Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where is the Climate of Ethics and Honesty?

By Bob Ferris

Winston Churchill once said during the early days of World War II: Never in the field of human
conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. When I think of this quote and our current situation with climate change a modification of this quote comes to my mind. Here is the current version: Never have so relatively few sewn so much misinformation and confusion that will damage so many. This, in short, is not mankind's finest hour. I may sound angry and on some level I am, because I am patently opposed to deceit, hypocrisy, and bullying.

When I started earning my science chops 25 years ago, I testified before a town hall meeting in the sleepy burg of Ben Lomond in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. The meeting was about whether or not to use a bacteria-laced pesticide to do in gypsy moths that were starting to show up in the San Lorenzo Valley. I did my research and evaluated the risks and came down on the side of "no," but could have been convinced to accept limited field trials and testing to see how it worked. I never made it through my presentation because the folks on the dais were convinced that this temperate rainforest was soon to become a desert and they collided with the folks in the audience in death masks chanting: Bhopal, Bhopal. The latter worked because Union Carbide was one of the potential suppliers of the mixture. It was an awful experience for me.

At the end of the presentation I was approached by a reporter who asked me to clarify some facts. I had not been interviewed by Fox News at this point and the Fairness Doctrine was still in force, so I trotted right in and spoke to the gentleman. The next day the story came out and the reporter managed to do three things. First, he correctly described my concerns and rationales as well as my credentials and the credentials of others he called for backup opinions. Second, he accurately described the feelings of the various parties. And lastly, he did a little research and artfully separated opinion from fact and experts from stakeholders. Good story that informed the public on all fronts.

Fast forward 25 years and we are in the midst of one of the largest town hall meetings of all time—the effort to negotiate proper and fair control of greenhouse gases. The qualified scientists—i.e., those folks who are currently working and publishing in peer-reviewed journals in the climate arena—have spoken and are speaking. Their basic message is that climate change is upon us, that we are in part responsible, and we need to do something to avoid serious, long term, consequences. They did not stutter. They did not use an overabundance of weasel words. And there is near unanimity within this group for this position. Moreover, there is not a single nationally recognized scientific organization that has taken a position in opposition to this set of premises.

On the popular and political front you have absolute and unmitigated chaos. Energy interests are funding and organizing contrarian scientists left and right—maybe just to the right. Conservative think-tanks that are cranking out steaming piles of self-published "research" are sprouting up as quickly as checks can be written and cashed. That is not to say that exaggeration and hyperbole are not coming from other sectors in the public debate, but there is a massive difference in terms of scale, outlandishness, and intent.

In addition, a collection of economists, fringe scientists, journalists, ex-TV weathermen, and politicians have grabbed the internet by the horns and anointed themselves climate change experts. Wearing proudly their labels as skeptics, doubters, and deniers they have ironically wrapped themselves in the hallowed flag of good science and are charging into the fray unarmored by any real or relevant credentials. It is simply amazing and tragic.

My point here is that the press and the public need to do a better job in separating the science from the politics and facts from opinions.

Jim Peden—Ego-gate

Below is an excerpt from the code of ethics of the American Physical Society. This document is like many others in the various scientific communities in that it lays out acceptable codes of behavior and loosely describes a code of ethics for folks operating within these disciplines. Pretty straight-forward stuff: Be honest and do not be deceitful. This is pretty basic and pretty easy to follow for nearly all of us.

The Constitution of the American Physical Society states that the objective of the Society shall be the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics. It is the purpose of this statement to advance that objective by presenting ethical guidelines for Society members.

Each physicist is a citizen of the community of science. Each shares responsibility for the welfare of this community. Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community. Acts of deception, or any other acts that deliberately compromise the advancement of science, are unacceptable. Honesty must be regarded as the cornerstone of ethics in science. Professional integrity in the formulation, conduct, and reporting of physics activities reflects not only on the reputations of individual physicists and their organizations, but also on the image and credibility of the physics profession as perceived by scientific colleagues, government and the public. It is important that the tradition of ethical behavior be carefully maintained and transmitted with enthusiasm to future generations.

So let me tell you a story that applies to the above. A little over 40 years ago when Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes were plotting the launch of the environmental movement—you remember back when Republicans and Democrats worked together on environmental issues—a young man was working on his PhD in Pennsylvania. He was building on promising work having completed a BS in Physics and Mathematics and a Masters in Experimental Physics. (I was a double major as an undergraduate myself and know that is a tough route.)

