Brian Cox took a bit of flack because of a Guardian article about a speech he’d given in which he appeared to be suggesting that – when discussing climate science – scientists should sound more certain than they are. I don’t think this is what he was suggesting. What I think he was arguing was that we should be careful not to sound less certain than we actually are; almost the opposite of what some have interpreted him as saying.
Brian has clarified what he meant in a post on his own blog. He argues that the term uncertainty is often misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t mean we’re uncertain. If anything, it’s the opposite. It represents a confidence interval; it tells us how confident we are about a particular result. He went to say something that really resonated with me. He suggested that there is something that we can say with certainty, which is :
The consensus scientific view is the best we can do at any given time, given the available data and our understanding of it. It is not legitimate and certainly of no scientific value (although there may be political value) to attack a prediction because you don’t like the consequences, or you don’t like the sort of people who are happy with the prediction, or you don’t like the people who made the prediction, or you don’t like the sort of policy responses that prediction might suggest or encourage, or even if you simply see yourself as a challenger of consensus views in the name of some ideal or other.
This probably describes my reason for starting this blog. We have an immense amount of information about climate science, and all of the information is presented with suitable confidence intervals. All of this information is available to be used by our policy makers to decide what we should, or should not, do with regards to climate change. The confidence intervals include the possibility that we will not warm much and, hence, that the impact of climate change will be minimal. However, our understanding at the moment is that this is very unlikely. Similarly, it is possible that warming will be extremely high and the impacts will be severe even if we do reduce our emissions but, again, this is unlikely.
Essentially, the best evidence we have today is the consensus scientific view which represents our best understanding. It could, and will, change as we gather more data and improve our models and theories. It could even up being very wrong, but it’s still the best we have today. All of those who like to point out that consensus views have been wrong in the past, should recognise two very obvious truths : there are also very many consensus views that have turned out to be correct, and – even though some consensus views did turn out to be wrong – those views were still be the best evidence of their day. It makes no sense to argue against a consensus position simply because it could be wrong. That’s an argument for ignoring evidence and basing policy decisions on ideology alone.
Many also try to argue against the consensus position on the basis of it having no significance with respect to science itself. This sounds good, but really doesn’t make much sense. If you’re an ecologist who would like to study the possible impact of climate change on some ecological system, you need to understand the consensus position. You can’t be expected to re-invent the wheel and redo all the climate modelling so as to inform your own research. You use what others have already done. It’s true that the consensus position should not define our understanding indefinitely, in the sense that someone could make a discovery that overturns it, but that doesn’t mean that the consensus position has no relevance whatsoever.
Generally speaking, what Brian Cox seems to be saying is very much what I’ve been trying to say here. The consensus position represents our best understanding today, and includes confidence intervals that tell us something of the likelihood of the different possible outcomes. Sensible policy should be based on this position. If your policy preference requires arguing against this consensus position, then that would suggest that your policy preference is weak if the consensus position turns out to be right. You may turn out to be right, but that would be more by luck than design, and I see no reason why this makes any sense whatsoever. Of course, our understanding will change with time, but that doesn’t mean that the consensus position is not the best evidence we have today.
I may have said this before, but I’d be really interested to see if those who typically argue against mainstream climate science (Andrew Montford being a prime example) can actually construct an argument for their preferred policy option that doesn’t require claiming that there is something fundamentally wrong with the consensus position. I don’t think they can, but it would interesting to see them try. Of course, individuals are welcome to believe whatever they like, but I see no reason why our policy makers should base their decisions on anything other than the best evidence we have today.