Nobody knows!

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 🙂

credit : Kieran Healey (I think)

credit : Kieran Healey (I think)

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68 Responses to Nobody knows!

  1. I must say that I particularly like the 71% C- A+ example in the table above. I was once teaching a graduate course in the US. I popped into a more senior professor’s office to ask for advice. He turned from his computer, said “more As than Bs” and then turned back to his computer and went back to work 🙂

  2. OPatrick says:

    Eric Pickles seemed very good, on climate change, on Any Questions last week – perhaps he has been leant on to emphasise the uncertainty more emphatically since then?

  3. OPatrick says:

    The Any Questions programme is still available here (for the next 85 years or so!) – Eric Pickles on climate change from just before 24 minutes. I haven’t listened to the Andrew Marr show yet, but it sounds like the wording he has chosen to use has changed, thought the basic message is similar – on AQ he said something like: Where I think we start to go wrong is to think that every change we see is a result of climate change.

  4. Joshua says:

    That chart is fantastic.

    Cross-cultural communication is an area that I’ve worked in a bit. A great example is that typically if a Japanese person is asked a direct question (such, “Do you like the soup?) and answers with “That’s difficult for me to say,” an American might take that statement literally (as in, “I haven’t decided yet.”) but Japanese person would know that the statement means “No. It’s awful.”

    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.

    Well, there’s the nut. This is a basic component of how people assess risk that needs careful consideration. “Skeptics” think that “realists” try to circumvent this attribute in how people assess risk by over-hyping the near-term risk and “realists” think that “skeptics” try to exploit this attribute in how people assess risk by hyping the long-term uncertainty.

    So if someone were appointed to be God of the climate change debate, how would they, in a theoretical sense, construct the debate to deal with this known attribute of how people assess risk?

  5. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Wotts, I don’t understand your problem with this. The experts *don’t* know if there’s an AGW aspect to the recent storms. The Met Office report is explicit about that: ‘In terms of the storms and floods of winter 2013/2014, it is not possible, yet, to give a definitive answer on whether climate change has been a contributor or not.’

    It might have been. It might not. Nobody knows.

    There’s a lot of interesting speculation about whether AGW might have played a part but at the moment speculation is all it is. To jump the gun and claim it as fact would be somewhat unscientific, no?

  6. Joshua,
    I do like the chart and it may be the case that this post was motivated more as an opportunity to post the chart, than to really address anything serious with respect to science communication (although, it may not be mutually exclusive). 🙂

  7. Maybe the post needs an explanation for QI. People from overseas may not understand that, that is 100% of the world population with a small uncertainty margin.

  8. jsam says:

    The Met Office has published their report on the recent storms and floods.

    The only certainties in life are death, taxes…and denial.

    “recent studies have suggested an increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms that take a more southerly track, typical of this winter’s extreme weather. There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming world.”

    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/2014/uk-storms-and-floods

  9. Vinny,
    The point I would make is that if we (as a country) are about to spend billions as a consequence of the damage done by these storms, we should at least be considering whether we’re spending money to repair damage done by storms that may only happen once a century or spending money to repair damage done by storms that may start happening once per decade (or more frequently than once per century). Surely, that might influence what we choose to do? That’s really all I’m suggesting. Ignoring that possibility, would seem to be basing the policy decisions on insufficient information.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that considering the possible implications of climate change immediately means that we would do something completely differently to what we would do if we ignored the implications, but appearing to brush it off seems poor. I’m going to be pretty ticked off if we spend billions now and then have to do the same again in 10 years time, if we could have done something differently today so as to minimise what we might have to spend in the future (or, maybe, I’ll be ticked if we didn’t at least consider that).

  10. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    You did a good job of rationalizing a reason to post the chart. 😉

    I have worked specifically with international grad students (TA’s) on the issue of cross-cultural communication – and I’m distributing the chart to some folks in the field via email. The chart is really, really good. It would be nice if you could verify the source.

  11. Victor,
    Yes, I wondered if someone would question the QI reference 🙂

    For those who don’t know QI (meaning Quite Interesting) is a topical, quiz show in which Stephen Fry asks panelists (one of whom is always Alan Davies) various questions, the answers to which might seem obvious, but often aren’t. Typically, once per show there is a question to which the answer is “nobody knows” and they all have a little sign that they can pick up if they think the question they’ve just been asked is that question. The show works by deducting points for wrong answers, and typically the winner has a score in the low negatives 🙂

  12. I also listened to Eric Pickles this morning and heard him on Any Questions. His message has definitely changed, but I think this relates to the political problems this flooding is causing.

