Non-Fiction Reviews


The Delinquent Teenager
Who was mistaken for the world's top climate expert

(2011) Donna Laframboise, [self-published], £11.64, pbk, 235pp, ISBN 978-1-466-45348-7

 

The 'delinquent teenager' in this case is the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the body established jointly by the United Nations' (UN) World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme in 1988 principally to assess the science related to climate change and formulate realistic response strategies. Canadian journalist Laframboise's case is in essence that: i) the IPCC does not solely rely on peer-reviewed science, ii) the peer-review of its own drafts is not blind, iii) many of the scientists involved also work for bodies that are biased in the climate debate, iv) that there is no independent scrutiny, v) that the IPCC departs from its own procedure for including material, vi) that some of the IPCC's statements are blatantly incorrect and so that vii) the IPCC's overall position [that human emissions of greenhouse gas are triggering major changes to the global climate system] is incorrect. Indeed she makes a sound case for (i) – (v) that the IPCC and the climate community would do well to carefully consider to see if they can at improve things in these regards: maybe they can, maybe they cannot.  Alas with regards to (vi) - (vii) she completely fails to undermine the IPCC's overall position and conclusions.

Such is the climate denialist track record, I have to say that in writing this review I would not be surprised if someone (mis)quotes me: perhaps all of the above paragraph minus its final sentence to give the impression that Laframboise's case has traction; it hasn't. But just because someone presents a flawed case it does not mean that they should be ignored (nobody is perfect) or that they have nothing worthwhile to say (surely everyone has something of value to contribute). If denialist arguments are to be logically refuted they must be heard. If the IPCC has flaws, they need to be addressed for confidence in the organisation to be ensured and/or enhanced.

The climate change debate has garnered the attention of many and not least by the genre community. For example, there have been climate change programme items at each Worldcon so far this (21st) century and the topic itself concerns the future of our society and planet: something central to many of the genre's tropes. And so a book, even one – if not especially one – that is a curate's egg, on such a major topic arguably deserves attention from the geek community if not society at large: it certainly deserves attention from the IPCC so that that organisation can improve, become even more effective than it is already. It also deserves attention by those on university courses that have part of their climate change modules examine the contention running through the public's climate debate: this book is illustrative of denialist concerns. And so I review this book here.  I also review it because Laframboise came to my attention when I was sent notification of a House of Commons (all-party) Select Committee evidence session relating to climate change and energy, and on the specific topic of the 2013/4 IPCC Assessment Report 5 (AR5): she was to be giving evidence, she has come to the attention of Britain's policy-makers. So I briefly checked her out and found that she was concerned that the IPCC was not as functional as it might be: a concern I share, but not to the degree – I subsequently discovered – that she has. Nonetheless, some of her conclusions have some merit even if others do not (or are at best misunderstandings), and that her leap to the conclusion that we should dismiss the IPCC's overall position transcends logic. It is either a brilliant intellectual sleight of hand, or a master class in self deceit: but possible a bit of both.

Laframboise charge (i) that the IPCC does not solely rely on peer-reviewed science is perfectly correct! Let us not duck this, she is right! The IPCC is often cited as being based on peer-review science and so it may come as a shock to find that it isn't; well, beware the sleight of hand (mouth), it isn't only based on peer-review science.  What Laframboise has done (commendably I might add with complete sincerity) is to coordinate volunteers who went through the IPCC's AR4 (the IPCC's previous, 2007, 4th Assessment Report) examining each of 18,531 references. They discovered that 30% of references were not peer-reviewed. Had this been a Canadian school report – remember the author is Canadian – then at below 59% the IPCC would have scored a 'D' or a 'C'.

Now, for purpose of this review, I have no reason to doubt the Laframboise team's results. So let's run with them. First up, the team provide a breakdown as to how this applies to the AR4's three Working Group reports: the IPCC's assessments consist of three working group reports that relate to i) the underpinning science, ii) likely impacts and iii) mitigation. In my own work I personally work focus on the first working group that relates to the underpinning science. Here the Laframboise team's only found 7% of references were not peer-reviewed. That means that the working group relating to the key question as to whether or not human emissions of greenhouse gas are triggering major changes in the global climate system would, by Laframboise team score an 'A'.  Am I surprised? No. Have I been a little concerned that the working group two and three reports (WGII & III) are not so firmly based on peer-reviewed primary research as WGI? Yes, but I do understand why this is so.

Let me explain. Am I surprised? Well, no. The thing is the bulk of the hard science (the biology, chemistry, physics and maths) of the IPCC assessments is in the first working group. The second and third working groups move from the hard science more towards the softer sciences of geography and so forth before ending up with economics and social science in the final working group report. Hard science is more precise: water has an exact boiling point under a precise pressure. Conversely, economics and society are very messy and woolly: people do not behave precisely as water does with regards to temperature under pressure, and so data-led primary research is harder, meanwhile large stakeholder (industry, commerce, political and so forth) position statements, policy stances etc proliferate. (And despite this these last are still germane: for example, one cannot ignore the elasticity of fossil carbon's price when discussing mitigation but this often manifests itself in 'grey literature' outside of peer-reviewed research papers.) Nonetheless perhaps the IPCC could do better?

