Ha Ha. Ha.

November 30, 2009

Gordon Crovitz (never heard of him) has a column on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. It’s terrible. As with many terrible things — ungh, these socks are rank…here, have a whiff — it’s maybe worth a read. Among the many terrible things he does is to concoct his own context for the e-mails, saying that they were merely “published online” and “released by an apparent whistle-blower,” thereby disregarding the privateness and collegiality of the discussions as well as the touchy subject of their purloining.

Here are some other particularly asinine quotes:

The panel, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, now faces the inconvenient truth that it relied on scientists who violated scientific process.

Yes, and what “scientific process” might that be? Do tell.

The emails showed how the global-warming group stifled dissent. They controlled the peer-review process, keeping opposing views unpublished, then cited “peer review” as evidence of their “consensus.”

I still haven’t seen how they stifled dissent. They had discussions about where to publish, where not to publish, what journal has been publishing bullshit, and what journals are not publishing bullshit. It’s obviously perfectly legitimate to spread the word that a given article is terrible, even if it makes it through peer review. That’s what I’m doing right now, even though this article would never have made it through peer review. It is entirely unclear how this could amount to “controlling the peer-review process.” I’m not sure what it would even mean to control the peer-review process.

This unseemly business reveals another flaw. Why are scholars who review papers allowed to remain anonymous?

Because if they don’t remain anonymous, the papers they reject could come back to haunt them. The hope is that they’ll be more honest this way.

But here’s the real doozy:

How many of the anonymous reviewers who spiked skeptical scientific papers over the years are the people who wrote these emails detailing how they abused peer review to block contrary evidence?

Yeah. That’s a good one. As if an orientation against skeptical scientific research is an entrenched and immovable position and not something one arrives at after learning the science; as if there might also be no reason that a given skeptical scientific paper might be disregarded on the scientific merits.

It’s true that the medical establishment also routinely rejects anti-vaccination papers…probably because those papers are garbage. Sure, one can make the case that a propensity to reject anti-vaccination papers is an institutional bias built into the powers that be, but that case cannot be made by deference to discussions among members of the medical establishment. To make that case, you need to point to other things, like a particular orientation toward truth, or a particular conception of reasoning, that eclipses otherwise good scientific research as irrelevant or ill-founded.

There’s actually quite a bit more stupidity in Crovitz’s essay, but I don’t have the time to take him down line-by-line. Basically, every statement is dripping in spin. Enjoy!


  1. Why spend the time? WSJ’s editorial page is a mess….

    • It’s entertaining? I don’t know why, I just do it. My wife will attest that I drive her crazy by listening to the most awful talk radio.

  2. Ben

    They had conversations about “ousting” editors.

  3. So?

    If they had the power to do that kind of ousting, then they had that power, and the ousting is possibly legitimate. People in respectable positions oust other people all the time from their positions if they deem that they’re not good at their jobs.

    If they didn’t have the power to do that kind of ousting, then they couldn’t do it anyway, so it was just locker-room talk. “We should oust coach Wigglynose from his perch. His team is terrible!”

  4. “People in respectable positions oust other people all the time from their positions if they deem that they’re not good at their jobs.”

    When I first read this, I thought you had written “responsible” rather than “respectable”, but clearly you haven’t.

    I think it’s fairly clear that the Hockey Team had the power to oust, since we see three changes of editor at their behest either discussed or alluded to. We can therefore leave your second paragraph aside.

    So having eliminated “not enough power” as a possibility, you would presumably conclude that ousting is “possibly legitimate”. And also presumably that it was “possibly illegitimate”. Hmm…not sure we’re any further forward.

    And then you say that people in “respectable positions” oust people all the time. Well I would say people in responsible positions do this. People in respectable positions don’t, unless they happen to be in responsible positions too. I think this is why your sentence reads so awkwardly. I think you recognise that what has been done is illegitimate – the Team were not in positions of responsibility – but you don’t want to say so.

  5. Actually, I’m not sure what was done, so I’d hate to say that it was illegitimate. But I do think that it’s reasonable to expect that there will be a back-and-forth about how bad a given editor is, and maybe even some conniving about how to get rid of that editor. I suspect that this happens any time someone receives a rejection; or any time a terrible article appears.

    I’m not saying it’s nice. I’m not even saying that it’s warranted or justified. I’m just saying that people talk like that about editors. They talk like that about referees too. “Get rid of that person,” they say, “he’s a moron.” What they mean by this, usually, is that the person in question has made some bad decisions with regard to whatever is at issue.