    However he is now in charge of the Environment brief and so immediately focuses on adaptation …. we need to defend, build, dredge etc, because that is what people affected want to hear… action, even if it is misguided. Mitigation will have no obvious beneficial effect in the short to medium term, so offering to cut carbon emissions would have no political impact.

    I await with baited breath for the first mainstream political party that comes out clearly with a plan to tackle AGW and show political leadership on this issue.

  13. Joshua,
    According to this it is indeed by Kieran Healey.

  14. Bob,
    Yes, I agree that in this circumstance it’s about adaption, but I still think that doing this properly requires that you consider whether you’re “adapting” for something that won’t happen again for a century, or “adapting” for something that might happen again in 10 years time. So, my criticism isn’t with regards to adaptation versus mitigation. In my opinion, both require that policy decisions consider the possible impacts of climate change.

  15. Eli Rabett says:

    Politicians follow polls and polls follow public impression of issues that the public as individuals hardly pay any attention to beyond what they hear on the radio in the morning. The scientific consensus on climate change is expressed through the IPCC and reports of the various national academies, which then percolate into the press. Throwing sand into that process is the game of the Pielkesphere (TM ERabett)

    Hulme’s description of the 97% study was inappropriate

  16. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Wotts, saying that nobody knows if there is a link between AGW and the December and January storms isn’t ignoring the possibility that there is a link: it’s saying that nobody knows.

    Nor is saying that nobody knows a recommendation that nobody should try to find out.

    I didn’t see/hear the Pickles interview but chances are he was just giving a rough paraphrase of the last two paragraphs of the Met Office report.

    (Incidentally, the usual suspects have already started to get excited about an ambiguous statement in the report about sea-level rise. It seems to say that the Met Office’s best prediction is that sea levels in the Channel will rise by 11-16 cm between now and 2030 – up to 1 cm per year. However, ‘now’ in that context means 1990. Someone has got their time scales in a twist.)

  17. I wasn’t trying to agree with him. I think he is completely wrong headed, particularly if they just go all out for adaptation. It is a politicians response to the cries for dredging and flood defences that everybody is suddenly expert on! My feeling is that once the flooding and storms subside, the actual action taken might be a little more rational and based on science and engineering and not on defending the government by blaming the AE.

    The questions when people call for better defences are always how high and how wide? Which then brings us back to Climate Change and AGW. Eric Pickles is a politician, but he is not stupid one, he must realise the need to look further ahead than the next 5 years.

  18. Vinny,

    Wotts, saying that nobody knows if there is a link between AGW and the December and January storms isn’t ignoring the possibility that there is a link: it’s saying that nobody knows.

    Yes, and I think I expressed that in the post. It certainly depends on whether he means nobody knows for certain (which is true) or nobody knows at all (which is not). So, yes he could have meant the former. However, when he later says (paraphrasing) it doesn’t matter whether it’s climate change related or not, we just have to get on with the job I think it does imply that he’s ignoring this possibility because what you choose to do know should at least be based partly on how frequent such events are likely to be in the future. Therefore, in my view, it does matter because we should at least consider how best to spend the money now given the evidence we have for what might happen in the future.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that this is easy or that we would necessarily spend it differently given the possibility of a link with climate change. I just think that suggesting that it doesn’t matter is wrong. I think it does.

  19. Bob,

    My feeling is that once the flooding and storms subside, the actual action taken might be a little more rational and based on science and engineering and not on defending the government by blaming the AE.

    Indeed, you may well be right. He could just be playing to the crowd for the moment. Good to point it out though 🙂

    Eli,
    Pielkesphere (TM ERabett), I don’t think I’ve heard that one before. Seems an appropriate term 🙂

    I agree with you about Hulme. I think that since he was arguing for more debate about policy and less about science, it seems very odd that he’s chosen to describe the consensus study as he has.

    I should add that I had somewhat missed the subtlety of your inappropriate comment when I first drafted this response 🙂

  20. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Wotts: ‘However, when he later says (paraphrasing) it doesn’t matter whether it’s climate change related or not, we just have to get on with the job…’

    Ah! I take your point (at last).

  21. jsam says:

    Pickles has deliberately forgotten about ministerial responsibility. The right wing Tories want to neuter the Environment Agency. So, better to blame the agency than the minister, one climate denying Owen Paterson. Our Owen, a National Treasure in the Making, has a string of embarrassments, including the wrong sort of badger, to his credit.

