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Spencer’s Paper Reviewed; Remote Sensing Editor Wolfgang Wagner Resigns

Wiliam M. Briggs
Monday, September 5, 2011


In one of the most asinine, self-promoting, sniveling, absurd, nakedly political moves Wolfgang Wagner has resigned, with trumpets blazing, his editorship of Remote Sensing.

Why? Because the journal under his command dared follow its editorial guidelines, and follow them properly.

Because while adhering to procedure he allowed the Spencer and Braswell paper “On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance” to be published, as it should have been published.

What happened was this: Spencer and Braswell submitted their paper, and Wagner’s staff gave it to three reviewers. Wagner said, in his public apology, the reviewers were

three senior scientists from renowned US universities, each of them having an impressive publication record. Their reviews had an apparently good technical standard and suggested one “major revision”, one “minor revision” and one “accept as is”. The authors revised their paper according to the comments made by the reviewers and, consequently, the editorial board member who handled this paper accepted the paper (and could in fact not have done otherwise). Therefore, from a purely formal point of view, there were no errors with the review process.

Wagner felt so badly about this excellent process that he resigned. He claims that he did so because the authors “and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements.” This is irrelevant, so he also said other papers by other authors “refuted”—misusing this strong word—Spencer and Braswell’s central claim.

But this is far from the first time that rival groups have published papers that come to opposite conclusions. It happens so often as to be utterly unremarkable. So why did Wagner remark on it?

Spencer and Braswell’s paper is not that exciting (see my review below; very few papers are exciting), and neither Wagner nor any of the reviewers or other staff thought that it would be that big a deal. And so it passed normal peer review into print.

But the paper turned into a spectacle. And then Wagner probably caught hell from “the” consensus. “How could you!” must have been the subject line of all the emails in his inbox. Wagner then said he became concerned because scientists and non-scientist “engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora” that Spencer and Braswell were all wet.

In other words, the blogosphere erupted and Wagner took it seriously. But Wagner also dismissed those on the “internet discussion fora” who supported Spencer and Braswell—those “public statements” he mentioned. So much for consistency.

It takes a man to stand up to this kind of barrage. Wagner was in danger of not being invited to meetings, of being a pariah, of even—it hurts to say this—losing future grants. He had to do something to distance himself from his own journal, a journal he helped create, using rules he helped devise.

Wagner took the path of self-aggrandizing cowards.

Consider: Old Wagner was the first editor of Remote Sensing, and had served nearly two years. My guess is that his term of office was up this January. So by resigning, he was only leaving office a couple of months early. I might be wrong about this, of course, but I’d like to hear the denial.

Richard Black of the BBC and others in the media immediately began promoting Wagner as a hero. Gushing, in effect, “That man loves science so much!”

What rot. If the paper is flawed and its conclusions are genuinely refuted by other papers that Spencer and Braswell, with malice aforethought, ignored, then Wagner would have retracted the paper. That would have been the “honourable” thing to do.

Since Wagner did not do this—he could not, because there is nothing in it to retract—he instead put on his hair shirt and pretended to be affronted. A brazen move transparent to anybody except the ideologically addled. Tellingly, Wagner’s wailing convinced the BBC.

Incidentally, the BBC, in an idiotic but typical move, captioned Roy Spencer’s picture with the words, “Dr Spencer is a committed Christian as well as a professional scientist.” What in the holy hell is the purpose of this except to disparage Spencer and imply that his religious beliefs corrupted his findings.

Are Wagner or Blacks “committed atheists,” or devotees of yoga, or who knows what else, as well as being a professional scientist and reporter? It’s irrelevant and only the devious would use such a cheap trick.

Paper Review

I emailed the same criticisms noted below to Roy Spencer and he answered all of them. He was of course under no obligation to do so, particularly as my questions were sharply worded and more than a little combative.