    Plainly, that’s their judgment about those bad decisions, and not about the person or about the person’s station. In some cases, just as plainly, their judgment can be flawed, but we’ve all felt like sticking it to journal editors and to article referees. We’ve also all read papers in journals that are absolutely terrible. When we’ve done so, we’ve wondered how such a bad article made it through the peer review process and what we once thought was a good journal.

    Bad articles in good journals tend to reduce our impression of the journal. Similarly, good articles in good journals can do a lot to improve the impression of the journal.

    It’s true that people with responsibilities can oust people out of their slots by virtue of their responsibility but that wasn’t my main point. My use of “respectable” was somewhat of a throwaway, but I meant only that it’s not clearly a position worthy of disrespect that someone might connive to oust a journal editor.

  6. Ben, I feel for your wife. I sometimes listen to talk radio. At times, you can’t help yourself and just drink wildly from the demon rum.

  7. “Why are scholars who review papers allowed to remain anonymous?” – it is as you say. But it is also worth adding several things. First, that people often waive that anonymity (I always did, towards the end); second that open review is available for some journals (EGU ones most notably); and third that there is a case for editor naming, rather than reviewer naming (see http://julesandjames.blogspot.com/2009/11/advice-to-agu-regading-their-journals.html and subsequent).

    And if you haven’t already seen it, you might like http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007078

  8. Plenty of deniers have done everything they can to oust James Hansen. And in the case that I think this thread is addressing, nobody ended up getting ousted. They resigned in protest.

  9. Dean

    You might make a plausible case that the departure of the Climate Research editors was unconnected with the plot to oust them. However there was also the plot to oust Saiers and we know that Saiers was replaced as editor in charge of the McIntyre paper. There is also an allusion by Mann (IIRC) to having dealt with editors who published sceptic papers at J. Clim, and also the plan to prevent IJoC from introducing a policy on data and methods.

  10. Ben

    It’s interesting that you refer to bad decisions. In the case of the McIntyre papers, the decision was clearly a good one, – the findings in that paper – that Mann’s novel centring approach was biased so as to produce hockey sticks – having been confirmed by the NAS panel and the Wegman panel.

    So what we see in that case is the Hockey Team plotting to oust an editor who allowed publication of an extremely important paper that happened to be inconvenient for the AGW cause.

  11. I don’t know if I agree with you, Bish. There may be something to this, but remember that there are some who didn’t find that paper to be such a good paper. I don’t know what their reasons were, but it is conceivable to me that their reasons we’re not based entirely in a distaste for McIntyre…

    And there’s the rub. There are sometimes legitimate scientific disagreements about the work of others that are translated into a distaste for a given person. “That paper is terrible. X is an idiot. How did such a bad paper make it through peer review into this journal?”

    If that’s the case, then it is not a simple matter of narrow bias, but a matter of whether a given study or paper meets with the standards and expectations of a given scientific community.

  12. Bishop, can you help us out here. You’ve made several claims without any supportive evidence. Let’s look at each.

    1. “McIntyre’s paper found that Mann’s paper was biased.” Okay. Where is the evidence for this? Certainly McIntyre’s paper “claimed” that there was bias, but did it “find” bias? Also, were there not several papers sent to GRL pointing out errors in McIntyre’s paper?

    2. “NAS panel confirmed the bias found by McIntyre” Can you please show us where this is found?

  13. On the horrors of ousting an editor….Can I say that I find this whole topic of conversation absolutely ludicrous. Anyone with more than a passing interest in academia knows that this type of infighting happens all the time.

    In every department, in every discipline.

    Can we just give it a rest?

  14. Paul

    I’m a bit unsure about what you mean. McIntyre showed that if you applied Mann’s algorithm to red noise, you get a hockey stick over 95% of the time. That is demonstrating bias. Do you think otherwise?

    There were comments on McIntyre’s paper at GRL. Two (Ammann/Wahl and Ritson) were rejected. The other two (Huybers and von Storch/Zorita) confirmed that Mann’s algorithm was biased but took issue with how big the bias was.

    The confirmation by the NAS panel is on p 105 of the report. On the following page the panel produces its own hockey stick by applying Mann’s algorithm to red noise. These findings were confirmed by the Wegman report. Ian Jolliffe, an expert on principal components analysis has confirmed that the bias.

  15. Bishop Hill et al,

    It’s beyond my scope to read all the emails to come to my own conclusion on all of them. In those cases where there is a genuine implication of misbehavior, an investigation is warranted. Penn State has started an investigation re Michael Mann and whoever the proper authority is in the UK should start an investigation of FOIA procedures at CRU. Any peer review journal implicated in corruption of their review process, they need to bring in an outside committee to review it, maybe from some academic institution.

