Skeptics Prefer Pal Review Over Peer Review: Chris de Freitas, Pat Michaels And Their Pals, 1997-2003

Read time: 4 mins
anti-science pot calling science kettle black

Imagine for a moment that climate change skeptics actually submitted their anti-science arguments for publication in a credible peer-reviewed journal. Now imagine that, after thorough examination and debunking by their peers, these skeptics finally admitted their many false claims and assumptions, and perhaps some or all moved on to contribute meaningfully to the vast body of science confirming manmade climate change?

Ok, back to reality.

Instead, the skeptics' greatest and most-often cited (by them) “peer-reviewed studies” appeared in the journal Climate Research between 1997-2003. This journal has been considered credible at certain points in its history, and many fine papers have appeared there.

But according to my new analysis [PDF] of the papers published in Climate Research, there is a very clear gap in credibility during the years 1997-2003 when Chris de Freitas served as one of the journal's editors. During this time, de Freitas oversaw the publication of 14 papers from notorious skeptics - half of them authored by fossil fuel industry pal Pat Michaels - many of which would not have survived rigorous and honest peer review at any other credible journal. 

A few months ago, another journal's editor resigned over a paper that should not have been accepted due to a poor peer review process. It reminded many of us of the more drastic case of Climate Research (CR), where several editors resigned in 2003 in the wake of a colossally poor paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, accepted for publication by none other than Chris de Freitas.

It was certainly not the first de Freitas-endorsed paper to pass weak editorial processes at Climate Research, but when incoming Editor-in-Chief Hans von Storch suggested the paper should not have been published, he endeavored to fix editorial processes to prevent such problems.  The publisher did not agree, so von Storch and other editors resigned.

At the time, climate scientists were rightly concerned that CR had become a magnet for poor science. When the hacked CRU emails appeared in 2009, climate skeptics tried to invert reality, claiming that several widely-published climate scientists had conspired to subvert peer review. 

The skeptic echo chamber lauded Chris de Freitas as a noble martyr, a cry that has grown louder this month in the aftermath of the so-called “Climategate 2.0” illegal release of more of the CRU scientists' emails.

This isn't a novel experience when it comes to skeptic “science” efforts. Recall The Wegman Report for example, which attempted to criticize legitimate climate science for “bad” peer review, although it had no such peer critique itself.  A follow-on article, which also had bypassed peer review, ultimately earned a retraction for plagiarism.  

If there seems to be a pattern here, there is. Reality bites back, and it appears set to do so again now.

Last June, Pat Michaels wrote “Pal Review and Peer Review…” This inspired me to revisit the Climate Research episode in a more detailed fashion, and I began checking 700+ papers published there.

As it turns out, the problem was more pervasive than climate scientists had suspected at the time.

My analysis of the Climate Research papers shows that:

  • From 1990 to 1996, CR published zero papers from any of the pals:
    Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling, John Christy, Robert Davis, (Chris de Freitas), David Douglass, Vincent Gray, Sherwood Idso, PJ Knappenberger, Ross McKitrick, Pat Michaels, Eric Posmentier, Arthur Robinson, Willie Soon, and Gerd-Rainer Weber. DeSmogBlog readers may recognize these names, since most appear in the DeSmogBlog Research Database. They have long histories of cooperation in climate anti-science.
  • Chris de Freitas became an editor and then accepted 14 papers from the pals between 1997-2003. With de Freitas as an editor, Climate Research provided a platform which the pals would quickly embrace to sneak through anti-science papers.
  • After the mass resignation of CR editors in 2003, no more pals’ papers were accepted via de Freitas. After a few more papers via others, the pals published no more in CR.
  • But clearly the Climate Research + Chris de Freitas combination presented a skeptic-friendly opportunity to publish questionable papers, while it lasted.

Not all papers were bad, but some others were dubious.  Even reasonable-looking pals papers often included messages that might not be justified by the text, but that might make nice quotes for doubt-production.

Michaels authored 7 of the 14 papers, about half of his total “peer-reviewed” production during that period.  Perhaps Michaels might fairly be called “King of the Pals.”

The attached PDF analysis shows the chronologies and social networks of the pals, followed by summaries of the papers in the context of Michaels' and de Freitas' publications.  The Excel spreadsheet lists the papers and their attributes.

The scientists were defending peer review from abuse, as was their responsibility to science. de Freitas a martyr for good science?  I don't think so.

Image credit: John T Takai / Shutterstock.

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


The “climate skeptics” have long practiced intellectual hypocrisy. Good work highlighting their ethical deceptions here.

out of step use of the word skeptic in this article. If I call these guys skeptics, I get voted down and some smart alec says I “have no clue”what the word skeptic means.