I assume the reader is familiar with the paper, so I will not summarize it here. Here is a portion of the conclusion of Spencer and Braswell (another is below):

[The] atmospheric feedback diagnosis of the climate system remains an unsolved problem, due primarily to the inability to distinguish between radiative forcing and radiative feedback in satellite radiative budget observations.

I concur with this conclusion and agree that the pair have presented evidence to support it.

The evidence, however, is likely overstated. For those who would copy and paste that statement, you would be negligent in your duties if you did not also copy this: this overstatement is likely minor and does not imperil the conclusion. My detailed criticisms follow.

Major: In Fig. 2, the pair ran a smoother over the data to “reduce sampling noise.” Of course, smoothers can’t do this. If there is measurement error in the data it has to be measured separately or estimated by some external means to account for it. Smoothers, unless the serendipitously mimic the measurement error process (extraordinarily unlikely here), merely make the data look more pleasing to the eye.

The smoothed data was then used in the regressions (Fig. 3). The problem is that when two times series are smoothed, it always increases the correlation between them, even if the series have no relation to one another. So when the smoothed data is used as input to the regressions, the effect is to inflate (in absolute value) the size of the regression coefficients.

Since a central finding is the difference between the regression coefficients of the observations against the same from the GCMs, the effect is to claim a larger difference than exists. This is not to say that no difference exists, just that the actual difference is likely to be less than Spencer and Braswell indicate.

Roy told me that he tried his models “Without smoothing, with smoothing” and that “The same conclusions” were found. I see no reason to call his honesty into question.

Minor: I also wondered why the full hundred-plus years from the GCMs were used instead of the same eleven years as the observations, as that seemed a fairer comparison. The answer is that more data gives a better estimate of the GCMs’ behavior. This is true, but it would have been interesting to see what limiting the GCM data did. Best guess is not much.

Minor: The authors had to “detrend” the GCMs’ output. This is always a tricky thing to do, and if done incorrectly it can add spurious correlations or remove existing ones. The authors did not use the most sophisticated methods to model the time series. But, then, neither do most authors in this field.

This is a niggling criticism, since my guess is that even a more sophisticated model won’t change the conclusion much. But skeptics have to be like Caesar’s wife, where even the suspicion of infidelity to best practices is a kind of lapse.

Minor: I would have preferred that Figs. 3 and 4 share the same axes limits. And even that the GCM results (from Fig. 3) would be overlaid on Fig. 4. This would make comparisons easier. With the limits as they are now, the GCM results appear smaller (ni Fig. 3) in comparison to Fig. 4 than they actually are.

Here is another portion of the conclusion:

While the satellite-based metrics for the period 2000–2010 depart substantially in the direction of lower climate sensitivity from those similarly computed from coupled climate models, we find that, with traditional methods, it is not possible to accurately quantify this discrepancy in terms of the feedbacks which determine climate sensitivity.

This also is consonant with their findings, even taking my criticisms into account.

It should be understood by other critics that Spencer and Braswell are not claiming much. They say only that we are not as sure of ourselves as we thought we were. They do not claim the AGM thesis is certainly wrong. They do not claim to have produced the final word on the subject of feedback versus forcing. They do not, really, claim very much.

This is a minor paper—I mean no insult by this; nearly all papers are minor—in a minor journal, which adds to our store of knowledge only a minor nugget. That this nugget appears shiny and of great worth to some and fraudulent to others, that it caused so many people to bleat and moan, that it resulted in the shedding of crocodile tears from a petty scientific official, and that his wailing garnered widespread public notice, only confirms the ridiculous politicization that has befallen climatology.

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  1. klem says

    Why did he really quit? I know of no journal editor who has resigned over a published paper. Even if they found the paper to be full of errors, that has never been good enough reason to quit in the past. Journals publish bad science all the time, the editors don’t quit over it, so why did this guy really quit? I don’t believe this paper by Spencer was the real reason, this does not pass the sniff test. I’m sorry but there is something else going on here that we’re not hearing about. I smell a rat.

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