    So, blame the department, say it’s all down to a lack of dredging and appease your UKIP tendency. When the Head of the Civil Service calls you on your BS you can bluster knowing it is a confidential discussion.

    Ministerial responsibility: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individual_ministerial_responsibility#United_Kingdom
    The EA’s advice on dredging: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/30/dredging-rivers-floods-somerset-levels-david-cameron-farmers
    You won’t read about this on this blog: https://bobkerslake.blog.gov.uk/

  22. Vinny,
    Good to get there at last 🙂

    jsam,
    Yes, there does seem to be rather a history of doing this kind of thing.

  23. Marco says:

    Anders, it’s maybe not Kieran’s, as he notes here:
    http://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2013/08/16/academic-feedback/
    ” First—which, with the exception of a few lines, I didn’t write—is The American Grad Student’s Guide to Interpreting Feedback from Faculty Trained in Britain and Ireland:”

    No source given, though. But maybe I’m just having trouble with the translation 😉

  24. Marco,
    Yes, that I noticed and the link you include is in the post. How he’s phrased that does make it a little unclear. The other (that I put in the later comment) seems to suggest it’s by him, but one should never trust anything on the internet.

  25. plg says:

    This insistence on trying to pinpoint climate change as the reason for individual weather events is really tiresome. Sadly, the question is common and hard to handle, the proper answer is not “yes” or “no”, it is “wrong question”.

    I think the steroids analogy is very good (originally by Hansen?): if an athlete wins an average of 4 out 10 races every year, and then suddenly wins 7 out of 10, there is good reason to test for drugs, and if positive will probably loose his/her medals.

    Now, the really interesting thing is that nobody will ask “Yes, but is winning this *particular* race due to drugs?”, they will simply conclude that the athlete was cheating and “loading the dice”. You would never see a TV report stating that “we don’t know if this race was won due to doping”.

    So why, when it comes to weather events is it so important to attribute a particular event to climate change, when science already has said the there will be more frequent and more extreme events. Insisting on trying to attribute a particular event only strengthens the denialist (pseudoskeptics) arguments “nobody knows, scientist are debating, …”.

  26. plg,

    This insistence on trying to pinpoint climate change as the reason for individual weather events is really tiresome. Sadly, the question is common and hard to handle, the proper answer is not “yes” or “no”, it is “wrong question”

    I agree, but I guess it depends who you’re referring to when you say “insistence”. Typically, I find that those who discuss it from a position of knowledge are quite careful about what they say. That doesn’t stop others from then criticising them for trying to attribute an event to climate change, even if that’s not what they’ve done. So, I agree that trying to link an individual event to climate change is silly, but your steroids analogy seems consistent with saying something like “there may be a link to climate change”.

  27. plg says:

    Sure, “there may be a link to climate change”. I understand the language, but the general public only hears doubt in the science. If an athlete takes drugs we do not ask if a particular race is won by drugs or not, but we know performance is enhanced overall and will therefore invalidate all medals.

    With climate change we know that the warming will enhance drought, floods, storms, etc. In particular warm ocean surface makes storms more likely. But the way this is handled by media is trying to tie one specific event to climate change.

    What annoys me is that for the general public, this repeatedly casts doubt on the science, and allows denialists to continue to get attention instead of being exposed as misinformants.

  28. dhogaza says:

    “Now, the really interesting thing is that nobody will ask “Yes, but is winning this *particular* race due to drugs?”, they will simply conclude that the athlete was cheating and “loading the dice”.”

    Actually, yes, they do, it is asked all the time, and the answer comes back much as you say, we can’t tell for sure but are sure that it has increased the odds. When it comes to a string of victories, such as was the case with Lance Armstrong, it often becomes generally accepted that the record-setting string would not have happened if it weren’t for doping (cyclists use various non-steroid forms of doping, but the story is the same). Therefore, it is accepted that one or more of Armstrong’s victories was indeed due to doping, not training and skill alone.

    It is a good analogy, as ATTP says. The reason why there’s so much pushback by denialists against linking individual weather events to global warming isn’t, however, because doing so is “silly” (as ATTP says), but because they reject the big picture. The denialists story applied to the analogy is essentially that doping doesn’t enhance performance at all, that evidence that it does is due to a worldwide conspiracy of anti-dopers and based on faulty/fraudulent science … or in some extreme cases, that steroids and other doping agents don’t exist at all … or are never used … etc.

