The three puzzles do have a connection. The first was my morning’s five minutes of news on the ABC, which referred to the arrival in Hobart of a ‘Russian’ ship that had been caught in Antarctic ice, and how the passengers were going through quarantine and customs. Not a word about its having been billed as the ‘Australasian Antarctic Expedition’, retracing Mawson’s trip a century earlier and seeing how climate change had altered the measurements that Mawson had then made. Not a word about how four ice-breakers had been called to help, two of which had been caught in the ice themselves for a few days.

OK, a news broadcast can’t put in everything, but I did think this one was unnecessarily vague. And who, I keep wondering, is going to foot the bill for all the transport and catering done for the passengers, first to Casey base, and then to Hobart? My wife thinks the passengers should look at the fine print on the passenger tickets. My guess is that the good old Australian taxpayer will finally have to cough up. Apparently the University of New South Wales had backed or guaranteed the expedition, so that UNSW will probably be the first port of call for those wanting costs.

It was an odd coincidence that on the same morning I learned that Professor Chris Turney, the leader of the ‘AAE’, had been honoured with an award by the Australian Academy of Science. And in the evening he was asked some direct questions by Leigh Sales on the 7.30  Report, and managed not to answer any of them.

A day or so earlier I learned that the Guardian newspaper had ‘revealed’ that anonymous billionaires had been funnelling $120 million into denialists, and wondered why none of this money had come my way, since I have been called a ‘denialist’ for years. Since the source for this claim seemed to be Greenpeace I shrugged sadly. Greenpeace itself seems to be rather well funded, and probably feels that it is unfair that it should have any rivals, since its purpose is to save the planet, and whales.

I shouldn’t leave this little puzzle without giving readers who might not have read the Guardian piece the flavour of its cutting-edge investigative journalism: ‘a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to [a] highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives’. No wonder I don’t get any of this anonymous money — I’m just not part of this vast network, and I don’t know anyone who is.

The final puzzle is about ‘peer review’. A commenter on this website pointed out to me that a journal I had mentioned had a low impact factor. For those who don’t know, the impact factor of a journal refers to the number of times papers published in it have been referred to in other papers. It is a proxy for the relative importance of journals in precise fields, and can’t be used sensibly to compare journals in different fields. In fact, it is an accounting device used by governments to try and make sense of the relative importance of universities and researchers in the handing out of research funds.

Having spent a decent part of my working life on editorial boards, operating peer review systems and acting as a consultant about them, impact factors seem to me be virtually meaningless, since they are subject to so many influences. Wikipedia has a good essay on them, which should deter anyone from taking them seriously.

A great deal of respect is paid to peer review by defenders of the orthodoxy, usually by challenging critics to subject their own views to peer review, as though this is the bar you have to jump. It isn’t, of course, and another correspondent on the same subject provided a crisp summary, which I happily repeat here:

The aim of peer-review is merely a “sanity check” for publishers who might know very little about a subject and don’t want to publish papers that are nonsense.  The approval of the two or three reviewers does not mean that the entire scientific field will think the paper to be brilliant.  A good reviewer is completely agnostic and looks only at how the ideas are expressed, whether there are fundamental mistakes, and whether the claims accord with the data.  A good reviewer will also encourage the publication of well-argued radical thoughts because this exposes the scientific field to new ideas.

The same writer also argues that it doesn’t matter who it is that puts forward a hypothesis. The real test is whether or not it seems to make sense, and whether or not it accords with data, observations and evidence. I quite agree, and I would have thought this approach to be standard within higher education. Perhaps things have changed since I was last teaching (25 years ago), let alone since my final undergraduate year (55 years ago).

But if I have learned anything over that time, it is that we really learn when we discover that we were wrong. And we learn that we are wrong when our favourite theory collapses in the face of the evidence. It puzzles me that so many defenders of the orthodoxy, especially those who have some claim to be well educated, can persist in a view that is counter to the evidence that is available to us.

Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Walter Starck says:

    I think one will find that the $120 million to denialists was derived by adding up the total budgets of the organizations deemed to be sceptical about CAGW, even though only a small fraction of their budget might be devoted to climate change.

    • Mike O'Ceirin says:

      Walter please supply a reference to that if you have one please. I am reminded of the calculation for child deaths caused by the Chernobyl disaster. The level of confidence was manipulated to produce an estimate near 90000. But after all this time the WHO can only be certain of just over 50 deaths of adults or children with only a few being children!