I supposoe this article gives me licence to call the contrarians skeptics.

‘I supposoe this article gives me licence to call the contrarians skeptics.’

No it does not, they are just liars for hire, even if it is only lying to themselves but that is not a valid excuse in reality.

See - basic double standard. You guys really have to rise above that if you want to be taken seriously.

“If I call these guys skeptics, I get voted down and some smart alec says I “have no clue”what the word skeptic means.”

Rick , it has been pointed out to you on numerous occasions what the difference is.

  • Scepticism is part of the scientific process of observation and experimentation; good scientists are sceptics. Good sceptics are willing to be lead by the facts, wherever they lead in the spirit of open inquiry. Good sceptics are motivated by the desire to advance our knowledge in a particular field and are open to changing their minds in light of compelling evidence.
  • Denialism is driven by ideology where the need to maintain the belief takes precedence over the evidence. A denier has decided their position in advance and looks through the data with the aim of confirming their pre-existing beliefs, ignoring the rest of evidence. A denier is not motivated by the desire to improve our understanding; many appear motivated by the desire to promote confusion and doubt about climate change. They are often linked in this case to the fossil fuel lobby or vested interests.

These denier scientists are not lead by the facts. Nor are denier commenters here. Their/your position on every facet is predictably immovable. The denier commenters here appear to be more ideologically motivated. Where as the denier scientists appear to be not only ideologically motivated, by financially.

read the title of the article. “Skeptic”is used here in an incorrect way. I’m calling the author on that because he’s doing what I am not permitted to do under the Phil…osophy you’ve just expressed.

(unrelated - the comment buttons work really well now - good job whoever fixed it)

FWIW Chris de Freitas says “…I am not a global warming sceptic….” (?)

Make of that what you will.

As always excellent work Dr Mashey

Of course, the deniers will simply claim this as evidence of suppression of dissenting opinions under editors other than de Freitas.  You really can’t win any argument against them.

As Rick James proves with every post he makes.

Its a perfectly reasonable question.

Specifically, what I am saying is that the purpose is to argue, and not actually resolve anything, but to pretend that there is some sort of debate going on.

Now consider that your political persuasion is a clear indicator of what you believe;

Nothing here points to this having anything to do with facts.

PS. Its a good movie by the way.

Denier caught Lying, Cheating, AND stealing.

The Dangers of avoiding Peer Review

(There’s a great section of similar scandals at the bottom.)

The other reason Peer Review is important is that it does present the data for others to see and use.  Falsifying anything will cost you your degree and\or your job.

Your exhaustive work deserves all the traction it can get. Time and again you are delivering ‘the goods’ on these scum.

The intracy of the contrarian networks beggars belief. If only they could be made to obey FOIA. What was that you said GWPF?

“If only they could be made to obey FOIA

The state of Virginia and many honest citizens have been saying the same thing about Michael Mann for literally YEARS without redress!

It has nothing to do with his work at all.  I don’t want to know about his sex life.  I don’t care.  Why you want to know it, is simply sickening.

What you need to do is do some REAL work.  Read some papers, and try to understand what is being said, and why.  All of Mann’s work is available for you to read.

Instead you seem to be focused to conspiracy theories promulgated by McExperts.

Buut if you want to see a real tear down on those emails watch this, the guy is unrelenting.

I think your missing the point. The cliamteers are trying to save the planet, regardless of how debunked the science is it is a good thing for you to stop using fossil fuels. The ends justifies the means, you don’t think that climateers should abide by freedom of information requests or have there journal articles peer reviewed by someone that might provide scrutiny do you? Seriously though any scientific evidence that is contrary to global warming dogma should be supressed or at the very least peer reviewed by the cliamteers. You know they would do the right thing as we can see from climategate 1 and 2.

I see some people are into “look! A squirrel” Mode, unwilling to actually discuss the topic.

“Skeptics” is a diversion from discussing the best example I know of a “rogue” editor subverting peer-review for his pals … and then wanting to be thought a martyr.

Read the PDF itself, where the term “skeptic” appears only once … because it's in a title of Idso's paper.

Since the term “skeptic” is badly abused and has been made ambiguous.  I general use the term anti-science (i.e., a subset of that studied in agnotology) and speak of anti-science papers or activities or people who promote anti-science.  See CCC p.7 for discussion.

