Put it there pal: the real story of Chris de Freitas and Climate Research

by Gareth on November 30, 2011

The release of another batch of emails from the stash stolen a couple of years ago from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia may not have gained much attention in global media, but there has been a great deal of huffing and puffing at sceptic blogs such as µWatts and Climate Audit. Watts trumpets this news, for example:

BOMBSHELL An absolutely disgusting string of communications that shows the tribal attempt at getting an editor of a journal fired on made up issues – all because he allowed a publication that didn’t agree with “the Team”. This is ugly, disturbing, and wrong on every level.

Introducing a post copied from a New Zealand sceptic blog, given the headline The tribalistic corruption of peer review – the Chris de Freitas incident — Watts adds:

This is outright malicious interference with the scientific process, and it’s damned ugly. I can’t imagine anyone involved in professional science who could stand idly by and not condemn this.

Unfortunately for Watts and the anonymous (and low profile) NZ blogger who wrote the article, a new analysis by John Mashey of 700+ papers published at Climate Research reveals that the tribalism on display came from a cabal of sceptical scientists, with Auckland University academic Chris de Freitas safely shepherding their papers — however poor the science they contained — through peer pal review.

Mashey’s report, published a few hours ago at DeSmogBlog, reveals that:

  • From 1990 to 1996, Climate Research published no papers by any of the following sceptic “pals”:

    Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling, John Christy, Robert Davis, David Douglass, Vincent Gray, Sherwood Idso, PJ Knappenberger, Ross McKitrick, Pat Michaels, Eric Posmentier, Arthur Robinson, Willie Soon, and Gerd-Rainer Weber1.

  • de Freitas became an editor at CR in 1997 and then accepted 14 papers in the period up to 2003 from authors with whom he had close ties.
  • Papers from the “pals” accounted for half of his editorial workload.
  • de Freitas acted as editor on seven papers by Patrick Michaels, half of Michaels’ publication record over the period. Mashey describes Michaels as “king of the pals”.
  • After de Freitas resigned his editorial role in 2003, publications from the pals stopped appearing in Climate Research.

The cosy relationship between the pals and their tame editor finally came to an end with the publication of a paper by Soon and Baliunias, Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years2 (pdf), which purported to find that 20th century temperatures were not unusually high. The paper was published in 2003 and immediately hyped by opponents of action on climate change3. It attracted a rapid and robust rebuttal4. Stephan Lewandowsky at The Conversation gives an excellent account of the fall-out in Climate change denial and the abuse of peer review:

…three editors of Climate Research resigned in protest over its publication, including the incoming editor-in-chief who charged that “…some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common.”

This highly unusual mass resignation was followed by an even more unusual public statement from the publisher that acknowledged flaws in the journal’s editorial process.

Three editorial resignations and a publisher’s acknowledgement of editorial flaws are not standard scientific practice and call for further examination of the authors and the accepting editor.

So who was guilty of “malicious interference with the scientific process”, as Watts so nicely puts it? The climate scientists complaining amongst themselves that yet another crap paper had been shepherded through peer review by a complaisant editor, or that editor himself — a man with a six year record of allowing papers of dubious quality written by his sceptic tribe to appear in a reputable journal? The real scandal was the abuse of peer review by the pals to further their political objectives.

There’s an obvious lesson, and it’s one I pointed out at the time of the original email release. When reading edited highlights of someone else’s emails, context is king5. If you ignore history, and take a carefully selected bunch of emails as your only source, you will end up in blind alleys. As the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. To achieve prominence in the climate sceptic echo chamber one eye seems to be all you need.

[Richard Thompson, or Bob & Bing?]

  1. Mashey demonstrates that all these pals — many of them high profile “sceptics” — have worked for or with right wing think tanks in the US and elsewhere, notably the George Marshall Institute and the Heartland Institute. See table on p5. []
  2. Climate Research, Vol. 23: 89–110, 2003 []
  3. It was read into the US Congressional record, for example. []
  4. On Past Temperatures and Anomalous Late-20th Century Warmth, Mann et al, Eos, Vol. 84, No. 27, 8 July 2003 []
  5. As Canadian blogger Deep Climate nicely demonstrates in this excellent take down of email abuse by Ross McKitrick, one of CdF’s pals. []

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas December 1, 2011 at 10:38 am

Brillian!

bill December 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Neat piece!

Projection really is a huge component of the Denier mindset, and angry ‘conservatives’ generally.

samv December 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Hey, I remember that Soon paper – I reviewed it here, long ago as a skeptic. I also wrote up a piece about Pat Michaels in the same series. Spooky. Or is it just that the number of skeptics is vanishingly small?

John Mashey December 1, 2011 at 2:34 pm

“Or is it just that the number of skeptics is vanishingly small?”
Yes, if you mean of the *pals* class who spend serious effort trying to crate and distribute wrong memes, as opposed to the much larger number who mostly repeat them.

Kev December 1, 2011 at 3:19 pm

In terms of de Freitas the real issue is solved by an attack on the science in any paper not on the personalities or the composition of the editorial board. The way science progresses is through open discourse and other scientists replicating or not results . If you can’t take the heat of open access to you data and methods get out of the kitchen. It is better to let a few papers either way through to publication than to overly supress scienitfic endeavour because you don’t like the colour of a scientist politics, sex or skin colour. We have been down that track and we know where it leads.
Take this thread at Climate Audit as an example http://climateaudit.org/2011/11/28/direct-action-at-harvard/#more-15067
The discussion is about politics not the science. If these scientist spent more time on science and less on political muck raking we might be along way further down the track with what we know about climate.

