The APS should have known better

Those reading Deltoid's coverage of the APS fiasco are probably up to date on this issue, but I feel like we need to discuss the APS failure in more detail. For those unaware of the latest in global warming denialist nonsense, the American Physical Society made the foolish mistake of entertaining global warming denialists by giving Christopher Monckton space in their newsletter to "challenge" global warming. As Lambert demonstrates in his post, the factual and calculation errors are a joke, but the strategy error is demonstrated by the fact that every global warming crank from tobacco apologist Steven Milloy to creationist William Dembski at UD is now celebrating the supposed end of a consensus on climate.

Milloy leads with a story that "APS ENDS CONSENSUS MYTH!" and all the other cranks with no regard for disreputable sources have happily followed suit. Creationists like Dembski, happy to promote any conspiracy theory about "mainstream" science that they think oppresses cranks like him cheerfully joins in. This is despite the fact that the APS has not changed it's position on global warming, the article itself is a joke, and it is not even in the peer-reviewed literature. Monckton is crying foul because he thinks that a piece in a newsletter represents peer review. How embarrassing is it for them that because the piece was subjected by a review by an editor that he thinks this is peer review? Do we really have to explain what peer-review actually is to these people? Are they so ignorant? Clearly the answer is yes.

Peer review means that your paper is shared with experts in the field and they are allowed to challenge statements made in the paper and the author has to rebut or provide more data to address their concerns. Peer review is not having a single editor look over the paper for egregious errors; if this were actually a peer-reviewed publication, such a review would represent a massive failure of the review system to have a publication with only an editor reading over the paper. For those that haven't been through the process, peer-review is usually grueling, must involve more than just an editor looking over the paper - often several leading researchers in a field - and usually requires an author to address substantive challenges to their argument. Monckton's stunning ignorance of the process is telling.

That being said the bigger failure here is that of the APS not realizing they were dealing with a den of snakes when they opened up any publication to the likes of Monckton. Never mind that Monckton's paper is about as big a challenge to the theory of anthropomorphic climate change as a poodle wearing boxing gloves is to Mike Tyson; as has been said before, denialists aren't interested in debate, they are only interested in the appearance of debate. This non-peer-reviewed publication in a newsletter is being touted by cranks all over the internet as proof that global warming is being debated in the halls of academia because it is under the auspices of the APS. When the APS clarifies, correctly, that this is not an example of peer-reviewed publication, they get attacked by Milloy and others as stifling debate and caving to the global warming conspiracy.

To sum up. Monckton has published tripe that is clearly nonsense, is not peer-reviewed, and in no way has APS changed it's position on global warming. The lesson is that when dealing with crooks, the truth doesn't matter, and they will twist the truth to serve their purposes if you give them an opening. The APS has failed to realize that these people are not honest brokers in a debate. There are few clearer examples of this phenomenon than this blatant prevarication by the likes of Monckton, Milloy and others promoting this "end to consensus" or cover-up by the APS. This is not debate, this is denialism, and APS has learned the difference the hard way.

More like this

Duae Quartunciae has been more patient than me, and found even more problems with Monckton's paper. Monckton has struck back at the APS. Check out this press release from the SPPI Said, Monckton elsewhere, "Trying to duck the usual process of scientific discourse by arguments about peer-review…
Via Ed I see that Christopher Monckton, the fake expert in climate change who has been repeatedly told by Parliament to stop calling himself an Member of the House of Lords,, claims he's the inventor of a magical disease cure of HIV, MS, flu and the common cold, and recently a birther, has now…
Sandy Szwarc continues to wage her war against the "obesity myth", and has fallen into the classic crank trap of the attack on scientific consensus. It's right up there with attacking peer-review as a sure sign you're about to listen to someone's anti-science propaganda. She cites this article at…
Monckton continues to entertain: Dear Professor Serene - A Fellow of the APS has drawn my attention to a new policy apparently adopted by the Executive Board of the American Physical Society, to the effect that every paper published in any APS journal must in future carry a disclaimer to the effect…

Thanks for the link!