  29. plg,
    Okay, I think I see what you mean. I guess my personal view would be slightly different (assuming I understand your view) in that I have no problem with the scientists framing things as they do. My issue is with the media (and others) who them take what has been said and either overplay the uncertainties, or present strawman arguments about not being able to attribute climate change to individual events (strawman in the sense that that is typically not what’s being said).

    Of course, if Willard was around he would probably argue that this is all within the rules of ClimateBallTM and that scientists have to work out how to both present an honest representation of the evidence, while also making it harder for others to then play the games that they do.

  30. Steve Bloom says:

    So Anders, to highlight the “wrong question” point quoted above: Considering our probably inevitable Pliocene-like near-future climate, given that most climate events of the time will be similar to the ones we see now, can we, based on the reasoning you have expressed, successfully construct an argument that such events would not be attributable to climate change (relative to the present climate)? I think we can. Have you?

  31. Why do people in the UK talk so much about dredging? Is the geology different or is there such a backlog?

    When it comes to flooding, people in The Netherlands (and Germany) typically talk about given the river more space, move dykes more in the inland, assign areas that can be flooded to shave of the peak and about slowing down the river, given it space to meander.

    Dredging may help a little locally, but turning a river into a canal can make the situation worse down stream. At least that is what I always understood, my only expertise being being Dutch.

  32. Steve,
    I’m going to have to think about your question. It’s almost like you have too many double negatives. Are you asking if we can construct an argument that our future climate will not be attributable to climate change? I guess we can. I haven’t done so myself and I’m not sure whether you mean an argument that would have merit, or simply an argument that might be believed.

  33. BBD says:

    Victor Venema

    Why do people in the UK talk so much about dredging?

    Because it’s a simple narrative for them to misunderstand. It’s something concrete that former politicians can be blamed for not doing enough of and it’s something reassuring-sounding we can pretend will help in the future.

    Stupid and wrong, I know.

  34. johnrussell40 says:

    I heard Eric Pickles on the BBC News just now and he’s clearly saying that the “experts gave the wrong advice” and, in effect, that those shouting for dredging were right and shouldn’t have been ignored. This feeds right into climate science denial, does it not; with the underlying message ‘trust your gut, not the consensus’?

    I also note that we’re now bringing in engineering experts from the Netherlands to advise. This is a little concerning for, while I accept their expertise in shifting water and protecting very low-lying land, I am not so convinced they have the required holistic understanding of all aspects of water management over the entire catchment area. Let’s face it the vast majority of the water that enters the sea from the Dutch coast has originated in other countries further inland, so how much do they know about upland land management to buffer water and slow run off? This is much more than a massive earth moving and pumping project.

    * * *
    Finally regarding jsam’s comment: “When the Head of the Civil Service calls you on your BS…”. I don’t think this will happen. The Civil Service are servants of the government and have to be careful what they say. They can advise in private by invitation but if they speak out they’ll not be in a job long. It’s a balance: stay in a privileged position and hope to make your point and influence things; or speak your mind and be shown the door. Reading between the lines this is why Richard Betts adopts the tactics he does.

  35. Steve Bloom says:

    Or simply that that’s essentially what you did and so many do, albeit without specific reference to Pliocene climate. I’m paraphrasing Trenberth, of course. Out of time now, but I’ll suggest a different framing later. Just the one negative as far as I can see, BTW, although the dependent clause quotient is probably on the high side..

  36. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Is the steroids/loaded dice analogy relevant to the Somerset Levels? The Met Office report says that the unusual persistence of the floods there is mostly due to an unusually rapid sequence of mid-latitude North Atlantic storms. It also says that there is no detectable trend in the frequency of such storms.

    No pattern, no cheating.

    (There _is_ a trend in the intensity of the strongest of such storms, the report says, but AFAIK the storms since early December haven’t been especially strong.)

  37. @johnrussell40

    No it isn’t!

    You are reading far too much “between the lines”. I just say things how I see them.

  38. Steve, yes, I’d be keen for you to clarify. I realise that you only had one negative. I meant metaphorically 🙂

    Vinny,
    Well, no, it’s not relevant to the Somerset Levels – that’s kind of the point. You can’t attribute a single event, but you can look at trends and at whether or not something is happening more often than one might expect.

    the unusual persistence of the floods there is mostly due to an unusually rapid sequence of mid-latitude North Atlantic storms. It also says that there is no detectable trend in the frequency of such storms.

