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Mistakes Happen

By Philip Duffy

The so-called “climate debate” has taken a sharp turn away from discussing science and towards attacking the credibility of individuals and institutions. One of the latest targets is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN-sponsored group that periodically summarizes current understanding of climate science, as well as issues involving climate change mitigation and adaptation. Each of the IPCC’s well-known Assessment Reports (the most recent was issued in 2007) consist of four massive volumes, is contributed to by hundreds of authors, and cites thousands of peer reviewed papers. Each is thoroughly reviewed by scientists and government representatives. The entire process takes 5 or 6 years. There is no more definitive source of information about climate change. (And the volumes are relatively readable, by the way.)

Recently we learned of a mistake in the most recent IPCC Assessment Report, having to do with some Himalayan glaciers. That’s disappointing, but hardly surprising. In an enterprise as large and complex as IPCC, errors are bound to occur. (I guarantee this is not the only one.)

Now it turns out that the error was introduced because the Coordinating Lead Author of the chapter in question knowingly violated IPCC procedures. A core principle of the IPCC is that only peer-reviewed literature is cited; here, the author instead cited a popular magazine article, which included an incorrect estimate to the rate of melting of several glaciers in the Himalayas. Of course, this example nicely demonstrates why the IPCC’s procedure is so important: popular articles are much more likely to contain errors than peer-reviewed literature.

Things happen, but let’s react appropriately. Medical doctors make mistakes every day. (In fact, medical errors in the US alone kill hundreds of people daily—the equivalent of a jumbo-jet crash.) And no doubt many of these errors happen because established procedures are ignored, sometimes knowingly. Does this mean the entire edifice of western medicine is wrong, or prejudiced, or the product of a conspiracy, and should be rejected? Of course not. Furthermore, the medical profession as a whole is still held in high regard, as it should be.

As an IPCC co-author, I am dismayed that one of my colleagues violated a procedure at the very core of the IPCC process. There is no excuse for this, especially at a time when climate science is coming under intense scrutiny (ironically for reasons that themselves may be less than honorable. But none of this changes the basic facts about glaciers (they are almost all shrinking) or climate change in general. In this case a “planet doctor” cut a corner and as a result made a mistake, but the planet is nonetheless sick.


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