I was watching the Andrew Marr Show this morning, and one of the guests was Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He was on to talk about the extreme weather that’s been battering the UK for the last month or so. He was specifically asked about the link between this weather and climate change and said something like (and I paraphrase) yes, some scientists are suggesting that there is a link between this extreme weather and climate change, but as far as I can tell, from an educated point of view, nobody knows.
Maybe Eric Pickles is getting too much of his understanding of the philosophy of science from QI (although, don’t get me wrong, QI is pretty good). According to this article, Dame Julia Slingo, the Met Office’s Chief Scientist has said there is,
“no definitive answer” [to what caused the storms].
“But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” [she added].
“There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”
So, sematically speaking, it is indeed true that nobody knows for sure if there is a link between these storms and climate change, but that is not the same as having no idea at all if there is a link, or not. There is clearly evidence that there is a link, and also there is evidence to suggest that in a warmer world (as we will likely become) such events will become more frequent.
Eric Pickles went on to then say something like well, it doesn’t really matter. What we have to do now is just get on with sorting out all the damage caused by these storms. Of course that’s true, but surely what you actually do will depend on whether these have been storms that will likely occur about every century, or if they are storms that might start occurring ever decade or so. That’s why I don’t think one can simply dismiss the scientific evidence when discussing policy options.
An issue may well be that how people interpret uncertainty depends on what’s being discussed. Brigitte Nerlich sent me a link to an interesting report that seems to be suggesting that how people interpret uncertainty depends on how imminent the issue is. When it’s something that is very imminent, they have a tendency to think that people expressing uncertainty are much more certain than they may actually be. However, when something – like climate change – is less imminent, uncertainty gives listeners the permission to dismiss or turn attention away from what follows.
Maybe policy makers need intermediaries who can help them to interpret what scientists probably mean when they describe the uncertainty associated with their projections/predictions. I don’t think scientists should suddenly become more certain, but I do think that policy makers should be able to understand the significance of what the scientists are actually saying. Maybe they need some kind of cheat sheet that they can use to interpret what’s being said. I couldn’t find something specifically relevant, but maybe this American student’s guide to interpreting feedback would be a good place to start 🙂