists against political attacks. And even worse, the scientific opinion of the senior member of our Environmental and Public Works Committee is based on a paper that would not have passed freshman English.

 (c) 2012 J.C. Moore