    Hmmm, unusual. So, sure, we probably can’t actually detect a statistically significant trend. Do we want to wait until such a trend is actually detectable and that attribution is definitive? My personal view is that we don’t. Maybe you think differently.

  39. Richard Betts,
    Although what Julia Slingo has said seems quite careful and seems consistent with the evidence, I had the impression that her saying this at this time might have an additional significance. Is there any merit to that impression, or is what she’s chosen to say and the timing of what she has said simply what would be expected given her position and the circumstances?

  40. Actually, Richard, I had another question that might be easier to answer 🙂

    Given Vinny’s comment above, it’s my understanding that there are hints of trends in various extreme weathers events, but most are not statistically significant. If, however, we want to have statistically significant trends, we would likely have to wait decades (from now that is). Is this roughly correct?

  41. BBD says:

    Thank goodness for physics, eh? It may lack the glamour of, say, economics, but it has its uses.

  42. uknowispeaksense says:

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense.

  43. @ATTP

    As far as I’m aware, Julia’s comments were in association with the release of the Met Office – CEH report mentioned in the BBC article.

    As for statistical significance (or otherwise) of weather & climate trends, it’s easy to get bogged down in discussions about this at the expense of understanding the physical explanation of observed changes. My colleague Doug McNeall says it quite well I think:

    Statistically significant is sometimes used as a proxy for true, and is sometimes muddled with significant or meaningful or large. In climate, it also gets confused with caused by human activity.

    and

    it only tells how likely you are to see something, given something you think probably isn’t true.

    Funnily enough, I also mentioned this to Andrew Montford on his “headless chickens” thread the other day, in response to his remark on the Nolan show that “we can’t, in statistical terms, look at the warming we’ve seen and say that it’s doing anything very different.” – presumably because of what Doug Keenan (NB a different Doug to my colleague above!) has written on several occasions. I pointed Andrew to William Briggs who says similar things to McNeall, and who disagrees with Keenan. Briggs writes:

    If we really want to know whether temperatures have increased, then just look. Logic demands that if they have gone up, then they have gone up.

    🙂

  44. Reich.Eschhaus says:

    The American guide to whatever http://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2013/08/16/academic-feedback/

    is about UK understatement, nothing else as far as I can see. There are some apart from the UK citizens who see through this. However, there are lots that do not.

    If you want a conversation about climate related subject that can be understood over large parts of the world, then better leave out the understatement thing, it is better to tell things in a straight way.

  45. BBD says:

    We’re doomed I tell you! Doomed!

    😉

  46. Eli Rabett says:

    Are 2:1 odds good enough for a game of you bet your grandkids lives?

  47. BBD says:

    Not for me, Eli. I spent my schooldays wishing physics would just bloody go away, and here it is again, haunting my grandchildren.

  48. izen says:

    The list of cultural translations has existed in many forms as collections of common confusions. A real version of a Brit saying “That’s not bad” and being heard by a American as “That’s poor” when it really means ‘that is very good’ crops up in James Cavell’s King Rat.
    But perhaps the phrase used by Eric Pickles needs some interpretation. When he says –

    ” yes, some scientists are suggesting that there is a link between this extreme weather and climate change,”-

    It should mean,-
    ‘most scientists actively involved in the relevant research regard an increase in extreme events as highly probable as a result of climate change with high certainty. Therefore this extreme event may be a confirmation of that prediction’

    But is also open to the interpretation that some scientists suggest there is no link between this extreme weather and climate change.

    So a statement that is already inherently ambiguous is then followed with a qualification –
    ” but as far as I can tell, from an educated point of view, nobody knows.”

    It could mean,-
    ‘however the statistical difficulty in establishing a trend in extreme weather events means that ascribing an individual event as a specific result of the effect of climate change on the incidence of extreme events is very uncertain.

    But really shortens to – ‘ smart people are unable to answer this question.’
    Political rhetoric is always capable of multiple interpretations, with the ambiguity that allows it to encompass the actual with whatever preferred dogma their target demographic may favour.
    In this case there will be those who are convinced that Eric Pickles was saying that while a few green scientists are trying to link this weather with global warming, smart people know this is impossible.

    The fact is that the N.H. jetstream has been weird this winter. The storm tracks across the UK can and have happened as part of natural variation in the past. But the un-typical behaviour of the jet-stream is a predicted outcome of climate change with a physical process as a hypothetical explanation.

