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June 30th 2011 print

John McLean

The unpalatable truth

When professor Hoegh-Guldberg was reluctant to concede that peer review and publishing decisions were sometimes seriously flawed I posted further material on the web page to highlight the problems, and I used his own papers as examples.


It is often claimed that a relative scarcity of published peer reviewed scientific papers by sceptics of significant man-made warming undermines the sceptics’ arguments and conversely adds credibility to those who claim that mankind has a large influence on temperature.


On June 16, 2011, The Conversation website published an article, provocatively titled “Who’s your expert: The difference between peer review and rhetoric”, written by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. 

Launched in March 2011, The Conversation, which is financed by ANU, Monash, Melbourne, UTS, UWA, plus CSIRO, claims that it

is an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector – written by acknowledged experts.

It also claims in its charter that it will

Unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

And also,

[g]ive experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.

The author of the article, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg is widely known as an author of several peer reviewed papers that predict the corals of the Great Barrier Reef will be severely degraded by man-made warming over the next 20 to 40 years. 

Now according to The Conversation we should expect Hoegh-Guldberg’s text to show knowledge and expertise, be trustworthy and support the use of evidence. That might be a fair assumption given the number of papers that he has written but unfortunately this was not the case. 

Hoegh-Guldberg used an argument about numbers of peer reviewed papers, in an attempt to denigrate criticism of a report, The Critical Decade prepared by Australia’s Climate Commission, which was published on Quadrant Online.

The extracts he quoted from that criticism bordered on the microscopic and gave no sense of context. He went on to claim that because The Critical Decade critics had failed to publish the basis for their claims in any peer-reviewed journals their criticisms could be dismissed. 

In fact, the four authors claimed that The Critical Decade report was very largely recycled old material, especially from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, and concluded that only the discussion of potential damage to the Great Barrier Reef, the area of Hoegh-Guldberg’s expertise, was new. 

Hoegh-Guldberg also made reference to a paper that Professor Chris de Freitas and I co-wrote with Professor Bob Carter. After mentioning it briefly he said, “This paper, however, was found to be seriously flawed by an internationally recognised group of Earth scientists.” 

I responded at length to this statement, pointing out that the “comment” (i.e. written criticism) about our paper failed to address either its Discussion or Conclusions, which are the key part of any paper, contained blatant mistakes (e.g. claimed our paper stated things that it did not) and had internal inconsistencies (e.g. crucial but subtle change of words between abstract and paper). 

All of these problems should have been identified during period review, which would have seen it rejected pending major revision or withdrawal. 

I further noted that the comment’s publication was in breach of the journal’s publishing regulations because for several months it had already been available on the Internet, with all the appearance of already having been published. Journal regulations clearly state that any submitted work must not have been already published in a formatted manner. 

I also pointed out that the Climategate emails showed the comment’s authors discussing possible people they might nominate as possible reviewers and concentrating on selecting those who might be biased, which is in contrast to the journal’s invitation to nominate potential reviewers who they believe may be impartial. I even mentioned that when this was brought to the attention of the journal editor he said that he was ignoring anything in the Climategate emails. 

Finally I said that we had submitted a response, as we were invited to do, but the peer-review of our response included comments on our original paper when the journal’s regulations state that a review of a response is only to ensure that questions in the comment have been addressed. 

I made it quite clear to Hoegh-Guldberg that the review of the comment and the decision to publish it were seriously flawed, and the rejection of our response after a distorted peer review process was a travesty. 

I closed my comment saying,

it’s disappointing that this article [by Hoegh-Guldberg] sets great store by peer review but doesn’t give a damn about whether peer review is accurate and ethical. 

Hoegh-Guldberg’s response was 

Hi John (McLean). The peer-reviewed system is a tough one. I estimate that only one in every four manuscripts that I submit them to get published. But it is a good system for vetting science as you know from the comments you received in response to your article. Do you have a perspective on why your response was not published (apart from evoking conspiracy theory)? If so, let’s hear them. 

He completely avoided the matter that I raised, about the quality of peer review and adherence to journal regulations and procedures, so I responded: 

Ove, aren’t you going to tell us whether you do actually give a damn about whether peer review, and editor’s decisions associated with it, are accurate and in accordance with the journal’s documented regulations? 

He again failed to answer the question, saying 

All I can say John is that the journal has an excellent reputation as does the research team that found your publication flawed. End of story 

My response to that was, I admit, rather testy (and please excuse the language of frustration): 

I don’t give a stuff about any reputation of the journal, and you will notice that I did not ask you any question about the journal’s reputation. 

I asked whether you do actually give a damn about whether peer review, and editor’s decisions associated with it, are accurate and in accordance with the journal’s documented regulations. 

Why won’t you answer? 

At the time of writing he has not responded. 

I think one may reasonably ask why it is that someone who writes an article that attempts to hold peer review up as a gold standard is unwilling to admit that peer review is sometimes seriously flawed and that journals sometimes ignore their own documented procedures and regulations. 

I suspect that the reason is because if he responds as any rational person with integrity would respond, to admit that the entire process is sometimes flawed, would seriously undermine his position. 

Exposing the fallibility of peer review would diminish its credibility and by extension the credibility of peer reviewed papers that support the warmists’ cause. It would also devalue the published papers numbers game that warmists like to play. 

