Skeptics Prefer Pal Review Over Peer Review: Chris de Freitas, Pat Michaels And Their Pals, 1997-2003

Skeptics Prefer Pal Review Over Peer Review: Chris de Freitas, Pat Michaels And Their Pals, 1997-2003
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Imagine for a moment that climate change skeptics actually submitted their anti-science arguments for publication in a credible peer-reviewed journal. Now imagine that, after thorough examination and debunking by their peers, these skeptics finally admitted their many false claims and assumptions, and perhaps some or all moved on to contribute meaningfully to the vast body of science confirming manmade climate change?

Ok, back to reality.

Instead, the skeptics’ greatest and most-often cited (by them) “peer-reviewed studies” appeared in the journal Climate Research between 1997-2003. This journal has been considered credible at certain points in its history, and many fine papers have appeared there.

But according to my new analysis [PDF] of the papers published in Climate Research, there is a very clear gap in credibility during the years 1997-2003 when Chris de Freitas served as one of the journal’s editors. During this time, de Freitas oversaw the publication of 14 papers from notorious skeptics – half of them authored by fossil fuel industry pal Pat Michaels – many of which would not have survived rigorous and honest peer review at any other credible journal. 

A few months ago, another journal’s editor resigned over a paper that should not have been accepted due to a poor peer review process. It reminded many of us of the more drastic case of Climate Research (CR), where several editors resigned in 2003 in the wake of a colossally poor paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, accepted for publication by none other than Chris de Freitas.

It was certainly not the first de Freitas-endorsed paper to pass weak editorial processes at Climate Research, but when incoming Editor-in-Chief Hans von Storch suggested the paper should not have been published, he endeavored to fix editorial processes to prevent such problems.  The publisher did not agree, so von Storch and other editors resigned.

At the time, climate scientists were rightly concerned that CR had become a magnet for poor science. When the hacked CRU emails appeared in 2009, climate skeptics tried to invert reality, claiming that several widely-published climate scientists had conspired to subvert peer review. 

The skeptic echo chamber lauded Chris de Freitas as a noble martyr, a cry that has grown louder this month in the aftermath of the so-called “Climategate 2.0” illegal release of more of the CRU scientists’ emails.

This isn’t a novel experience when it comes to skeptic “science” efforts. Recall The Wegman Report for example, which attempted to criticize legitimate climate science for “bad” peer review, although it had no such peer critique itself.  A follow-on article, which also had bypassed peer review, ultimately earned a retraction for plagiarism.  

If there seems to be a pattern here, there is. Reality bites back, and it appears set to do so again now.

Last June, Pat Michaels wrote “Pal Review and Peer Review…” This inspired me to revisit the Climate Research episode in a more detailed fashion, and I began checking 700+ papers published there.

As it turns out, the problem was more pervasive than climate scientists had suspected at the time.

My analysis of the Climate Research papers shows that:

  • From 1990 to 1996, CR published zero papers from any of the pals:
    Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling, John Christy, Robert Davis, (Chris de Freitas), David Douglass, Vincent Gray, Sherwood Idso, PJ Knappenberger, Ross McKitrick, Pat Michaels, Eric Posmentier, Arthur Robinson, Willie Soon, and Gerd-Rainer Weber. DeSmogBlog readers may recognize these names, since most appear in the DeSmogBlog Research Database. They have long histories of cooperation in climate anti-science.
  • Chris de Freitas became an editor and then accepted 14 papers from the pals between 1997-2003. With de Freitas as an editor, Climate Research provided a platform which the pals would quickly embrace to sneak through anti-science papers.
  • After the mass resignation of CR editors in 2003, no more pals’ papers were accepted via de Freitas. After a few more papers via others, the pals published no more in CR.
  • But clearly the Climate Research + Chris de Freitas combination presented a skeptic-friendly opportunity to publish questionable papers, while it lasted.

Not all papers were bad, but some others were dubious.  Even reasonable-looking pals papers often included messages that might not be justified by the text, but that might make nice quotes for doubt-production.

Michaels authored 7 of the 14 papers, about half of his total “peer-reviewed” production during that period.  Perhaps Michaels might fairly be called “King of the Pals.”

The attached PDF analysis shows the chronologies and social networks of the pals, followed by summaries of the papers in the context of Michaels’ and de Freitas’ publications.  The Excel spreadsheet lists the papers and their attributes.

The scientists were defending peer review from abuse, as was their responsibility to science. de Freitas a martyr for good science?  I don’t think so.

Image credit: John T Takai / Shutterstock.

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