The damage to science in general of the Hansen, Jones Mann and Co cabal of climate scientists is doing immeasurable damage to the respect the community should have for scientists in general. Don’t think that the ClimateGate emails aren’t significant, they are, and they indicate an inappropriate approach to the science that has huge implications for the people of the world both in developing and developed parts of our sphere. The foundation of policies formulated on the basis of politicised science (to be kind)has dangers in it for everyone.

Our ETS was predicated in an environment of Alarmism, birthed by a Labour government who’s members had never read, let alone understood the implications of the legislation and its 700+ amendments. It was raised through its infancy and modified by National to meet the politics of the second decade of the new century but it fails to either stop the increase in CO2 or the rise (currently fall) in temperature. What the ETS has done is raise prices caused loss of jobs made our exports more expensive and generally made us all poorer. Absolutely no upside for either the population or the climate.

If CO2 is a problem ETS and Cap and Trade is not the solution. So to return to the Scientific and Political elite at the IPCC and UNFCC . Your scientists have been shown to be corrupt, your political machinations both internal and external are corrupt. Your solutions to the real or imagined problem of climate are not working or are unworkable. Time to give up and if it is necessary to have a solution to the problem of CO2 then we need another forum and another solution that everyone can buy into.

Best decision for Durban NO Decision, a better decision is to disband the UNFCCC , IPCC and the Kyoto protocol and start afresh . We have time nature has given us a window of opportunity to regroup and reassess the position. We should take that opportunity to ensure that the policy solution actually solves the problem if it exists.

Thomas December 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Eh? Where did this come from? If anybody is corrupt here it is the payed writers in the sold of the Exxon/Koch sponsored climate denial machine and those who accept bogus papers into the record of scientific progress which should not get there because of serious issues with their methodology or process. The reason we have editors and peer review preventing crap being published is that once a paper is published in a serious peer reviewed journal it is cited as if it was a scientifically approved and quality controlled paper giving sound evidence. Most people, especially in the political arena will cite anything that underlines their preconceived notions without regard to the quality of the actual argument.
When the peer review process falls over as reported in this post reg. De Freitas, then substandard work gets a rubber stamp that it does not deserve.
There is a lot of very interesting and valid robust scientific discussion in the pre-publishing arena where ideas can get hashed out and tested. But once you submit to a publisher it is no longer that anything goes. You want the approval of the peer review and the status of your work that publishing gives you.
If you just want to share your view, you can self publish or publish in one of the non-peer reviewed open journals.
Nobody restricts open discussion. But the stamp of quality control a reputable journal gives must be earned. And that is for a very good reason. It prevents investors being duped into buying shares in the latest perpetual motion craze and it should prevent politicians taking the wrong council in their deliberations.
In regards to AGW we can only reiterate: If any one company in the world would produce a product “X” that had the chance of 1 in 6 to render Earth uninhabitable for the majority of us by 2200, that company would be shut down immediately. Nobody would allow that business to take that risk with your grand children’s life!
However if we all communally produce “X” as a matter of fact of our current lifestyle, the suddenly some people – perhaps like yourself – will argue their life away to carry on producing “X”…. “CO2″….

bill December 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Boring. Kev, you’re ticking off a shopping list of long-debunked memes here. Can I suggest you head over to SkS and actually, um, learn something?

Please don’t bother to play the ‘indignation’ card, which is usually what comes next. It’s manipulative, as well as dull.

RW December 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Troll attack!

masudako December 1, 2011 at 9:05 pm

>If CO2 is a problem ETS and Cap and Trade is not the solution.
Hansen says so too, very vehemently.

And this fact exemplifies that active climate scientists are not monolithic about the policies to cope with climate change, though they have consensus about science of climate change.

Australis December 1, 2011 at 5:13 pm

If these heavily-criticized papers by Soon & Braunia, Michaels, etc contained mis-statements that ought to have been picked up on peer review, surely these errors would have been picked up and corrected in subsequent journal papers. Isn’t this how science progresses?

Gareth December 1, 2011 at 9:19 pm

What’s normal is that papers that are obviously rubbish get weeded out, or reviewers comments lead to substantial revisions that make the papers publishable. In this case, neither happened. “Papers” with risible mistakes made it through de Freitas’ pal review. See here for a discussion of the last paper CdF handled.

Thomas December 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

Choice! I really hope that anybody who wants to have an opinion on the Peer review process reads the linked site you put up to see this for themselves! Great!

bill December 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm

How actual, real-live science science progresses, yes. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Australis; please explain how shepherding a blatantly – almost hilariously – wrong paper to publication benefits anyone, let alone ‘progresses science’.

Seriously – actually explain it. Please give us a ‘reasonable,’ plausible account of how the paper Gareth provides as an illustration made it to publication. Then tell us why this is ‘science’.

I confidently predict both your silence and a remarkable inability to remember this episode in the future; this will itself speak droves…

Bob Bingham December 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

One thing I have noticed is that over the last three years the number of deniers who put out a visible program is diminishing. Three years ago You Tube was full of stuff and now nothing new is appearing.There is a growing awareness that things are getting serious but it is not big enough in the general population. Change is only going to come from the ground roots so that policy makers reflect what people want.
If hurricane Irene had flooded New York http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/article.html
there may have been a better realisation of where we are headed.
A single event like that can have a major effect on changing opinion.

Tony December 2, 2011 at 9:52 am

“If hurricane Irene had flooded New York …”

Waiting for nature to put on a good show is one possibility but another game changer might be for just one of the denialist camp to turn whistleblower. Imagine the media frenzy if such a person were to leak emails admitting the truth that its all just a campaign of deception in order to fool climate scientists, that global warming is a real threat and providing a list of names of all those involved and their backers. We would of course need to promise full police protection, and who knows Hollywood may some day do a blockbuster movie in honour of their bravery!

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