Debunking ClimateGate (Pt. 2): "Scientists Suppressed Research & Subverted Peer Review!"

 

Thumbnail photos: Photos: J.J. at the English language Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons; Robert A. Rohde/Wikimedia Commons

 

In my first video on the ClimateGate e-mails, I made clear that the claims about data manipulation are unfounded. While these claims are the foundation of the ClimateGate scandal, there are additional e-mails which we're told indicate additional wrongdoing. In this video, we're going to focus on the claims that the CRU scientists suppressed research not supportive of global warming, subverted the peer review process, and pressured into resignation editors of journals who allowed publications which went against the global warming consensus.

Let's begin by reading what Conservapedia has to say about the subject. As they write, 

 

"The Climategate emails showed that climatologists had conspired to suppress research that challenged the global warming orthodoxy."

 

Their source for this claim is a dead link, but I found what appears to be a copy of the article, and it basically just repeats this same assertion without pointing to a specific e-mail or quotation to support the claim. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to actually substantiate my claims with evidence—especially when we're dealing with a trove of hundreds of e-mails. Are we expected to have read through every single e-mail and just be like "Oh yeah, clearly he's referring to e-mail #726 here"? 

But if I had to make their case for them on this point as convincingly as I could, I would reference one particular e-mail written by Phil Jones. As The Register writes

 

"In one email, CRU's director Phil Jones vowed to keep two opposing papers out of the scientific literature, 'even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!'"

 

Let me start off by getting technical here and pointing out that Jones was not attempting to keep these papers out of the scientific literature, because he's referring to papers that already were in the scientific literature. He's talking about trying to keep these papers out of the IPCC report on climate change. Exclusion from one particular report, and exclusion from the scientific literature, generally, are two very different things, and the distinction is important.

But why is it that Phil Jones wants to keep these papers out of the IPCC report? It's because, in his view, they're garbage. As he writes in the e-mail,

 

"The other paper by MM is just garbage . . . I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

 

So here's the scandal, ladies and gentlemen: A climatologist, in his view, tried to keep a few shitty papers out of the IPCC report. I'm wondering what it is that climate-change deniers would have liked to have seen here? Would we prefer that he instead said "These papers are trash, but I really hope they make it into the final report"? This wouldn't make much sense, would it? 

And I'm wondering what percentage of the ClimateGaters expressing outrage over this e-mail excerpt even have the slightest clue about what those papers are discussing? How many of them have read and understood these two papers, and thus have a solid foundation for this outrage? How many of them, without pausing this video to do a Google search, could explain to me exactly why these two papers would have made a valuable addition to the IPCC report?

I would imagine that the vast majority of them are coming at this quote from a position of ignorance and assumption: ignorance about the contents and quality of these papers, and assumption that these papers somehow reject global warming and do so in a methodologically sound manner. (And yes, I'm also making that assertion from a position of ignorance and assumption, so I don't think anyone knows what the fuck is going on right now.)

If you haven't actually read these papers, or at least gained a superficial knowledge of their contents, on what grounds to you object to their exclusion from the IPCC report? Is there something intrinsically immoral about attempting to exclude certain papers from reports because they're perceived as poor quality? Obviously not, so indignation over this particular quote strikes me as insincere and manufactured. 

It appears to me from this e-mail that Phil Jones was basically attempting to exercise some quality control over what goes into the IPCC report. And the thing is, he wasn't even successful! As we read on SourceWatch.org,

 

"IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri stated that the papers that had been criticized were not suppressed, and 'were actually discussed in detail in chapter six of the Working Group I report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.'"

 

This shouldn't strike us as a surprise, because these IPCC reports are massive collaborative projects that dozens, if not hundreds, of people work on. Just one chapter of the Fourth Report, for example, had 10 lead authors and dozens of contributing authors. Thus, there's no guarantee that even two extremely influential scientists could exercise tight control over what does and doesn't enter the final report, because the decision-making process in science isn't just the dogmatic following of orders; instead, it's a meritocracy where the best idea wins. Here is the cold reality that the sleeping bum of conspiracy awakes to when he's splashed with a bucket of truth: The treacherous pulling of strings in science isn't nearly as easy as we might imagine in our paranoid fantasies. 

I find it amusing that, on the one hand, the ClimateGate scientists are portrayed as this all-powerful cabal capable of manipulating worldwide temperature data in this vast conspiracy, yet at the same time, they're not even capable of excluding a measly two papers from a climate change report. How do we reconcile the discrepancy here?

I also find amusing the idea that two scientists would be capable of utterly redefining what peer-review literature is, as if the rest of the scientific community would be like: "Oh, well, ok then." This statement, about redefining peer review literature, almost certainly was not meant to be taken literally, but instead is just a way of expressing that he's going to try very hard to prevent these papers from entering the report. It's like when a person says "I'm going to figure out how to solve this problem even if I have to go to the ends of the earth." They're not literally going to go to the ends of the earth—indeed, the earth doesn't even have ends, as it's spherical—they're just conveying to you how seriously they're going to attempt something—and that's what I think Jones was doing here.

I suspect it might have even been made as a tongue-in-cheek remark, although it's hard to say, because it's obviously not easy to discern tone and sarcasm from text alone. I mean, Christ, I'll sometimes get an ambigious text and be like "I'm not sure if this person is joking, hates me, or is about to kill themself." But even if Phil Jones was completely sincere in this grand ambition to redefine what the peer-review literature is, "good fucking luck" is my reaction. Or I suppose I should say "better luck next time." 

Another claim we often hear is that the ClimateGate scientists were found to be undermining the peer-review process. As we read on PJ Media

 

". . . scientists on several occasions discussed methods of subverting the scientific peer review process to ensure that skeptical papers had no access to publication. In 2003, Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, complained that paleoclimatologist Hans von Storch was responsible for 'the publication of crap science "in order to stimulate debate"' and that they 'must get rid of von Storch' as an editor of the journal Climate Research (he indeed subsequently resigned)."

 

And as John Lott writes on Fox News

 

"There were also been discussions to silence academic journals that publish research skeptical of significant man-made global warming. Professor Mann wrote: 'I think we have to stop considering "Climate Research" as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.'" 

 

I think the first step is to understand what it is, specifically, that these scientists were upset about. As we read in an e-mail written by Michael Mann,

 

"The Soon & Baliunas paper couldn't have cleared a 'legitimate' peer review process anywhere. That leaves only one possibility--that the peer-review process at Climate Research has been hijacked by a few skeptics on the editorial board. . . . My guess is that Von Storch is actually with them . . . There have been several papers by Pat Michaels, as well as the Soon & Baliunas paper, that couldn't get published in a reputable journal. This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the 'peer-reviewed literature'. Obviously, they found a solution to that--take over a journal!"

 

And as Phil Jones wrote in another e-mail,

 

"I looked briefly at the paper last night and it is appalling . . . They have no idea what multiproxy averaging does. By their logic, I could argue 1998 wasn't the warmest year globally, because it wasn't the warmest everywhere. . . . The responsible [editor] for this is a well-known skeptic in NZ. He has let a few papers through by Michaels and Gray in the past. I've had words with Hans von Storch about this, but got nowhere."

 

So these scientists are plainly upset about the publication of research which they view as extremely flawed. They're upset that poor-quality research is making it to publication as a result of lax peer-review standards that so-called climate-change skeptics are responsible for. This is the position that they're coming from, and a few scientists expand upon this point in a Scientific American article. As we read there,

 

"'It's important to understand what peer review really is,' [meteorologist Michael] Mann noted. 'It's not a license for anybody to publish.'

In essence, he argued . . . some papers that 'did not make a credible case to support the conclusions that were reached' were being published. As a result, climate scientists were complaining, among themselves, about the quality of the journals.

'Scientists care very much about the quality of the journals they publish in,' [climate modeler Gavin] Schmidt noted. 'If a journal is perceived to have lax reviewing standards, then you are tarred with the same brush if you publish in that journal. Your work becomes devalued.'"

 

I think there is a legitimate concern here that, regardless of its veracity and quality, any research that casts doubt upon global warming will automatically and unfairly be described as "crap science" by these scientists, and if they had their way, they would block such research from making it through the peer-review process on to publication. If this was their MO, then it would be objectionable, and we should rightly condemn it. What research makes it to publication shouldn't depend upon the conclusion that it reaches, but instead, the soundness of the research methodology. That is the crucial distinction here.

But look again at the language used in these e-mails and ask yourself: are they objecting to the conclusions of the research or the poor quality of the research methodology? They're not just saying "I don't like the conclusions of this research—and that's the only reason I need to oppose this journal and pressure for the resignation of its editor"; they have specific critiques of the methodology of this research. They make this clear in the e-mails, and they make it even more clear in subsequent publications which challenge the specific paper that they're referring to here. 

