Leaking of the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report and The Philosophy of Publishing

 Jan 21, 2013    by Winslow Hansen

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to release its fifth assessment report, they asked for reviewers to read the draft and comment. Nearly anyone can sign up as and “expert reviewer” as long as they agree to confidentiality. In early December, one reviewer by the name of Alec Rawls decided the document he reviewed provides evidence that humans are not the primary cause of recent climate change. Thus, it was his responsibility to get the word out. Breaking his confidentiality agreement, he leaked the IPCC’s report. A number of articles have been written about the story and provide perspective from a variety of angles. In particular, I enjoyed Andrew Revkin’s post here. Alec, the son of philosopher John Rawls, is a colorful and fascinating individual. His writing on the topic can be found here.

As described beautifully in Skeptical Science and then in the Guardian, Alec Rawls’ argument has been swiftly and comprehensively dismantled. As a result, this piece will not focus on who said what, who was right, or this is what it means for the climate change argument. Instead, I think the sequence of events raises important questions about inherent challenges of developing a global scientific consensus by synthesizing thousands of papers, the way in which scientists tend to approach the publication of knowledge they create, and what the general public perceives as a result.

Anyone who has written in an academic format can relate to the challenges of finding, reading, and synthesizing/ citing the appropriate literature in a cogent manner that builds the foundation for the study being presented. Now imagine comprehensively synthesizing the existing scientific knowledge on climate change. This includes how climate works, implications of climate change, and options for adaptation. Reading the thousands and thousands of necessary papers would take several lifetimes alone. As a result, what is potentially the greatest collaborative scientific initiative known to man is necessary. Collaboration is inherently messy, drawn out, and sometimes wickedly iterative. Yet, some of the most important advancements in our history are a result of emergent knowledge stemming from highly contentious collaborations. The iterative nature of collaborations, particularly for a lightening-rod of a report like the IPCC’s may require a protected space, within which, scientists can work back and forth to overcome disagreements and develop consensus on the workings of immensely complex processes. Yet, it is this perceived secrecy, this lack of transparency with the broader world that can sow the seeds of doubt with the general public. It can make people ask “why do they work behind closed doors?”

While maintaining space to reach consensus in the politically charged world of writing an IPCC report, may or may not make sense, strands of this attitude percolate the scientific world. While many exceptions exist, scientists often prefer to share their results with only a certain few before the finalized publication of their study is released. There are a number of reasons for the lack of transparency. Science is competitive. Publications translate into academic success, and no one wants to be scooped on their hard work. Further, much science is conducted today in a collaborative atmosphere, similar, but on a smaller scale to that of the IPCC report. The nature of collaborative science as described earlier may explain scientists’ apparent lack of transparency before publication.

Yet, many great discoveries and scientific advancements have also resulted from incorporating a diversity of perspectives into the development of scientific research. Sharing results before the final publication, as knowledge is being created, can foster broader participation, encouraging diverse perspectives.  Further, the general public sometimes views this lack of transparency in early research stages with skepticism. In recent decades science has done a poor job developing understanding with non-scientists, explaining what we do, how we do it, and why its important. Scientific secrecy can reinforce misconceptions and scientific stereotypes.

Think about this. As you work over the next few weeks, are you okay with an initial lack of scientific transparency until you publish to feel comfortable in collaboration and consensus building? What about to protect your competitive advantage? If it is or is not okay for you, what about for the IPCC? Can you think of alterative approaches that could allow for collaborative consensus building in such a politically charged world as climate change synthesis? Could alternative approaches help improve the general publics’ understanding of climate change and influence opinion on the need for action? Time to reflect!

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