The recent hullabaloo over the use of so called “grey literature” in the recent IPCC report points to the curious double standards used by deniers when it comes to the credibility of evidence. As anyone familiar with the debate knows, the IPCC has suffered considerable embarrassment over a series of gaffes and errors in it’s last report.
Glaciergate: the IPCC drops the ball
Perhaps the most discussed “error” is the now infamous “Glaciergate”. In short, the IPCC included estimates that overstated the rate that glaciers in the Himalaya’s would melt. The IPCC stated that they could potentially disappear by 2035, when it is more likely take 300 years.
The source of this prediction was a 1999 New Scientist article. Journalist Fred Pearce wrote an piece quoting glacier specialist Syed Hasnain, of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The article states:
“…MELTING Himalayan glaciers are threatening to unleash a torrent of floods into mountain valleys, and ultimately dry up rivers across South Asia. A new study, due to be presented in July to the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI), predicts that most of the glaciers in the region will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming.
“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi…”
The IPCC then relied on this article to make the claim that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by “2035” – adding the 40 years to when the article was dated.
The use of such materials is not unusual. These materials are referred to as “grey literature”: articles and reports that are produced outside the peer review system but are used as sources of information by writers of IPCC report.
The problems in relying on such materials are now apparent. Get it wrong, and it looks as though the process is compromised.
Appearances do matter
Now I agree with other commentators that the errors in the over 3000 pages of the fourth assessment report should not compromise the public trust in the work of scientists or discredit the science. However, deniers have proved adept in spinning the story and attacking the credibility of the IPCC and scientists by playing up the errors.
I’d hazard to guess that 99% of the public who have heard of the IPCC have never read any of their reports. They only know of the IPCC and its work second hand via the general media, blogs and new services.
When they hear the IPCC has “made” a mistake they have no context. They do not know that the report is massive, that it represents the work of thousands of scientists and most of its sources is reputable science. It’s easy for sceptics to question the credibility of the IPCC because the average Joe is not familiar with the original materials.
However, we do need to be frank. It was a cock up, and the IPCC has only itself to blame. The IPCC has admitted it was an error, as they should. One hopes they take this lesson to heart, instate even more rigorous standards and review how they use grey literature in drafting their reports.
Asymmetric standards of evidence: shouldn’t the same standard apply to both sides?
Thus it goes without saying that the IPCC, scientists and other researchers should strive for the highest standards of evidence. Should those standards of evidence also apply to claims being made by sceptics?
Of course the answer is yes.
However, what is curious is the apparent double standards applied by sceptics to evaluating sources of information.
I refer to this as “asymmetric standards of evidence.”
Simply, put they demand the highest standards for evidence for climate science but rely almost exclusively on what one would term “grey literature” for their own arguments.
The research quoted by sceptics – when it’s not misrepresenting or misquoting actual science – is published almost exclusively on blogs and other websites that completely circumnavigate the peer review process.
These sites have a stated agenda: they are not simply sceptical of the science, but openly hostile to scientists, the IPCC and high profile advocates such as Al Gore. They wear their advocacy on their sleeve.
Sites such as Watt’s up with that (WUWT) and Climateaudit.org frequently publish “research” and “analysis”. Along side this material, the other staples of the denier’s library of sources are links to other blogs and YouTube video’s.
My question: how does this material differ in quality form the so called “grey literature” that the IPCC was roundly criticised for using in its Fourth Assessment report?
Very little I’d suggest.
Personally, I place little value on a Greenpeace press release. It may quote climate science research as a source, but I’m not going to rely on their spin. I’ll go to the science itself for confirmation. The same rules apply to blog posts: heck, I apply those same standards to my blog which is why I strive to include links to original sources.
So, if we are to classify New Scientist articles, NGO press releases and reports as “grey literature”, what does make blog posts from WUWT?
One has to apply the same standards. It’s what I call sceptical grey literature. Most of it is unverified opinion pieces.
One has to wonder if deniers are aware of the irony. More likely they are perfectly content in accepting evidence that accords with their own world view.