by Judith Curry
By addressing the symptoms (lack of information and communication) rather than the underlying causes (lack of public accountability and transparency), the IPCC leadership is failing to adequately address the problem of restoring expert credibility. By using its communication strategy as a means of “gatekeeping,” the IPCC is exacerbating rather than solving the problem of public trust caused by the authoritarian and exclusive performance of the “establishment.” – Silke Beck
Over the past year, I’ve been reading a lot of social science papers that discuss climate change. I think it is important for climate scientists to understand the social and political contexts, so we can avoid situations such as described by Michael Mann. I haven’t been very impressed with most of this articles I’ve read, but this new article by Silke Beck gets it right, IMO.
Between Tribalism and Trust: The IPCC Under the “Public Microscope”
Abstract: This article explores how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has dealt with growing public scrutiny of its workings. It reviews recent initiatives set up to respond to the Climategate controversy. An independent review of the IPCC undertaken by an international scientific umbrella body—InterAcademy Council—can be shown to have triggered one of the turning points in the debate, placing the focus of attention on the IPCC’s transparency and accountability. However, the council’s recommendations have been implemented by the IPCC in such a way that the issue of public trust is treated as one of effective communication. The article then explains how IPCC’s responses to Climategate can be traced back to the linear model of expertise. The article concludes with a discussion why the challenge of producing policy-relevant knowledge under conditions of heightened public scrutiny also requires new forms of scientific appraisal aimed at wider publics.
On Display: Tribalism
According to Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz (2009), the stolen e-mails may indicate that some areas of climate science “have becomes sclerotic, that its scientific practices have become too partisan, that its funding—whether from private or public sectors—has compromised scientists.” Recent disclosures have brought up “a host of concerns about the IPCC that had been festering in the background: involvement of IPCC scientists in explicit climate policy advocacy; tribalism that excluded skeptics; hubris of scientists with regards to a noble (Nobel) cause; alarmism; and inadequate attention to the statistics of uncertainty and the complexity of alternative interpretations” (Curry 2010).
JC comment: (!!!) Interesting to see some of my blog posts and interviews quoted here.
According to Curry (2010), the content of e-mails also reveals larger concerns “has a combination of groupthink, political advocacy and a noble cause syndrome stifled scientific debate, slowed down scientific progress and corrupted the assessment process?” A 2010 editorial in the Guardian covered the Climategate story as “Climate Science: Truth and Tribalism.” At a first glance, the term “tribalism” indicates that climate skeptics’ arguments and voices have been kept “out of the debate.” At the same time, the term “tribalism” is used in different ways and remains fuzzy. It appears as if it had become the catchy metaphor for all the “sins” that are attributed to the IPCC.
It remains open who is actually being blamed. Ravetz, for instance, talks of “some individuals who dominate the IPCC” (2012: 25). He also claims that they perform the role of “self-appointed gatekeepers” in response to two decades under attack. When it comes to the group that dominates both the IPCC assessment processes and the peer review processes, Christy calls it the “establishment” and claims that it is “less than transparent” and “subject to bias” (Christy 2010, 2011). It seems as if this opaqueness in terms of persons and groups involved is part of the whole Climategate story. Tribalism is also connected to a “bunker mentality” (Pearce 2009). According to the Guardian, “tribalism” manifests itself in “sins such as partial peer-reviewing and overly zealous defense of one’s own research.”
JC comment: interesting to see an academic analysis of the climate tribalism issue. I think I was the first person to use this (at least after Climategate), in my climate audit essay.
Different commentators point to a common strategy of this group: the establishment has also exposed a highly elitist, gatekeeping approach to defining what is sound information, what is junk or biased information, and what are appropriate and useful interpretations. In the eyes of some commentators, the leaked e-mails revealed the establishment’s efforts to control their message by ignoring, marginalizing or suppressing alternative views and dissenting scientific papers, thus making it extremely difficult for alternative evidence to even be published (Christy 2010). The stolen e-mails raised awkward questions about the effectiveness of peer review—the supposed gold standard—and the extent to which the operation of the IPCC depends on this practice (Pearce 2010). These harsh comments are often picked up by the media and seed stories for the mainstream media.
Finally, the events surrounding Climategate indicate that there is a growing gap between the IPCC leadership and the expectations expressed by some blogging scientists and others within the global public sphere (see Ravetz, this volume) who are demanding greater accountability and transparency in climate research and in the assessment reports. The latter are calling for open and accountable forms ofknowledge production rather than the IPCC’s “authoritarian” and “exclusive” ones (Hulme and Ravetz 2009).
JC comment: good to see the blogosphere getting some credit!
The “Voodoo” Response
As a result of the challenges to its authority, the IPCC leadership has been faced with serious credibility problems. What was arguably so disquieting was not the occurrence of a mistake but the subsequent reaction of the IPCC chairman, Dr. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. The IPCC leadership was reluctant to admit to errors such as overstating the rate of Himalayan glacial melting and positing a higher percentage of land lying below sea level in the Netherlands than is actually the case. The IPCC chairman also characterized the Indian government report, whose disaster predictions were measured in centuries rather than decades, as “voodoo science” (Ritson 2011). It was only after one month’s delay—and under pressure—that the panel conceded that these minor errors had slipped through the system and had subsequently been corrected (Ritson 2011).
