There’s a new paper in Nature Climate Change by Greg Hollin and Warren Pearce called Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. You can read more about it in this Making Science Public post. Let me start by saying that it’s possible that I’m just confused, but – in my opinion – the premise of this paper is rather confused. It appears to be arguing that, during the IPCC press conferences, those engaging with the press/public focused on the certainty of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and underplayed the significance of things (like the so-called “pause”) that introduce a level of uncertainty. In doing so, they undermined their message.
If this is what is being suggested, then there is an alternative possibility. Maybe there is a great deal of certainty about AGW, that things like the so-called “pause” do not reduce this certainty and, therefore, that the scientists involved in the press conference were trying to present our best understanding of this topic, irrespective of the views of a bunch of journalists and social scientists.
So, why do I think the article is confused? Consider the following comment:
During the press conference, the IPCC speakers attempted to make climate knowledge more publicly meaningful by repeated reference to temporally local phenomena such as short-term temperature change. However, as described above, there are more uncertainties around the causes of these phenomena and whether they are indeed attributable to AGW.
Who has ever suggested that short-term temperatures are – or even could be – attributed to AGW? The significance of short-term variability is that, when considering the surface temperature record, we expect there to be this kind of variability, even in the presence of increasing anthropogenic forcings. The article continues with
Furthermore, these phenomena are of a kind with other uncertain, temporally local phenomena such as ‘the pause’ that do not incontrovertibly support the AGW hypothesis.
Huh? This is, essentially, the wrong way around. The so-called “pause” would be significant if it were inconsistent with AGW; but it’s not. That’s probably why the speakers were not giving undue significance to these short-term variations. To be fair, this doesn’t mean that the recent surface warming slowdown wasn’t a surprise, that there weren’t communication failures, and that there isn’t much to learn about this period, but that doesn’t mean that they were underplaying the significance of something like this.
The premise of the article can probably be summed up by the following comment
In this press conference, the IPCC speakers failed to acknowledge this diminishing certainty, dismissing journalists’ questions about ‘the pause’ precisely because the phenomenon is uncertain
Again, the authors seem to be asserting that things like the “pause” introduce an uncertainty that the speakers failed to properly acknowledge, without recognising the possibility that what the scientists were presenting was a reasonable representation of our best understanding. One of the journalist whose question was dismissed was David Rose who asked
how much longer will the so-called pause or hiatus have to continue before you would begin to reflect that there is something fundamentally wrong with the models?
This was dismissed as being an ill-posed question, leading – apparently – to David Rose being regarded as scientifically illiterate. I guess one could provide an answer to David Rose’s question, but it is a largely ill-posed question, and although scientifically illiterate may be a little harsh, from what I’ve seen of David Rose, it’s not far off. Sure, if the so-called “pause” did continue for many decades, while we continued to increase our emissions, it would make it more likely that there was something fundamentally wrong with the models. However, so much physics would have to be wrong for that to occur, that it really isn’t a question worth answering – well, not without providing caveats and a great deal of context.
There’s probably a great deal more that I could say, but I’ll finish by quoting the final part of the paper.
If IPCC speakers are to avoid this certainty trap in the future, they must be better availed of the competing tensions between scientific certainty and public meaning, and the particular difficulties faced by scientists when trying to communicate their findings in a meaningful fashion. In particular, public dialogue has a key role to play in making climate science knowledge meaningful. We should strive for an approach to climate change that breaks free of the certainty trap to better include public dialogue, values, visions and beliefs
I’m not even entirely sure of what this is getting at, but it seems to be suggesting that public values, visions and beliefs should influence scientific certainty. If so, I fail to see how this is a good idea. Our scientific understanding should strive to be objective and not be influenced by a public perception of the scientific information. It’s one thing to suggest better ways in which to communicate our scientific understanding, but appearing to suggest that we should adapt our scientific understanding to suit a public position, just seems bizarre.
Of course, I’ve been told before that my understanding of the whole Science and Technology Studies field is poor, which is possible. Maybe there is some significance to this paper that I’m failing to get. If so, maybe someone who does get it could explain it to me in a way that I can understand.