Then he started publishing first as a junior author in the prestigious Journal of Chemical Physics and then as a solo author. His second outing a year later was in Industrial Research and his brilliance was evidently ignored, because his last peer-reviewed article has never been cited in a single peer-reviewed publication in four decades. Our student disappears from the publishing and academic scene at this point. It is a common and honorable path, you take what you have learned and use it in industry or wherever else you can apply it. Lots of us did it.

Nearly forty years later we find our once intrepid student living in rural Vermont and serving as a web guru and host. Certainly honorable work, but he also has a side avocation as a climate change denier complete with blog posts, op-eds, and serving as an active poster on a number of forums. But now he bills himself as an Atmospheric Physicist in spite of the fact that he has not worked anywhere near this realm for 30 years and has never published a single peer-reviewed article on atmospheric physics or climate change. Yet in the blogosphere where everyone has a voice he self-publishes a rambling rant about climate change which has been roundly discounted for inaccuracies as well as mischaracterizations (please see here  and here).

The story would be fairly pedestrian if it ended here as all of us who work in the general field of science know folks who regret not continuing in their chosen field or taking it to the next level. You know the type: people who are constantly trying to demonstrate how smart they are. Often they are intellectual bullies who cannot complete a conversation without mentioning their Mensa membership or their long ago but very dated science accomplishments. Most of these folks are annoying but manage to keep the train on the track. Not so for our web guru, he needed the recognition and when it did not come by virtue of his accomplishments and gravitas he had to push the envelope and step over that ethical line that true people of accomplishment never cross: He started being his own cheering squad and he did so anonymously and with deception.

I have three examples, but given this gentleman's need for attention and validation, I suspect there are many, many more. The first involves a poster identifying himself as "ecojunkie" who praised Peden's tired and discredited piece and sang praises about the credentials of the author. This effort was fairly transparent and set off a whole discussion about the ethics of posting anonymously about your own work because the poster in question was identified as James A. Peden himself. On some level I would say that this sort of action speaks volumes about a person's character and personal psychology, but lots of people do silly, immature things to get attention. But, for me, it is definitely a violation of the code of conduct expected from scientists practicing in a certain discipline.

So Peden might actually get a pass on this if it weren't for the following: On March 3, 2008 a poster with the handle "Kodiak" posted a topic on a forum called Star Destroyer—a site that caters to science fiction aficionados with an interest in science. The post had to do with the very same self-published editorial on climate change that was being circulated and praised by our friend above. There was a little bit of an exchange between folks who were clearly regulars on the site pointing out the piece's good points and bad as well as offering advice on where to get clarification and additional information. It was a nice supportive dynamic and then came the following post from "ecofan":

As a Physics Professor who teaches at a major west-coast university (graduate level gas dynamics, among others) I happened on this site while some of my students were researching the author of the piece you are discussing.

In fact, I've been aware of the editorial for a couple of weeks now, it appears to be sweeping the globe in "viral" fashion. Because the editorial is now being quoted on everything from MSNBC to the London Daily Telegraph and the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It's having a wide-spread effect and that always makes me a bit nervous

Since I always like to first know the credentials of folks who are opining on this highly controversial issue, I set a group of some of my most clever students out to find everything they could on the writer. I have some very clever students, including a few whose mastery of the internet would amaze you. Offering them some extra credit for the best research results set them to work like a beehive.

For example, we learned that "Kodiak" - who started this thread - has a 95% probability of being employed at a company whose name starts with "N" - and his CEO is a fellow named Hill, who actually has 3500 employees instead of the 3000 quoted. Don't worry, Kodiak - your secret is safe with us.

As to the author of the piece, we learned that he was originally a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying under Dr. Wade L. Fite, one of the giants in his field and a past Secretary of the International Union of Pure and Applied Scientists And indeed, the author's claim to have first published in the Journal of Chemical Physics ( the absolute top journal of its type on the planet ) was also true - which amazed us, because getting a first publication in that journal is like hitting a grand slam homer your first time up at bat. (See Farragher AL, Peden JA and Fite WL 1969. J. Chem. Phys. 50. 287-93) It's also true he was a co-recipient of the IR-100 ( given to the 100 most significant developments of the year) just one year out of school, another amazing accomplishment. We also learned that in addition to Physics, he was quite an accomplished mountaineer in his youth, having parachuted into the Arctic Circle with the noted explorer Dr. Ivan Lloyd Jirak, and in 1976 organized, trained, and led an expedition to climb and ski the highest active volcano in the world - El Cotopaxi, in Ecuador. He also holds a commercial pilots license with single and multiengine instrument ratings and held a flight instructor's certificate on top of it all, according to FAA records. I told you my boys were sharp... and I was generous in my extra credit to the student who dug all this up.