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Climate has its rhythms. So do societies. We are now biologically geared to want to agree, because we’ve found that in cooperation does salvation lie. So we have agreement about all kinds of issues, many practical and simple such as rules of the road. it’s not so easy with complex or uncertain issues. But the pressure to agree, to conform, is very strong. Collective views emerge, typically with one eventually dominating for quite some time.

    And then the pendulum, having run its course in one direction, falls back towards the centre . . .but continues on to the opposite. It is a societal rhythm. Consider how attractive to people exhausted and traumatised by WW1, communism must have seemed. Where is it now?

    So back to the first two of Don’s puzzles. I think we are in the later moments of the rhythmic pendulum that emphatically swung away from the euphoria of the 1950’s following WW2 and the Korean War, with the 1960s revolution. Many of the decision-makers of the last twenty years in our public lives of academia, teaching, journalism (especially the ABC), and indeed our science bodies, were among the thinkers, movers and shakers of the 1960s. Their creed was to change things for the better. And many of their children have carried on that flag. Indeed, many things did change for the better. But not all.

    That’s why I think the present pause for thought about our Australian school curricula is essential. Mindless, narrow and thoroughly biased reporting from our national broadcaster is but one example of what we have come to, near the end of this pendulum swing.

    Let’s enjoy the swing back to the centre, but not forget that once more, the pendulum will carry us too far to the other side.

    • dlb says:

      Any chance of damping the pendulum to reduce the size of the swings? Or will the clock (progress) stop?

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        Hi there dlb

        My pendulum analogy suffers the weakness of all analogies, and so I use it only by way of illustration. I do think a dampening often occurs, simply through the learning each generation can gain. But it’s best perceived as a whole array of pendulums, so that a new generation may kick off another big swing with an entirely fresh pendulum. Perhaps some of the learning from one wild ride can be applied to dampen other hearty swings, but of course a lot of collective learning is lost as each generation moves on.

        Currently one of the books I’m reading is an account of the Canberra area in the 1850-1900 period in eastern Australia. I suspect that many of today’s decision makers and toilers in the Canberra bureaucracy, have little idea of the hardships of their forefathers in this area, the privations and droughts they endured, the human cost underpinning today’s comparative life of ease. That’s an example of the loss of collective learning, which if retained, may have dampened the swings of some of today’s wild rides.

        Your other interesting point is about progress. Yes, I think there is a valid implication there, that we need to take a ride in some new direction, in order to progress. But we need to wake up to ourselves more quickly than we do. And there I think the strings of my analogy are starting to fray . . .

        • John Morland says:

          Surely the “droughts they endured” were only slight or mild compared to today. It.s only now with all that colorless odorless pollutant CO2, absorbing all the IR at 15 microns (equating to -80 degrees C) producing intense “radiation forcing” upsetting our delicate climate (you know those ominous red rays on alarmists diagrams bouncing between the surface and the atmosphere) causing that awful “Hockey Stick”.
          The climate Cassandras assured us, before our evil ways took hold, the climate was consistent, gentle and predictable. The Minoan, Roman and Medieval warm periods well hidden in the graphs and only a cursory and dismissive reference of the LIA as a local; European phenomenon. It’s only now we are having “record breaking heatwaves” ignoring the fact that the present weather station was a little over 4 years old.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Just a random sample, John, that I know you will consciously appreciate:

            “In 1874 the prices of farm produce improved. The rainfall was moderate and 1875 promised well. However, rain did not fall during the months of April, May and June, so the crops were sown under difficulties. August and September were dry, but seasonable rains fell in October and the first week in November and the farmers’ hopes revived. The usual practice was to keep sufficient wheat on hand for the coming year, and if the crop promised well the surplus could be sold if the price was satisfactory. This was the case this year and the farmers with surplus stocks sold them. John Glynn, who was the largest wheatgrower in Canberra, ordered 600 wheat sacks. The weather changed about 10 November and hot winds and scorching temperatures continued without rain; the result was that the crop was short. Glynn had seven men reaping for him – no machines then – at 13s. an acre, and I assisted with the threshing. The grain was good and at the conclusion of the threshing he had 300 sacks on hand – this was the rule everywhere. The price was 5s. 6d. a bushel. Hay was a good price, but few farmers had any to sell.” (An Autobiography or Tales and legends of Canberra pioneers” Samuel Schumack ANU Press 1967, p103.)

            This is typical of many such accounts he provides.

            The recent pronouncements about heat records being broken in 2013, about all that carbon dioxide we have released over the last 150 years (all that 3% of total annual emissions), about extreme weather, seem to me the last gasps of a dying swan.