    However one popular narrative is that whatever the tenuous links may be between climate change and this specific event, it has all been made much worse by the Greens and Environmentalist lobby along with the EU who have favoured a natural habitat for the wildlife at the expense of the residents and farms who would otherwise be safe and able to provide home grown food. That the rives and drainage channels have been intentionally allowed to silt up to avoid disturbing the lesser brown water vole… or something. And if only proper dredging and drainage maintenance in the interests of the humans homes and farms any flooding from such weather would have been minor and brief at worst.

    The problem with this ‘beautiful theory’ is the ugly fact that a significant factor in much of the flooding has been the danger from the combined high tides and storm surges. As well as the damage to coastal defences and the brief inundation during extreme high levels, these conditions have also slowed and delayed the drainage of the inland flooded areas. There is less time for rivers to empty into a lower sea level. Dredging the outflows would result in those high tide and storm surges travelling further up the rivers faster.
    With rising sea levels already a factor that has made the event more extreme than it would have been in the past, perhaps it is time for suggesting that there is a chance that this type of event is going to be more frequent in the future. It is a preview of the sort of problems sea level rise and extreme weather MAY impose more often in the next decade. A prospect with a high level of certainty whatever short-term popular reactive actions to prevent future damage are adopted as within the art of the possible at present.

  49. Richard Betts,
    Thanks, I saw Doug MacNeall’s post and I agree. I think I may have suggested to Richard Tol that he have a look at Doug’s post too. Maybe you could remind the next time you bump into him 🙂 I guess what I was hinting at in my question is similar to what you’ve said.

    Reich,

    If you want a conversation about climate related subject that can be understood over large parts of the world, then better leave out the understatement thing, it is better to tell things in a straight way.

    Unless I misunderstand what you’re saying, I don’t see how it’s quite that easy. If a scientist say “evidence suggests there may be a link to climate change”, you then get people saying “well, it seems that nobody knows”. If a scientist says “i think climate change will almost certainly cause more of these events in the future” you get people saying “how do you know, the trends aren’t statistically significant, and we can’t trust the models”. Of course, you’d hope that people would like to know what scientists really think, but since that may not be what they want to hear there seems to be a tendency to undermine the message.

  50. johnrussell40 says:

    I listened to a programme on Radio 4 very late last night (sorry forgot what it was, I was going to sleep at the time) about the world’s financial system. To cut it down to a nutshell, it was saying that economics is basically the opinion of experts, some of them self-appointed. As an illustration the interviewee was saying that the credit rating that Standard & Poors allot to each and every country is “just their opinion”; so, with no science behind it. What’s more other people make investment decisions based on the confidence they have in experts’ opinions and in turn those investments influences other’s willingness to invest. So in other words the whole global financial system is a colossal confidence trick.

    With this in mind—and considering that politicians almost invariably have backgrounds in either economics or law, and worse, are completely lacking in scientific understanding—I wonder how much they view science as ‘just’ the opinion of experts? And in light of that is it any wonder that they interpret uncertainty as ‘lack of confidence’? Not sure of how to overcome this except through education.

    [Richard Betts: I was wrong to jump to conclusions about your approach. Apologies.]

  51. john,
    Interesting. But there is an alternative framing of that, I think. If right, a major part of our economic approach is simply the opinions of people that we’ve come to believe are experts. However, when it comes to science, the experts aren’t meant to express an opinion, they have to frame what they say very carefully and make sure that it’s consistent with credible evidence. So, it’s therefore surprising that our policy makers seem happy to listen to the opinions of supposed experts when it comes to economics, but don’t seem to want to hear the opinions of experts when it comes to science – well, climate science in particular. There are probably reasons why, but I have been wondering about whether or not we would benefit from scientists expressing their opinions more strongly. I realise that there are caveats to this approach, but having a much better understanding of what scientists actually think (rather than simply their carefully crafted, scientific pronouncements) would – in my opinion – be very useful.

    Also, given how the government seems quite happy at the moment to blame the EA for the flooding, having some strongly worded statements about the likely impacts of climate change may help in the future when future governments want to find someone to blame because we haven’t done enough (i.e., don’t blame us, we very clearly told you so).

  52. johnrussell40 says:

    I agree completely, ATTP.

    Unfortunately the world seems to be more receptive to self-appointed experts expressing opinions with passion and self-belief, than on expert scientific pronouncements which are based dispassionately on evidence and research (with uncertainties attached). If we’re talking about evolution or astronomy that’s fine because, whoever is right or wrong, there are no critical decisions and potentially catastrophic outcomes for those disciplines and it’ll all become clear in the end.

