RealClimate libel threat

The publishers of the journal Energy & Environment have threatened libel action against the RealClimate blog because of remarks they made about the peer review process in E&E.

The key quote that upset them, from this post, was:

“The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line.”

I think it is somewhat cowardly of E&E to threaten this libel action as it is often used to silence critics when their arguments can’t be refuted with evidence (see the RealClimate post for examples and then go and sign the petition to reform English libel laws).

If E&E can defend their peer review system, then I think should do so. What would be even better is if E&E took the plunge and opened up their peer review process and became a model for other journals. After all, many of the “skeptics” who have published in or are on the editorial board of E&E have called for the peer review process to open up. Here’s a great opportunity to make some progress on that front!

I wrote their publishers a letter explaining my view:

Dear Bill Hughes,

I have just read the letter that you sent to RealClimate regarding their criticism of the peer review process in E&E. I am disappointed that you consider a libel threat a valid response to their post.

Indeed, if E&E has a robust peer review process then this opportunity could be taken to open that process up. In doing so, you could not only refute the claims made by RealClimate but also become a trailblazer for a system to replace the current model of anonymous/closed peer review, which is often criticised for favouring the consensus view on subjects like climate change.

I look forward to an imaginative and constructive response from E&E.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Russell

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40 Responses to “RealClimate libel threat”

  1. Peter Risdon Says:

    It would have been right to quote this as well, from the letter from E&E:

    “At the moment, I’m prepared to settle merely for a retraction posted on RealClimate. I’m quite happy to work with you to find a mutually satisfactory form of words: I appreciate you might find it difficult.”

    Let’s also recall that as a result of the leak from UEA we know the peer review process was deliberately subverted by people close to RealClimate – so while it’s alleged there have been problems with the E&E process we know there have been issues with other journals. What did Phil Jones say? That he’d make sure a paper was rejected even if he had to redefine what peer review meant?

    What Gavin Schmidt has done is extrapolate from this: “The journal’s editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, a reader in geography at the University of Hull, in England, says she sometimes publishes scientific papers challenging the view that global warming is a problem, because that position is often stifled in other outlets. “I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway,” she says. “But isn’t that the right of the editor?””

    to this: “The evidence for this is in precisely what happens in venues like E&E that have effectively dispensed with substantive peer review for any papers that follow the editor’s political line. ”

    That’s deliberate misrepresentation, in my view.

    However, your suggestion that peer review be opened up is a good one. How can a paper be said to have been peer reviewed for Nature if it’s an analysis of historical records and the records weren’t supplied to the reviewers for consideration along with the method of analysis?

    • andyrussell Says:

      I think you’re reading far too much into the UEA CRU emails. Muir Russell’s “Independent Climate Change E-mails Review“, for example, concluded this:

      1.3.3 Peer Review and Editorial Policy

      25. On the allegations that there was subversion of the peer review or editorial process we find no evidence to substantiate this in the three instances examined in detail. On the basis of the independent work we commissioned (see Appendix 5) on the nature of peer review, we conclude that it is not uncommon for strongly opposed and robustly expressed positions to be taken up in heavily contested areas of science. We take the view that such behaviour does not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Andy

        The Russell panel’s work in this area is demonstrably whitewash. In order to reach their conclusion they:

        1. Noted a statement from their adviser Richard Horton (editor of the Lancet) that peer review is often rumbustuous and heated, but that there are ethical lines that can be crossed.
        2. Noted Phil Jones comment that he had done nothing wrong.

        This was considered enough to exonerate Jones. We do not know if Jones or anyone else at CRU actually contacted the journals concerned.

        I am sure you will agree that no inquiry was actually peformed by Russell et al and that the exoneration of Jones is therefore unsound.

      • andyrussell Says:

        The original point, from Peter, was that “…as a result of the leak from UEA we know the peer review process was deliberately subverted…”

        There’s no evidence to support that. The quote from the Russell inquiry nicely sums this up.

        Sure, the inquiry disagrees with your interpretation of these events – that does not mean its a whitewash.

