Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

The Climate Auditors: The End of Information Asymmetry?

Last month, Judith Curry had an important essay at Physics Today that deserves more attention than it has received.

Curry argues that unlike the industry-funded climate skeptic movement of the past, contemporary debate is driven by a new generation of blog-based “climate auditors” who merge their own professional expertise with online communication strategies to demand a greater level of transparency in climate science. Here’s how Curry describes the movement:

So who are the climate auditors? They are technically educated people, mostly outside of academia. Several individuals have developed substantial expertise in aspects of climate science, although they mainly audit rather than produce original scientific research. They tend to be watchdogs rather than deniers; many of them classify themselves as “lukewarmers”. They are independent of oil industry influence. They have found a collective voice in the blogosphere and their posts are often picked up by the mainstream media. They are demanding greater accountability and transparency of climate research and assessment reports.

In this sense, the blogosphere has reduced the information asymmetry of climate change communication.

In the past, scientists could expect strong deference and trust in the peer-review process and in the decisions of expert committee reports such as those from the IPCC. There were of course dismissive challenges from figures such as James Inhofe, but apart from the conservative base and elected officials, these objections to peer-reviewed science were never really taken seriously.

But in recent years, as advocates have argued that the peer-reviewed science is the principle reason to pass policies such as cap and trade legislation, climate auditors have responded by asking for a “second-level” of review, one that they would like to make open, accessible, and participatory to non-scientists via the Web.

Let’s switch issues and the ideological lens for a moment and consider the following comparison, which I think sheds light on the nature of trust and the need for transparency when research findings on any issue are argued as the major reason for policy action, especially in the new era of Web-based communication and discussion.

Conservative economist John Lott’s 1998 book More Guns, Less Crime elaborated on his past journal articles, concluding through statistical analysis that more permissive hand gun laws reduced crime rates in counties and states that had adopted such laws. Conservatives and gun rights advocates argued that Lott’s empirical research was reason to repeal gun laws across the country, since the result would be a decrease in crime rates.

In reaction, contending experts ranging from sociologists to law professors argued that before any policy was adopted based on Lott’s research, that they should be able to examine Lott’s raw data and the decisions that he made in conducting his analysis. [For more see, this article at Mother Jones by Chris Mooney.]

[UPDATE: In response to Lott’s reply and comment at the end of this post providing further details on the case and the timeline involved, I have updated this post. I also encourage readers to read the transcript of Lott’s interview with Mooney for the Mother Jones article.]

Even though the body of work in climate science rests on far stronger evidence and research than Lott’s conclusions about gun laws, similar factors are shaping the objections and the effectiveness of the new generation of climate auditors. Any time a policy question is simplistically reduced down to a question of “following” or “heeding” the science–and especially when the research findings are hyped or exaggerated by certain parties as a way to compel action–that science will come under intense scrutiny.

And in today’s blogosphere, information technology has reduced if not eliminated the historic asymmetry of science communication, enabling highly motivated individuals with relevant areas of expertise or professional training to lobby for additional transparency in how scientists have reached their conclusions.

So what is a way forward across this new leveled playing field of assertions about climate science? Judith Curry provides some suggestions in her essay, and she’s right that it takes far more than tailoring communication to audiences or re-framing action in terms of benefits to the public. Along with these strategies, new relationships and forms of interaction and dialogue are needed. Curry, for one, has taken a lead by sharing her views and expertise across multiple Web outlets ranging from blogs written by conservative-leaning climate auditors to science organization Web sites such as Physics Today.

The “science audit” movement is not going away, in fact, it is only likely to grow, expanding beyond climate change. Demands for a second-level of inclusive and participatory review of research in areas ranging from nanotechnology to biomedical research to vaccine safety are likely to be at the very center of future science debates.

With this reality, for science organizations to fight the science audit movement is a mistake and will only promote additional distrust and conflict. Instead, new public engagement mechanisms are needed that serve to increase transparency and that include members of the public in the examination of scientific data and findings.

Here are additional thoughts from Curry to end her essay, the full text of which should be read:

Rebuilding trust with the public on the subject of climate research starts with Ralph Cicerone’s statement “Two aspects need urgent attention: the general practice of science and the personal behaviors of scientists.” Much has been written about the need for greater transparency, reforms to peer review, etc. and I am hopeful that the relevant institutions will respond appropriately. Investigations of misconduct are being conducted at the University of East Anglia and at Penn State. Here I would like to bring up some broader issues that will require substantial reflection by the institutions and also by individual scientists.

Climate research and its institutions have not yet adapted to its high policy relevance. How scientists can most effectively and appropriately engage with the policy process is a topic that has not been adequately discussed, and climate researchers are poorly informed in this regard. The result has been reflexive support for policies proposed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) such as carbon cap and trade by many climate researchers that are involved in the public debate, which they believe follows logically from the findings of the IPCC.

The policy advocacy by this group of climate scientists has played a role in the political polarization of this issue. The interface between science and policy is a muddy issue, but it is very important that scientists have guidance in navigating the potential pitfalls. Improving this situation could help defuse the hostile environment that scientists involved in the public debate have to deal with, and would also help restore the public trust of climate scientists.


Up Next