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Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

How Does the IPCC Safeguard Against Bias?

I recently observed that many Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) insiders have concerns about who gets selected to write IPCC reports. According to these critics, scientific excellence is not the main criteria. Rather, a great deal of attention is paid to regional, gender, and national diversity. Since the IPCC is a United Nations body, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

The problem is that this contradicts longstanding claims that the IPCC is comprised of the world’s top scientists (see here, here and here). After all, the entire planet has been told that we should trust the IPCC’s judgment because the people who author its reports are the anointed, not-to-be-doubted, crème de la crème.

But even if every IPCC author possessed impeccable scientific credentials that would not guarantee that IPCC assessments are even-handed, neutral, and dispassionate. As one insider admitted when responding to a questionnaire last year (more about that here):

…it is inevitable that a [chapter] text written by 10-15 lead authors…reflects to some degree their dominant views… (p. 1, all bolding here and elsewhere added by me)

This individual goes on to say that a “proper balance” of perspectives is required among IPCC authors so that certain schools-of-thought don’t skew IPCC report conclusions. Which raises the question: what safeguards are in place to ensure that this sort of balancing takes place? Apparently, not many.

The person whose remarks begin on page three of the collected answers to the questionnaire is no IPCC novice. They have been a contributing author, a lead author, and a coordinating lead author (the latter being the most senior). Yet, when asked to comment on the selection of lead authors, this person responds:

I’m not clear how this actually happens… (p.3)

Nor is s/he alone. Here are some other responses:

Selection of lead authors in my view is the most important decision in the IPCC process, and it is not transparent. (p. 185)

I am not sure that this process has been totally transparent…I think that there is a lot of politics around it… (p. 31)

The selection process of picking the [lead authors] from the nominations is not at all transparent. How the nominations are made by governments is also a somewhat mysterious activity. (p. 83)

This is completely mysterious to me…beyond the vague statements on the IPCC website… (p. 96)

Selection of lead authors should be more transparent. (p. 109)

The process is not transparent… (p. 117)

It has always been unclear how this has been undertaken…One possibility might be to publish all the nominations together with those selected. (p. 126)

Mysterious: nominations go in but then? (p. 138)

…how the selection is made from those [nomination] lists is by far not clear. I am not aware that any process is in place. (p. 160)

…actual selection [process is] not clear to me (p. 175)

…[the IPCC needs] to be much more transparent about author selection…the specific criteria used should be stated publicly, and the nature of the process described. After being [either a lead author or a coordinating lead author] several times, I still have no idea how I was selected. This is unacceptable. (p. 180)

…this is a closed door exercise…Given the vast number of nominations and the few slots available, there is ample room for preferences to play a role. (p. 364)

[The IPCC should explain] why these particular lead authors (or at least the coordinating lead authors) have been chosen and how they were chosen. (p. 391)

process is not transparent: There is a big procedure around nomination of experts thru governments and others, but finally a very limited number [of people] in the IPCC Bureau are deciding. (pp. 404-05)

…a larger openness is desired (p. 468)

a mystery (p. 580)

…the subsequent selection of lead authors from the pool of nominated authors is a bit of a black box. (p. 582)

Many IPCC insiders, therefore, say that the process used to select authors is anything but well understood. When people use words like mysterious, unclear, and closed-door they aren’t describing an environment where everyone feels certain there’s no hanky-panky going on.

Indeed, there are many reasons to be concerned about the process by which authors are being chosen. In the words of these insiders:

This is a very important step in the whole process. In my mind it has a bias to representing certain views. (p. 295)

The experience in [Working Group 3] is that the social sciences are very broad with several schools with different perspectives, paradigms, analysis, conclusions, and propositions, etc. There is no systematic effort to include all main disciplines and perspectives, and to resist…adopting colleagues of a similar mental perspective. (p. 64)

The committee should look into…why experts from institutions where some major IPCC officials are affiliated are getting representation significantly more than others in terms of author selections… (p. 78)

The risk is that Lead Authors are selected from a more or less closed inner circle of IPCC-related scientists. I would prefer a more open selection procedure. (pp. 142-43)

On the selection of convening lead authors…the IPCC can select a leading expert or two as convening lead authors—the potential problem is that these individuals will (even if subconsciously) frame the chapter based on their view of the world…this can make it seem rather difficult for those supporting other views (and I do not only mean only those holding contrarian views—there can be different schools of thought on the science, on uncertainties, etc.) to feel they are getting a fair shake… (p. 306)

At the start of the [1995 report writing process] we asked lead authors if there were other experts [who had not been nominated by governments] who should be recruited. Then we tried to recruit those experts as lead authors. Sometimes we succeeded…Such a process can of course be used to recruit like-minded experts leading to a biased assessment. But the team selected by the Bureau based on country nominations may also be biased. (p. 68)

The selection of the lead authors should be profoundly revised. Governments should have no influence in this step. Actually, governments should have the strongest interests that the lead authors are chosen without any political interference, to assure the quality of the final scientific assessment. (p. 382)

The issue of independence is not addressed properly; in several cases many authors from one institution (such as Hadley Center, NCAR) have been selected…similarly groups of IPCC lead authors have formed, which seem to consider it their “right” to participate…in the IPCC process (detection & attribution group; hockeystick-family of researchers). More emphasis on the independence of the authors…should be given. Authors should serve only once…in some cases maybe twice. (p. 301)

A waiting list of lead authors should be maintained so as to ensure that [during] the next level of selection, in case some lead authors refuse to become lead authors, the positions are not filled-in surreptitiously, but by a transparent formal process. (p. 78)

An issue of concern is how and why Michael Mann ended up as a lead author for the [2001 report], when he had just received his Ph.D. in 1998. In the selection of lead authors, it is critical that publications by a lead author play a minor role in the particular chapter that the author is leading. Otherwise, the assessment will be biased by the lead author‘s own strong opinions related to his/her own papers. (pp. 96-97)

The most important problem of the IPCC is the nomination and selection of authors and Bureau Members. Some experts are included or excluded because of their political allegiance rather than their academic quality… (p. 542)

A more structured rotation of lead authors would enhance assessment transparency. (p. 591)

I think a key issue here is ensuring that a given person is not a lead author (especially a convening lead author) too frequently, as I think there is need for refreshment of perspective. Certainly people shouldn‘t be convening lead authors on successive reports, and perhaps not lead author on any more than two in a row. (p. 667)

It would seem, therefore, that IPCC insiders recognize that the current author selection process is far from airtight. There are apparently many ways in which the IPCC system can be gamed.

This means that, for two decades, the world has been taking much of what goes on at the IPCC on faith. A great deal appears to boil down to a matter of trust. This fact is explicitly acknowledged by one of the respondents:

With the current mechanism you need to trust govts and [the IPCC] bureau to select authors without bias. I think they generally do. However, a lot of horse trading appears to go on behind scenes… (p. 35)

The IPCC, therefore, selects its authors via an opaque, secretive process. It does not reveal the full list of government nominees. It does not explain what selection criteria it uses or why it chose the people it did. It has adopted no rules or checklists aimed at preventing author bias – or ensuring that a full range of scientific perspectives is represented. It does not limit the number of authors who can be selected from certain large research centers. Nor does it have rules about how frequently the same authors may serve.

In short, there appears to be an alarming lack of checks and balances regarding the way the IPCC makes what some people view as its most important set of decisions. Which means we now have our answer to the question: How does the IPCC safeguard against bias?

It does not.

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