As the subject line of Mann's e-mail makes clear, they're primarily responding to a 2003 publication by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas—which, if you ask me, sounds like a folk-music duo. In their paper, Soon and Baliunas conclude that "Across the world, many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium."

A few months after this paper was published, several scientists published a critique of the research, including Michael Mann and Phil Jones, whose e-mails were quoted from earlier. Their critiques are summarized in a Scientific American article, which writes the following:

 

"[Soon and Baliunas] define a 'climatic anomaly' as a period of 50 or more years of wetness or dryness or sustained warmth (or, for the Little Ice Age, coolness). The problem is that under this broad definition a wet or dry spell would indicate a climatic anomaly even if the temperature remained perfectly constant. 

. . . [Furthermore,] they looked for 50-year-long anomalies; the last century's warming, the IPCC concludes, occurred in two periods of about 30 years each (with cooling in between). The warmest period occurred in the late 20th century--too short to meet Soon and Baliunas's selected requirement."

 

And, lastly, as we read in the paper itself

 

". . . the specification of a warm period requires that warm anomalies in different regions should be synchronous, and not merely required to occur during any 50-year period within a very broad interval in time, such as AD 800–1300, as in [the Soon and Baliunas paper]."

 

So when climate-change deniers imply that it's simply the conclusions of the research that motivated these e-mails, they're being disingenuous. These scientists weren't just upset at the fact that this research went against established viewpoints in the climate change community; they were upset that it did so in a methodologically flawed manner—yet nonetheless made it through the very peer-review process that's designed to screen out such flawed research and send it back to the drawing board for revision, correction, and improvement. This is what motivated their criticisms of the journal and its peer-review process. 

I think the climate change deniers actually have this backwards, because rather than "subverting the scientific peer review process," as Iain Murray asserts they were doing, these scientists were basically trying to preserve the peer review process; they were upset that this process wasn't functioning properly. They were saying, to the reviewers at this journal: "Do your fucking job." 

And as a side point, it's also worth noting that Soon and Baliunas—especially Soon—have clear financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. As the New York Times reports

 

"The study in Climate Research was in part underwritten by $53,000 from the American Petroleum Institute, the voice of the oil industry."

 
 

"Soon has also received multiple grants from the American Petroleum Institute between 2001 and 2007 totalled $274,000, and grants from Exxon Mobil totalled $335,000 between 2005 and 2010. Other contributors to Soon's research career include the Charles G. Koch Foundation, which gave Soon two grants totaling $175,000 in 2005/6 and again in 2010, and coal and oil industry sources such as Mobil Foundation, the Texaco Foundation and the Electric Power Research Institute. Soon has stated that he has 'never been motivated by financial reward in any of [his] scientific research.'"

 

Of course you haven't. Who would even think to make such an outrageous accusation? Clearly the fossil-fuel industry is throwing such enormous sums of money in your direction because they trust your impartiality! It's not like they have a vested interest in minimizing our beliefs about the severity of global warming, caused in large part by fossil fuel emissions. No no no no no—they just wanna get to the truth. That's all they care about: not profits, not public relations, but good-old fashioned, objective scientific inquiry. Just ask the fossil-fuel executive who gave me a thousand dollars to say that: he'll tell you the exact same thing!

[Edit - 05/06/2018 - A possibility worth considering (which I didn't point out in the original post) is that rather than having the fossil fuel industry money dictate their viewpoints, it could be the case that Soon and Baliunas truly do believe what they're publishing, and it's their beliefs on the subject that inspired the fossil fuel industry to fund them in the first place. In the interest of fairness, this is worth noting because I originally implied that they didn't believe what they were publishing—but this is not the only option.]

I should also point out the irony of climate-change deniers, of all people, sermonizing about the sancitity of the peer-review process and lecturing us about how science should be done. Climate-change denialism itself is flagrantly anti-scientific because it goes against the well-established conclusions of science in this area. Not only that, but many of the people who hold these views on climate change also hold other laughably anti-scientific views such as young-earth creationism and a belief in the efficacy of prayer. Who better to sing an ode to the scienfitic method than these people?

Conservapedia encourages its readers not to despair when it writes that:

 

"Climategate should be seen not primarily as a set-back, but as an opportunity to cleanse scientific method, to take science away from politics, good causes and alarmists. And vest climate science in bodies of guaranteed neutrality, openness, real in vigorous debate; and away from the lobbyists, the advocates, the Gore's, and professional environmentalists of all kinds."