    But the scope of this issue is far smaller than some people are trying to make it appear. Only a few scientists are genuinely implicated, and it does not impact the almost 2 century old foundation of scientific research into the greenhouse process, which is based in physics and thermodynamics, not computer models and statistical methods.

    So let’s not sweep it under the rug as much ado about nothing. But let’s also not make it out to be more than it is: a small group of scientists who felt besieged by people they consider charlatans, discussed or suggested taking steps that in a few cases are over the line. Investigations need to determine whether these things discussed and suggested actually happened, and if so, corrective actions need to be taken. Endless blog wars are not going to get anything resolved or fixed.

    Climatology _does_ have far more policy impact than most disciplines, and climatologists better get used to being in the pressure cooker. I think that there is no getting away from the fact that climatology and politics will be inseparable for some time to come. It’s the world we live in.

    • Dean

      There are four instances of journals apparently being “nobbled” in the emails. While I think the idea of finding out if they really were nobbled makes sense, I wonder who would be brave enough to say that they were. What would the effect on their careers be? Zorita has said that his speaking up will probably lead to more of his papers being rejected.

  16. Ben

    In view of the fact that two of the other commenters on the McIntyre papers and two expert panels and the world’s leading expert in the area all agreed that the algorithm was biased, I’m not sure I share your confidence that “their reasons we’re not based entirely in a distaste for McIntyre”.

    Are you really saying that in these circumstances it might be OK to oust the editor anyway?

    • Depends what you mean by “oust.” If you mean drag him out into the streets and kick his ass, I think that’s wrong. If you mean publicly express dissatisfaction with his performance as editor, I think that’s perfectly reasonable.

      In my opinion, nothing about even saying that “X deserves a good ass-kicking” is a sign of anything untoward; even though, it is true, physically kicking a journal editor’s ass is not a good practice.

      Of course, nobody actually said anything about ass kickage, but one can see how such a statement, if uttered, might lead one to believe that some significantly improper stuff was happening.

      • On so many of these threads I seem to end up having conversations with people who claim that English words have different meanings when spoken by climatologists.

        We see in the emails the following:

        Wigley: 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.

        Wigley: Mike’s idea to get editorial board members to resign will probably not
        work — must get rid of von Storch too, otherwise holes will eventually
        fill up with people like Legates…

        Now you can argue that what they were actually saying was that they wanted to “publicly express dissatisfaction” with the editors in question, but then I’m left speechless. Well actually I can think of lots of things to say, but none of them are very polite.

        I’m wondering if you are arguing for the sake of arguing here.

      • Okay, fine example. They clearly say that they should go through “official AGU channels” to get him ousted. Those official channels exist precisely to oust people for bad work.

        I’m not arguing for the sake of arguing, I’m arguing because you’re wrong.

      • If we can just track back to a couple of comments ago, I asked you if you said that it was OK to seek to oust Saiers for allowing publication of a paper the central conclusion of which was subsequently accepted by two expert panels and a number of expert commenters.

        After a diversion to discuss the possibility that climatologists use the word “oust” in a different way to the rest of us, we now seem to be back where we started. You seem to be saying that it’s OK to seek to oust the editor of a paper that was shown to be valid, provided you seek to do it through official channels.

        Am I understanding you correctly?

      • I’m not sure I follow. I think that if you suggest going through official channels to oust someone, then it is extremely likely that you’re suggesting that everything be kept above board. That shouldn’t be hard to understand.

        Also, ain’t no diversion about it. You keep saying that it’s wrong to “oust” someone. It’s only wrong if you mean by “oust” something untoward… but ousting someone (“removing them from their position”) is clearly also a normal and permissible practice.

      • Ben – since you responded on this topic to me in the other thread, let me ask you a question. Wigley said that if “Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp” then they could work to have him ousted through official AGU channels. Even though the proposed ousting was above board and through official channels do you think it is appropriate (or ethical since that is supposed to be your forte) for scientists to seek removal of a member of the editorial board of the AGU GRL simply for being a skeptic?

        Above you stated “Those official channels exist precisely to oust people for bad work”, but in this context they weren’t seeking to oust a member of the editorial board for “bad work” but only if “Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp”. Context does matter. If Saiers wasn’t in the “skeptics camp” then they wouldn’t seek to oust him. Is this not the politicization of science in it’s worst form?

      • I think we don’t know much beyond what was in the e-mail, but it’s probably true that in Wigley’s professional judgment, being a climate skeptic is tantamount to having an unacceptably non-scientific political bias that might be interfering with Saiers’s independent scientific judgment as an editor. So yes, I think it’s about the work, and I think it’s reasonable to seek his ouster through official channels on these grounds.

