Bombshell: Journal Editor Resigns over Flawed Spencer paper

September 2, 2011


The editor of a science journal has resigned after admitting that a recent paper casting doubt on man-made climate change should not have been published.

The paper, by US scientists Roy Spencer and William Braswell, claimed that computer models of climate inflated projections of temperature increase.

It was seized on by “sceptic” bloggers, but attacked by mainstream scientists.

Wolfgang Wagner, editor of Remote Sensing journal, says he agrees with their criticisms and is stepping down.

Peter Gleick in Forbes

One month ago, a paper by Roy Spencer and William Braswell was published in the journal Remote Sensing arguing that far less future global warming will occur than the scientific community currently anticipates. This highly controversial finding – controversial since it is at odds with observations, basic understanding of atmospheric physics, models, and with what most scientists think we know about climate science — was seized upon by climate change deniers and skeptics and broadcast loud and far.

While other climate experts quickly pointed to fatal flaws in the paper, it received a great deal of attention from certain media. In something of a media frenzy, Fox News, the authors themselves in press releases and web comments, Forbes, in a column by a lawyer at the Heartland Institute, Drudge, and others loudly pointed to this as evidence that the vast array of science on climate change was wrong.

The staggering news today is that the editor of the journal that published the paper has just resigned, with a blistering editorial calling the Spencer and Braswell paper “fundamentally flawed,” with both “fundamental methodological errors” and “false claims.” That editor, Professor Wolfgang Wagner of the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, is a leading international expert in the field of remote sensing. In announcing his resignation, Professor Wagner says “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.”

More comment and explanation below, and a video to remind us that this pattern is not new.

The climate denial industry pushes a flawed paper into a niche journal, then blows the results up grossly out of proportion to the actual merits of the paper.

Michael Ashley had this pattern prescientily nailed when the paper first appeared:

There are very few articles published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that challenge the consensus that human-induced climate change is real and significant.

None have stood the test of time.

A new article by Spencer & Braswell is following the common trajectory of many such papers:

  1. The article is published in a non-mainstream journal, following inadequate peer-review.
  2. Press releases from the authors exaggerate/distort the contents of the article to inflate its significance and increase the attention given to it.
  3. News of the article spreads like wild-fire around the blogosphere.
  4. Some media outlets take the press release and exaggerate it further still, so that the information that finally reaches the public has almost no relation to the original article.
  5. Within days, experts in the field show that the original article is fatally flawed; but by now the damage is done.
  6. For years into the future, the article is quoted by deniers of human-induced climate change as evidence that the science is uncertain.

A key example would be the work of Willie Soon and Sally Balliunas, which inspired most of the editors of another journal to resign back in 2003.  The story is told here (start at 2:20 if you want to cut to the chase..):

What made this paper so fatally flawed and toxic? John Abraham gives us more details –

It is remarkable that an Editor-in-Chief has stepped down from his role at a journal because of the publication of a flawed paper.  This significant event reflects on the significance of the flaws in the paper and the review process.  It is commendable that Wolfgang Wagner has reacted responsibly to the situation.

Wolfgang Wagner’s resignation was in response to the publication of a deeply flawed paper by Roy Spencer and William Braswell.  Dr. Spencer and his colleagues have a long history of minimizing the effects of human-caused climate change; they also have a long history of making serious technical errors.  This latest paper is only one in a decade-long track record of errors that have forced Dr. Spencer to revise his work as the errors are brought to light. The Spencer group is well known in the scientific community for publishing high-profile papers that initially dispute global warming and only later are found to be faulty.

This latest article reportedly showed that the climate is not as sensitive to increases in greenhouse gases.  It also called into question the cause-and-effect relationship between clouds and climate change.  Wolfgang’s resignation was based on the quality of the review the paper received and the obvious technical errors which the paper contained.  Additionally, the Editor protested the press release which accompanied the paper.  That press release, which was titled “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global alarmism”, received an incredible amount of attention from various news organizations such as FOX News.

What are some of the errors?

There are a number of technical errors, only some of which are listed here:

  1. The heat capacity of the climate in the Spencer/Braswell paper was too small.
  2. The Spencer/Braswell paper did not recognize that climate models which perform best are those that simulate El Nino cycles most accurately
  3. Spencer/Braswell treated ocean heating as random events, which they are not.
  4. Spencer/Braswell only showed models which supported their assertion.  They did not show models which disagreed with their results
  5. Spencer/Braswell made an error on the causal relationship between climate change and clouds.

You can read the editor’s own statement here.

Details on the paper from Realclimate

Right wing media distortion about the paper

More from:

Full text of Wagner’s statement here


16 Responses to “Bombshell: Journal Editor Resigns over Flawed Spencer paper”

  1. mrwhylie Says:

    “Leading republican intellectuals”

    Love it!

  2. tomgraywind Says:

    I was wondering how long it would take the denier echo chamber to “reveal” that climate alarmists had hounded Wagner out of his position, trampling on free speech. Turns out Spencer cut to the chase, claiming as much in his interview with the UK’s Guardian. Sure is funny how Wagner criticized DENIERS, not those concerned about climate change, in his exit statement.

    • otter17 Says:

      I’m sure the echo chamber can come up with a bizarro world story where Wagner was indoctrinated by the “CAGW cult” scientists. Now Wagner is one of “them”, and is willing to resign his position in order to make Spencer look bad. These scientists sure sound scary; I bet they have invented mind control techniques or something.


      • greenman3610 Says:

        deniers, when confronted with a contradiction, always resort to the same strategem.
        Expand the conspiracy. “it’s worse than we thought!!!”