 

"Guaranteed neutrality,"—this is one of those seemingly innocuous phrases that actually could have a horrendous operational definition. It reminds me of the creationists who say "teach the controversy," "give equal time to both sides." This might seem like a reasonable approach on the surface, but giving equal time to nonsense, to pseudoscience, to obviously inaccurate garbage is the farthest thing from reasonable. It gives students the misimpression that the positions are on an equal footing, and it is a waste of time and educational resources.

In the context of ClimateGate, how could we guarantee neutrality if the basis for rejecting some of these publications is the soundness of the research methodology? Do we guarantee neutrality by lowering our standards, or perhaps tossing our standards out the window altogether and just turning our peer-reviewed journals into a free-for-all where anything goes? Anything is acceptable? Any publications, regardless of how obviously flawed they are, should be greenlighted in the name of diversity, equality, or neutrality? The Fairness Doctrine simply doesn't work in science.

And by the way, aren't these some of the same people who rail against affirmative action and other programs who don't accept students or applicants simply on the basis of their own merits? Why don't they apply these standards to global warming science? 

If you want your viewpoints to make it into peer-reviewed journals, I have a foolproof method for you: Produce good science. Run experiments, collect data, and draw conclusions in a sound way. In science, the cream naturally rises to the top. So if your research isn't making it past peer-review, maybe instead of the peer-review process being the problem, the quality of your research is the problem? This is a classic victim mentality: blaming others for your own inadequacies. If your artwork never sells, maybe you're just a shitty painter? 

Conservapedia also writes that we should "take science away from . . . alarmists." If the science indicates that there's something to be alarmed about, becoming an alarmist is a reasonable and ethical thing to do. How do you even expect people to detach their scientific conclusions from the consequences of these conclusions? If increasing CO2 levels are causing coral bleaching in reefs across the world, are we supposed to just be like "Uhh, how interesting," and just be totally apathetic and uninterested in the impact this will have on oceanic biodiversity? 

"Bad things are going to happen. Let's do something about it."

Unacceptable! Fuck those environmentalists and their caring about the environment. Who do they think they are? Buncha pussies if ya ask me!

And you want to talk about cleansing the scientific method: How about cleansing it of the piles of cash that the fossil-fuel industry uses to fund publications whose conclusions are conducive to their profits? It's one thing to decry alarmists and environmentalists; but where's the section where they lambaste the clear financial conflicts of interest in the literature that they often use to support their denialism? I must've missed that section. Or maybe it was just such brilliant prose, such a devastating critique of the fossil fuel industry, that my mind simply couldn't handle it and repressed it like a sexual assault or something.

We read about another e-mail in a New York Times article which writes the following:

 

"'Some of them are embarrassing,' said Pat Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. '. . . Much more important are the e-mails showing attempts to intimidate the editors of journals and the refereed scientific literature.'

Messages Michaels objects to include a March 19, 2009, e-mail from CRU Director Phil Jones in which he complains to another scientist about the new editor of Weather, a journal published by the Royal Meteorological Society. 'If I don't get him to back down, I won't be sending any more papers to any RMS journals and I'll be resigning from the RMS,' Jones writes, in an apparent protest to a change in the journal's guidelines for authors."

 

The important thing to understand about this quote is that it has nothing to do with the global warming vs. denialism debate; the scientists are just upset that this journal is requiring authors to provide not just all of their data, but all intermediate calculations, as well—which they presumably view as a needlessly burdensome waste of their time. As Benjamin Santer writes in his e-mail,

 

"If the RMS is going to require authors to make ALL data available - raw data PLUS results from all intermediate calculations - I will not submit any further papers to RMS journals."

 

And as Phil Jones writes in his e-mail,

 

"The issue is that this is intermediate data. The raw data that Ben had used to derive the intermediate data was all fully available. If you're going to consider asking authors to make some or all of the data available, then they had done [this] already. The complainant didn't want to have to go to the trouble of doing all the work that Ben had done. I hope this is clear."

 

Now you might say that these intermediate calculations should be provided, that it would facilitate independent verification and the correction of mistakes, and these are perfectly reasonable positions. But to frame this as intimidating the editors of journals seems a bit dramatic, because what they're really saying here is: "We don't want to have to go through all this trouble, and if you don't change your policy, we will no longer be sending you our papers." This isn't intimidation; this is simply objecting to a policy change in a straightforward manner. Again, you might think that the policy is a good idea, and that they should comply with it, but I just don't see anything egregious here.

