Does the IPCC Do Science?

December 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes itself as a “scientific body.” Where in its multi-year, multi-thousand-page bureaucratic report-writing process is science actually practiced?

scientific_body_no_researchclick to enlarge

The deadline for submissions to the UK House of Commons committee examining the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is early next week. For the past several days, the bulk of my attention has been devoted to writing my submission.

In more than one PowerPoint presentation, I have called attention to the 300-word self-description on the IPCC’s website. Scientists are mentioned, and the word scientific is used six times. No doubt about it, we’re supposed to come away from the IPCC’s website persuaded that what’s going on there is science.

The following is an excerpt from my still-in-progress submission:

“The IPCC is a scientific body,” proclaims the IPCC’s website. But is this true? Does the mere fact that scientists are involved make an entity a scientific body? Would we describe a chess club as a scientific body simply because its members were scientists?

The IPCC website acknowledges that it “does not conduct any research.” Its reports are, instead, massive literature reviews. IPCC personnel survey the scientific literature and, in the course of writing a multi-thousand-page assessment report, make thousands of judgment calls as to what that literature tells us about climate change, humanity, and the relationship between the two.

Judgment calls are not science. They are influenced by an individual’s assumptions, breadth and depth of experience, cultural and spiritual values, economic and political analyses, and so forth.

IPCC personnel can be compared to members of a jury. Evidence is evaluated. Decisions are made as to what conclusions are warranted. No one considers a jury a scientific body – even when forensic science provides much of the evidence.

So where does science happen at the IPCC? On what basis does this entity loftily describe itself as a scientific body?

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Entry filed under: ethical & philosophical, IPCC. Tags: , .

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