This pattern of response demonstrates the “complacency” of the IPCC leadership. Pachauri’s comments suggest that he harbors no self-doubt or self-critique: the quality of the IPCC and its performance will triumph over doubts. As Pachauri puts it: “[B]ased on the performance that we show to the whole world and the leadership that I provide to the IPCC, these opinions by a few motivated individuals will be washed away. I have no doubt about it at all” (Bagla 2010: 510–511).
This statement also reveals that Pachauri does not make any difference between the leadership that he provides to the IPCC and the IPCC leadership. He also acts as the appropriate authority to speak in the name of the panel. He thus claims to represent the IPCC. As also indicated in his statement, Pachauri still uses the gatekeeping approach and continues to blame widespread skepticism and the lack of public trust on the “few motivated individuals” funded by big oil, thereby ignoring significant distinctions within the broad-brush label “skeptics” (or “deniers”) (Bagla 2010). In his eyes, doubts are caused not by errors made by IPCC scientists but are rather manufactured bya “few motivated individuals” from outside science, acting on behalf of the financial interests of their corporate sponsors.
The response of the IPCC chairman, however, indicates that he has taken no account of the changes that have occurred in the broader political environment over the last several years. A new movement is emerging in the blogosphere, initiated by Steve McIntyre and referred to collectively by Curry as the “climate auditors” (Curry 2010). They describe themselves as largely independent of industry influence and as playing a watchdog role rather than being part of the “denial machine” referred to by Pachauri; this enhances their credibility among the general public.
It is not clear, however, what different blogs (such as Dot Earth, Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog, Klimazwiebel, and Climate Etc.) have in common, other than a focus on climate change and the willingness to ask uncomfortable questions that have long been a taboo. Wattsup with that? and Climate Audit seemed to fill a gap where there was previously little opportunity to question authority (e.g., Real Climate, Nature, Science). These voices in the blogosphere, despite pursuing different approaches and having a different focus and audience, have contributed toward opening up sites in which issues that have been excluded by the IPCC leadership can be discussed.
Pachauri’s attempt to intimidate the critics effectively mimics the strategy of the “merchants of doubt” (Oreskes and Conway 2010): it attacks the critics rather than dealing directly with the content and reliability of their message. In describing the IPCC’s critics as “politically motivated,” Pachauri portrays the panel as untainted, distinct from politics, and as a provider of neutral, sound scientific expertise. At the same time, he points “the guns outward in an attempt to discredit misinformation” (Curry, cited in Pearce 2009). He starts to use the same strategies as the critics and develops “a form of social organization that is now all too familiar in some sections of business and government” (Hulme and Ravetz 2009). These forms of social organization are also brought into relation with “tribalism,” the term is used to indicate the ignorance or lack of reflexivity. As Curry observes, the self-appointed gatekeepers use the same, non-scientific strategies as their critics even though they decry them as being merely political (Curry, cited in Pearce 2009).
In pursuing the same strategy as his critics, however, it has become clear that Pachauri is merely adding fuel to the fire: polarizing the debate and politicizing climate change science. Science is thus reduced to a spectacle of assessments competing against one another for supremacy—a kind of “contact sport,” as Stephen Schneider (2009) has termed it. This trend is exaggerated by the preference of the media to focus on dueling scientists and extreme, outlier opinions.
JC comment: this is the most devastating take down of Pachauri that I’ve seen.
Between Tribalism and Trust
The chairman’s reluctance to recognize trust as essential to its leadership reveals something akin to what the Guardian’s editor describes as a tribalist position (“Climate Science” 2010), namely, of having an awareness of the existence of the “public microscope” while at the same time ignoring it. It allows the IPCC leadership to act in an overtly political manner while simultaneously claiming to be disengaged from politics. This self-understanding may explain why reflections on the IPCC’s political and public role are excluded in the current IPCC reform debate. The IAC, however, also tried to open up discussion about the sustainability of the IPCC assessment model and to propose an alternative process, because controversies following Climategate raised “issues ranging from the proper role of science [and scientists] in policymaking to the dangers of “group think” or consensus building as a general proposition”. Although the IAC and IPCC reform efforts focus on questions of governance, the IPCC leadership is reluctant to openly address questions of democratic representation such as who is authorized to speak on behalf of the panel, who is authorized to evaluate information, and to whom the panel is accountable.
The controversies surrounding Climategate demonstrate that, even though—or rather, precisely because—the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, its authority and public trust cannot be taken for granted but is open to challenge. As the IPCC chairman’s “voodoo” and “muzzle” reaction indicated, public trust in experts is also related to the performance and persuasive power of the people and institutions who speak for science. The reaction of the IPCC chairman and its poor performance contributed toward exacerbating the problem of trust, even though the scientific quality of the IPCC reports was not seriously challenged. As the IPCC chairman’s reactions show, he continues to attempt to close himself off from the “public microscope.”
JC comment: the entire paper is worth reading. It was refreshing to read this; most of the climate science studies papers I’ve read talk about ‘deniers.’ I think Beck’s paper is right on target.