Wegman on “Dueling Weblogs” and Information Asymmetry

John A: I would like to emphasize that the following is my personal view and not necessarily that of Steve McIntyre or Ross McKitrick.

In amongst the consideration of the proxy, statistical and social network evidence of the Wegman report, there is also this (page 48), which I could construe (albeit distantly) as a personal criticism:

5. As mentioned in our introduction, much of the discussion on the ‘hockey stick’
issue has taken place on competing web blogs. Our committee believes that web
blogs are not an appropriate way to conduct science and thus the blogs give
credence to the fact that these global warming issues are have migrated from the
realm of rational scientific discourse. Unfortunately, the factions involved have
become highly and passionately polarized.


Now I can’t lay claim to the statistical knowledge of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, but I do know that Climate Audit has been a key reason why the hearings of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Science Committee, and the formation of the NAS Panel and of the Wegman reports ever took place and why several other distinguished scientists and statisticians have seen fit to contact Steve and Ross and offer insight and suggestions into various fruitful lines of inquiry.

My reply to Professor Wegman would be: "You are correct that weblogs are not an appropriate way to conduct science, but if and only if, the normal channels of debate through peer reviewed scientific journals and even direct communication between the two sides had not been systematically poisoned and closed off by the actions of the Mann social network (aka the "Hockey Team") that you describe in your report.

You refer to the influence of Mann and the other 42 authors thus (page 40):

…. Mann, Rutherford, Jones, Osborn, Briffa, Bradley and Hughes form a clique,
each interacting with all of the others. A clique is a fully connected subgraph, meaning
everyone in the clique interacts with every one else in the clique.

and (page 4) make this observation:

…we judge that the sharing of research materials, data and results
was haphazardly and grudgingly done. In this case we judge that there was too much
reliance on peer review, which was not necessarily independent. Moreover, the work has
been sufficiently politicized that this community can hardly reassess their public
positions without losing credibility.

What you describe as a clique or community is a modern term for what in centuries past used to be called a "cabal" – "a number of persons united in some close design, usually to promote their private views and interests in a church, state, or other community by intrigue"

The scientific journals have not acted in accordance with the ethical responsibilities of the scientific method. Instead, some have behaved in a highly partisan fashion, refusing to compel disclosure of data and methodology from the authors of the multiproxy studies, refusing timely reply from both McIntyre and McKitrick to statements made by the Hockey Team that can only be described as seriously and wilfully misleading. In addition a few prominent journals have editorialised in highly personalized terms for the Hockey Team and especially Michael Mann and against McIntyre and McKitrick, refusing them the right of reply. (For example, I wrote about one such piece here )

It is a matter of record that on more than one occasion, Michael Mann himself intervened by communicating personally with the editors of journals, scurrilously impugning both McIntyre and McKitrick’s integrity in an effort to get the editors to block publication of MM’s researches into the multiproxy paradigm in climate science and especially MBH98. On at least two occasions the intervention failed, but we will probably never know how many times such intervention by one or more members of this clique succeeded.

In a rational world of scientific discourse, the journals would have published both sides and insisted on proper disclosure of data and other materials sufficient to allow replication.

Most of the Hockey Team to this day refuse to discuss their published work with McIntyre or McKitrick, and of the few that correspond, some break off that correspondence claiming "intimidation" when asked in the politest terms to reveal data, sources or other information about their published works.

What has been demonstrated Professor Wegman, is that social networks like the Hockey Team can exert an extraordinary influence in the conduct of science, and give a false impression of "certainty" and "consensus" that their works, as you discovered, do not merit.

What I have seen from my view has been a systematic collapse in scientific ethics in climate science as a result of the Hockey Stick affair, the consequence of which has been just the sort of partisan duelling that you rightly decry.

In Steven Levitt’s excellent book "Freakonomics", Levitt gives an interesting insight into the power of information to overcome an insuperable asymmetry of political or economic power via the Internet (pages 69-71):

It is common for one party to a transaction to have better information than another party. In the parlance of economists, such a case is known as an information asymmetry. We accept as a verity of capitalism that someone (usually an expert) knows more than someone else (usually a consumer). But information asymmetries everywhere have been mortally wounded by the Internet.

Information is the currency of the Internet. As a medium. the Internet is brilliantly efficent at shifting information from the habds of those who have it into the hands of those who do not….

The Internet has proven spectacularly fruitful for situations in which a face-to-face encounter with an expert might actually exacerbate the problem of asymmetical information – sitautions in which an expert uses his informational advantage to make us feel stupid or rushed or cheap or ignoble.

…The Internet, powerful as it is, has hardly slain the beast that is information assymmetry. Consider the so-called corporate scandals of the early 2000s. The crimes of Enron included hidden partnerships, disguised debt, and the manipulation of energy markets….