    On the other hand, with climate change, the stakes are extremely high. So scientists should be encouraged to give frank personal opinions based on their research. As long as they qualify their opinion with, “based on our understanding of the science at this moment…”, then I can’t see why they should be so reluctant to show concern. Scientists seem to be the only professionals as a body who see expressing an opinion with passion as being a flaw. Constantly adjusting one’s scientific opinion as evidence accumulates should be, unlike in politics, defended and extolled as a virtue.

    Am I being unfair to scientists?

  53. john,

    Am I being unfair to scientists?

    In the sense of asking them to do something that may not be natural for them, maybe. In the sense of saying, we would like to have a better understanding of what you actually think, then no.

    From Reich’s earlier comment, I got the sense that he was suggesting something similar to you (maybe he could clarify) and had thought that my including the Academic Feedback table was implying that scientists should be understated. In fact, it was really just a joke, but the broader point I guess I was making with that table was that either policy makers should put some effort into understanding the significance of what scientists are saying (by maybe realising that sometimes what sounds like an understatement isn’t) or scientists should be more willing to speak very clearly. For example, I can see nothing wrong with your example of a qualified statement.

    Of course, there will some who jump up and down and make statements about statistical significance and such like, but as Richard Betts points out (I think) one can try to counter this by including physical explanations for what we’re potentially observing. In fairness, I think what Julia Slingo has said recently is actually quite strong statement.

  54. johnrussell40 says:

    I agree with your point about Julia Slingo’s statement being strong, ATTP. Though I would have liked to have seen an opinion that is even stronger.

    I cannot see why every scientist who feels it necessary to stress the uncertainties cannot go on to say (for example), “based on these uncertainties, and given the risks, we would be wise to plan for the worst scenario” *. I say this because the Lomborgs and Tols of this world seem to have no qualms about expressing the opposite opinion with passion.

    *To be clear: this is not advocacy, as it’s not proposing any specific policy. It’s just urging those in power to think seriously about policies to address the problem that the science says is facing us.

  55. john,

    Am I being unfair to scientists?

    Yes, I really do not have the feeling that the problem is that scientists are not speaking up, but rather that many people prefer not to listen or even to fabricate their own reality. There is not much what the small group of scientists can do about that. I would almost tend to write that you are blaming the victim. It would be nice if the immensely larger group of non-scientists would stand up.

  56. Victor,

    I would almost tend to write that you are blaming the victim.

    Yes, that is indeed one of the concerns with this line of thinking. Given the IPCC reports and the literature that exists, it’s very clear that the evidence is out there and that scientists have been willing to present it in quite a clear way. Expecting scientists to speak up even more, given how little some have listened to what they’ve already said, may well be unreasonable.

    It would be nice if the immensely larger group of non-scientists would stand up.

    In a sense, that’s what I’m trying to do here – play a small, positive role if possible.

  57. johnrussell40 says:

    I can only go on what I see, Victor. I have been on many threads where a single pithy comment from a climate scientist would completely kill a string of denial memes. Richard Betts is one of the few scientists who does stick in his six pen’orth and I thank him for it. Many other climate scientists contribute to climate science sites and blogs but journalists in the popular media seem to often ignore those and be overly influenced by climate sceptic blogs. Sure, if more of the “immensely larger group of non-scientists would stand up”, that would be good, but we’re just more ‘people with opinions’ and don’t have the credibility that a climate scientist has.

    Maybe I’m just showing my frustration. In some ways we know enough about climate science now to have decided that society urgently needs to be proposing action. Maybe I’m suggesting that ‘climate communication’ should now be given a higher priority by academic and governmental organisations and they should encourage and provide more time for their working climate scientists to express science-based opinions on this subject.

  58. johnrussell40 says:

    On BBC ‘The World at One’ just now, Professor Richard Ashley, Sheffield University, just made a passionate and damning response to Eric Pickles statements. It’s not available to listen to yet but here’s the link where it will be found: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03tr3mw.

    It was exactly the sort of scientist’s expert opinion I’m referring to. I don’t know whether he’s a Yorkshireman but he certainly called a spade, a spade.