But is the fact that the IPCC draws upon non-peer reviewed science somehow misleading given what has been said of it and by it? Well, sort of but actually not really.  The fact that 7% of the all-important working group (WGI) one report references are not peer-reviewed science is no big deal: the IPCC is entitled to refer to non-science documents as well as science ones. It is also entitled to refer to non-peer reviewed science documents for purposes of context and verification of the peer-reviewed science it does reference. In short one expects non-science and non-peer reviewed references to be in the mix. Now I don't have time, or the team of volunteers, to go through all of what Laframboise team did but let me go through the IPCC (2007) AR4 working group one report's first chapter references and explain to you the first couple of non-peer reviewed science references I come to. The first is Clayton, H. H., 1927: World Weather Records. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection. This is not peer reviewed research but a database: a database that was used by peer-reviewed research that was also cited by the IPCC in that chapter. The second non-peer reviewed citation is Croll, J., 1890: Climate and Time in Their Geological Relations: A Theory of Secular Changes of the Earth’s Climate, 2nd ed. Appleton, New York. This is a textbook written by the famous scientist James Croll: it is not independently peer-reviewed research. Indeed had the IPCC cited my own climate change textbook (2007 & 2013) from Cambridge University Press (CUP), then it too would have fallen foul of the Laframboise team analysis. (Even though being a respected university press, CUP not only has book proposals approved by a commissioning editor, they get independently peer-reviewed and the reviewers' reports go to the CUP board for further approval before the go-ahead is given for publishing, but this is not journal-paper, formal peer-review). Indeed, though not journals and for the most part not peer-reviewed in advance of publication, science books do get independent book reviews all be they subsequent to publication, and these too indicate a book's academic worthiness. (Some reviews from my own afore title are here and even when I get a bad review specifying faults I will post that and counter the arguments as I did with a 2nd edition review in the BES Bulletin in the spirit of openness and defending my case. (Fortunately the earlier BES Bulletin review of the first edition contained no factual errors.) The bottom line is that though science books are not peer-reviewed research, they are open to published scrutiny and debate. But I digress.)  Furthermore, as the IPCC moves from the hard science of the Earth system to softer disciplines when addressing human impacts and policy options, it is perfectly reasonable to expect it to cite things like press releases from economic players expressing climate concerns, industry annual reports, discussion documents, policy papers etc. None of this non-peer reviewed, non-primary research science undermines the IPCC's claim that the science 'research' (not the contextual and supporting materials) it cites is peer-reviewed!

Laframboise's second criticism is that the peer-review of its own drafts is not blind. I have a lot of sympathy with this, though there are practical problems (a little more of this later).

Laframboise's third criticism is that many of the scientists involved also work for bodies that are biased in the climate debate: she focuses on the respected conservation charitable body the World Wildlife Fund. Well, state-funded and university-based scientists are, rightly, encouraged to seek consultancies and nearly always encouraged to engage in outreach activity. This is a fact of life. Indeed this practice should be supported if we want state-funded science to engage with tax-payers, and indeed to facilitate the process of moving science from research (the 'R' in R&D') towards economic development (the 'D'): you would have to change the science system operating in nearly all countries to stop that. Furthermore, external bodies outside of science but reliant upon it, may well have a scientific opinion. With regards to climate change this should not be surprising given that the consensus is that human activity is triggering major change in the global climate system, then most bodies and organisations are going to have this bias: global climate change will affect everyone on the globe. No surprises there.

Laframboise's fourth criticism is that there is no independent scrutiny of the IPCC. It is true that many involved in the IPCC in one capacity are also involved in its review process: some are not and some are. Maybe there is a case for improving matters here, but this situation is a far cry for there being no independent refereeing of material at all. Alternatively, if one considers no independent scrutiny of the IPCC from external bodies in terms of the way it operates, then this is not quite true. The IPCC was set up by two UN agencies who can step in should they wish. Also various UN nations themselves have bodies that can also independently scrutinise the IPCC's output: you'll recall above Laframboise herself participated in an evidence session in 2014 of a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry that scrutinised AR5.

Laframboise's fifth criticism is that the IPCC departs from its own procedure for including material. I do have some sympathy with this argument, especially some of the points she makes, and the IPCC could improve. But we are talking about a very small proportion (without checking but having read AR4 WGI not to mention skimmed AR WGII and III ) I suspect less than 1% of the material WGI cites.