Though extraordinarily diverse, these crimes all have a common trait: they were sins of information. Most of them involved an expert, or a gang of experts, promoting false information or hiding true information; in each case the experts were trying to keep the information assymmetry as asymmetrical as possible

Professor Wegman, you note this information asymmetry thus (page 49)

Generally speaking, the paleoclimatology community has not recognized the
validity of the MM05 papers and has tended dismiss their results as being
developed by biased amateurs. The paleoclimatology community seems to be
tightly coupled as indicated by our social network analysis, has rallied around the
MBH98/99 position, and has issued an extensive series of alternative assessments
most of which appear to support the conclusions of MBH98/99.

I encouraged Steve McIntyre to begin this blog because I was keenly aware in a way that Steve was not at the time, how powerful instant publishing and rebuttal can be in combatting the asymmetry of the scientific playing field in climate science as I saw it at the end of 2003. That asymmetry still exists, which is why I believe Climate Audit should continue.

15 comments to Wegman on “Dueling Weblogs” and Information Asymmetry

  • TCO

    John (you ignorant slut): Wegman indicts peer review for not STOPPING the publication of the Mann pieces. Steve M. CAN GET published if he writes articles. He just doesn’t write them. He himself has said a million times that he’s not blaming journals for stopping him from publishing. And if he did publish, his thoughts would be sharpened and the field benefited. And none of this would prevent him from having a blog. Heck, his posts would probably be better as his arguments would be thought out.

  • John A

    Jeez the only comment I get so far is from someone reading it through a beer bottle.

    He himself has said a million times that he’s not blaming journals for stopping him from publishing.

    Untrue. He was blocked from replying in Nature on more than one occasion. This blocking by friends of the Hockey Team was one of the reasons Climate Audit was setup. In fact the publication of MM05 was preceded by Mann personally calling the editor of GRL in an effort to prevent it from being published.

    Steve did have a “blog” which you can still see in all its glory at www.climate2003.com but it was terrible to behold. Realclimate had just started publishing on their shiny, glossy weblog and I thought the impression given was that Steve looked very poor.

    Two of the more important aspects was that Steve needed to repond in near realtime without programming in html and that he could receive and respond to comments.

    I agree with Wegman that science shouldn’t be done on blogs, but frankly I think that science should be done first and then we’ll worry about the formal publication later. The blocking of McIntyre and McKitrick from publication by the Hockey Team is a minor scandal in itself.

  • L Nettles

    John, you’ve cited Freakonomics, now you might want to read The Tipping Point: How Little Thing Can Make a Big Difference. I believe that book supports your view here as to the importance the internet in the debate. While Dr. Wegman might wish things were different, the way thing really happen is closer to what we have seen. “Peer Review Publication” is an ideal but doesn’t explain how ideas, good and bad, are commuicated to society.

  • Having found Steve’s early chronology on the web of attempts to extract data from Mann for his replication study and then followed the web almost daily since then I have noticed other important areas web the blog has proved useful.

    First: The blog may have been instrumental in embarassing the principals to archive their data. Steve has pounded this point constantly, e.g. Lonnie Thompson to archive their data.

    Second: Public accussation by the principals of intimidation into surrendering data were countered by publishing complete copies of correspondence showing no such behaviour.

    Third: When the Barton committee first made its reasonable requests for explanations, a list of organizations lined up behind Mann including.

    # A statement from the EGU
    # The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
    # A Nature editorial
    # A letter from US scientists (including leading members of the NAS, a Nobel Prize winner and two of us (ES, GS))
    # A letter from the head of the National Academy of Sciences, and
    # A commentary from Tom Crowley in EOS
    # Other politicians, the House Committee on Science and Henry Waxman.

    The blog was able to provide public information to preserve the good faith of the enterprise in the face of this onslaught by an even broader ‘cabal’ as John aptly describes it.

    Fourth: Throughout, Steve has been generously posted on advanced statistical topics to help educate the general readership in issues like spurious regression so they could understand the debate.

    So thanks for all your hard work John. Good luck.

  • jae

    I might add that the blog is also useful in that it provides a place where Steve can get some good feedbaack on his ideas.

  • Steve Sadlov

    I have to concur with TCO. I think Wegman was simply prodding Steve M to publish his next paper ASAP.

  • John A

    I’d have to say that I think Wegman has done a great service to climate science, but I think there is a new reality of Internet-based collaboration and open review.

    I would agree that there are a lot of papers on statistics, spurious statistics, dencrochronology and so forth which Steve should work on. But its these big invitations to Washington that get in the way.

