Feb 17, 2010

The Climate Bible and the Home Inspector

When Rajenda Pachauri, the chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was first challenged regarding erroneous Himalayan glacier claims he responded with neither courtesy nor professionalism. Instead, he accused those raising the issue of being "arrogant" and of practicing "voodoo science" and "schoolboy science."

Recently some IPCC supporters have responded dismissively to a series of scandals regarding the quality of the analysis (and the source material cited) in the IPCC's climate bible. "So what if there are a few typos?" these people ask. "That hardly invalidates the entire report. Let's not be distracted by nitpickers with suspect motives." [see here, here, here, here, and here]

I'd like to propose a different way of looking at things. In my part of the world it's normal to hire a "home inspector" before one purchases a house. This person assesses structural integrity, the condition of the roof and windows, and the amount of insulation in the attic. He examines the electrical, plumbing, and heating systems. He conducts basic safety tests and makes a note of non-compliance with building codes.

At the end of the process, he delivers a multi-page report that both catalogs minor issues and highlights major concerns that might influence a buyer's decision. These inspections cost hundreds of dollars and, for many people, are the deciding factor in whether or not to close a deal.

Now imagine that, a few weeks after I purchase my dream home, the roof - to which the home inspector gave a clean bill of health - starts to leak. Imagine that it costs me time, aggravation, and money to have this unanticipated problem repaired.

I contact the home inspector (whom I'd been led to believe was a top-notch professional) and point out that his assessment missed something. He is polite and apologetic and, by the end of the conversation, I'm agreeing with him that some problems may not be readily apparent to the naked eye. Shrugging it off, I acknowledge that stuff happens – and that nobody's perfect.

A month later, however, the water heater - which his report had described as being in "excellent condition" - breaks down and needs replacing. A few weeks afterward, two spindles on a balcony railing give way when an elderly aunt is visiting.

By this third incident, my confidence in the report I've commissioned has been thoroughly undermined. My trust in the competence of the inspector has evaporated. He has, in fact, become someone I wouldn't recommend to those in need of such services.

At this juncture it will do him no good to insist that 95 percent of what he wrote still happens to be true. Nor will my confidence be restored when he blusters: "Hey, what's a few typos in a forty page report, anyway?"

Such responses will only confirm my suspicion that there is a huge chasm between his values and mine. It will force me to conclude that while I thought I'd hired a professional, what I got instead was a slacker with a bad attitude. While I thought I'd paid for a gold-standard report, what I got was a cursory overview by someone too arrogant to appreciate how badly he's messed up.

This, I submit, is the situation in which the IPCC now finds itself.


>> Scientists' opinions are sometimes irrelevant
>> Bullies need not apply
>> Scientific organizations - should we trust them?
>> Systemic failure: invasion of the drama queens