Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

Invisible Scientific Debates

SPOTLIGHT: After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released in 2007, its dramatic findings about species extinction were repeatedly emphasized by chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

BIG PICTURE: When it examined the question of species extinction, the 2007 IPCC report relied heavily on a single piece of research – a Nature cover story published early in 2004. Written by Chris Thomas and 18 others, this was the source of Pachauri’s claim that climate change threatened 20 to 30% of the world’s species.

But this research was controversial long before the IPCC embraced it. From the beginning, other scholars vigorously challenged its methodology, analysis, and conclusions. Nature itself published three separate critiques in July 2004.

By January 2006, a 6,000-word rebuttal had appeared in a Royal Society journal, authored by Oxford University biologist Owen Lewis.

Daniel Botkin, an eminent US biologist, led a team of 19 whose detailed concerns were published in BioScience in March 2007.

Entirely independently, by January 2006 German ecologist Carsten Dormann had outlined his own reservations in a submission to a scholarly journal (although accepted in November of that year, his paper wasn’t published until September 2007).

Splashy research on the cover of Nature immediately triggered responses from other knowledgeable scholars. These people behaved as expected. They wrote up their concerns, submitted them for publication, and waited patiently for the wheels of academic publishing to turn. Collectively, they’d demolished the Thomas paper.

But the system didn’t work. As far as the IPCC was concerned, the critics didn’t exist and the debate wasn’t worth mentioning. The species extinction chapter ends by referencing 917 documents. Not a single critique of the Thomas research appears on that list.

There’s no indication anyone has paid any price for this anti-scientific behaviour. Instead, in October 2007, the IPCC was awarded half the Nobel Peace Prize.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Scientific debate can’t accomplish its purpose if we pretend there is no debate.

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