BYU professor’s critique of climate change model linked to journal editor’s resignation

By on September 14, 2011.

A BYU professor’s criticism, along with other critiques of a climate change model published in a scientific journal, sparked a national controversy that led the journal’s editor-in-chief to resign.

The paper published in the journal “Remote Sensing” initially led some mainstream media outlets to trumpet the model as proof climate change is overstated. Forbes published an op-ed based on the paper titled “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism.” But then a couple of reviews of an earlier book using the same model surfaced, including one by BYU geological sciences professor Barry Bickmore.

Bickmore’s review of the book argued that author Roy Spencer failed to report all the outcomes of his tests and left out results that challenged his conclusions.

Scientists John Fasullo, Kevin Trenberth and Chris O’Dell referred to Bickmore’s review when they, too, challenged Spencer’s model in a paper published at Realclimate.org.

Both book reviews challenged the Spencer’s model, but those criticisms apparently were ignored or overlooked by peer reviewers when Spencer and co-author Danny Braswell submitted their paper to “Remote Sensing.”

After the paper appeared in “Remote Sensing” and attracted media attention, Bickmore’s and Realclimate.org’s questions resurfaced and other statistical fallacies in the paper were exposed.

The media blasted the journal’s credibility, and editor-in-chief Wolfgang Wagner resigned.

“After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments,” Wagner wrote in a farewell editorial for Remote Sensing. “I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.

Wagner said the review process was sound, but the selection of the three peer reviewers wasn’t.

“It got through the cracks,” Bickmore said. “It happens sometimes. Normally, an editor wouldn’t resign over mistakes like that, but in this case, it had such a huge media bubble that the editor, I think to protect the journal from the perception that they would just publish anything, he resigned.”

The Forbes piece and others exaggerated what Spencer’s paper claimed and sent climate change activists and skeptics alike into a frenzy, said John Timmer, a science editor at Ars Technica.

“If a person was exposed only to the claims being made in these outlets, it would be easy to conclude that Spencer had struck a blow, perhaps a fatal one, against the mainstream view of the climate,” Timmer wrote.

Bickmore said he’d become skeptical of Spencer’s methods since hearing him speak at a seminar. When Bickmore heard about Spencer’s book, “Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies That Hurt the Poor,” he put it on his wish list and received the book as a gift.

Once Bickmore read the book, he found one huge problem with it — Spencer was only using data that helped with his conclusion and excluded any information that refuted it.

“He was using a statistical technique that he made up,” Bickmore said. “You can’t find that in any statistics textbook.”

Once the paper was published in “Remote Sensing,” other scientists, like the ones from Realclimate.org, took notice of the oversimplified models of climate change.

“They just keep using the same simple climate model, which is fine, but you can’t use a model like that for every purpose,” Bickmore said. “And (Spencer and Braswell) just abused statistics left and right to get the results they want.”

When professors, researchers or scientists submit papers to journals for publication, the papers go through an intense peer review process where credible scientists review the relevance of the evidence and data the paper presents. The reviewers are usually trustworthy sources that will ensure the paper meets the scientific standards of the publication.

When the researcher submits a paper, they suggest a few reviewers, and Bickmore speculated that the journal probably ended up using those suggested reviewers to go over the paper because they couldn’t find any others. Bickmore said the problem with that is that sometimes, the suggested reviewers are the author’s buddies who won’t criticize the paper harshly. He also said “Remote Sensing” doesn’t really have anything to do with climate change, so Spencer and Braswell took advantage of the system to get published in an obscure journal. Spencer had been working on a similar paper before but instead published some of his findings in “Climate Confusion” after being rejected through the peer review process of scientific journals. However, Bickmore said rejection shouldn’t be used as an excuse to validate the flaws of an author’s paper.

“All of us as scientists, when we send things into journals for funding and to get published, we all get reviewed,” Bickmore said. “It’s really common to feel like the criticisms aren’t fair, but you just have to set it aside for a few days and look at it again and decide if there is anything in there you can use again.”

In another article by Timmer about the controversy, Timmer said peer review is meant to prevent any scientific errors from being published, an opinion shared by the Wagner, the editor who resigned.

“In Wagner’s opinion, papers that contain methodological errors or erroneous conclusions are supposed to be caught by peer review and shouldn’t be published,” Timmer wrote. “Since one was published on his watch, he’s resigning.”

Bickmore wrote a blog post further detailing how the controversy played out the way it did. He said he believes Wagner made an honest mistake, but he also warned that the peer review system is set up for a reason.

“Everyone is biased,” Bickmore said. “We all have a tendency to see what we want to see and some people are better than others at recognizing that in themselves and trying to limit that. But that’s what the peer review system is all about — giving it new sets of eyes to critique this before it goes on record. It’s important to keep the integrity of science with a good review system.”

This story originally appeared in the Deseret News.