  59. Thanks, I’ll have a listen when it’s available.

    I think, on the news this morning, it was pointed out that some experts were regarding what Eric Pickles has said as a load of tosh. One even went so far as to say he’d be more use as a sandbag. I guess this is what happens when you throw your experts under the bus – they might come back and illustrate why they’re experts and you’re not.

  60. Then maybe I am not a climate scientist. I have never notice that a comment of mine closed the discussion. In the best and rare cases, they just ignore the thread (and post the same nonsense elsewhere).

    I do my blogging and commenting in my free time and would already be very happy if it does not hurt my career. So, yes, it would be nice and probably beneficial for the discussion is communication would be valued more. Would be hard, you hear similar calls for more importance of teaching, but not much happens if the reward structure is not changed, if only because most scientists like to do science, so you would really have to offer them something.

  61. OPatrick says:

    On BBC ‘The World at One’ just now, Professor Richard Ashley, Sheffield University, just made a passionate and damning response to Eric Pickles statements.

    (Now available from about 35 minutes in)

    It was indeed passionate and damning, but it’s notable that this happened because those involved had been directly criticised – and it’s understandable they should be irrate in the circumstances. But scientists are being equally criticised, allbeit implicitly by having advice ignored and even contradicted, all the time. There are of course also the standard explicit criticisms of scientists as a body which are almost ubiquitous. It would be good to hear more voices expressing their dissatisfaction, in a measured and objective way, of course.

  62. Victor,

    Would be hard, you hear similar calls for more importance of teaching, but not much happens if the reward structure is not changed, if only because most scientists like to do science, so you would really have to offer them something.

    Yes, this is actually a crucial point. There’s a lot of talk about public engagement and how important it is, but guess what gets cut first when money is tight. Also, does it have any impact on career progression? Am I aware of anyone who hasn’t been promoted simply because they didn’t bother doing any public engagement? No. Am I aware of people who have suffered because their public engagement probably affected their research? Yes.

  63. izen says:

    Much as I disparage Mike Hulme for his traces of the nonsense of critical realism, at least he is not so naive that he thinks that if only more scientists spoke out more forcefully the political means and will would suddenly spring into existence to properly address the issue.

    It certainly did not happen with past environmental problems. Lead, Asbestos, SOx, CFCs, DDT…
    It pains me to admit it but MH is right when he says the science facts are secondary, but it is the political and economic powers within society that can initiate communal action in response to those scientific facts. The sort of political institutions that would be required to take effective mitigating action do not exist.
    As Kyoto demonstrated rather well.

    And as with other environmental hazards the economic powers rarely take action until a profitable alternative is available.

    I am not dismissing the deficit model entirely. I am sure there is some value in clear expositions of the basics in as many outlets as possible, but to link the failure of the global governance with an insufficiency of scientific advocacy is definitely shooting the messenger unfairly. Combat the most egregious distortions of the science wherever and as much as you wish, it can be a means of evolving and sharpening your own understanding. Or emotionally cathartic. Become an advocate or activist, pick a policy you whish to see pursued {emission reductions?} and a means to enact it.

    But physics chemistry and biology, – Nature – will determine the changes in the climate any actions will have to mitigate or adapt to. Politics will limit what actions are possible to adapt or mitigate the changes.

    Scientists speaking up more has little effect on either, the individual voice is like the flap of a butterfly wing far far away….

  64. toby52 says:

    IN the Korean WAr, it is said an American general was ringing around to his bridage commanders during a Chinese assault. One was a British unit, and its commander (when asked how things were) :said: “Well, not bad”.

    The American immediately thought: “Not bad means good, right?” and moved on to other units.

    Turned out the British officer meant “Not bad” as understatement (or overstatement) for “Fcking awful”.and they took a pasting.

  65. A think there is a great lesson tone learned from the Fenlands in Eastern England. There they flood huge areas to cope with excess water falling on land which is below sea level. These areas known as washes are also wonderful wildlife habitat, a view of Bewick and Whooper swans returning at sunset is one of the great wildlife experiences in the UK. Farmers use the washes in the summer when they are dry, and in the winter they save towns and villages from flooding. If this is the weather we can expect as a result of climate change , the Somerset levels may have to use similar adaptions. Maybe it is something Eric Pickles could see as a useful scheme regardless of how he sees the causes of this climate shift.

  66. NB. That should read ‘great lesson to be learned’. Cursed predictive text!

  67. Steve Bloom says:

    I just to highlight again Richard Ashley’s fabulously excellent remarks here, starting about 35 minutes in. Everyone should listen IMO.

  68. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, February 9, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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