  3. kokuaguy Says:

    Aloha Peter: I couldn’t wait to summarize your article on the moment I saw it.
    What do you think of it? Have you had a chance to look at my other work on newser?
    Have you found time to look at the “soot” materials?
    I hope you are well.
    Please and blessings,
    Mike in Honolulu
    aka kokuaguy
    B ^)

    • greenman3610 Says:

      thanks for those links, and thanks for helping spread the word. I really appreciate your efforts, Hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not always able to let you know.

  4. David Oertel Says:

    Climate-(denier)-gate! Only this time there was corruption.

  5. kokuaguy Says:

    … and peace ….
    B ^)

  6. kokuaguy Says:

    “Climate-denier-gate” … wish I’d used that in my headline in
    B ^)

  7. daveburton Says:

    In case anyone really believes that the problem with the paper by Drs. Spencer & Braswell is a science problem, rather than politics, may I suggest that you read the other side of the argument:

    ———- Begin forwarded message ———-
    From: Gordon Fulks
    Subject: RE: [GWR] Journal editor resigns over ‘problematic’ climate paper

    Dear Roger,

    You are precisely correct. Refereeing cannot guarantee that a
    scientific paper is correct because no one really knows in many
    instances. And the referees have not replicated the research to see
    if mistakes were made. They are only saying that they have not found
    any obvious flaws and agree that the work being presented has, to
    their knowledge, not been presented previously. Some papers turn out
    to have significant flaws that are discovered later as our knowledge
    improves. That will CERTAINLY happen with many climate-related papers
    when the carbon dioxide fiasco finally comes to an end. We have lost
    a generation of scientific work with the present stupidity (and $100
    billion dollars).

    Will Happer of Princeton is correct that this battle over global
    warming is fundamentally about the integrity of science and not carbon
    dioxide, carbon taxes, or even party politics. Another professor who
    is solidly behind us is nuclear chemist Oliver Manuel. He remembers
    the days when he could publish his ideas about a much different solar
    model in, of all places, the now completely ‘politically correct’
    journal Nature. Today, his ideas don’t any longer fit their view of
    the world, not because there is any evidence that he is wrong, only
    because they refuse all ideas that conflict with the negotiated
    ‘standard solar model.’ Never mind that that standard model has
    substantial shortcomings. Not that it matters but do you know how
    Oliver describes his politics? Far Left!

    As to Roy Spencer’s paper, here is his side of the story that was
    certainly not covered by the BBC:

    The editor who resigned, Wolfgang Wagner, never contacted Dr. Spencer
    about alleged shortcomings to get his defense.
    That says it all in my
    opinion! (It also explains why the editor got the facts wrong.) What
    extraordinarily bad behavior from someone who is supposed to be
    even-handed. Actually not extraordinary at all, this incident is just
    the IPCC ‘Hockey Team’ at work again behind the scenes doing what has
    become routine for them. Are we now conducting trials of scientists
    where the prosecution has every chance to present its case (in
    private) and the defendant and his attorney(s) are not allowed any
    say? If the judge initially displeases the prosecution, can they
    force him out? ‘Damnable’ is the most polite thing I can say.

    By the way, do you know who is slated to write the ‘rapid-response’
    rebuttal to Spencer? Professor Andrew Dessler! He had the inept
    editorial in the Miami Herald the other day. I wrote a critique of it
    for the editorial page editor and am in contact with her to see if she
    will permit a reply to be published from someone who puts his science
    ahead of his politics.


    Gordon J. Fulks, PhD
    Corbett, Oregon USA
    ———- End forwarded message ———-

    This whole thing reminds me of the shameful episodes revealed by climategate, in which CAGW alarmists conspired to prevent skeptics from publishing. E.g.,

    Michael Mann discusses how to destroy a journal that has published sceptic papers. (

    Mann thinks he will contact BBC’s Richard Black to find out why another BBC journalist was allowed to publish a vaguely sceptical article. (

    Tom Wigley says that von Storch is partly to blame for sceptic papers getting published at Climate Research. Says he encourages the publication of crap science. Says they should tell publisher that the journal is being used for misinformation. Says that whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. Says they need to get editorial board to resign. Says they need to get rid of von Storch too. (

    Ben Santer says he’s “tempted, very tempted, to beat the crap” out of sceptic Pat Michaels. (

    Mann discusses tactics for screening and delaying postings at Real Climate. (

    Tom Wigley discusses how to deal with the advent of FoI law in UK. Jones says use IPR argument to hold onto code. Says data is covered by agreements with outsiders and that CRU will be “hiding behind them”. (

    Reaction to McIntyre’s 2005 paper in GRL. Mann has challenged GRL editor-in-chief over the publication. Mann is concerned about the connections of the paper’s editor James Saiers with U Virginia [does he mean Pat Michaels?]. Tom Wigley says that if Saiers is a sceptic they should go through official GRL channels to get him ousted. ( [Note to readers – Saiers was subsequently ousted]

    Later on Mann refers to the leak at GRL being plugged. (

    Jones says he’s found a way around releasing AR4 review comments to David Holland. (

    Jones says that UK climate organisations are coordinating themselves to resist FoI. They got advice from the Information Commissioner[!] (

    Jones says he and Kevin will keep some papers out of the next IPCC report. (

    Briffa discusses an sceptic article review with Ed Cook. Says that confidentially he needs to put together a case to reject it (

  8. tomgraywind Says:

    Sorry, cut and paste messed up, should read “the background of Mr. Fulks, the lead gentleman who is so outraged.”

  9. […] Lewandowsky has one of the best analytical posts on the Roy Spencer dustup of last week: Science is […]

  10. […] Bombshell: Journal Editor Resigns over Flawed Spencer paper – Peter Sinclair […]

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