Pearced to the heart: Fred gets it wrong

By Bryan Walker 18/02/2010

I have been a reader of the Guardian newspaper for 55 years and was more than a little astonished when they ran a series of articles by prominent environmental journalist Fred Pearce on the stolen University of East Anglia emails. For that matter I was surprised that Fred Pearce wrote them. He is no climate change denialist, and makes it perfectly clear that the emails in no way alter the case that humans are warming the planet. But he seems to have taken them at the face value the hackers presumably hoped for, and drawn some unjustified and unfair conclusions. The Guardian obviously thought he was on to something significant. A ’major investigation’ they proclaimed, getting at the ’real story’. Revelations and exposures abound.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the revelations. It’s an article claiming that the emails reveal ’strenuous efforts by the mainstream climate scientists to do what outside observers would regard as censoring their critics’.  It was the one chosen for inclusion in the latest Guardian Weekly. As a reader of that paper I’d been quietly hoping we’d be spared the sight of any of the articles, but there it was, on the science page, with the lurid headline ’Research red in tooth and claw.’  

Pearce claims that there have been obvious cracks in the peer-review system for years, mentioning an open letter from 14 stem cell researchers to journal editors to highlight their dissatisfaction with the process, alleging a small scientific clique is using peer review to block papers from other researchers.

From there he jumps to the emails, where he claims ’many will see a similar pattern.’  Phil Jones, as a top expert in his field, was regularly asked to review papers ’and he sometimes wrote critical reviews that may have had the effect of blackballing papers criticising his work.’

Pearce quotes from a 2004 email in which Jones mentions that he had recently rejected two papers from people saying CRU (his climate research unit) has it wrong over Siberia.  ’If either appears I will be very surprised.’   Pearce acknowledges that Jones doesn’t say why he rejected the papers (might it have been that they were poor science?).  Pearce also doesn’t know what the papers were, but announces that the Guardian has established that one of them was probably from Lars Kamel, a Swedish astrophysicist who analysed temperature records from parts of southern Siberia and claimed to find much less warming than Jones. 

Pearce admits that Kamel’s paper could be criticised as being slight and lacking in detail about its methods of analysis.  However, he surmises, Jones would have known that Kamel called mainstream climate research ’pseudo-science’ and that publication of the article in a serious journal would have attracted the attention of professional climate sceptics. (Presumably suggesting that this would prejudice Jones in his estimation of the paper?) In spite of the paper’s inadequacy Pearce says that because it was a rare example of someone trying to replicate Jones’ analysis ’some would have recommended its publication.’

So is Pearce suggesting that if a scientist of Jones’ stature considers papers to be lacking scientific rigour he shouldn’t say so, lest he might be instrumental in persuading an editor not to publish them?  Or is he suggesting that Jones deliberately sets out to prevent publication of anything which questions his own position?  He hardly makes himself clear, but succeeds, on the basis of much conjecture, in casting a slur on Jones’ integrity.

He later makes a good deal of Jones’ ’harsh criticism’ of the journal Climate Research for publishing papers he ’disagreed with’.  It seems to me that Jones and others had every reason for their criticism. Chris de Freitas, the editor responsible for publishing the Soon and Baliunas paper, is our well known crusading climate change denier. He constantly seeks and gains publicity for standard denialist claims (one might not unreasonably say lies) that increases in carbon dioxide don’t dangerously change the climate, that there is no acceleration in sea level rise, that climate scientists exaggerate for the sake of money, and so on. If he accepted the paper against the advice of four reviewers there is every reason to suspect the quality of the journal’s editorship.  But no, Pearce manages to imply that Jones and Mann did something improper and damaging to the publication of scientific papers.

It’s one thing for Pearce to discuss the general question of the mechanics of peer review, but quite another to use Jones as an example of the abuse of the system. That’s a rush to judgment which I find hard to believe the Guardian allowed.

I was pleased to discover that the Guardian at least invited climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of NASA to comment on Pearce’s article.  If you click on the highlighted yellow sections of the article (linked to above) you can see his annotations.  He roundly rejects much of what Pearce has to say. I’m no scientist, but it seemed apparent to me as a general reader that Pearce was pushing the email material way beyond anything it justified.  It was good to have that view confirmed by a working scientist.   

I’m left wondering why this sort of ’investigation’ was ever supported by the Guardian.  It pre-empts the independent review the University has arranged.  It treats stolen and possibly selected emails as evidence, though to do so it has to make all sorts of assumptions about what the authors might have meant. It is manifestly unjust to the scientists concerned and trivialises their work.

Note:  Jones has recently been interviewed by Nature and although there are aspects of the Climategate allegations that he is not able to comment on he defends himself against some of the accusations made against his work.