        I do not agree that the exoneration of Jones was unsound.

      • JMurphy Says:

        Enquiries that go against conspiracy theories (i.e. the vast majority of them) are always whitewashes and part of the conspiracy, aren’t they ? It’s quite a circular and self-confirming thought process : there is a conspiracy; there is an enquiry into the conspiracy; the result of the enquiry rejects the conspiracy, therefore the enquiry is also part of the conspiracy. Etc…

      • andyrussell Says:

        There is a little more to this than a conspriacy theory though, isn’t there?

        Jones and others were trying to influence the peer review process of individual papers and journals. However, I would argue that they were doing this to confront pseudoscience pedlars, which even John Beddington is now saying we should all do.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Andy

        Are you aware of other evidence that exonerates Jones or do you believe that the two pieces of evidence mentioned by Russell (which I repeat above) are adequate to exonerate him on their own?

      • andyrussell Says:

        There is absolutely no evidence to condemn Jones. Is that not the key point?

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Yes, the Russell panel failed to investigate. At the very least they should have ascertained what contact there was between CRU and the journals involved – I think reasonable people can agree on this.

        In the wake of Russell’s not asking this question, I had David Adam at Nature put the question instead (Adam was in touch with Jones at the time). Jones refused to answer.

      • andyrussell Says:

        There was no evidence in the emails that there was anything out of the ordinary. That was the assessment of the editor of The Lancet. That doesn’t seem like much justification to dig deeper.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Andy

        I have no recollection of Horton saying this and I can’t see anything (on a quick skim of the report) that suggests he said it. Where are you seeing this?

      • andyrussell Says:

        8.6 Conclusions
        18. In our judgement none of the above instances represents subversion of the peer review process nor unreasonable attempts to influence the editorial policy of journals. It might be thought that this reflects a pattern of behaviour that is partial and aggressive, but we think it more plausible that it reflects the rough and tumble of interaction in an area of science that has become heavily contested and where strongly opposed and aggressively expressed positions have been taken up on both sides. The evidence from an editor of a journal in an often strongly contested area such as medicine (Appendix 5) suggests that such instances are common and that they do not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Ah, you mean Russell, not Horton. Horton was the adviser referred to in the bold bit you quote.

        This is not evidence though – Russell says it’s “plausible” that the words in the email are just rough and tumble. Horton had told him that there is a line that can be crossed. Should Russell not have ascertained if it had been crossed?

      • andyrussell Says:

        Well, no, Appendix 5 was written by Horton. It says that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. The report then says that there was no evidence that anything out of the ordinary was going on. That sounds fair enough to me. In my opinion, taking it further would have started to look more like a witch-hunt than an inquiry.

        Anyway, if there was anything wrong then Boehmer-Christiansen’s evidence would’ve identified it. It didn’t.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        The bit you are quoting is from the main report, not Horton’s appendix.

  2. fathertheo Says:

    I can say nothing about the peer review process at E&E. I do take issue with the characterization of Phil Jones by Peter Risdon, especially since the Phil Jones comments which were quoted related directly to the shoddy peer-review process accorded to a paper by climate change deniers Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, with the result that the paper–utterly lacking in scientific credibility otherwise–was being taken seriously as a scientific document.

    Phil Jones had a right to question the peer-review process in that notorious case because it had utterly failed.

    Dr. Jones remarks were for the purpose of improving the peer-review process so that demonstrably poor science does not get through. It is utterly typical of the climate deniers to twist his words to mean the precise opposite of his intention.

  3. Bishop Hill Says:

    fathertheo

    1. The words quoted by Peter Risdon have nothing to do with Soon and Baliunas. Jones said them in 2004, long after the Soon paper had been rejected. He was talking about McKitrick and Michaels 2004.

    2. The Soon and Baliunas paper is not as bad as it is painted. Although I think the chief criticism (that they used precipitation proxies rather than temperature ones) is valid, lots of other people have used precip proxies to reconstruct temperature, including Mann. In fact Mann used actual precipitation records to reconstruct temperature in MBH98.