I occasionally write for Skeptical Inquirer, for skeptics in the classic positive sense that I learned as a kid.  Of course, most scientists are skeptics in that sense as well, always probing at hypotheses and willing to change their minds with new evidence, which (contrarians, denies, denialists) don't, but want to be called skeptics undcer its alternate meaning.  By now, the term has been shredded.

I've often found it useful to distinguish between:

1) Someone who repeats anti-science memes, such as the hordes of commenters.

2) Someone who creates them, actively promotes them, organizes anti-science, i.e., like the pals  (who after all, included 2 coal guys, 2 astrophysicists, an economist, a chemist who works in the woods and has dead guys on his “faculty, etc. )

Some have used “denier” for 1) and “denialist” for 2), but others just lump them al together as “deniers” or “contrarians.”

Anyway, I urge people to ignore the terminology issue in favor of substance.

Q: if I don't use the term skeptic much, why was it here?

A: My language was a bit clumsy for a blog post,  I was pressed for time and Brendan helped me with some quick editing, which generally made it more readable, but used the skeptic term (to mean denier, which he might have used instead) … of course, people would have nit-picked that …

ANYTHING to avoid discussing the actual topic, which is that the scientists recognized subversion of peer review (but didn't know the pervasiveness) … and later, the very subverters try to quote-mine emails to claim the scientists were the culprits.


“good explanation - substance is more important than precise terminology”

Nice selective interpretation of a comment again Rick *golf clap*. But a nice segue never less into the substance of the article. What did you think about :

“When de Freitas became editor, CR was ―open for business‖ and it arrived quickly from the pals, a group of people who have accumulated a long history of climate anti-science activities, papers and involvement with organizations that promote anti-science, not just for climate, but often for other areas.17
Some papers seemed fine, if not necessarily very important, but some very dubious papers were accepted. Michaels‘ 7 papers accounted for half of his entire peer-reviewed production during the period.
When de Freitas left, the flow of papers from pals effectively dried up.”

Ouch. What else could you call that but deniers & liars for hire? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Thanks John.


that stuff is the minutia Phil. I’m not interested in defending or not defending contrarians - they’re just contrarians - they’re small potatos. The spotlight needs to be kept on the consensus scientists. They’re the ones that matter. They’re the ones who want to change how the world works and that’s why they have to attain to a higher standard.

The one thing I take from your comment is that peer review is an imperfect system and therefore we need to stop throwing around the term “peer review”as if it’s the last word on anything. Apparently it’s a filter that lets stuff through.

The amount and quantity of failures in Peer Review is microscopic.

Furthermore, folks such as yourself fail to offer any reasonable alternative to a functioning system.

Notably its crappy climate science deniers who are working hard to at subverting the system, and getting caught out for liying cheating and stealing.  This isn’t a problem for them since they aren’t experts.  Its not like stripping them of their fake credentials will impact their careers as PR agents for oil companies.

This stands in sharp contrast to the work of a real expert who will pretty much loose everything for engaging in what appears to be standard practice for silly little climate change deniers.

could be - but to the layman it just doesn’t look like that. When climategate emails are dismissed as nothing and yet the scientists seem to at times express the same doubts as contrarians, it makes the man on the street pause and wonder. 

The average guy like me - the public - doesn’t read science papers or science magazines. We read blogs at most and that isn’t going to change.

It probably seems silly for me to offer an alternative to the system scientists find to work for them, but seeing as how this is just a comment thread on the internet… here goes…

Instead of relying on the blessing of particular magazines (who will have editors with their own particular bias) magazines that are not likely accessed by the averge Joe,  - why not just have the scientists just focus on their own blogs and write in such a way as to be accessable to everyone. 

That’s supposed to be what Realclimate is but it doesn’t really work. They just preach to the choir there instead of developing open communication that could win over the masses.

Even contrarians like Watts and McIntyre are too sciency for the average person. Now you can disparage the education of the average man all you want, but thats just foolishness. Scientists have to speak the language of their audience or it all gets lost.

Scientists have to decide if they want to communicate or if they would rather talk to the wind. So far, they mostly go with option b.


The purpose of publishing has nothing to do with informing the public.  They are not the audience.  I don’t know why you’d even suggest it.

To read the average paper you need a steep 7 years of post high school education, and a further several years (minimum) to steep yourself in a narrow range of material. 

While I can read much, they usually get into details beyond me. Furthermore demanding that they dumb it down for the public will drop all the detail.  As you know, the devil is in the detail.

Journals are not magazines don’t confuse the two.  They are in many ways held to a higher standard than anything else. If I journal does stupid things or produces ignorant papers it will be sidelined and thrown out of the community.  The purpose of the journal is to ensure that proper procedure and technique is used and make sure that the facts support the conclusions.

