Can wikinomics help rescue the IPCC?

Category: Environment & Sustainability | Health, Science & Education
Published on Aug 31, 2010

The review committee set up to help revive the beleaguered IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) filed its report yesterday with proposals for wide-ranging changes to the way climate science is done. Set up 22 years ago to provide science advice to governments as they try to deal with global warming, the IPCC has found itself in a storm of controversy recently. First there was notoriously unsupported claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. Then there were those leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, which revealed a handful of influential climate scientists displaying a circle-the-wagons mentality as climate skeptics tried to gain access to their data and analysis methods.

The UN’s official report called for more rigorous conflict-of-interest rules; wider representation of dissenting views among practicing climate scientists in its final reports; and a limit on the number of reports scientists can take a lead role in producing. But what caught my attention was the emphasis on improving transparency in climate change research, something we addressed not once but twice in the soon to be released Macrowikinomics.

My take is that the IPCC is a very traditional science organization trying to do climate research in a 2.0 world. They are accustomed to doing science the traditional way and had not anticipated the intense public scrutiny their science would ultimately attract. After all, most scientists operate in closed world, attracting little attention outside of their narrow discipline. They keep most of their data proprietary. They publish their findings in subscription-only journals. Yes, scientific results are subject to peer review. But scientists rarely have to contend with public criticism, let alone handover their data to critics and adversaries whose explicit goal is to publicly dissect their work, and perhaps even trash it.

As the intermingling of science and public policy intensifies, however, these old rules and methods are being challenged. Scientists can no longer wall themselves off or ignore the “mob storming the lab” (as one observer put it). Increasingly, more science will be done “out-in-the-open,” with datasets freely available so that any capable researcher can reproduce the results for themselves or even discover new ones. Yes, there could be moments confusion and strife as the rules of a new, more open science paradigm are worked out. But in an era of new global risks, questions about how scientists relate to the public and how the public relates to science are becoming too critical to ignore. Groups like the IPCC must restore public confidence in their operations. They are, in the end, the main intermediary between scientists and politicians who have to decide on climate policies that could cost the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

Under the new rules, the climate research community’s habit of keeping much of its data, methodology and computer codes secret is clearly counterproductive. By opening up the temperature databases to independent analysis and interpretation, for example, climate scientists could help restore the credibility of land-surface records and demonstrate an openness on the part of climate science which has not always been evident in the past. Indeed, if the scientific community wants to maintain credibility in the eyes of the public, it will no longer be sufficient for scientists to speak only to each other. They must engage with the rest of the world, including their critics. Considered in that light, the effort by amateur scientists (and others outside the scientific mainstream) to gain access to the complex data sets behind climate science, and to subject them to their own analysis, are entirely laudable and should be encouraged.

Now as a footnote it is well worth noting that while the IPCC may be lagging, many scientists in the climate research community are already embracing open methods. In fact, Real Climate — a leading climate research blog that has long sparred with climate skeptics — has a long list of climate change datasets that are freely available to interested researchers, including the weather station data that was at the heart of the Climate Gate scandal. But since the IPCC could evidently use some help, we sent the IPCC a complimentary advance copy of Macrowikinomics. Now let’s see if they read it.

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