I also set another group loose critiquing the article itself - and these are some talented fellows when it comes to physics of the upper atmosphere. They went over the editorial with a fine-tooth comb, and concluded that the simplified science was not only a perfect simplification for the average layman to digest, but obviously a "worst case" analysis - and a brilliant application of the principle of Occam's Razor. By first proving the "worst case" scenario ( using a square wave spectrum instead of a gaussian distribution, including the two lesser peaks which are insignificant, and ignoring the energy distribution of the black body spectrum itself ) he gives every opportunity to err on the high side and subsequently support the warming panic. He's a generous fellow who, in the end, banged another bases loaded homer right out of the box, and thus doesn't have to do anything more complex than what he did.

It appears that most of the commenters above didn't read the article very closely, or perhaps just weren't clever enough to pick up on the subtle details . "Darth Wong" complains that it looks like it was written by a High School student, completely missing the point that it was written for students. My researchers learned a lot about Mr. Darth, as well - he's a Canadian engineer with a less than distinguished career and serious anger management issues - but we'll keep the details secret on that, as well.

The new bastion of the Global Warming Hoaxters is "Climate Modeling". Models can be created to produce any desired result, and "modeling" in this particular issue is so primitive it is currently classified as "Junk Science" at least in the field of atmospheric physics. We found it interesting that "D. Turtle" immediately steered you to and quoted Michael Mann, Caspar Ammann, and Gavin Schmidt as pillars of the community. Mann was the guy who's mathematically botched PCA program started the whole panic, and Ammann and Schmidt are climate "modelers" who couldn't make an accurate model to predict their next lunch even if they had eaten baloney sandwiches every day their whole life. Turtle has managed to steer you all to some of the most unreliable "science" in the whole spectrum.

So gather around, students, here's your grades:

"Kodiak" gets an A+ for starting the thread and even coming back with a personal observation based on a more careful reading. His boss, Mr. Hill, would be proud of him.

"D. Turtle" gets an F for even suggesting you'll find anything other than religious hysteria at "Real Climate"

"Darth Wong" gets a C because he still can't sort the wheat from the chaff but at least he has some seemingly original thought and admits that there are still a ton of unanswered questions out there.

And all my students who put an enormous amount of work into researching both the science and authorship of the editorial all get 10 extra credit points. ( Which they really don't need, since virtually all of them were former honors students in undergraduate school anyway ) Special thanks to Matt who wrote most of the above summary stuff for me so I didn't have to spend so much time on the keyboard. Hey, surf's up on the California coast, I have another life too....

Ok, a "professor" wades in. An expert shows up and all is explained. What a relief; an adult enters the discussion. At first there is some minor chattering and then the critique starts. The other posters on the site are not buying the claims in the editorial and they are not buying the professor. And then one of the posters is smart enough to look at the purported professor's IP address ( which indicates that the "professor's" comment came not from sunny and surfing California but from Shoreham,VT the home of Jim Peden the author of the op-ed and our former promising student.
The whole episode is as one poster characterized it: Creepy. I am not a psychologist but it strikes me as one thing to anonymously praise your own work, but really a whole other thing to do it by creating an alternative reality of what you wish you were and are not. There is a certain sadness in hearing about the much loved professor he never became and the relationship he portrays with students he will never have. But that is something for him and his therapist to speak about.

The next (but not last) example is what happens when Mr. Peden plays with his peers on Physics Forum. Here again, his paper gets introduced by "Art" and then ecofan charges in to sing the praises of Jim's thinking. Only this time he is playing with studying and working physicists not just knowledgeable folks. The end result is that he gets his hat handed to him by a poster indentified as Gokul43201. Peden via his alter ego "ecofan" is clearly fishing for complements in this thread but below is the respect he gets from his peers.

Here is the excerpt from the ecofan post clipped by Gokul43201:

Originally Posted by ecofan
Check this out

Farragher A L, Peden J A and Fite W L 1969 J. Chem. Phys.50287-93

I think that's the same guy ( Peden ) from the SRCC in Pittsburgh. If it is, the paper in question was a landmark paper that is still being quoted in the literature today, many decades later. He must be an old fart by now - the paper is dated 1969. And the Journal of Chemical Physics sure ain't Science magazine...

