Mon 30 Aug 2010
While I have written on this blog about the IPCC’s need to be more transparent in its workings, there comes a point where the constant barrage of reports and studies of previous IPCC findings becomes a serious problem. Yes, another report, this time about the issue of glaciers in the Himalayas in the previous IPCC assessment report (AR4). Despite fairly intense efforts to discredit AR4 – coming under the heading of “climategate” (people saying dumb things, and sometimes not so dumb things that were willfully misconstrued, on e-mails that were stolen from a server at a major climate research center) and Himalayagate (where the working group I recently joined relied on a bit of non-peer reviewed literature from an otherwise reputable source – called grey literature in scientific jargon – that turned out to be wrong), the reports on AR4 (yep, reports on the report) have yet to question the overall findings of the IPCC to this point. Some see this as evidence of a conspiracy, where the inquiries into the IPCC and its findings are already corrupt and unable to come to independent conclusions. Personally, I have a bit of difficulty believing in such a wide-ranging, well-coordinated conspiracy. Maybe, just maybe, the findings are as close to valid as we can verify under current knowledge. Maybe?
Anyway, my complaint here is not really with yet another inquiry into the IPCC – I’d bet my house that the inquiry will not challenge the larger findings of AR4. However, when all that ever reaches the news is a constant barrage of reports on the findings of inquiries into supposed misdeeds on the part of the IPCC, it is hard to blame the general public for doubting the validity of its findings.
All of this goes back to a much earlier post that got a lot of attention, especially considering how remarkably simple its central point was: we need to be very transparent in what we do going forward. That, and as Bob Watson, former head of the IPCC and a colleague from the Millennium Assessment and GEO-4, noted about the “Himalayagate issue”:
Yep. The IPCC, and indeed most major environmental assessments, really need to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes we will be wrong – that is the nature of knowledge, let alone science – and we need to start engaging the professionals when it comes to PR. I have it firsthand from Pachauri that the IPCC is fully engaged in such an effort (PR, that is), and has been for some time. Good. We recruit scientific experts for their special abilities, but somehow we resist recruiting PR people? To quote the physics Nobelist Erwin Schroedinger, “If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless”. To take it another step, if we cannot honestly and clearly communicate what we do and don’t know, and when we get things wrong, than whatever we have done right will be lost in the maelstrom.
Oh, and can we get a new tag for scandals? Himalayagate? Really? Could we find a more odd combination of geography to cram into a single word?