An editor’s public resignation over his journal’s acceptance of a controversial report illustrates both the shortcomings of peer review and the over-hyping of a study by some in the media. The first in a series of regular postings.

In case you’re just returning from a three-day Labor Day-induced off-the-grid monastic retreat, let’s get caught up: There was a big climate change story that churned all through the long holiday weekend in the U.S.


The news broke on Friday, when the editor-in-chief of a fairly new and little known journal resigned, as reported in the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, “in response to an academic controversy triggered by his publication of a paper co-authored by a leading climate skeptic.”

The editor, Wolfgang Wagner, explained his unusual decision in this editorial, which of course kicked the hyperactive climate blogosphere into overdrive. But let’s first briefly review how this story came to be.

In July, Wagner’s journal, Remote Sensing, published this paper co-authored by Roy Spencer and William Braswell that got spun into a doozey of a headline at Forbes:

“New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole in Global Warming Alarmism”

That landed like a flare at the blog site of Matt Drudge, who sent the story aloft as only he can, where it caught Fox News tailwinds.

Never mind that, as science writer Michael Lemonick noted at the time, “the Forbes headline is way more sensational than anything Dr. Roy Spencer actually says in his new paper.” And what the Spencer/Braswell report did contain had “very basic shortcomings,” according to several authors at Real Climate. They wrote that it was “evident” the paper “did not get an adequate peer review” and “should not have been published.”

In his apologetic resignation note, Wagner agreed with this assessment but also pointedly blamed the “public media” for exaggerating the “minority view” advanced by the Spencer/Braswell paper.

Now there’s a lot of Sturm and Drang in the climate blogosphere over the appropriateness of Wagner’s action. See here, here and here for excerpts of the varied reaction.

Roy Spencer, for his part, says he rejects the main criticism of his paper (that it is full of errors that peer reviewers missed and thus should not have been published), and he asserts at his blog “that it is still one damn fine and convincing paper.”

Another intriguing angle of this story is the anticipated publication this week of Texas A&M University’s Andrew Dessler’s paper, which is considered to be a formal, scientific rebuttal to the Spencer/Braswell paper.

Taken together, all this was fairly combustible stuff in its own right, fueling instant recriminations, cheers, and conspiracy theories across the bloggy climate spectrum. Then this essay appeared, confirming the view among many that some climate scientists just don’t know when to leave well enough alone. After all, here they had a heroic character (Wagner of Remote Sensing) falling on his sword and in the process single-handedly rewriting the original media narrative of the Spencer paper. That was the story going into the weekend and it had serious, legitimate legs.

It would have been wise of certain climate scientists to let that storyline play out.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.