            I can readily think of those scorching temperatures with no rain in 1974 – and their well-being and indeed their lives were depending on their produce. So as I think of that Ship of Fools, of the dreamers who want to live “sustainably” without any real idea of what sustainability might mean across the scope of history, without any understanding of the backs on whom today we stand – they are children yet. And they decry now that impending return fall of the pendulum.

  • Lysander says:

    Billions are spent on CAGW by big oil. Big oil stands to make the most from CAGW as it will squeeze out the smaller players and lead to a greater chance of a monopoly or duopoloy at the least. They can handle the taxes and even greater regulations and frameworks whereas the smaller guys will crumble under these burdens.

  • David says:

    Don I think the person you are referring to is me 🙂

    “impact factors seem to me be virtually meaningless,” Really?

    This paper you mention was published in 2009 and has been only
    cited twice! If you really think impact factors are virtually meaningless I challenge you to compile a reading list of say 20 journal articles for a hypothetical undergraduate course in education (your area of academic expertise).

    However, the only stipulation is that none of the papers you can list is allowed to have more than two citations. And then compare it to the quality of an unrestricted reading list.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      David, first, education is not my area of expertise (it is Peter Donnan’s) and, second, I didn’t assemble reading lists in the past using ‘impact factors’, and wouldn’t do so now. I would make my own decision about what to put on such a list, given the purpose of the unit, what was available, and my own sense of fitness. Anyone competent to design and deliver a unit in any discipline should know already what is important. If he or she is a novice, then there are more knowledgeable people about whom one can consult. And you learn about new material as you go, usually without any help from impact factors.

      As I said, they are used in the business of allocating research funds.

      • Peter Donnan says:

        Yes, Don, my background has been in education – 17 years teaching in high schools and 24 years working with academic staff in matters of learning and teaching in two Australian universities.The key point, I believe, in readings lists is certainly the teachers’ own sense of fitness. In teaching this means always keeping up to date with the best journal articles and the best conference ideas though many do not have the time to read outside their discipline. The acid test, though, is whether these ideas work in practice in the classroom and add to the quality of learning.

        At the moment, I am looking after two of my grandchildren – aged 5 and 8. They both have iPads and I believe, though with no scientific evidence or peer review support, that genetic mutation is occurring because their thumbs and fingers have more webbing and they move more adroitly. The world of education which young people go into today is vastly different from earlier generations but the eternal verities remain – developing a love of learning, becoming hooked on books (or ebooks), music, the arts, and seeing through a lot of the bullshit that children are exposed to. And above all, is being able to stand up to their peer-group in teenage and later years, whatever form that takes.

        • dlb says:

          “The acid test, though, is whether these ideas work in practice”
          If this principle is applied to to climate science one will find the real world evidence is not matching many of the past journal articles, particularly those relating to predictions from GCMs. That is one of the reasons why I am a sceptic.

          And for educated adults one could add the ability to see through a lot of the bullshit we are exposed to by the MSM, and that includes our supposedly trusted national broadcaster.

    • DaveW says:

      David – you seem to be confounding journal impact factor with the number of times a paper has been cited (in ISI’s limited coverage), but in either case, they are only an indication of apparent popularity, not of merit. When I generate reading lists, they are based on papers that I think are useful, not on those that I think are popular. I would never even consider impact factor in my choice. That would be a bizarre and intellectually bankrupt thing to do.

      My understanding is that the IF was developed to help cash-straped librarians choose which journals to subscribe to so as to maximize their readerships. Now it has been seized on by administrators as a measure of the ‘importance’ of a publication. Impact Factor (based on a 2-year period) may be an indication of which fields are attracting the most money (and hence, publications), but it says nothing about the quality or ultimate importance of the journal or paper. Even in Nature, most papers sink without a trace, unless they show up on Retraction Watch.

      Of course, general science mags like Nature and Science and Annual Reviews have high ISI Impact Factors, but I doubt that is a useful metric even for the librarians. Most departments would have several individual private subscriptions to these sources and it is not clear why libraries should waste their resources on information that is generally available. If I were a university librarian, I would spend my resources on the journals my professors thought the most worthwhile.

      • David says:


        I take you point that impact factor and citation index
        have been conflated. But if you go back to the origins of this discussion you will see that I clearly differentiate between the two concepts.

        Then in this post, without mentioning me by name, Don
        chose to revisit this issue and focused on “impact factor” alone, while neglecting my discussion of “number of citations.”

