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Peer review: Putting politics before science on ultimate PC issue, climate change…

… and then wondering why people don’t take the science seriously.

In “Climate panel adopts controversial ‘grey’ evidence” (New Scientist, 19 June 2012), Fred Pearce reports,

Climate scientists are likely to face charges of putting politics before science, following two controversial decisions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month.

The IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the scientists who author its major assessment reports. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.

Controversially, it also voted to increase the role in those assessments of “grey literature”: publications not subject to peer review. Using such material in the last assessment is what led to the “glaciergate” scandal in 2010, when the report was found to have vastly overestimated the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are losing ice.

Pearce writes as one who sort of recognizes the problem but can’t quite say it: The imposition of politically correct quotas for authors’ gender and origins, as he describes it, does put politics before science. That’s a matter of fact, not interpretation.

Of course, one could write (and some have written) books on what’s wrong with peer review. But in a world where many already doubt what they’re reading on climate change (cf. memogate), just tossing it out could be fatal to credibility.

Thought experiment: What if it was cancer research? We anxiously await treatments that work. And we are told that, hallelujah!, the big achievement is that more of the papers are written by women and/or people from less well represented parts of the world (and not subject to peer review). What would we think had been achieved in cancer science, as opposed to cancer politics? And, one must then ask, how much of what they are doing is science anyway?

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One Response to Peer review: Putting politics before science on ultimate PC issue, climate change…

  1. News: The article has been amended; you should go back an re-read it. In particular, the statement about geographical quotas for authorship was incorrect. The geographical quotas only refer to membership in the IPCC bureau. The updated text reads:

    At a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month, the IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the elected officials that make up its bureau. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.

    It’s also worth reading the comment by Richard Klein, which I reproduce in full below:

    Fred Pearce contacted me before writing this article but two issues he raises require clarification.

    First, the article conflates membership of the IPCC Bureau with IPCC authorship. The decision on geographical ‘quotas’ refers to the composition of the Bureau. The selection of authors has always been based on a combination of expertise, geographical balance and, increasingly, gender, and this is unlikely to change. But that’s not what the decision was about.

    Second, Fred Pearce chose to ignore my clarification of what constitutes grey literature, which may have led to misunderstandings among those surprised by IPCC’s decision. Here is what I wrote to Pearce:

    “The discussion about grey literature often takes place without making clear exactly what constitutes grey literature. Perhaps as a result of the Himalaya error in AR4, some people seem to assume that grey literature refers only to NGO publications (and also that all NGOs are activist NGOs). Grey literature basically refers to everything that hasn’t been published in peer-reviewed journals, including edited books and monographs, PhD theses and other university publications, publications by international organisations such as OECD, IEA and the World Bank, as well as those of think tanks such as IIASA IISD and SEI. In fact, IPCC reports themselves are grey literature, as is, for example, the Stern Review on the economics of climate change.

    The nature of IPCC Working Group I is such that there’s very little need to rely on grey literature; most, if not all, of the science that needs to be assessed by WGI is published in peer reviewed journals. For WGs II and III this is often not the case, and assessments by these working groups benefit from being able to refer to professional publications (e.g. insurance journals) and reports from international organisations such as the ones I mentioned. The Inter-Academy Council recognised this and did not recommend banning the use of grey literature by IPCC. Instead, it recommended tightening the procedures that are to be followed by authors who wish to refer to grey literature in IPCC chapters. This recommendation has been followed up by IPCC and author guidance to this effect is now in place.”

    I hope that this comment serves to clarify why the IPCC has decided not to ban grey literature, as opposed to feed online controversy based on innuendo.

    Kind regards,

    Richard Klein

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