It would be nice to think mere naivety was the reason for the P&S forum newsletter editor's decision; and that was my first assumption. But I think you are right that the aim here is by Monckton and others is not debate.

Monckton surely knows the difference between peer review in a learned journal; and a readability check from an editor of a small newsletter. But even so: it was the SPPI (for whom Monckton is "Chief Policy Advisor" that made the press release on the day the newsleter came out, describing it as "mathematical proof" in a "major, peer-reviewed paper", within a "learned journal".

How on Earth did the APS allow this to happen? Well; there may be clues to that as well. Check out How The APS Was Infiltrated By Deniers! at BigCityLib.

My own inclination in these matters is always to keep taking up the substance and showing where it is actually wrong; rather than focus on motives and persons. I tried to make that the focus of my blog post on the matter. But perhaps I am being naive in that myself....

Monckton surely knows the difference between peer review in a learned journal; and a readability check from an editor of a small newsletter.

Actually I don't think he does. He even released the "peer review" as proof.

That being said the bigger failure here is that of the APS not realizing they were dealing with a den of snakes when they opened up any publication to the likes of Monckton.

Would that it were that simple. If John Mashey is right, all they were guilty of was a failure to scrutinise rigorously the activities of volunteers who run a newsletter that happens to have their logo on the masthead. I think the implications are quite worrying: either learned societies will have to start acting like the repressive conspiracies the denialists claim they are, or this sort of thing will keep happening.

Good post, MarkH, but you need to more clearly distinguish between the APS and the APS Forum on Physics and Society. The latter is a small subset (5805 members) of the former. Monckton's letter was published not in the main APS newsletter (APSnews) but in the Forum's newsletter.

By Robert P. (not verified) on 21 Jul 2008 #permalink

Let's not get crazy.

APS Forums are, to some extent a holdover from pre-Internet/blog days, and probably need to rethink what they do and how they do it, for which one might read some of the discussion between Jennifer O and I at Cocktail Party Physics.

As described elsewhere, I'd suggest that:

- physics is a big topic
- no one can be an expert at everything
- neither Dr Saperstein nor Dr Marque are climate scientists
- amongst AIP organizations, AGU seems far more appropriate for this than APS
- newsletters should think hard before publishing seriously-technical (especially wrong) pieces, which should be kept in journals, or else a newsletter needs a review board with adequate breadth, which is hard. Some newsletters really ought to be well-moderated blogs, as discussions with 3-month turnarounds aren't really competitive these days.

- but from outside, it looks like Larry Gould caught the "AGW is a hoax" bug, as seen at his home page, started promoting Monckton, (conjecture, but very likely) invited Monckton to Hartford , and then (conjecture, but very likely), suggested this article to Dr Saperstein at FPS, who did the review, and who has been involved with FPS for a long time. It is not clear whether Marque spent much time on this article, or just relied on Saperstein's review. Remember that this is volunteer labor.

Think about the likelihoods that
- Monckton is normally an avid reader of FPS
- or would be well-known to people there
- or that people there would seek out Monckton without some impetus.

APS top people responded *very* quickly, but of course, they are civilized and perhaps not so used to dealing with Monckton-style tactics.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 22 Jul 2008 #permalink

As it turned out, it wasn't Larry Gould, but seems to have been Gerald Marsh. There's a pretty clear story at New Scientist.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink

I think the implications are quite worrying: either learned societies will have to start acting like the repressive conspiracies the denialists claim they are, or this sort of thing will keep happening.

Or, they can just put big honking disclaimers in the appropriate places. I think this hasn't been done because academics usually already know something about the relative credibilities of a conference paper, a journal paper, a squib, and a newsletter article -- or if they don't, they can always look at the acceptance rate of papers/articles.