Is the IPCC as Interdisciplinary as it Should Be?

by Emil Morhardt

Sibling 2011 scientiometric (bibliometric) analyses of the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) (Bjurström and Polk 2011a, b) ask questions about how interdisciplinary—as opposed to how multidisciplinary—the IPCC is in considering the state of climate change research, and the degree to which consideration of the natural scientific evidence and its economic consequences outweighs any other considerations. If each chapter were confined to a single discipline, say ice core analysis, but there were many chapters covering different types of studies, that would be perfect multidisciplinarity—at least over the range of disciplines covered—and zero interdisciplinarity. After characterizing the disciplinary content of 96 journals that were each cited 12 times or more (a total of 6417 technical papers were involved), the authors concluded that this was more-or less the case. Each chapter stayed well within its disciplinary constraints. The scientists in each discipline have their noses to the grindstone and are leaving the research in other disciplines to others. Furthermore, except for a smattering of economics, there is not much other than natural science under consideration (although medicine and energy, both of which received significant coverage might be considered as outside the realm of the natural sciences.) The only fields that looked as though they might be interdisciplinary, based on the dispersion of topics in individual journals, were in journals with the words “environmental”, “ecological”, or “policy” in their titles. Since these journals are specifically trying to attract papers that cross two disciplines, it is good that at least some of them received at least 12 citations.

Sure enough, though, the thing that Mike Hulme was complaining about (see the previous blog post)—a complete lack of citations in any of the humanities other than two or three social sciences—makes it clear that world’s decision makers (who broadly approve the national delegations to the IPCC, a United Nations panel) are not acting as though they thought the humanities had anything to offer the climate change debate. Do practitioners in the humanities think otherwise? I would imagine. We will be intermixing such considerations with our reporting of the science of climate change in the months ahead.

Bjurström, A., Polk, M., 2011a. Climate change and interdisciplinarity: a co-citation analysis of IPCC Third Assessment Report. Scientometrics 87, 525-550.

Bjurström, A., Polk, M., 2011b. Physical and economic bias in climate change research: A scientometric study of IPCC Third Assessment Report. Climatic Change 108, 1-22.


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