Doomed Planet

How we were censored

Climate science censorship in action at the American Geophysical Union

On Friday last week, ABC’s PM programme carried a report about criticisms that have been made of a peer-reviewed paper published last July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, by John McLean, Chris de Freitas and Bob Carter (hereafter MFC).

The original paper compared the global atmospheric temperature since 1958 with variations in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climatic framework. This analysis supported earlier research that demonstrates a close link between these factors. It also indicated that ENSO variation accounts for a very large portion of the variability in global temperature, thus leaving little room for a substantial human influence on temperature.

ABC’s Sarah Clarke reported the story as “Another round in climate science wars”, and provided a balanced account of what she saw as the two science sides of the story. Unfortunately, in so doing she largely missed another significant aspect of the affair – the attempt by a number of scientists – who are known to be both alarmist and influential in advising on climate science policy – to stifle the results of a research paper that disagrees with their belief.

Those attempting this censorship include some with strong links to the IPCC, for example Phil Jones of the CRU and Michael Mann of hockey-stick notoriety, and remember that it is on the IPCC’s advice that the Rudd government relies in setting Australia’s national global warming policy. As the British press highlighted during January and February this year, it is a story of no small substance when corrupt, inaccurate or deliberately misleading advice emanates from the official United Nations advisory body on climate science or from scientists who are associated with it. Remember, too, that according to CEO Megan Clark no fewer than 40 CSIRO scientists have associations with the IPCC.

Few stories in science come bigger than deliberate censorship, and especially so when it concerns material that is relevant to the dangerous global warming debate. We present below, therefore, a brief outline of the events as they happened.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the largest grouping of professional earth scientists in the world, its specialist divisions covering not only geophysics but also geochemistry and more general geology. AGU publishes a number of prestigious publications, which include Geophysical Research Letters and the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR), two journals that are much favoured by the climate research community.

Given the public interest in climate change issues it was not surprising that the 2009 MFC paper in JGR drew considerable attention. Apparently concerned about this publicity, a group of scientists identified with alarmist global warming messaging, led by Grant Foster, set about writing a critique, which they submitted to JGR in early August (hereafter, FEA for Foster et al.). Three months later, after refereeing and receipt of a duly modified version of the FEA critique, the JGR editor advised MFC that it had been accepted for publication. As is normal practice, at the same time the editor forwarded a copy of the critique to MFC, and invited them to respond. In turn, the MFC authors’ response was peer reviewed, after which, in mid-March, the editor informed MFC that he was rejecting the response and that it would not be published.

Censorship of the right of reply by the original authors of a scientific paper to criticism is extremely rare, and requires extraordinary circumstances to justify or explain it. In this case, the explanation seems to be improper actions taken, or not taken, by both the FEA authors and the editor of the JGR.

Probably because of their alarm at the impact that the MFC paper was having on public opinion, at about the same time that they submitted their critique to the JGR editor, FEA also took the remarkable step of posting it on the web, formatted in JGR publication style – this posting in effect masquerading as an AGU publication.

Doubly unfortunately for the FEA group, some months after the submission and posting of their critique the Climategate emails were released into the public domain. Amongst these emails were several that contain behind-the-scenes interchanges between the FEA authors, and between them and the JGR editor. Thus has been revealed in full glory the techniques by which the FEA authors strive to undermine or negate papers that throw doubt on their cherished hypothesis that dangerous global warming is driven by human carbon dioxide emissions.

The techniques used by FEA and the AGU editor in pursuing their cause on this occasion have included:

  • Pre-publication of a scientific critique in a deliberately duplicitous fashion, formatted to make it appear that it has already been refereed and published in JGR;
  • Improper discussion of the paper after its submission between one of the authors and the President of the AGU, with an implied aim of influence;
  • Nomination of peer reviewers for the critique who are close professional colleagues of the authors, and who, in contravention of JGR requests for nomination of unbiased referees, were nominated because they were expected to be supportive of the critique;
  • A request to AGU (which was granted) that the editor who handled the original MFC paper be replaced by another more senior editor;
  • The new editor failing to reject the FEA critique outright on grounds of its undeniable prior publication in AGU;
  • The reviewers and editor all failing to discern that the critique doesn’t address the substantive matter of whether the conclusions of the MFC paper were supported by scientific evidence, but instead concentrates on criticizing a statistical procedure that is irrelevant to the conclusions; and finally
  • The new editor failing to provide a fair right of reply to MFC in the face of weak, and partly quite incorrect, criticism of their paper. 

As a consequence of all this, and perhaps of other actions that have not been exposed, the authors of an independently peer-reviewed paper published in a mainstream scientific journal, and which has important implications for public climate policy, have been denied the opportunity to defend their paper against weak and specious criticism. 

The exercise of bias and censorship in science is always a serious matter. It is doubly so when it has regard to a controversial scientific issue. And it is trebly so when that controversial issue is a public and political matter of the magnitude of the global warming controversy. 

Irrespective of the scientific merit of the criticisms offered by FEA, there is no possible excuse for their use of the tactics of partiality, and the flouting of a journal’s rules of conduct in pursuit of their particular scientific viewpoint. Science has no place for dishonest practitioners, irrespective of their qualifications or experience.

Memo to the ABC. Sometimes, attaining balance in a story is less important than making sure that you perceive the right story in the first place; also, there is no “other” side to a story that involves the clear abuse of scientific ethics.

The original paper by John McLean, Chris de Freitas and Bob Carter in Geophysical Research Letters can be accessed here…

A complete account of the history of the American Geophysical Union’s handling of the papers and documents referred to in the article, together with the full text of the McLean, de Freitas and Carter response to the Foster et al. critique, is contained in a paper accessible here…

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