        If Wigley’s dislike of Saiers is something so facile as a distaste for people who think differently (or, basically, who don’t like chocolate ice cream), then I think you’re probably right, that seeking to oust someone through the proper channels for the wrong reasons is not the right thing to do.

        The question here is whether, and I think Wigley suggests in his e-mail that, there are good reasons to try to oust Saiers. If they’re there, then they can make a case against him. He’s advocating making that case.

        Seeking Saiers’s ouster for good reasons by going through official channels strikes me as perfectly ethically acceptable. Seeking Saiers’s ouster for bad reasons by going through official channels strikes me as more ethically questionable, but nevertheless permissible (from the standpoint of a “code of ethics”), provided that those channels are not themselves corrupt; and if they are, it is the code that needs revision, not necessarily Wigley’s use of the code. To complicate matters, seeking Saiers’s ouster for bad reasons by going through unofficial channels is ethically questionable only insofar as the actions taken are concerned.

        Simply seeking the ouster isn’t ethically questionable. Simply intending the ouster isn’t ethically questionable. Simply communicating an intent to ouster isn’t ethically questionable. Simply following up on a communicated intent by taking actions to see that the ouster is implemented but never having those actions meet with the scrutiny of those empowered to fulfill the ouster is not ethically questionable. And on, and on.

      • Okay kids, you get your own post.

  17. Also, re the hockey stick and the NRC (NAS) review of it, they had minor criticisms, but basically supported the methods in the hockey stick study. In his blog post at http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/climate_change/000859quick_reaction_to_th.html, Roger Pielke, no great friend of Michael Mann, starts the blog with this quote: “My reading of the summary of the report and parts of the text is that the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.”

    If you want to find stronger criticism, you can find it in the Wegman report. There are scientists who do not support the methods used in the various hockey stick studies, of which there are by now many. But the NAS was mostly supportive.

  18. Dean

    The point we are discussing is whether McIntyre’s paper should have been published and whether it was justified to seek to oust the journal editor for permitting its publication.

    As far as McIntyre’s principal criticisms were concerned, the NAS committee accepted them. Therefore it was justified to publish the paper and unjustified to seek removal of James Saiers as editor.

    I disagree with you about NAS’s overall findings, but that’s irrelevant to the point at issue.

    • I was referring to the issues around publishing the Soon and Baliunas paper, so it is a different case.

  19. It is not proper to try to get an editor fired when a paper is published – just because you may believe it contains error(s).

    In fact, it is only recently that some scientists have begun to believe that just because something is published in a peer reviewed journal that it is without error – by definition!

    Many many papers are published which are wrong. Other papers are then published pointing out the errors.

    I do not remember the scientists who published regarding the errors calling for the editor to be fired just because a paper was published with an error.

    It is the job of the scientists who read the journal (the peers) to evaluate the paper and see if they agree or disagree with it. If they find an error or flaw, or disagree with its conclusion, it is their job to write about it and submit it to the journal – to advance science.

    To assume that a paper which is published has no errors just because of an editor and five or six peer reviewers is foolish!

    I agree with Bishop Hill and totally disagree with Ben on this issue.

    It is wrong, on many levels, both scientific and ethical, to seek to get an editor fired because a paper is published which one believes to be “deeply flawed”.

    The flaws are supposed to be pointed out in a subsequent letter, comment or article.

    That is how science is supposed to work.

    • “It is not proper to try to get an editor fired when a paper is published – just because you may believe it contains error(s).”

      That’s probably true. But I suspect that there’s more to it than this.

      “In fact, it is only recently that some scientists have begun to believe that just because something is published in a peer reviewed journal that it is without error – by definition!”

      Do they really believe that?

      I suspect that there would also have been attempts to reveal the flaws in subsequent letters. The issue here is not over one paper, it’s over the editorship and whether that editorship was being maintained satisfactorily. Wigley was speculating that the editor had a particular (what he believed to be unjustified and unscientific) bias, just as many people around the blogosphere are speculating that Jones had (what they believe to be an unjustified and unscientific) bias.

      In fact, the parallels are uncanny. There is wide speculation among many, many parties that Jones was acting unscientifically, there have been calls for his head to roll, and cheering after his announcement that he will temporarily step down. That’s an ousting.

      Is it wrong to oust Jones through these channels? I think East Anglia did the right and prudent thing. While this plays out, he can’t be running the ship. He’s been ousted. In my assessment, that’s primarily for political reasons, but there may be legitimacy reasons behind it as well. At this point, however, the integrity question has yet to be demonstrated.

  20. […] I find the alleged implications of impropriety on Wigley’s part absolutely laughable, but others, like Bishop Hill, JimR and RickA disagree. […]

  21. You are all wrong.

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