A review and comment on: Ferenc Jankó, Norbert Móricz, Judit Papp Vancsó, “Reviewing the climate change reviewers: Exploring controversy through report references and citations,” Geoforum, Volume 56, September 2014, pages 17–34.
An article published in the September, 2014 issue of Geoforum, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Elsevier, reports 90.79% of source citations in Climate Change Reconsidered: The 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) were to peer-reviewed journals, a higher percentage than was the case with the United Nations’ IPCC Third and Fourth Assessment Reports. The authors found “the scientific background of the NIPCC report is quite similar to the IPCC report,” and concluded, “when we take the contrarian arguments seriously, there is a chance to bring together the differing views and knowledge claims of the disputing ‘interpretive communities’ (Lahsen, 2013b).”
This is dramatic vindication for the lead authors (Craig Idso and S. Fred Singer), 35 contributors and reviewers, and coeditors (Diane Carol Bast and me) of the 2009 NIPCC report. On a shoe-string budget and tight time-line, we produced a report that is just as credible as those produced by an international bureaucracy involving thousands of scientists, activists, and politicians, spending many millions of dollars, and taking several years to produce.
Since 2009, NIPCC has produced three more volumes – an interim report in 2011 containing chiefly reviews of new research, and two hefty volumes in 2013 and earlier this year focusing on the physical science and biological impacts of climate change. Those volumes are even more comprehensive and authoritative than the 2009 report.
The Geoforum article is not the first time NIPCC has been recognized as a major contributor to the global warming debate. The volumes have been cited more than 100 times in peer-reviewed journal articles and by a long list of prominent climate scientists. In 2013, the Information Center for Global Change Studies, a division of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, translated and published an abridged edition of the 2009 and 2011 NIPCC reports in a single volume, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences organized a NIPCC Workshop in Beijing to allow the NIPCC principal authors to present summaries of their conclusions.
When the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post reported on the release of the IPCC’s latest report, in late 2013, their news articles also commented on the latest NIPCC report, noting that NIPCC reached the opposite conclusions, indicating that a legitimate scientific debate over the causes and consequences of climate change continued.
The Geoforum article contains statements and information worth noting. Regarding the NIPCC report’s use of peer-reviewed literature, the authors say, “The peer-reviewed material was 90.5% of the IPCC report (and 84% of the IPCC TAR WGI Report – Bjurström and Polk, 2011a) and 90.79% of the material used by the NIPCC.” The authors write that they had “assumed that the reference list of the NIPCC report would differ markedly” from that of IPCC reports due to the alarmist bias of the editors of mainstream science journals and the “malpractice” revealed during the Climategate scandal. “In fact,” they write, “considering the most cited journals (Journal of Geophysical Research, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Climate, Nature, Science), it seems that the scientific background of the NIPCC report is quite similar to the IPCC report.”
The authors found the 2009 NIPCC report apparently has 1,466 references, of which 1,331 were peer-reviewed. We never counted them ourselves, so we thank them for this hard work.
The penultimate paragraphs of the Geoforum article call out some findings, but are couched in language that obscures the points made above and reduces the findings to some rather arcane observations. Reviewing the same body of literature and coming to opposite conclusions is evidence that “the assessment process [is] flexible,” another way of saying disagreement can be honest and not due to fakery. Then the author write,
What are the implications for science? There is a real concern that the controversy has so far had a negative effect on the reputation of science. From the perspective of an idealised public view of science (Lahsen, 2013a), such a polarised debate about ‘truths’ may be confusing. Thus, social science with science studies in the forefront has a mission to change this obsolete view of science. Saying ‘yes’ to our first question we might have a somewhat ‘naive’ implication for the IPCC; improving and widening the reviewing process may be a possible answer to the contrarian criticisms. But when we take the contrarian arguments seriously, there is a chance to bring together the differing views and knowledge claims of the disputing ‘interpretive communities’ (Lahsen, 2013b).
The final paragraph reads as follows:
More broadly, we should consider that both reports purport to be based on the ideal of pure, value-free science, where the prevailing scientific practices may not lead to the end of the debate because citations are not solid bricks on which to build statements, conclusions and political decisions later on (cf. Sarewitz, 2004). Scientific reports should be viewed not only as a second level of peer review and canonization of scientific facts but also as a means of politicization of science. Our paper’s final conclusion, claiming a more constructive and iterative science-policy relation, is well echoed in the literature (e.g. Demeritt, 2006; Pielke, 2007; Hulme, 2009; van der Sluijs et al., 2010b; Latour, 2011). However, there will be hope for better science for the public and for policy, for better constructions of the problem only when we fully understand the knowledge controversy around climate change.
This is a little perplexing until you realize they are assuming, but don’t say, that NIPCC is comparable and just as credible (or not) as the IPCC report. Both studies, they say, demonstrate that survey reports like IPCC and NIPCC are not “pure, value-free science” nor are they sufficiently credible to serve as the basis for “statements, conclusions and political decisions later on.” Rather, such studies are “a second level of peer review and canonization of scientific facts but also … a means of politicization of science.”
I take this as an effort to poison a victory by global warming skeptics. NIPCC is just as good, just as credible or reliable, as the IPCC, and this message ought to be shouted from rooftops. But having achieved this despite lack of resources, editorial bias, and outright academic fraud, the significance of our victory is trivialized by saying it hardly matters because neither NIPCC nor IPCC is credible or reliable.
Such criticism of the IPCC is rare in the peer-reviewed literature, and if the price of getting “mainstream” academics to say it is to have our credibility disparaged as well, I suppose it is worth paying. Regardless, it is now clear that mainstream academics must take global warming skeptics seriously.