A Statement on Statements: Works in Progress

January 22, 2012 · 0 comments

Today at its annual January meeting, the AMS Council will hear a report from a committee of expert members on the progress of a new revision to its Information Statement on Climate Change.

To say that the AMS’s current statement on this topic is “oft-cited,” particularly by advocates of strong action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, would be an understatement. It represented the best of climate science when it was adopted in February 2007, and includes such wording as:

strong observational evidence and results from modeling studies indicate that, at least over the last 50 years, human activities are a major contributor to climate change

And

increases in greenhouse gases are nearly certain to produce continued increases in temperature.

But despite the importance of keeping the public up to date on advancing climate science, don’t expect any major decisions in New Orleans. In fact, adoption of the updated Statement isn’t even on the Council’s agenda.

Actually, approval of the update would be forbidden by Council policy that requires a 30-day period to allow comments by members. Back in September, the Councilors ensured this by voting nearly unanimously for various enhancements, simplifications, and clarifications in the draft presented at that time. No new draft has yet been presented, though participants in the process report considerable progress. The Council has the option to extend the term of the Statement currently in force while the drafting committee continues its work.

This slow deliberative style is routine for an organization that has greatly expanded, diversified, and matured scientifically in its 92 years. At last year’s meeting, a proposed revision to the Statement on Mobile Homes and Wind Storms was considered. The Council liked the idea enough to approve a revision, suggesting that the “statement be broadened somewhat.” A year later and, still, the new Statement has not been released, even while deadly tornadoes have dominated the news. In fact, in 2011the Council approved only one statement—about Green Meetings.

At last January’s meeting in Seattle the Council decided to set up a committee to review statements that might need revision. The progress on all of these will be slow and iterative—by design.

“We don’t want to say anything unless it’s something we know,” one Council member said this weekend.

In this sense the standard for approving Statements is even more stringent than it is for accepting articles for the scientific journals. Peer review often at least leaves open the idea that results of a well designed and executed study might be invalidated, at least in part.

There’s no allowance for committees sitting up late burning the midnight oil drafting a perfect text to usher in a decision, either: an AMS Council policy doesn’t allow it. When a Council-appointed committee of members finally hands in a draft that the Council feels is good enough, the Statement is only then ready for the 30-day comment period that precedes the Council’s final review and possible approval.

Meanwhile, drafts more often than not shuttle back and forth between the Council and the drafting committee until the exact wording is settled.

In the case of the Information Statement on Climate Change, the anticipated completion date, initially hoped for 1 February 2012, has long been impossible. But the proof of the process, though slow, has its intended effect. Advancing science may eventually require that statements be updated and revised, but statements generally have a long lifetime in the public eye.