Yesterday, I read a lovely article on Foxnews.com with the headline “U.N. Hires Grad Students to Author Key Climate Report.” The article was about a new ‘book’ by ‘journalist’ Donna Laframboise, or as Fox put it “A scathing expose”. Scathing. The book is called “The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert.”
After I calmed down, I decided that the best way to cope
with the idiocy in this article with my strong feelings about the article was to write this little letter to her. I will have to say two things up front. First, I didn’t read the book because, honestly, I could barely make it through the terribly written Fox News piece. I don’t think I would have survived the book (nor do I have the time to read it).
Second, I am not a climate change expert (or even an expert at all, according to Ms. Laframboise), but she isn’t really qualified to comment on climate change, either. Ms. Laframboise has a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s studies. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for people who study gender issues. It just doesn’t make them climate scientists.
I do believe I am qualified to write about the scientific process, and what it means to be a graduate student in the sciences, and that’s what I’m going to focus on here.
So, with that, a calmly written letter…
Dear Ms. Laframboise,
I read with interest an article about your new book about the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), “The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert.” Because I know, from reading your Google profile, that you are a constantly evolving person, I thought I might help to speed up the process a little in one important aspect.
You write that the people performing much of the research relating to climate science are graduate students, people in their twenties. In fact, it is much worse than that: much of the research in all of science is performed by these people whose “experience of the world,” you write, “is neither broad nor deep.” You seem upset by the fact that these young scientists are called upon as experts to aid in the writing of the IPCC’s reports.
The problem appears to arise from your complete lack of knowledge of how the academic system works. I can’t blame you, since you never experienced it yourself, having stopped after your undergraduate degree to pursue a higher calling. A calling that includes labeling people who DO pursue a higher degree as incompetent and unqualified.
For example, the article on foxnews.com states, “Grad students often co-author scientific papers to help with the laborious task of writing. Such papers are rarely the cornerstone for trillions of dollars worth of government climate funding, however — nor do they win Nobel Peace prizes.” I will assume that the bit about “Nobel Peace prizes” was a mistake made by the Fox News writer, since as I’m sure you’re aware, scientific achievements do not lead to Peace prizes. Further, most science of any kind doesn’t lead to a Nobel Prize. They really don’t hand out that many of them.
But let’s de-construct this one a little more. Grad students often are the lead author on scientific publications, because they carried out the work. I know you feel that this shouldn’t be the case. How can they do science without a Ph.D?! Well, it turns out that’s how you get a Ph.D. By doing research that leads to publications. I can’t comment on the “cornerstone” comment because I genuinely have no idea what the point even was.
I was astounded, and personally very offended by this little gem, though I’m sure you had the very best of intentions:
“We’ve been told for the past two decades that ‘the Climate Bible’ was written by the world’s foremost experts,” Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise told FoxNews.com. “But the fact is, you are just not qualified without a doctorate. In academia you aren’t even on the radar at that point.”
First of all, what is a Climate Bible? The Bible is a collection of books that the faithful believe is the word of God and cannot be refuted. The IPCC recommendations, on the other hand, are based on evidence, research, and the scientific method, all of which can be refuted if research is performed that comes to a different conclusion. It’s not a bible, but rather the conclusions drawn from an enormous base of scientific results.
Secondly, I’m not even “on the radar”? Come on, that’s just hurtful. The fact is, if you are working toward your Ph.D. under the supervision of an established researcher, you *are* qualified to write scientific articles, including reviews, and to be on advisory panels. Getting your Ph.D. is not a magical transition from being a useless grunt to having all the tools necessary to do science. It’s a long road. You have to perform world-class science, be published in peer-reviewed journals, and present your work at national and international meetings, among other things. By the time a grad student receives their Ph.D. he or she should most certainly be “on the radar”. Their names should be known to top scientists in the field. They should be an expert in that field long before they get a magic piece of paper that gives them the right to say “Doctor” before their name. The expertise doesn’t come after.
But while grad students do author many papers, and are often the corresponding authors on those papers, they are always co-authored by their mentor, an established researcher in the field, one who goes by Doctor. This author is often called the “senior author,” not “lead author.” I think that’s where you got confused. Those “top experts” in a larger field are the senior authors. The lead authors, often graduate students, are in training to be top experts in a large scientific field, as well. However, they are the top experts in their own narrower research field, which is why they are called upon as experts by the IPCC.
In reading the article on foxnews.com, I found myself confused about some of the sensational information from the book that I thought you might be able to clarify. Specifically, I was confused about why the information was sensational.
The article states:
One lead author of the 2001 edition was a trainee at the Munich Reinsurance Company in 2000 and lacked a master’s degree while on the panel. He did not earn a Ph.D. until ten years later.
Is the issue that he didn’t have a Master’s or that he didn’t earn his Ph.D. for so long? Granted, 10 years or more is a long Ph.D., but it seems he was working at a company at the same time, so it doesn’t surprise me. Further, most graduate students in science working toward their Ph.D. don’t have a Master’s degree. It’s not necessary in many countries, including the U.S.
Or this one:
Another lead author in 1994 earned his master’s only two years earlier and had his first academic paper published in 1995.
First academic paper only three years after starting his Ph.D. program? I also think it’s pretty impressive. I assume that’s what you were getting at.
Dutch geography professor Richard Klein has been a lead author for six IPCC reports and in 1997 became a coordinating lead author. He was promoted to the panel’s most senior role while he was 28 years old — six years prior to completing his PhD.
Wow, he had a lot going on during his Ph.D. Was probably difficult to work with the IPCC and complete all his research. I guess you were also impressed by this? And the fact that his research was so recognized by the scientific community, even before publication (which always takes forever, let me tell you), that they promoted him to this senior role.
I read that you said, “neither [Klein's] youth nor his thin academic credentials prevented the IPCC from regarding him as one of the world’s top experts,” so I guess you were simply impressed. That’s right, in science, you can be good at your job even if you’re young and have yet to publish numerous papers.
Finally, I’d like to comment on the closing quote you gave for the Fox article:
“We’ve been told that [the IPCC] is a responsible business man in a three-piece suit, but it turns out it’s a sloppily dressed teenager — a spoiled brat that can’t be trusted,” she said.
Yes, we scientists may be sloppily dressed, having no reason to wear a three-piece suit to do our jobs, but judging the validity of the IPCC based on the fact that it recognizes the contributions and expertise of young scientists is irresponsible, offensive, and uninformed.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I know you hate “intellectual laziness” and “hysteria”, and greatly value “independent analysis” and “fair play”, according to your own profile, I might think that you wrote this book simply to push an agenda of climate-change denial. I hope that my letter has helped you realize that one of your points, the youth of some scientists, is not a valid one to use to bash the work of a respected community of scientists within the IPCC. Unfortunately, though, I can’t help you see the flaws in your logic on climate change. I’ll leave that up to the experts.
Brooke LaFlamme (a graduate student).