Journal editor resigns over 'problematic' climate paper
- 2 September 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
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.
"Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science," he writes in a resignation note published in Remote Sensing.
"Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims.
"Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell... is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published."
The paper became a cause celebre in "sceptical" circles through its claim that mainstream climate models inflated temperature projections through misunderstanding the role of clouds in the climate system and the rate at which the Earth radiated heat into space.
This meant, it said, that projections of temperature rise made in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports were too high.
The paper, published in July, was swiftly attacked by scientists in the mainstream of climate research.
They also commented on the fact that the paper was not published in a journal that routinely deals with climate change. Remote Sensing's core topic is methods for monitoring aspects of the Earth from space.
Publishing in "off-topic" journals is generally frowned on in scientific circles, partly because editors may lack the specialist knowledge and contacts needed to run a thorough peer review process.
In essence, Dr Wagner, a professor of remote sensing at Vienna University of Technology, is blaming himself for this failing.
But he also blames the researchers themselves for not referencing all the relevant research in their manuscript.
"The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted..., a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.
"In other words, the problem I see with the paper... is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents.
"This latter point was missed in the review process, explaining why I perceive this paper to be fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal."
Scientific papers that turn out to be flawed or fraudulent are usually retracted by the journals that publish them, with editorial resignations a rarity.
But Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said Dr Wagner had done the decent thing.
"It was a mistake, he's owned up to it and taken an honourable course, and I think he's to be commended for it," he told BBC News.
"I think it remains to be seen whether the authors follow a similar course."
Mr Ward described the tactic of publishing in off-topic journals as a "classic tactic" of scientists dismissive of man-made climate change.
"Those who recognise that their ideas are weak but seek to get them into the literature by finding weaknesses in the peer review system are taking a thoroughly disreputable approach," he said.
Roy Spencer, however, told BBC News: "I stand behind the science contained in the paper itself, as well as my comments published on my blog at drroyspencer.com.
"Our university press release necessarily put our scientific results in lay language, and what we believe they mean in the larger context of global warming research. This is commonly done in press statements made by the IPCC and its scientists, too, when reporting on research which advocates the view that climate change is almost entirely caused by humans.
"The very fact that the public has the perception that climate change is man-made, when in fact there is as yet no way to know with any level of scientific certainty how much is man-made versus natural, is evidence of that."
Dr Spencer is one of the team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville that keeps a record of the Earth's temperature as determined from satellite readings.
He is also on the board of directors of the George C Marshall Institute, a right-wing thinktank critical of mainstream climate science, and an advisor to the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an evangelical Christian organisation that claims policies to curb climate change "would destroy jobs and impose trillions of dollars in costs" and "could be implemented only by enormous and dangerous expansion of government control over private life".
Follow Richard on Twitter