IPCC: Peer-review? what peer-review?
Something has happened at the super-transparent world-bettering organization called the IPCC that Hilary Ostrov who has been yanking and tugging and pulling at this, says in wry Canadian understatement:
A disappointing but not unexpected result,…
What is this something? You must remember the ‘review of the IPCC’ conducted by a body called the Interacademy Council? The IAC in their review came up with the one recommendation that would have helped the IPCC improve its reports. And the scofflaw IPCC has in turn, decided unilaterally to throw this rule out of the window.
Well, the IAC actually came up with a whole handful of advice. Firstly they said, the chairman shouldn’t be chairman for more than six years, they asked the IPCC to have some kind of a (or any kind of a ) conflict-of-interest policy, they said the reports should contain only sensible predictive statements (and not statements like, ‘It is extremely likely (100% confidence) that some climate change will occur in the next 100 years), and they said the IPCC should not attach numerical percent figures to the guesswork of experts.
They said a whole lot of other things too, but the one piece of advice that was directly connected to the whole reason the IAC was even called to conduct its review, was its advice on the IPCC’s handling of peer-reviewed research material.
The first thing that RK Pachauri did after receiving the IAC recommendations—find his reelection as IPCC chairman affirmed - in complete contravention of the IAC’s advice. The spectrum of people who called for his resignation at the time was flabbergasting: Tim Yeo, Brian Hoskins, Mike Hulme, Fred Pearce, John Sauven, Tony Juniper, George Monbiot, Andrew Turbull … What happened in response? Nothing.
Then came in the matter of adoption of a conflict-of-interest policy. This was an area where there was abundant evidence indicating conflicts. Authors reviewing their own work, emplyoying their authorships as a means to keep out dissenting literature. The IPCC chairman’s own home organization utilizing findings from the IPCC report in grant applications, to study glacier phenomena that were promulgated by his scientist-colleague, who was employed in his own organization. The correction of blatant errors of which, delayed by the same chairman because of his attending the Copenhagen conference. The IPCC chairman being employed in the board of many private corporations, … And what did the IPCC do in response? Nothing.
The next thing in line was the peer-review issue. You can read the available submissions to discern how blindingly important this specific issue was to the IPCC’s well-being and image. Almost uniformly, persons not directly to the IPCC unequivocally condemned the use of grey literature from advocacy fronts and environmental pressure groups (search for ‘WWF’ or ‘Greenpeace’ in this 678-page document and you’ll understand the reputation enjoyed by these wonderful organizations). Paradoxically enough, almost all persons connected to the IPCC admitted that use of grey literature by the IPCC in one form or the other was unavoidable. Of course, this contrast between what is expected of the IPCC and what goes on behind the curtain is surprising only if you happen to believe the propaganda and outright lies that people like RK Pachauri, climate hack Joe Romm have helped disseminate about the IPCC’s reports.
Almost all of the IPCC’s curent woes can be traced back to its use of grey literature from environmental pressure groups or non-governmental organizations- Amazongate, Glaciergate, Africagate and the like. Contrary to their pious pretensions, the sole purpose of a strong ‘research presence’ of many of these organizations is to swamp the climate impacts resesarch space with well-produced, glossy ‘reports’ with full-color spread photographic evidence of the hell that earth had supposedly become. Not very much unlike the celebrity-hardback toiletbook genre in the popular press, that Stewart Lee pointed out.
The strong calls for not using any grey literature in the IPCC reports notwithstanding, one can even be persuaded to see why the IPCC cannot give it up so easily. Being the backwaters discipline that it is in many parts, there is hardly any credible peer-reviewed scientific information available in areas of climate ‘impacts’, ‘mitigation’, ‘adaptation’ among others. Indeed it can be argued that these proliferating areas of scholarly endeavour sprang up solely because the IPCC goes looking for such material, and that work in these areas attains institutional status, by being cited in the IPCC reports and not the other way around.
The IAC recommendation, in recognition of the above was therefore already a ‘cop-out’ to begin with. It had indirectly conceded that non-peer-reviewed material could not be avoided by the IPCC. Grey literature was going to be in the reports. It had but one recommendation to make: flag the references listed so the reader could see clearly, what claim originated in what kind of literature.
It is this recommendation that the IPCC has now thrown out the window. The IPCC will not comply even with this meagre watered-down requirement. Instead, “the group agreed”, we are told, that “they would not flag information derived from grey literature” and focus on “ensuring the high quality of all information” provided.
Well, how cute. When you are told to do something, you decide to address the issue, by not doing it. The whole raison d’etre of convening the Interacademy Council was the public outcry caused by the revelation that grey literature, non-peer-reviewed material formed the source for so many of the IPCC’s dramatic claims. Instead we hear that this brilliant organization will assidiously avoid material from, “blogs and social networking sites”. That’s right, those were the real troublesome sources of climate information.
There is a tendency to bash on the environmental pressure groups, on occasion, for the flaws and exaggerations that reside in their so-called reports. In a way perhaps, it serves a purpose if only because they seem to have their heads swollen up. The other side of the story of course is that it was the climate establishment which, in its fevered attempt to stamp out dissenting voices, draped itself in the virtuous robes of peer-review. Grey literature is fine too and we knew it to be so to begin with—it was the IPCC and its supporters’ shenanigans which made it a dirty word. The real problem lies with the uncritical assessment, direct channelling and blind copy-pasting carried out by the IPCC and not in material put out by advocacy groups per se. When we lift up a WWF pamphlet and read it, we know what to make of it; it was the IPCC that forgot.
So in effect the IPCC, this ‘screeching, flashing, billboard-sized example of influence without accountability’ has managed to sideswipe any and all constructive advice that has come its way. If the IPCC had flagged the grey literature citations in its reports, it would be its own hypocrisy that would be exposed when readers would flip through its pages and discover its references all pock-marked with the flags. That is the real reason why it will not flag. Not to worry, dear IPCC, we’ll take a flag and stick it on your report. You don’t flag it, we’ll flag you.