One of the complaints regularly made by climate sceptics is that climate scientists do not speak up and publicly criticise exaggerated or alarmist claims from within their own community. This post discusses a recent example where this did happen, leading to a complaint and a dispute. As well as being of interest to the climate debate, the incident also raises questions about the use of social media such as twitter by scientists. Ex-climate scientist William Connolley has a blog post on this, which I largely agree with.
The Royal Society held a meeting on Sept 22-23 on Arctic sea ice reduction. During the meeting, tweets were sent out using the hashtag #RSArctic14. Many of these came from Mark Brandon (@icey_mark), one of the organisers of the meeting, but other participants including Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) and Ed Hawkins (@Ed_Hawkins) also joined the twitter discussion, as did some journalists (Jonathan Amos and Jonathan Leake), along with the official Royal Society twitter account, and others who were not at the meeting. All of this indicates that the use of twitter provided an effective outreach mechanism for the conference.
One talk was given by Prof Peter Wadhams, who is known for his statements that the Arctic ice will disappear completely around 2015, often promoted unquestioningly by irresponsible journalists. When Wadhams gave his talk, a number of climate scientists sent out critical tweets, as noted at the time by Bishop Hill. Here are a few of these:
@icey_mark: Wadhams uses photos and anecdote to imply state of sea ice across the Arctic.
@icey_mark: Wadhams: uses UK submarine data to look at thickness but very very data poor. Not credible plots
@ClimateOfGavin: Wadhams still using graphs with ridiculous projections with no basis in physics.
@ClimateOfGavin: Wadhams clearly states that there is no physics behind his extrapolations.
@Ed_Hawkins: Good to see Wadhams extreme views challenged by other climate scientists. Disappointed he didn’t agree to bet on 2015 sea-ice!
@ClimateOfGavin: In case there was any ambiguity, statements by Wadhams on arctic sea ice/CH4 trends are *not* widely agreed with by scientists
@nathanaelmelia: Entertaining break with Wadhams. Back to science now
@jamesannan: Hasn’t Wadhams already predicted 4 of the last 0 ice-free summers?
Wadhams (who does not tweet) heard of this, and wrote a number of letters of complaint (I have extracted these from a potentially confusing longer document produced by Mark Brandon). The first complaint letter is addressed to the Royal Society and is aimed mainly at Brandon. It was also sent to the head of Brandon’s university and the head of co-organiser Sheldon Bacon’s institute. Wadhams claims that Brandon and Bacon “actively ridiculed” his presentation, and referred to “sarcasm” and “snickering”. The letter is followed by a list of Brandon’s tweets, which show that Wadhams’s complaint is without foundation. A second complaint letter from Wadhams is addressed to NASA, where Gavin Schmidt has recently been appointed Director of GISS. Schmidt’s tweets are more critical than Brandon’s, and some could be regarded as sarcastic in tone, but he is well known for his outspoken style, so his comments are not surprising or unusual. Wadhams makes no attempt to address the scientific content of the criticisms.
In response, Bacon, Brandon and Schmidt wrote a six-page memorandum, where they note, among other things, the informal nature of twitter, and also point out they did defend Wadhams when someone (in fact another climate scientist) asked why he had been invited to speak. They also say that they regard Wadhams’s actions – writing to the heads of their institutions – as intimidation and bullying. They also wrote a much longer supplementary document (the one I referred to as potentially confusing, as it does not say it is written by them) where they go through each of the controversial tweets, explaining the context, and in some cases “in jokes”, behind them. This must have been a great deal of work for them. In this documents they twice make the point that I started with:
‘Climate scientists are often accused of not being critical of work presented by “their own”.’
‘we re-iterate that climate scientists have long been criticized for not speaking against those who some may consider “extremists” within our community.’
Update 17th Oct
Mark Brandon has been saying for a few days that he has received a further complaint from Peter Wadhams, and he has now made this public, together with annotations in response by him (Brandon). Again Wadhams sent his complaint to the President of the Royal Society and other senior figures, which seems excessive. This complaint includes the suggestion of a legal threat: “These may well be defamatory, a question on which legal counsel may be taken”. He also includes the tweets that he finds most offensive, which are mostly from Gavin Schmidt. Some of Wadhams’s comments are absurd, as pointed out in Brandon’s annotations: for example he says that an apology would have been appropriate and then we could have moved on, but his original complaint did not make a request for an apology. He claims that twitter is “not open to all”, and suggests that tweets should have been sent to him by email or regular mail!
In case anyone cares or is wondering exactly where I stand, I’m 80% in support of Brandon, Bacon & Schmidt. Wadhams’s complaint is ridiculously over-the-top. But I do think that some of Gavin’s tweets were a bit too rude and he probably should avoid this tone when tweeting from conference talks in future.
Also, there is more discussion at the blogs of Doug McNeall, Victor Venema and Bishop Hill.
Update 27th Oct
On twitter, Mark Brandon reports that the Royal Society has responded. The whole response has not been made public but here are some quotes:
“The Royal Society believes that there is benefit in making the proceedings of our meetings widely available, including publishing audio recordings and through the use of social media. This helps to ensure that debate is more possible and engages not only those at the meeting but also others who are not able to attend…”
“it is clear that the vast majority of the tweets from the meeting were written to help keep people informed … this is to be welcome. A small number [of tweets] were lacking in courtesy and could easily be perceived as being inappropriate for scientific debate. We are looking at our guidelines concerning tweets in discussion meetings … to see if they need to be modified”.
Their view seems to agree with what I said above.