Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Making a list of scientists and checking it twice

The meme about a list of "scientists" who disagree with the IPCC consensus made its way to the Coral List, a list-serv maintained by NOAA and read by by a range researchers, educators, divers and marine park managers. There are a few of these lists floating around out in the ether, the most infamous being the US Senator Inhofe's 650 club. So every once in a while a line about a list of scientists almost as long or longer than the list of IPCC authors appears in an op-ed piece in a newspaper, a post on a reputable web site, or in a discussion on a good service like the Coral-List.

This is my argument (to the Coral-List) about the folly of these lists of, based on an article I wrote for Worldchanging:

The goal of the list-makers is ostensibly to show there are more "scientists" who doubt the IPCC consensus than who participate in the IPCC. This misses the point of the IPCC effort entirely. The IPCC was not created to get the views of ~2000 climate scientists. It was created to have those ~2000 climate scientists summarize the findings of the entire scientific community.

Let’s say you are worried about your health. Maybe you’ve noticed an elevated body temperature, and it is beginning to affect the way you function.

You go to the doctor. The doctor gives you a diagnosis, based on her or his expertise. To be safe, you might get a second opinion. Most of the time, that’s enough. But this diagnosis is a frightening one. And you want to be thorough. So you make a call to the United Nations.

The UN assembles a team of a couple thousand of top doctors from around the world, with a range of specialties. The team of doctors does a comprehensive review of all the scientific literature on your condition and charges medical centers around the world to run sophisticated computer models simulating your health. The information is assembled into a massive technical report. A draft report is then made available for any doctor in the world to review. Thousands of
people review aspects of the report and provide criticism that is factored into the final draft. The team of doctors also then meets with representatives from different countries around the world to produce a summary of the report in less technical language that reflects the
most important and statistically significant findings. Five years later, you are given that summary.

That is how the IPCC reports and the “Summary for Policymakers” reports are produced. They are the end-point of an exhaustive review of scientific literature by a group of top scientists and a long peer review process. They are not alarmist. The findings contained in the reports
actually tend to be quite conservative, because they arise out of a wide body of research and adhere to strict statistical conventions. For example, the projections for sea level rise are lower than in many climate studies because of reported uncertainty in the understanding
of ice sheet dynamics.

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