        So for the record I am NOT advocating that people SHOULD compile reading lists on the basis of impact factors or citation indexes.
        That was simply a hypothetical exercise I devised to try and demonstrate to Don how “number of citations” might be correlated with quality. Clearly I failed!

        I maintain that if a five year old article has only ever been cited twice, it’s reasonable to question its quality.

  • dlb says:

    “It puzzles me that so many defenders of the orthodoxy, especially those
    who have some claim to be well educated, can persist in a view that is
    counter to the evidence that is available to us.”

    I think it is partially due intuition i.e. surely pumping all this CO2 inrto the atmosphere must be having some negative consequence. Conversely one could also argue that the earth and life have been around for a long time, therefore there are inbuilt negative feedbacks that evolved in the system to cope with such pertubations.

    • Dn Aitkin says:

      You would only think of negative consequences if you were naturally pessimistic, I think. Once I knew about the radiative physics of it all my response was that warming could be a useful thing indeed.

      And yes, intuitively you might expect negative feedbacks, to ensure that there is not a runaway escalation of warming. None seems to have occurred in the past.

  • John McAneney says:

    Don, in respect of peer review: at an early stage of my career a more experienced colleague suggested asking the following questions of a journal article before accepting it for publication:
    1. Is it new?
    2. Is it well-done?
    3. Is it well-written?

    Any two will do.


  • David says:


    I have been meaning to ask you what exactly do you mean by the term “natural variability”. It is quite an imprecise term. To me there are explanatory variables which we can measure and those we cant. To channel Rumsfeld the “known knowns, and the known unknowns” As it stands referring to “natural variability” is a bit like telling us about your “imaginary friend”

    For example

    “More, he doesn’t get into the heart of the issue, which is the proportion of any warming that has occurred due to natural variability (now conceded as a possibility by the IPCC), and the proportion due to human activity. Warming could occur entirely through natural causes, as could cooling. It is as though Professor Schmidt thinks that there is no such thing as natural variability, and that all warming is caused by human activity.’

    To answer your question in very general terms; if you want to know what proportion of warming is due to human activity (aka ppm of CO2) for a given model you would report the R-squared of your model with and without CO2 as an explanatory variable and conduct a Likelihood ration (LR) test to determine if there was a statistical difference between the two estimated R-squares. While I have not read IPCC report in detail, this will be the sort of statistical test that enables them to say “CO2 contributes to X% of global warming”

    But more importantly instead of just refereeing vaguely to “natural variability” you should specify exactly what explanatory variable you believe has been neglected in the analysis. In the past you have mentioned Sun spot activity, rotation of planets, volcanoes. These are all valid possibilities. But data for these alternative hypotheses can be collected and included in the models and tested. If they were valid we would expect (i) the R-squared of your new model to increase and (ii) the statistical significance around CO2 to decrease to zero.

    If I had data that could do that, I would publish it in a heartbeat! It would be the basis of a very exciting publication. I would send my manuscript to Nature and Cc in the Nobel committee to inform them of my dietary requirements when I come to collect my prize! 🙂

    • David says:

      And I will tell you what.A paper like that would get cited more than twice in five years.

    • DonAitkin says:

      Oh dear. We don’t study natural variability because the focus is on carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide emissions or accumulation cannot explain the current and continuing ‘hiatus’ in warming, which has remained at roughly its 1998 level for 17 or fewer years (depending on which data set you use).

      Plainly there is something to explain, and since we don’t know what it is, and it isn’t obviously carbon dioxide, the term of art is ‘natural variability’ (= not caused by us). I don’t have to have a theory about it, and don’t have one. I just point to it, and say to the orthodox: ‘You have something to explain’. I offer some possibilities, that’s all. At the moment the orthodox point to aerosols and to heat hidden in the deep ocean, neither of them propositions that are either highly plausible or able to be tested.

      You only have to eyeball a graph of the rise and fall of temperature over the last century and the rise of CO2 to see that while there is a correlation, there is a lot more to explain.

      • David says:


        In your quote your use of the term “natural variability” is ambiguous. You could be referring to (i) a standalone phenomenon called “natural variability”, (ii) a sub-set of other unknown causes or (iii) “white noise” reflected in the error term.

        It would be better if you were more precise and use a term like
        “other non-human causes” to convey exactly what you mean.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Happy to agree, tho’ ‘natural variability’ or ‘variation’ is the commonly used term throughout the literature. Since we don’t actually know what are the components of the non-CO2 effects I wouldn’t want to say ‘non-human’, tho’ it is probably OK.

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