  4. Simon Hopkinson Says:

    What is it that you think a “libel threat” is? Is it not the act of literal defamation, to which a threatened response might be to “sue”. I note that the truth is that there is no threat of action at all in the E&E letter to Schmidt. There is in fact only a request for mutually satisfactory resolution.

    It would be great if you’d stop wilfully imparting misinformation at some point. Soon would be good.

    • andyrussell Says:

      The subject line of Bill Hughes’ email was “E&E libel”. The strong implication is that, if the post is not taken down, then further action will be taken. Indeed, Bill also says:

      “At the moment, I’m prepared to settle merely for a retraction posted on RealClimate.”

  5. JMurphy Says:

    It’s strange to read a claim about what we “know” about the peer-review process (i.e. from an email going on about supposedly ‘redefining’ that process) being used by someone to express certainty, when the discussion about the paper in question was about its inclusion in the IPCC Report and the actual subject was about peer-reviewed literature, not the process of peer-review.

    It’s also strange to read that the Soon and Baliunas paper “is not as bad as it is painted”, even though it led to the resignation of the Chief Editor and half the editorial board of the Journal; the president of the organisation that publishes the Journal said there should have been changes made to the paper before it was published (i.e. it wasn’t well peer-reviewed); and there were complaints about undue pressure to publish the paper. If that is ‘not bad’, I’d hate to see ‘bad’ !

    • Bishop Hill Says:

      Should the editorial board of Nature have resigned over Mann’s use of precipitation records to reconstruct temperature then? Sauce for the goose…

      • JMurphy Says:

        Why should the editorial board have resigned over the contents of a paper which was original and furthering science ? Would they have know of your concerns over precipitation proxies ? Was there disagreement among the board members ? Was there pressure to print ? Was the peer-review somehow lacking ? What “sauce” ?

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        I’m not sure how the questions you ask are relevant to assessing whether S&B was such a terrible paper. We have noted that MBH98 shared the same principal flaw as S&B. Either they are both terrible papers or they are not.

      • Gavin Says:

        What a load of hooey.

        The criticisms of S+B were not that ‘they used precipitation proxies’, but in what they concluded from them: “.. the SB03 approach that defines a global ‘warm anomaly’ as a period during which various regions appear to indicate climate anomalies that can be classified as being either ‘warm’, ‘wet’, or ‘dry’ relative to ’20th century’ conditions. Such a criterion, ad absurdum, could be used to define any period of climate as ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ and thus makes no meaningful
        contribution to discussions of past climate change.”
        http://www.atmos.washington.edu/2006Q2/211/articles_optional/Mann_on_Soon2003.pdf

        Rewrite history much?

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Interesting. The paper linked says

        “The existence of possible underlying dynamical relationships between temperature and hydrological variability should not be confused with the patently invalid assumption that hydrological influences can literally be equated with temperature influences in assessing past climate”

        This would seem to confirm me in my opinion that precipitation proxies should not be used for temperature reconstructions. I don’t think an accusation of “rewriting history” is therefore tenable.

      • andyrussell Says:

        The “rewriting history” remark seemed to refer to your interpretation of the chief criticism of S+B – it was not that they used precip proxies, it was how they used them. Here’s the full paragraph from the Mann et al. reponse to S+B:

        “In drawing inferences regarding past regional temperature changes from proxy records, it is essential to assess proxy data for actual sensitivity to past temperature variability. Seminal work in the reconstruction of past climate [Lamb, 1965] examined a number of different variables, including hydrological indicators, for insights into past climate change, but only in a particular region (Europe) where the synoptic-scale relationship between temperature and hydrological variability was fairly well established and understood. The existence of possible underlying dynamical relationships between temperature and hydrological variability should not be confused with the patently invalid assumption that hydrological influences can literally be equated with temperature influences in assessing past climate (e.g. during Medieval times). Such a criterion is implicit, for example, in the SB03 approach that defines a global ‘warm anomaly’ as a period during which various regions appear to indicate climate anomalies that can be classified as being either ‘warm’, ‘wet’, or ‘dry’ relative to ’20th century’ conditions. Such a criterion, ad absurdum, could be used to define any period of climate as ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ and thus makes no meaningful contribution to discussions of past climate change.”