You might also say: "Aha! But the reason they don't want to provide these intermediate calculations is because if they did, it would demonstrate that they've fabricated their results!"

I don't know how you could possibly prove that this is anything more than paranoid speculation, and the e-mails contains no indication that this was their motive. Remember, these were private e-mails which were hacked; if they didn't want these intermediate calculations being scrutinized because it would expose their fraudulence, wouldn't they have mentioned that in the e-mail? A clear indication of motive that we see in the e-mail is Ben Santer typing, in all caps, "ALL data...raw data PLUS results from all intermediate calculations"?

In my view, his emphasis here makes pretty clear that they view this as excessively burdensome—not that they view it as a potential window into their falsification of data.

The final claim we'll deal with in this video is that the editors of journals that allowed so-called "skeptical" papers to be published were pressured into resignation by the iron-fisted CRU scientists—and I mean "iron-fisted" in a non-sexual way, of course. As an example of this viewpoint, Iain Murray writes the following on PJ Media:

 

"[Tom Wigley complained] that they 'must get rid of von Storch' as an editor of the journal Climate Research (he indeed subsequently resigned)."

 

And as we read in the comments section of a ClimateGate article on JoanneNova.com

 

"They also got James Saiers, editor of Geophysical Research Letters, fired."

 

Here's some background information about this other journal, from The Guardian:

 

". . . when [Geophysical Research Letters] began publishing what Mann, Wigley, Jones and others regarded as poor-quality sceptical papers, they again responded angrily. . . . 'This is truly awful,' [Wigley] said, adding that . . . 'If you think that Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted.'"

 

First, let's assume that, in both cases, the ClimateGaters are correct: These climate scientists wielded their considerable prestige in the academic community and pressured these editors into resigning. As we've seen, the motivation for such pressure was the concern that the peer-review process wasn't properly functioning, and that so-called "crap science" was subsequently greenlighted for publication. If the peer-review process at a journal indeed became so careless and inadequate, would it not be a reasonable response to call for the editor of this journal to step down, thus making room for somebody who would be more responsible and meticulous? I see nothing sinister about these actions.

But the thing is, both of these editors have made unequivocal, in their own words, that their resignation was their own decision which was not coerced or pressured in any way by the devious machinations of these particular scientists. As we read on Wikipedia,

 

"On 22 December 2009 von Storch responded in the Wall Street Journal that his resignation as editor of Climate Research had nothing to do with any pressure from Jones, Mann, or anyone else, but instead he 'left this post on my own, with no outside pressure, because of insufficient quality control on a bad paper—a skeptic's paper, at that.'" 

 

And this "bad paper" that he's referring to is none other than the Soon and Baliunas publication. Von Storch definitely did not view this as Publication of the Year. Just read what he had to say in his resignation letter:

 

"'The review process had utterly failed; important questions have not been asked . . . Some editors considered the problem of the Soon & Baliunas paper as merely a problem of "opinion", while it was really a problem of severe methodological flaws.'"

 

Notice that von Storch is portrayed by deniers as an innocent martyr for research that rejects global warming, yet he himself acknowledges that the paper in question was trash. He views it as an embarrassment that it made it through the peer-review process. He's not taking a bullet for climate change denialism; he's expressing shame that it was even allowed to enter the building.

What about the other editor, James Saiers? As we read in an article on The Guardian,

 

". . . A year after the row erupted, in 2006, Saiers gave up the [Geophysical Research Letters] post. Sceptics have claimed that this was due to pressure from Wigley, Mann and others. Saiers says his three-year term was up. 'My departure had nothing to do with attempts by Wigley or anyone else to have me sacked,' he told the Guardian. 'Nor was I censured, as I have seen suggested on a blog posting written by McKitrick.'"

 

So as we can see, these claims are simply not supported by the evidence.

Contrary to what climate change deniers will tell you, the CRU scientists did not "suppress" research whose conclusions they didn't like; they objected to the publication of research whose methodology was flawed. And they didn't subvert the peer-review process; instead, It was their outrage over the breakdown of the peer-review process that motivated their discussions about pressuring for the resignation of the responsible editors. And when you actually talk to these editors, they make clear that no such pressure actually influenced their resignations. Yet again we see that a core component of the ClimateGate conspiracy theory is grounded in falsehood, ignorance, misunderstanding and mistaken assumption.