  • TCO

    1. Steve has too said a million (several) times that he can get published.
    2. The NATURE article was inappropriate for that journal. I said so ahead of time. TCO was right. TCO was right. TCO was right.
    3. You repeat the false blog versus publishing thing argument. They complement rather then compete. Mann mannages both.
    4. The blog is still god-ugly. I can’t beleive you make money as a comp guy when your creation of a blug has that ugly side bar which every teensy, weensy no-traffic blog has a better version.
    5. It is just stupid. Butt-stupid. Conk you on the head stupid.

  • Paul Linsay

    I think that Wegman’s emphasis on the clique should be toned down. If you look into the early history of quantum mechanics or molecular biology it would look very similar, a small number of scientists talking to each other. The difference of course is how they behaved scientifically. They were very critical of each others ideas and results and intellectually honest. I do think that the much more damning problem is the limited amount of data that is recycled from one paper to the next within the group. This produces the false confirmation of bad results.

  • John A

    1. Steve has too said a million (several) times that he can get published.

    He can get published NOW. Then he couldn’t. It was a big breakthrough when Steve and Ross got MM05 published in GRL.

    2. The NATURE article was inappropriate for that journal. I said so ahead of time. TCO was right. TCO was right. TCO was right.

    Why was the paper that McIntyre and McKitrick appropriate to that journal and their reply not inappropriate? Riddle me that.

    3. You repeat the false blog versus publishing thing argument. They complement rather then compete. Mann mannages both.

    I responded to what Wegman actually said. I made it clear that the reason for the weblog was that this was a way to deal with the information asymmetry of the Hockey Team spin machine.

    By the way, as a result of the weblog, we happen to be winning.

    4. The blog is still god-ugly. I can’t beleive you make money as a comp guy when your creation of a blug has that ugly side bar which every teensy, weensy no-traffic blog has a better version.

    If you can point me to a better template or better looking WordPress webblog that doesn’t look like someone randomly put colors onto a canvas then let me know. I make more money that you do, so I guess I’d have to wonder why your company hired such a drunken horse’s ass like you.

    5. It is just stupid. Butt-stupid. Conk you on the head stupid.

    Yes, but somehow life goes on.

  • Roger Bell

    John,
    In the past I have published a number of papers in Nature. If I were still actively working in Astronomy, I would NEVER, EVER submit another paper to them. I’m saying this because of the awful way in which they treated McIntyre and McKittrick.
    My only criticism of Wegman concerns his comments about “Dueling Weblogs”. If that’s the only way to get “published” because someone, or some cabal, is behaving amorally, then publish in a Weblog. And, TCO, would you kindly refrain from continually carping about where Steve and Ross are “publishing”, please?
    John, you have done an excellent job for climateaudit.

    Roger Bell

  • TCO

    My carping is on topic. You can’t conclude that Steve M. is being shafted by the journals, when he hasn’t even written papers. In many cases, hasn’t even clarified his thoughts. And it shows a lot of ignorance of the scope of abstracted peer reviewed literature, to think that you can’t get published anywhere because of a single issue at Nature. And btw, I agreed with the Nature call not to publish Steve and had warned him ahead of time, that his paper was more appropriate at a specialty journal since it was a detail of methodology. I was prescient. Just like having Wegman back me up is prescient. And who knows more about useful publication: Wegman or JohnA?

  • John A

    You can’t conclude that Steve M. is being shafted by the journals, when he hasn’t even written papers. In many cases, hasn’t even clarified his thoughts. And it shows a lot of ignorance of the scope of abstracted peer reviewed literature, to think that you can’t get published anywhere because of a single issue at Nature.

    Just what is Geophysical Research Letters? What was MM05?

    And who knows more about useful publication: Wegman or JohnA?

    Since Wegman hasn’t published his report in any journal, I’d say I was ahead.

    Wegman missed the point, which was that the weblog served a useful purpose in getting Steve’s response instantly to the Hockey Team’s spin machine, especially when the Hockey Team had poisoned the channels with the scientific journals and some media – and here’s an example

    I’d agree that there are quite a few articles that Steve could submit into one or two papers for specialist statistics journals.

    I’d point out that you and I have a different definition for what “useful publication” may mean, since Steve does not have an academic career that he must sustain. I don’t regard the journals as the be-all-and-end-all of scientific propagation, and I think their influence is waning as a result of the rise of blogging and the loss of prestige over scientific frauds like the Hwang woo Suk affair.

  • MattN

    Climateaudit is in the running for “Best Scince Blog” of 2007. You can vote here: 2007.weblogawards.org/polls/best-science-blog-1.php

  • TCO

    Wegman knows more about publishing than you, John. That’s the questionn that I asked. Shocking that you can’t just admit that, John. Or that you think a single recent publication would answer that.

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