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. […] to him (again) when the editor of the journal where his latest brick of a paper was published resigned. It’s important to note, Roy Spencer is MOST famous for being wrong – wrong in the the […]

  2. […] the dwindling number of “scientists” that have represented the denialist camp have seen their research crumble like a deck of cards. These scientists have no one to blame. They are one-man wrecking crews of their own reputations. […]

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