This is an unbiased process.  Lots of crap gets published… lots of contrarian information gets published.  It’s easy to do, as long as the science is held up correctly. (You will find that objection from the community occurs when simple understanding doesn’t seem to occur within the paper.)

Do watch this (the issue is discussed in the climate gate emails);

The job of disseminating information falls on larger organizations to put together the tens of thousands of pieces into a coherent package.  This is the role of the IPCC. I recommend that you read the summaries here;

So, in engineering and manufacturing a similar problem occurs.  How do you know whether your product will work if you manufacture it?  You are grabbing parts from all over the place and many of them are custom made.  The answer is simple.  You review the processes in place in the other organizations and ensure that they are robust.  You double check the veracity of the work by boring into a few spots and seeing whether the work is done soundly correctly.  After this you can place your trust in the processes making the product.

Now you have an idea of where I come from.  I know the review process, and the processes seem correct.  The papers I’ve reviewed are correct because I reviewed them.  So the science is correct.

By contrast, deniers consistently get caught lying cheating and stealing.  Their process seems incorrect.  The science they produce is incorrect and unsubstantiated.  There is something wrong with their science.

PS.  You have to look pretty long and hard to find any science from Watts and McIntyre.

Joanne Nova had a funny article on her blog recently about dismissing the climategate email, it has more than a little truth to it. As they say, if the shoe fits…

“The top 10 excuses for PR writers  who pose as “journalists” to ignore ClimateGate emails”

1. “The emails are old”

(No one has seen them before, and what makes two-year-old lies acceptable now?).

2. “The timing is suspicious”

(Alarmists release alarming stuff all the time in the lead up to big meetings, but look out, it’s suspicious when a skeptic releases alarming stuff about those scientists at the same time!)

3. “They’re out of context”

(We won’t explain the context, or quote the email, trust us, they just are, OK?)

4. “The emails show a robust scientific debate”

(But that is the whole point isn’t it? We were told the “science was settled”? It is dishonest to discuss uncertainties in private while you tell the public “the debate is over” and call anyone who questions that a “denier”.)

5.“They’ve been investigated”

(Even though the investigations didn’t have these emails, didn’t investigate the science, and were at least in one case, chaired by a windfarm expert, this point is supposed to have credibility?)

6.“They’re hacked” or “stolen”

(After years of investigation there is no evidence they were hacked. They could have been leaked. Police can’t or won’t say. Does this journalist “know” something the police don’t?)

7. “Aren’t the skeptics nasty people?”

(Crikey, imagine reading emails written by paid public servants on the job about their professional work? What victims! Those poor scientists can’t even threaten journal editors, conspire to ignore peer reviewed papers they don’t like, or discuss their ignorance in private… what’s the world coming too?)

8. “This doesn’t change the science”

(Since most of “the science” is merely a consensus of these same experts, whom we are told to respect, then actually it does change “the science” when they are caught cheating.)

9. The emails “mean nothing” according the scientists caught cheating

(The sock puppet earns bonus points if those same scientists also get to slur the whistleblower and skeptics with unsubstantiated implications that “they are funded by fossil fuels”.)

10. The public response is a “yawn”

(And given how few journalists are reporting the actual emails to the public, that’s entirely predictable eh? Circular reasoning strikes again.)


So, with all the 'contrarian' talking points you've iterated above, I'd LOVE to know whast you think of the hugely conspiratorial BEST study, and how the analysis of over 1.6 BILLION pieces of data comport with your worldview.

…so, I'm familair with your tactics, Rick: if I've EVER seen a better definition of a concern troll, I cannot remember when. You truly typify what John Mashey and others write about all the time: the hand-waving of so-called 'skeptics,' and how successful your ilk has been in derailing effective action.

Most journals have an Editor-in-CHief or other processes to avoid such problems.

A few poor papers still get through; climate science is rare in having a well-organized anti-science effort trying to slip bad papers through.  Of course, many sciences have to deal with academic fraud, i.e., see <a href=””>Retraction Watch</a>.

Atomic physics doesn't  have to worry about others trying to subvert peer review to inject articles that prove electrons don't exist.  :-)

Usually, bad climate articles have had to go off to E&E, physics journals, statistics journals because the peer review is good enough.  I have sympathy for von Storch, who certainly deserved to be E-i-C.

…pointing out the gross, repeated errors in those who are UNeducated in the field that they deem completewly wrong is GREAT work, work well-done by John Mashey. Those who are capable of rational, proper scientific inquiry WILL be won over by that, hopefully before it's too late.