Put it there pal: the real story of Chris de Freitas and Climate Research

By Gareth Renowden 30/11/2011

The release of another batch of emails from the stash stolen a couple of years ago from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia may not have gained much attention in global media, but there has been a great deal of huffing and puffing at sceptic blogs such as µWatts and Climate Audit. Watts trumpets this news, for example:

BOMBSHELL An absolutely disgusting string of communications that shows the tribal attempt at getting an editor of a journal fired on made up issues — all because he allowed a publication that didn’t agree with ’the Team’. This is ugly, disturbing, and wrong on every level.

Introducing a post copied from a New Zealand sceptic blog, given the headline The tribalistic corruption of peer review — the Chris de Freitas incident — Watts adds:

This is outright malicious interference with the scientific process, and it’s damned ugly. I can’t imagine anyone involved in professional science who could stand idly by and not condemn this.

Unfortunately for Watts and the anonymous (and low profile) NZ blogger who wrote the article, a new analysis by John Mashey of 700+ papers published at Climate Research reveals that the tribalism on display came from a cabal of sceptical scientists, with Auckland University academic Chris de Freitas safely shepherding their papers — however poor the science they contained — through peer pal review.

Mashey’s report, published a few hours ago at DeSmogBlog, reveals that:

  • From 1990 to 1996, Climate Research published no papers by any of the following sceptic “pals”:

    Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling, John Christy, Robert Davis, David Douglass, Vincent Gray, Sherwood Idso, PJ Knappenberger, Ross McKitrick, Pat Michaels, Eric Posmentier, Arthur Robinson, Willie Soon, and Gerd-Rainer Weber1.

  • de Freitas became an editor at CR in 1997 and then accepted 14 papers in the period up to 2003 from authors with whom he had close ties.
  • Papers from the “pals” accounted for half of his editorial workload.
  • de Freitas acted as editor on seven papers by Patrick Michaels, half of Michaels’ publication record over the period. Mashey describes Michaels as “king of the pals”.
  • After de Freitas resigned his editorial role in 2003, publications from the pals stopped appearing in Climate Research.

The cosy relationship between the pals and their tame editor finally came to an end with the publication of a paper by Soon and Baliunias, Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years2 (pdf), which purported to find that 20th century temperatures were not unusually high. The paper was published in 2003 and immediately hyped by opponents of action on climate change3. It attracted a rapid and robust rebuttal4. Stephan Lewandowsky at The Conversation gives an excellent account of the fall-out in Climate change denial and the abuse of peer review:

…three editors of Climate Research resigned in protest over its publication, including the incoming editor-in-chief who charged that ’…some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common.’

This highly unusual mass resignation was followed by an even more unusual public statement from the publisher that acknowledged flaws in the journal’s editorial process.

Three editorial resignations and a publisher’s acknowledgement of editorial flaws are not standard scientific practice and call for further examination of the authors and the accepting editor.

So who was guilty of “malicious interference with the scientific process”, as Watts so nicely puts it? The climate scientists complaining amongst themselves that yet another crap paper had been shepherded through peer review by a complaisant editor, or that editor himself — a man with a six year record of allowing papers of dubious quality written by his sceptic tribe to appear in a reputable journal? The real scandal was the abuse of peer review by the pals to further their political objectives.

There’s an obvious lesson, and it’s one I pointed out at the time of the original email release. When reading edited highlights of someone else’s emails, context is king5. If you ignore history, and take a carefully selected bunch of emails as your only source, you will end up in blind alleys. As the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. To achieve prominence in the climate sceptic echo chamber one eye seems to be all you need.

[Richard Thompson, or Bob & Bing?]

  1. Mashey demonstrates that all these pals — many of them high profile “sceptics” — have worked for or with right wing think tanks in the US and elsewhere, notably the George Marshall Institute and the Heartland Institute. See table on p5.
  2. Climate Research, Vol. 23: 89—110, 2003
  3. It was read into the US Congressional record, for example.
  4. On Past Temperatures and Anomalous Late-20th Century Warmth, Mann et al, Eos, Vol. 84, No. 27, 8 July 2003
  5. As Canadian blogger Deep Climate nicely demonstrates in this excellent take down of email abuse by Ross McKitrick, one of CdF’s pals.