30 January 2010

More Quiet Post-Publication Changes to the Stern Report

The Telegraph reports today that several sections of the Stern Review report were altered subsequent to its publication, with no formal notice given. Apparently, the quiet change of the hurricane loss error that I recently noted was one of a number of such changes.

The Stern Review on the economics of climate change, which was commissioned by the Treasury, was greeted with headlines worldwide when it was published in October 2006

It contained dire predictions about the impact of climate change in different parts of the world.

But it can be revealed that when the report was printed by Cambridge University Press in January 2007, some of these predictions had been watered down because the scientific evidence on which they were based could not be verified.

Among the claims that were removed in the later version of the report, which is now also available in its altered form online, were claims that North West Australia has been hit by stronger tropical typhoons in the past 30 years.

Another claim that southern regions in Australia have lost rainfall due to rising ocean temperatures and air currents pushing rain further south was also removed.

Claims that eucalyptus and savannah habitats in Australia would also become more common were also deleted.

The claims were highlighted in several Australian newspapers when the report was initially published, but the changes were never publicly announced.

A spokesman for Nicholas Stern explains the post-publication changes as follows:

A spokesman for Lord Stern, who headed the review and is now chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said that the changes to the statements about Australia were made following a quality control check before the report was printed by Cambridge University Press.

He said: "Statements were identified in the section on Australia for which the relevant scientific references could not be located.

They were therefore, as a precaution, omitted from the version published by Cambridge University Press and they were deleted from the electronic version on the HM Treasure website.

"These changes to the text had no implications for any other parts of the report.

"It is perhaps not surprising that in a report of more than 700 pages a few typographic errors and minor but necessary clarifications to the text were identified in November and December 2006 after its launch.

"However, none of these corrections and changes affected the analysis or conclusions in the Stern Review, which is rightly regarded as an important contribution on the economics of climate change."

The attention to accuracy is commendable. That such attention occurred post-publication and changes were then made retroactively and unannounced to the published report (which still has its original publication date on it) is -- as I am quoted in the story -- remarkable. Here are my comments:
"In any academic publication changes to published text to correct errors or to clarify require the subsequent publication of a formal erratum or corrigendum.

"This is to ensure the integrity of the literature and a paper trail, otherwise confusion would result if past work could be quietly rewritten.

"Such a practice is very much a whitewash of the historical record.

"One would assume – and expect – that studies designed to inform government (and international) policy would be held to at least these same standards if not higher standards."

Perhaps someone should ask Lord Stern for a comprehensive listing of changes made to the report since its publication. Better yet, the UK government might publish an "Errata page" detailing the various corrections in order to faithfully preserve the historical record. Too bad no one thought of that before.