In the children’s game of “telephone” a group of children sit in a circle and someone starts the game by whispering a phrase to the person seated neat to them and so on all around the circle. After enough transmissions a phrase that begins as “five stories” might come out the end as “jive turkey” to everyone’s delight. The game of telephone provides a cautionary tale for producers and users of scientific assessments. The case of mistaken and misinterpreted information about storm surge impacts illustrates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that the IPCC may have its own “jive turkey” problem minus the delight. . .
The IPCC has great potential to inform policy makers, however its credibility rest on being accurate and faithful to the literature. Errors will inevitably occur, but in this case an error in the IPCC’s most important summaries has been used uncritically in policy documents and academic studies, apparently not having been noticed until now. This problem may be more systemic, e.g., I have elsewhere written about the IPCC’s erroneous treatment of non-peer reviewed studies of the attribution of climate disasters to greenhouse gases (e.g., Pielke, 2005). However broad the problem is, as the IPCC gears up for its fourth assessment report it seems critical to carefully evaluate its procedures for accuracy, and for users of the IPCC to understand the strengths and limits of assessments. There is a more fundamental problem and that is the distilling of complex, nuanced research into one-sentence sound bites that perhaps inevitably cannot accurately capture what is to be found in a lengthy scientific article.