Gokul43201's comment on that excerpt:

1. This only makes it more embarrassing that this person has to now explain how his name is on an peer reviewed paper, when he seems to be lacking in high school level physics/chemistry fundamentals.

2. Being a second author on a paper is not absolute proof of any real knowledge of the subject matter. A second author could be a person that builds instrumentation, makes samples, writes computational algorithms, etc. Very often, the first author (likely the person that did all/most of the actual work) and the last author (likely the PI on the project) are the names that can be counted on to be knowledgeable about the paper. This is not to say that Peden was not knowledgeable about the content of the paper, though I find this a little hard to believe. In any case, if this person was knowledgeable in physics and chemistry 40 years ago, he is showing very little sign of it today.

3. I do not intend to downplay the importance of this paper, but AIP says that the above paper has exactly 3 citations amongst all peer-reviewed work. People that have written papers with 300 citations don't describe their works as "landmark".

4. Dr. Farragher and Dr. Fite show up as having authored dozens more papers, but J. A. Peden appears only with this one paper.

With all the "-gates" out there this "tempest in a teapot" scandal should probably be known as Ego-Gate. Here is a fellow so grieved that he is not a legitimate part of this debate that he discards the ethics of his profession and does everything he can—save the one thing he knows he should do (i.e., submit his ideas and comments for peer-review)—to make his voice heard. I suspect that his story is not unique in the world of the deniers which makes the criticism this crowd heaped on Phil Jones and the CRU folks all the more inappropriate.

So why do I care about this fellow and his sad little climate change side show? Normally I wouldn't take time with this save for two reasons. First, this gentleman is a relentless and mean blogger who regularly bullies his way across the discussion groups. He pours out vitriolic comments and marches over folks whose only sin is trying to figure out what is going on with our planet.

My second is because this is the person hand-picked by Marc Morano of Senator James Inhofe staff as an expert and mentioned repeatedly before Inhofe's committee on climate change and on his website. Is this really the best the climate skeptics have to offer? And should climate policy really be influenced or driven by a person who regularly resorts to childish trickery? Folks like Jim Peden have no business influencing Congress on climate change, period. He does not work in the field and publishing a blog critiquing other people's work is not the same as conducting research and publishing peer-reviewed articles in ISI-listed journals. Using him as an expert on climate change is a lot like asking a junior varsity football player to accurately describe what it is like to play in the Super Bowl.

Sorry Jim, but given all the grief heaped by you and your cronies on the CRU folks for doing nothing wrong, you have to expect that some might come flying back in your direction when you actually do something wrong. I thought that I actually took it pretty easy on you. I didn't mention the fact that you often make mistakes like confusing Kornbluth's work with Heinlein's. Oops I guess I did. But it indicates a certain lack of accuracy and detail characteristic of your work.

Post script: Since I wrote this original piece and then set it aside, I had an e-mail conversation with Jim and confronted him on the surfing California professor string. He was anything but contrite and dismissed it as a mind game that folks in Mensa played. I talked to the Mensa folks about this and found that the local chapter was not amused when he published a 6-page climate change rant as an opinion piece in their newsletter when he served as editor. He was asked to keep his politics to himself and not do it again.


  1. Hi Bob. Thanks for taking the time to research, write, and post this. At some level, it makes me very sad. This isn't some silly game. Back in 1979, the NRC said the evidence, while not conclusive, was strong enough to justify government action. Jokers like this guy have caused us to fritter away 31 years, making the eventual response more painful, more costly, and much less effective than it would have been if we had stayed the course on President Carter's renewable & efficiency goals.

  2. A very good piece on Jim Peden who is really a good example of how people like him use the power of the Internet to log on and disrupt serious discussions with their perhaps mentally unbalanced mind games. Jim has befriended Andrew Revkin of the NY Times and often posts on Andy's FB page, complete rubbish and he has insulted as many climate activists as he can. The thing is: he is likely a mentally unbalanced man, retired and just having fun online. It's sad. GOOD TAKE-DOWN, Sir

    Now we know....THE REST OF THE JIM PEDEN STORY.....

    i am fwd this to Andy Revkin, too.

  3. Jim is flabbergastingly dishonest.