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Yes, I read that, but if everyone agrees that you can’t use precipitation proxies full stop then the rest of it is not worth debating anyway, is it? That’s why I suggest that the principal criticism is the use of precip proxies.

      • andyrussell Says:

        So you’re saying we should just throw data away because it’s difficult to interpret?

        Your principal criticism might be the use of precip data full stop but the Mann et al. response said that the main problem is how S+B interpreted them. I think this is right as all measurements are essentially proxies. As an example, mecury themometers don’t measure “temperature”, they display and interpret a known response of mercury to temperature. This interpretation is subject to varying degrees of error. This is overstating it somewhat, but what S+B did with their interpretation of the precip data is analogous to changing every number on a thermometer to 100degC – the thermometer still “works” but you’re not reading it properly. The relationship is less clear with the precip data but that doesn’t mean we should just give up.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        No, but if it’s wrong for S&B to use the precip proxies under the “patently invalid assumption that hydrological influences can literally be equated with temperature influences in assessing past climate” then it is equally wrong for Mann (and others) to do so.

        For clarity, Mann’s method weights the final reconstruction in proportion to the correlation between the proxy and temperature in the calibration period. It therefore appears to me that by using a precip proxy he is literally equating rainfall with temperature.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        Sorry, I need to expand slightly. Mann et al made the case that it was patently invalid to equate precip with temp. They also made the case that what S&B did was wrong in other ways (as you note). I’m somewhat unclear what this criticism is, but I don’t think it’s relevant anyway because of the precip proxies are invalid in the way used by S&B (according to Mann) and in the way used by Mann (see my previous comment).

      • andyrussell Says:

        I had a quick look back at MBH98 and S+B. I think that all the precip proxies MBH98 use are from NH mid-latitudes, all US and Europe I think. That’s in line with their criticism of S+B that synoptic scale drivers of precip should be well understood to use those proxies. The data used in S+B is less clearly described but I’m assuming that a wider range of precip proxies were used. I don’t know if S+B responded to the Mann et al. criticism, maybe that would throw more light on this.

      • Bishop Hill Says:

        You can’t tell from a quick look at the papers. You need to refer back to the original studies. MBH use precipitation records but also many of their tree ring proxies may be responding to rainfall rather than than temp. For example, I found a comment by McIntyre referring to two MBH98 series (fran009, fran010) which the original authors had posited as precip proxies.

        Also, even if the link between precip and temp is understood, you still can’t just chuck the series into your calibration and hope for the best. That’s what Mann said was patently invalid.

        Besides, you’re surely not comfortable reconstructing temps from precipitation proxies are you?

      • andyrussell Says:

        Like you say, it takes more than a quick look but, fundamentally, I see no reason why well understood precip proxies can’t tell you something about temperature.

  6. JMurphy Says:

    The “principal flaw” is your terminology and your viewpoint, which has already been adequately addressed at Real Climate.
    There are also many studies which seem to be able to use such precipitation proxies, as shown at NOAA.

    Even if there was the slightest chance that your viewpoint had some justification, you cannot possibly compare a path-finding, original study using multiple proxies, with a paper which came out five years later written by people who presumably would have known about any problems’ with any particular proxies.
    And that still doesn’t take account of the resignations, disagreements, pressure to print and lack of proper peer-review – all relating to S&B but not MBH98. The former is patently “terrible”, the latter a classic contribution to paleontology paleoclimatology.

  7. Bishop Hill Says:

    The Hockey Stick is “a classic contribution to paleontology”.

    ROFLMAO!

    [I think we know what was meant, I’ll do a quick edit. – AR]

  8. Hengist McStone Says:

    The editor of E&E Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen is on record as following her political agenda “the journal I edit has tried to keep this debate [climate scepticism] alive” She also states elsewhere I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway,” http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Energy_and_Environment#cite_note-3

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