When Hoegh-Guldberg was reluctant to concede that peer review and publishing decisions were sometimes seriously flawed I posted further material on the web page to highlight the problems, and I used his own papers as examples. 

Hoegh-Guldberg is the author of several peer-reviewed papers about climate change and the threats that he perceives it to pose to the Great Barrier Reef, so I posted a comment saying: 

Let me illustrate my concern about the peer review system … 

You have authored papers that claim that the atmosphere is warming the oceans and is killing coral, right? 

Please either

(a) describe exactly how the atmosphere can warm the ocean (i.e the physical processes)

or

(b) account for the errors in peer review when you made such a claim. 

Why do I ask? Following a discussion with a professor of physics I wrote the article "Alarmists ignore physics". [My argument was that heat rises and when heat is transferred from air to water, the cooler air will remain in contact with the water and the warm water will remain at the surface, thus blocking further heat transfer.] 

I am puzzled. How can peer reviewers okay your papers that suggest that the atmosphere is warming the oceans when physics says that this is impossible? 

If you cannot demonstrate the physics that supports your contention then I would have to say that the credibility of peer review is highly suspect. 

Over to you. 

A response came, not from Hoegh-Guldberg but from Dr. Chris McGrath, who like Hoegh-Guldberg is from the University of Queensland:

John, your Quandrant [sic] online article was a good example of how publishing rubbish can damage the reputation of a journal. Thanks, I now know that I never need to look at it again. 

The only bit that was interesting was your initial quote from Vaclav Klaus about “Today’s debate about global warming is essentially a debate about freedom”. It puts you firmly in the camp of being ideologically opposed to climate science simply because you don’t like the solution (government regulation). A common thread of people who remain opposed to climate science despite all of the evidence as Naomi Oreskes discussed in “Merchants of Doubt”. 

Firstly the second paragraph of McGrath’s statement shows his ignorance because the quote from Klaus that McGrath cites was not mine but a theme of a growing collection of Quadrant Online articles. The attempted smear and accusation of being ideologically opposed, by a professor no less, is completely misdirected. 

Most important though is his first paragraph, a sweeping statement without any supporting evidence or material. 

I replied to him saying: 

So where’s Ove’s explanation of the physics by which the atmosphere supposedly warms the ocean – or for that matter yours? 

And why have you posted this non-response in place of Ove? 

I’m rapidly growing tired of Ove’s evasions. 

And finally Hoegh-Guldberg made an appearance, saying 

No evasions John. Just facts. You didn’t pass peer-review. Think about it. and do better next time. So simple. 

So, I ask him to describe the physics involved in a process and he, a professor, responds by telling me that I didn’t pass peer-review. 

This is simply evasion. 

Maybe I’m wrong about the physics, but Hoegh-Guldberg certainly failed to leap in and correct me, and likewise McGrath who merely made a sweeping assertion. 

McGrath’s area of expertise is not clear but Hoegh-Guldberg is a coral biologist, so perhaps his limited knowledge of climate science should be no great surprise. 

But what are we to make of his scientific papers that predict dire consequences for the Great Barrier Reef if the atmosphere warms due to mankind’s emissions of carbon dioxide? 

Perhaps his reviewers knew more about physics than he appears to, or perhaps they knew even less then he does and, on the assumption that he knew what he was talking about, they simply approved his submitted draft. 

Neither option bodes well for the credibility of peer review. 

Hoegh-Guldberg’s refusal to concede that the peer review process can be flawed does him no credit. 

Not only does he hold his position when evidence contradicts it but one could surmise that he does so because of the damage that such a concession would bring. 

At a personal level his reputation would be undermined if he agreed that the warming of the ocean by the atmosphere is not possible according to physics. He has made this assertion on several occasions and gained a reputation on the back of such claims, so all that would evaporate. 

Admitting that he cannot explain the physics would cast doubt on the competence of reviewers, as would any concession that the journal that published my paper suffered from failures of peer review and the ignoring of its own procedures and regulations. 

If the reputation of peer review is tarnished then the weight of Hoegh-Guldberg’s argument regarding publication numbers is significantly diminished and the credibility of the “numbers game” argument weakened, not that it ever was strong given that the funding and publishing opportunities for sceptics are far, far inferior than those for believers. 

The wider consequences of this matter are also significant. 

From the perspective of The Conversation Hoegh-Guldbergs’ article and his defence of it can hardly be described as unlocking “the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics”, and it reflects very badly on a university and CSIRO funded web site which asserts it is a “trusted platform”. 

The claim of a warmer atmosphere, driven by human induced climate change, posing a grave threat to the Great Barrier Reef was said, by the critics he was supposedly replying to, to be the only original material in The Critical Decade report. Hoegh-Guldberg’s failure to describe the physical process by which the atmosphere warms the oceans makes one doubt if there is any substance whatsoever to this claim. If that is shown to be false it weakens the whole case presented by the Climate Commission. 

Above these matters is the fact that the IPCC’s own reports rely heavily, although apparently not exclusively, on peer reviewed scientific papers. If peer review is not the squeaky-clean gold standard that we have been told it is, then it seems taking a sceptical view of all IPCC claims would be a very sensible approach.