Laframboise's sixth criticism is that that some of the IPCC's statements are blatantly incorrect. Here Laframboise trots out the old chestnut of the Mann hockey stick graph. Yes, the early Mann graphs were not devised with the statistical rigour of the later ones. Yes, you can debate some of the data. But once you have done that, and re-drawn the graphs, you do not end up with anything hugely different that undermines the IPCC position: you never see the denialists publish the original Mann graph with their own one side-by-side for comparison. Besides, one fully expects early science to be less sophisticated than subsequent science, and so pointing to early simplifications compared to subsequently developed sophistication is simply attacking straws. (Heck, let's criticise early phones for not being smart as today's ones, or early cars not being as powerful and robust as those of the present, or early computers, medicine etc the list is endless.) Finally, in the Mann case there has been independent investigations with no fraud found so surely this matter has already been put to rest?

Laframboise also cites the Himalayan glacier melt case.  And yes, she is right.  It was an error. It was investigated and found to be a genuine fault.  Mistakes happen.  This does not undermine the rest of the IPCC assessments and the basic contention that human emissions of greenhouse gas are triggering major changes to the global climate system.  Indeed, even taking all Laframboise's arguments together they in no way begin to undermine the IPCC's overall position: it is illogical to claim that because a process is flawed (and name any human activity that is perfect) that a conclusion is substantively wrong. If that were so then shooting the messenger and not addressing the message would be more common.

So Laframboise does in some part arguably have a case, and the IPCC certainly could (as we all could) do things better.  But her arguments do not lead us anywhere near the conclusion she presents. Nor does she present as entirely calm and rationale as serious debate warrants.  Her tone throughout the book is one of sarcasm and snide cynicism: for example, she continually refers to the IPCC assessments as 'the Climate Bible'. Why the need to do that? Is not the logic and evidence base of her own case enough to support her argument?

Now, I simply do not have the space (and this is already a longer-than-usual review) to go through all Laframboise's arguments in addition to the principal ones she presents that I have outlined above. Not all that she says should be dismissed lightly, but then denialists arguments often seize on a kernel of truth before placing it out of context or ignoring the balance of evidence: denialists don't simply lie or are just ill-informed. Some of the things she says are perfectly valid: I have already acknowledged I agree that blind peer review evidence is best and that the IPCC could tighten its procedures but, at the end of the day when it comes to the actual drafting of the reports, the senior authors know who are the junior authors, what their expertise is, their writing style and so forth. If they get a comment on a specialist aspect of their chapter, the senior authors can guess which junior author produced it and, heck, the senior authors often commission the junior authors to undertake much of the work in the first place and so doing it blind is often impossible (as desirable as it otherwise might be).

And then there is openness. Laframboise' says, for example, that it is difficult for the general public to get access to science papers as many journals hide them behind a pay wall. Well, ignoring that abstracts are free and easily accessible via the internet, tax-payer free access to publicly funded science is something that has been growing for many years and recently both in Britain and N. America it is increasingly becoming the norm.  (Indeed even if one does desperately need a particular paper I have found that e-mailing the author (their address is usually part of the free abstract) will get you a PDF of their work: only two scientists have refused me over the past decade, and as far as I'm concerned that's their loss as I can't then use and cite them in my own work.)  She also has concerns with scientists and politicians having over-confidence in computer models. Well, I do too, but computer models are useful pointers and they are getting better all the time: no computer scientist would deny that the computer models of a decade hence will be better than those of today: ipso facto today's models are imperfect; they are less perfect than tomorrow's. (This is an echo of the Michael Mann graph criticisms mentioned earlier.)  Indeed, computer models being useful pointers, when used alongside other data (such as palaeoclimatic data) they are very valuable: one needs to look at climate change evidence in the round and when one does this it does result in a single coherent narrative. (This last is something climate denialists have not yet been able to usurp with their own alternative climate narrative supported by the science evidence: they have no sustainable alternate hypothesis to test. Their counters are not scientific. They can only hope to chip away and isolated items of evidence, and not the body of evidence and conclusions as a whole.)

At the end of the day Laframboise's The Delinquent Teenager could have been a sober critique of the IPCC that might have spurred reform. Instead what she has done is to dilute what could have been a very valuable contribution with climate denialist, specious cant.  A huge shame.  Nonetheless if you are interested in the climate debate, for reasons I explained that this review's beginning, this is an interesting text: containing some fact, it shows how, eschewing logic, climate denialist arguments work, and so is an illustrative read especially when alongside works such as Denying Science: Conspiracy theories, media distortions and the war against reality.

To paraphrase Laframboise's own words (p176 'About the author')… People who want me to believe that there is not a planetary emergency need to persuade me. I'm not going to take their word for it if they attempt to browbeat me rather than explaining their position in a calm, rational, and professional manner… To which I would add that their alternate hypothesis needs to be testable against the whole body of science evidence if you want me to prefer it over the IPCC's conclusions, even if it is an organization that – as we all could – could be improved.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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