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Donna Laframboise is a journalist and civil libertarian in Toronto, who made her name as a fearless investigative reporter in the 1990s. She has recently been investigating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has come up with startling results about how its reports are compiled. For those of us who took the IPCC’s evaluations of climate at face value when they came out — I know I did — and thought that they were based on an impartial and careful process that relied on peer reviewed evidence, these revelations are shocking. Her book The Delinquent Teenager is now available on kindle and will shortly be in paperback. It is one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism in recent years. It demolishes the argument that we need the mainstream media because the blogosphere will never do the hard work of investigative journalism. The opposite is true.

Here I take the liberty of extracting one fairly lengthy tale from the book, but there are many more:

The IPCC’s transparency shortcomings have been obvious for some time. In 2005 Steve McIntyre, a Canadian with a PhD Masters degree in mathematics and a flair for statistics, was invited by the IPCC to be an expert reviewer for what would become the 2007 edition of the Climate Bible. McIntyre, who writes blog, was by then a well-known IPCC critic, so this invitation was a promising sign. But it didn’t take long for matters to go off the rails.

McIntyre noticed that, in a particular section of the report, the IPCC was basing its arguments on two research papers that hadn’t yet been published. In itself, this should ring alarm bells. Since the wider scientific community had been given no opportunity to scrutinize them, it was surely premature to consider them solid pieces of evidence.

McIntyre asked to examine the underlying data associated with these two papers. Since IPCC rules say it’s the job of its technical support units to provide expert reviewers with material that isn’t readily available, he contacted the head of the appropriate unit. That gentleman’s name is Martin Manning. An atmospheric scientist who now heads a research institute at a New Zealand university, Manning is one of the authors of the Scientific American article that refers to crystal balls. He refused – not once, but twice – to help McIntyre. This is what his second e-mail said:

“Let me repeat – If you wish to obtain data used in a paper then you should make a direct request to the original authors yourself. It would be inappropriate for the IPCC to become involved in that communication and I have no intention of allowing the IPCC support unit to provide you with what would in effect be a secretarial service. There are over 1200 other scientists on our list of reviewers and we simply can not get involved in providing special services for each…I will not be responding to further correspondence on this matter.”

One would think that a scientifically rigorous organization would go to some effort to ensure that its expert reviewers (all of whom, by the way, volunteer their time) have access to all the information necessary for them to make an informed judgment. One would also think that whenever the IPCC chooses to rely on as-yet-unpublished papers it would welcome the fact that someone was offering to take a close look at the data on which such papers are based. The Climate Bible isn’t just any report, after all. It informs the decisions of governments around the world.

Shortly afterward, McIntyre sent two e-mails, dated a few days apart, to Susan Solomon. In 2008 Time magazine named this US atmospheric chemist one of the world’s 100 most influential people largely due to her senior role in assembling the 2007 Climate Bible. McIntyre told Solomon that Manning had declined to help him. He also reported a far more shocking development. Both authors had subsequently refused to cooperate. One said the underlying data would only be released after the paper had been published. The other advised him to contact the journal to which the second paper had been submitted.

Solomon’s own response could hardly have been less helpful. IPCC rules, she said, only oblige the technical support units to provide copies of unpublished papers themselves. The IPCC does not, said Solomon, concern itself with the raw data on which papers – published or otherwise – are based.

In a bizarre turn of events Solomon then accused McIntyre of behaving improperly. By contacting the journal as he’d been advised to, she said McIntyre was interfering with that journal’s internal decisions. She also claimed it was inappropriate for him to suggest to the journal that his role as an IPCC reviewer entitled him to examine this data.

In her capacity as a high-profile member of a body that claims to be totally transparent Solomon took the strange position that the unpublished papers were confidential material. As an IPCC reviewer, McIntyre had been granted access to them for one purpose only: to read them. By seeking more information, she said, he was violating IPCC confidentiality provisions and therefore risked being struck from the IPCC’s list of official reviewers:

“we must insist that from now on you honor all conditions of access to unpublished, and therefore confidential, material…The IPCC rules…have served the scientific and policy communities well for numerous past international assessment rounds. If there is further evidence that you can not accept them, or if your intent is to…challenge them, then we will not be able to continue to treat you as an expert reviewer for the IPCC.”

This organization says it welcomes scrutiny, but actions speak louder than words. Rather than embracing inquiring minds, it threatens them with expulsion. As a commenter on McIntyre’s blog aptly observed, it would seem that IPCC reviewers are supposed to behave like rubber stamps rather than microscopes.

The IPCC’s leadership – represented by Solomon and Manning – failed more than a transparency test here. Solomon had a choice. If safeguarding the integrity of the IPCC was her top concern, she should have scolded the authors of the papers who were refusing to let McIntyre double-check their work. She should have advised them that, their decidedly unscientific behavior having been brought to her attention, the IPCC had no choice but to exclude their papers from its consideration.

Instead, Solomon behaved like a bureaucrat. Rather than championing openness, rather than behaving as though important questions affecting the entire planet were at stake, she chose to defend individual researchers’ pre-publication confidentiality concerns.

It’s worth noting that the author who refused outright to make her data available prior to her paper’s final publication was Gabriele Hegerl. You may remember her name from the climate model discussion earlier.

Hegerl isn’t just anyone. Rather, she served in seven distinct capacities with regard to the 2007 Climate Bible. Significantly, she was one of the two most senior people in charge of the attribution chapter – the section that decides the degree to which human influence versus natural causes are at work.

In other words, the IPCC entrusted the most central question of all to the judgment of a person it was fully aware had declined to share her data with one of its own expert reviewers. It has never had the grace (or the wisdom) to be the least bit embarrassed about this.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist