Clarity of meaning

A while ago I discussed a Nature Climate Change article by Greg Hollin and Warren Pearce called Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. A number of us submitted a response, which appeared today together with a reply from Pearce & Hollin.

What’s maybe interesting about our response is that it includes writers, bloggers, physical scientists, and social scientists; not all of whom fit nicely into a single category. The main thing we were trying to point out was that Hollin & Pearce appear to have misunderstood what was presented in the IPCC press conference. Their claim seemed to be that the IPCC fell into a certainty trap because they were using the “hottest decade” as an indicator of our certainty about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), while dismissing the so-called “pause”, which was also a decadal indicator. In other words, they were using one decadal indicator to stress our certainty about AGW, while dismissing another.

However, these two indicators are not equivalent. The “hottest decade” refers to the 2000s being the hottest decade in a record going back to 1850. Also, on more than one occasion, they explicitly pointed out that each of the preceding three decades has been warmer, at the Earth’s surface, than any preceding decade since 1850. So, the “hottest decade” was referring to a long-term warming trend, not something short-term. The so-called “pause”, on the other hand, refers to the surface – over the last decade or so – warming more slowly than we might have expected. Although it does appear that the surface has indeed warmed more slowly in the last decade or so than was expected, such decadal variability is expected and does not somehow challenge the fundamentals of AGW.

Furthermore, the claim that the IPCC press conference dismissed the so-called “pause” is slightly odd given that there were numerous questions about the “pause” and numerous lengthy responses. That the responses were not “yes, the ‘pause’ is extremely important and really challenges our understanding of AGW”, or some variant of that, does not mean that it was dismissed. One of the responses even explicitly said

let’s be careful not to interpret that in terms of trend, but very interesting work is being done by the assessment to try to understand the elements of these variability and to do a bit of attribution, which is a tricky issue.

So, not only was our comment suggesting that the IPCC did not fall into a “certainty trap”, it was also pointing out that there was little evidence to suggest that the so-called “pause” was dismissed.

Warren Pearce and Greg Hollin have just written a blog post about their experience in writing their article and the response to our comment. What they seem to be suggesting is that part of the issue is that what they were doing was inductive, while the physical sciences is more commonly deductive. The idea being that in the physical sciences you typically use data to test a theory/hypothesis, rather than starting with the data and trying to see if it suggests anything interesting.

Personally, I think this is a rather simplistic interpretation of what happens in reality. In some circumstances scientists do collect data so as to test a theory/hypothesis. However, in many cases the data shows something interesting, and scientists then try to understand what the data is suggesting. The subtlety, though, is that you’re typically constrained by existing theories, or the known laws of physics. Often you don’t construct some kind of new basic theory so as to explain the data, you simply apply the known basic theories. Of course, you might construct a new model so as to explain the data/observations, but that’s not quite the same as developing some kind of brand new theory. In fact, as this article suggests, it’s often circular; it’s sometimes hard to say specifically if theory is driving observations, or if observations are driving theory.

I’m also not quite sure why it makes any difference whether one’s approach is inductive or deductive. What you present should be a reasonable representation of reality, whether you approached it inductively (“the data looks interesting, why is that?”) or deductively (“I have a theory/hypothesis, let me collect some data to test it”). For example, either the IPCC fell into a trap by using one indicator to stress the certainty of AGW while dismissing another essentially equivalent indicator, or they didn’t; either the IPCC dismissed the so-called “pause”, or they didn’t. It can’t really be both.

Of course, those of us who wrote the comment in response to the original Hollin & Pearce paper think that the IPCC neither fell into a certainty trap, nor dismissed the so-called “pause”. In some sense this seems like a pretty simple thing that we should be able to establish and agree on. It seems, however, that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. I find this rather unfortunate.

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50 Responses to Clarity of meaning

  1. Its paywalled. You couldn’t paste it in here, could you?

  2. Phil says:

    However, in many cases the data shows something interesting, and scientists then try to understand what the data is suggesting. The subtlety, though, is that you’re typically constrained by existing theories, or the known laws of physics.

    A specific example of this is the Nobel Prize winning discovery by Prof Sir Harry Kroto (also my external PhD examiner 🙂 ) and others of BuckminsterFullerene. At the time, Harry was studying the microwave spectra of long-ish chained carbon molecules; species like H-C=C=C=N (all those = should be triple bonds) – both in the lab and in outer space. He and collaborators, Ric Smalley and Bob Curl were trying to generate long linear chains of carbon in a mass spectrometer, and whilst doing so re-discovered this huge peak at C60. Rather than ignoring it (as had happened in the past) they started speculating on why it was so abundant (by implication so stable). If I recall correctly, Harry had been enthusiastic about modern architecture in general, and Buckminster Fullers geodesic domes in particular. Clearly something clicked … but it was following that data signal, along with a complete switch from what they were initially trying to do, that led them to BuckminsterFullene.

  3. Phil says:

    Oops: molecular formula above should have been H-C=C-C=N where = are triple bonds. Apologies.

  4. Phil,
    I’m a physicist, I would never have noticed 🙂

  5. I’ve just noticed that Mat Hope (associated editor at Nature Climate Change) has posted – on Twitter – a free link to the article, so here it is.

  6. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone:

    A much more discreet method of file transfer involves scientists requesting specific papers via Twitter, then a scientist with access to a journal subscription making contact privately and emailing the paper out of band while the person who asked for it deletes their original tweet requesting it.

  7. Ethan Allen says:

    So just another academic ‘mind game’ discussion.

    Are all three of these ‘discussions’ paywalled. Which gets to a very basic question of: if this stuff is s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o damned important to humanity then why is any of this stuff paywalled to begin with in the 1st place? (sort of a rhetorical question given our territorial instinct).

    Could we at least start with a link to the video of the original press conference.

    That way, I can inform myself as to what actually happened, in the 1st person even.

    My 1st territorial instinct is that I don’t have the time to chase all of this down. My 2nd territorial instinct is that you all have got it all wrong. My 3rd territorial instinct is wtf is up with all the walls and borders and territoriality to begin with in the 1st place.

    This is a perfect example of humanity being a territorial species Prove me wrong.

  8. Sou says:

    Ethan – you can see the video of the IPCC press conference and other info here (scroll down the article), if ATTP doesn’t mind me blog-promoting:

    That article also has a link to a synopsis of media articles following the press conference, which shows that the IPCC didn’t confuse anyone who asked a question (David Rose’s article notwithstanding).

  9. Ethan Allen says:


    Yeah, I now have a somewhat better handle on things, still for me to have a serious discussion, the original articles would sort of be nice (I’ve downloaded all SOM’s though).

    The basic problem, as I see it, is that there wasn’t much meat on them there bones, in the original Pearce paper to begin with in the 1st place. They are both rather young authors, so perhaps chalk this one up to a lessons learned exercise. It just seems really odd to present a ‘social science’ paper with no quantitative analyses at all, and at best, a qualitative analysis based solely on one press conference. (Note that I can only see the 1st full page of their paper).

    Also , who exactly brought the inductive/deductive attributes into this discussion in the 1st place? As in a direct quote from the as published papers. I can see that their 2nd blog post talks about inductive methods, which to me, is only useful if one has lots and lots of data and then proceeds to statistical models and inferences thereof. Somehow, a single press conference is setting that inductive method at an abysmally low level. Is this typical of the social sciences?

    I’ve never held the social (or soft) sciences in very high regard, and if this is in any way typical of what’s promulgated in the peer reviewed social science literature, then their ‘lowering of the bar’ has completely moved on the complex number domain to a place entirely on the imaginary axis.

    I seriously doubt that there was any quality to their qualitative method. I do not think that they were unbiased observers either, they most certainly knew about the pause or hiatus beforehand, had to, given all the MSM and social media commentary that seeks to ‘teach the controversy’ since that appears to be what the customer wants (gotta have that up close and personal emotional human element dontcha know).

    They also appeared to be rather very ignorant of the climate science itself. Which I guess you could also say of the general population (GP).

    I do think that most of this (knowledge gap and acceptance between the GP and scientists) revolves around the relatively slow pace of climate change on typical human timescales (say 30-50 years (mortgage or retirement planning)). So the whole self interest thing comes into play (you are taxing me for someone else (not yet born) in the future).

  10. Sou says:

    Pretty much agree, Ethan. Thing is, the self-interest thing is used by people as a red herring IMO. The point about taxing me for someone else already applies in all sorts of areas. Education (childless people pay for other people’s children), health and social welfare (young people pay for aged care, single and older people pay for families and babies), new infrastructure (which is built for future generations, after many taxpayers are dead), infrastructure maintenance (paying for maintenance of infrastructure built for previous generations), foreign aid (supporting people we don’t know in other countries), drought relief for farmers etc etc.

    In Australia we all had to pay an extra flood levy (up to $700 per taxpayer) to clean up after the Queensland floods, even while in our own various States, we had to recover from the floods there with no additional help (almost all Australia got flooded at the time, but Queensland didn’t have insurance). That’s going to happen more and more often. The future is not as far away as some people like to think.

  11. Pingback: From complex clarity to nuanced misunderstanding: Response to Hollin and Pearce | My view on climate change

  12. Here’s the link to a free copy of Greg Hollin & Warren Pearce’s response to our comment.

  13. Ethan,
    As I understand it, the inductive/deductive aspects was simply introduced in their blog post from yesterday and seems to be an attempt to explain why they might have drawn conclusions that physical scientists might not immediately accept. I don’t find that a particularly compelling argument.

    They also appeared to be rather very ignorant of the climate science itself. Which I guess you could also say of the general population (GP).

    Yes, this does appear to be the case.

    I’ve been a little critical in the past of some of what I’ve seen from Science and Technology Studies. If I was writing, for example, a social sciences paper – or anything outside my area of expertise – I would talk with those who were more expert in that area. Probably try to collaborate. I get the sense, though, that there are some in the social sciences who see themselves as overseeing/studying the physical sciences and that, therefore, they need to remain objective by not actually directly interacting with physical scientists. I might be wrong about this, but that’s the impression I have.

    An obvious consequence of this, though, is that it’s then easy to interpret something in terms of what you think the words mean, without realising that what is being described is not what you think is being described. This would be easy enough to resolve if people actually spent time with those who have more expertise in the areas being studied. Of course, if you do that, maybe you’d discover that there’s really not that much to say.

  14. Ethan Allen says:


    That’s a link to your reply (at least that’s what pops up on my PC).

    I’m now in the process of chasing down this quote from their 1st blog comment “is very different from the short-term decrease in temperature witnessed during the 15-year” does that appear in the original as published paper? This “could” be a very important question as it goes towards potential author bias.

    See this for example wrt RSS …
    RSS global temperature data: No global warming at all for 202 months (dated September 11, 2013)

    Their paper was “Received 01 December 2014” so the timeframe is about right, the IPCC AR5 WG1 press conference occurred on “27 September 2013”

    Click to access media_advisory_webcast_wgi.pdf

    Of the five known temperature time series RSS has been the Deniers favorite since at least September 11, 2013 (see above link which does show a very slight negative trend).

    If none of the three SAT (CRU, NOAA or NASA) shows a negative trend (in that timeframe) I can only conclude that the authors, at least, engaged in an outright cherry pick.

  15. Ethan,
    Yes, I copied the wrong link. Should now be to the response to our comment.

  16. Willard says:

    > As I understand it, the inductive/deductive aspects was simply introduced in their blog post from yesterday and seems to be an attempt to explain why they might have drawn conclusions that physical scientists might not immediately accept. I don’t find that a particularly compelling argument.

    It’s less than compelling. It’s wrong. Empirical science ain’t deductive, but abductive. Also, the argument only applies if you attacked the inference they make. It does not apply to cases where the premises are questioned or refuted. Like here:

    The IPCC was not incoherent, and clearly distinguished between the high confidence that human activity has led to multi-decadal warming and lower confidence in the specific causes of recent short-term variability (that is, the warming slowdown, ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’).

    The facts under dispute are independent from the argumentative frame.


    The appeal to their own authority (which works as special pleading) looks more like an ad hominem than anything. You’re not a social scientist, and you don’t think like us. Your thinking engine does not allow you to see the social reality the way we, specialists in the field, do.

  17. Willard,
    I hadn’t perceived it that way, but you might have a point. I found this bit of their MSP post odd

    there is the strong sense that Jacobs et al think that we didn’t test our hypotheses rigorously but this is precisely because there weren’t any hypotheses. A perfect example of different answers arising from an unacknowledged difference in questions rather than anything fundamental about answers.

    Ummm, no, we simply thought that the conlusions drawn were wrong.

  18. L Hamilton says:

    As a social scientist who often works inductively, I’m sorry to see those characteristics invoked as an excuse for, even a deflection from, the faults of an inaccurate and poorly researched paper.

  19. L Hamilton says:

    In this earlier piece, Warren Pierce reveals more more of his understanding about climate science:

    “Sceptics such as Andrew Montford and Anthony Watts agree with the mainstream view that the greenhouse effect brings about atmospheric warming as a result of carbon emissions, but dispute levels of climate sensitivity. However, others offer far more fundamental challenges to climate science, such as fringe sceptic group Principia Scientific who reject this orthodox view of atmospheric physics.

    Watts found himself under frequent challenge by members of the group on his blog, leading him to post his own experiments on YouTube to disprove their claims. As well as being a nice example of scientific claim and counter-claim on the web, Watts’s actions also helped position himself as a “mainstream” sceptic who can challenge key areas of climate science without entering into pseudoscience, a brush he had previously been tarnished with.

    Watts’s public experiments provide an example of one more area in which sceptics seek to uphold standards, through transparent and auditable scientific practice. One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.

    from “Are climate skeptics the real champions of the scientific method?”

  20. Joshua says:

    Being kind of lazy, and not wanting to take the time needed to catch up on the whole backstory, I’m hoping that someone can help me out here:

    =>> “. Inductive research is quite different and is “bottom up” – you start with the data, see patterns or interesting things, and the theories and broader claims are integrated later. This latter approach is certainly the one which we took in our Letter;…”

    What data are they referring to? Can I assume that they mean data that show that people were confused about the certainty of evidence about climate change, as the result of the press conference in question?

    If so, what evidence did they present to quantify those data and their conclusion about those data, and control for potentially conflating influences such as “motivated reasoning” on the part of those who say they were confused? As I recall, the main component of their “data” was Rose saying that he found their statements to be contrdictory (with an implication that the IPCC was selling the public a hill of goods). How did they determine that Rose (or others) weren’t more likely confirming their biases about the political motivations of the IPCC?

  21. Larry,
    Yes, I wrote about Warren Pearce’s Guardian article at the time. I was somewhat taken aback by what he was suggesting. William Connolley was somewhat blunter.

  22. Chris says:

    Joshua, there’s no data….both the first paper by Pearce and Hollin (P&H) and their response to Jacob et al are largely polemic.

    Here’s the second sentence of their response to Jacob et al.:

    “That Jacobs et al.3 critique our recent Letter4 about public meanings attached to abstract scientific knowledge by using even more abstract scientific knowledge reaffirms this central point: that some in the climate science community fail to understand that scientific knowledge alone, no matter how certain, is poorly equipped to meaningfully communicate climate change.5.”

    i.e. P&H unilaterally define the scientific knowledge presented by the IPCC panel and by Jacob et al. as “abstract”, although they give no evidence or insight as to why (they decide that) it’s “abstract”.

    The more one reads that sentence the more astonishing it seems…. it seems to me it should actually finish:

    …that some in the climate science community fail to understand that scientific knowledge alone, no matter how certain, is poorly equipped to meaningfully communicate climate change to us

  23. Ethan Allen says:


    “You’re not a social scientist, and you don’t think like us. Your thinking engine does not allow you to see the social reality the way we, specialists in the field, do.”

    Go over to their blog (ATTP has a few blog posts here about them tagged “Warren Pearce”), they pretty much pontificate on everything.

    In regards to their blog posts devoted to climate science, they pretty much mention every known Denier in at least a very neutral way.

    The basic point is, they don’t understand the science at all, they clearly read stuff at climate blogs, but with no ability to separate the so called ‘wheat from the chaff’ they have no way of seeing a good argument from a bad argument (informal logical fallacies) . All arguments are equal all arguments are valid. The biases displayed over there are rather impalpable.

    I’m thinking that another group of sociologists should study that group of sociologists. Its like there in the same cage with the rest of us and no amount of specialized training will ever change that basic fact.

  24. snarkrates says:

    [Mod : Since I’m one of the authors of the response, I’m going to encourage comments to remain on topic & polite.]

  25. Willard says:

    > [W]e simply thought that the conlusions drawn were wrong.

    Were it the case, they might have a point, notwithstanding their inaccuracy on induction. (Bayesians could argue that only natural sciences are strictly speaking inductive.) You went beyond that, for instance by disputing the facts they assumed:

    In summary, Hollin and Pearce mischaracterize several fundamental aspects of the press conference, with their central argument being based on a misunderstanding of the context of multi-decadal timescales. The premise of “temporally local events” was incorrectly applied to the IPCC’s statement about the “hottest decade”. Therefore the conclusion that the IPCC fell into a “certainty trap” does not follow.

    Your argument does not rest on a non sequitur, contrary to what the last sentence may indicate. It rests on the fact that from false premises, anything can follow. In other words, Hollin & Pearce’s analysis rests on incorrect premises.


    Another interesting question is if Hollin & Pearce’s analysis is not question-begging. To establish that, one would need to find in their conclusion something presupposed in one of their premises. If the certainty trap is already injected in their analysis, their argument would be the opposite of inductive: it would be circular, thus completely deductive.

  26. guthrie says:

    Ethan Allen – re. your concern about access to papers, the simple fact is that the current model is a commercial one which is very touchy about intellectual property rights. Most of the scientists involved just want their papers to be available to as many people as possible, but over the decades a system and structure worth many millions of pounds has grown up around scientific publishing, with major multinational corporations using it to provide themselves with profits.

    Your language seems to suggest you find the resulting lack of access to papers to be a problem; I can assure you that it isn’t a problem of the scientists direct making and it certainly isn’t a conspiracy against sceptics and denialists.

  27. Joshua says:

    Chris –

    Here’s the thing…I kind of agree with them in the sense that I think that arguing about the technical merits of whether there’s been a “pause,” or whether referring to a comparison between decades is the same as using the “pause” to conclude that there are basic flaws in the “mainstream” argument about climate change, are too abstract to change public opinion.

    I think that in a sense, they’re right in that to the extent that there are those in “the climate science community” who think that “scientific knowledge alone” will determine how the general public views climate change, then those scientists are probably mistaken.

    But all that given, my sense is that what they’re mostly doing is exploiting those truths to pursue an agenda. My sense is that underneath their thesis lies a view that “the climate science community” seeks to use fear-mongering to persuade the public because pure science won’t – and in that sense, the existence of “skepticism” can be attributed to poor communication practices from “the climate science community.” Thus, their agenda is to assign causality for “skepticism” at the feet of “the climate science community.”

    Such a view assumes that “skepticism” towards climate change is rooted in what “the climate science community” does or doesn’t say. Such a view basically basically ignores the ubiquitous evidence of an association between “skepticism” about climate change and political ideology – an association that strongly suggests that people of a certain ideological orientation basically go looking for reasons to be “skeptical” about climate change irrespective of the specifics of what “the climate science community” says. In other words, “skeptics” start out with judging “expert” opinion on the basis of whether the “expert” is aligned with them ideologically. Then they filter that evidence in a process of reverse engineering to confirm their starting biases.

  28. Joshua,

    I think that in a sense, they’re right in that to the extent that there are those in “the climate science community” who think that “scientific knowledge alone” will determine how the general public views climate change, then those scientists are probably mistaken.

    But that doesn’t seem to be what they were suggesting. They appear to be suggesting a trap where they used one decadal indicator to show certainty about AGW while dismissing another. That isn’t the same as suggesting that certainty about AGW will actually influence the public in some way. There is a difference between being “certain” scientifically, and that certainty translating into some kind of societal action. That it might not does not mean that we’re not certain.

  29. Joshua says:

    I’ve reworked my last two comments to direct them to Warren and reposted them over at his blog. I’ll be curious to see if he provides some answers.

  30. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Yes, they make an argument that could be refuted at a technical level, and those more technically oriented than I are focused on taking them on, on the technical merits (or lack thereof) of their argument.

    But I see something else going on here as more operational.

    I frequently see “skeptics,” most of whom can’t understand the science, referring to a “pause” in global warming as a justification for their view that the theory that ACO2 will cause climate change is a “hoax.” Embedded in that is, IMO, something quite understandable. Most people will have a hard time seeing a largely theoretical, long-term pattern when their daily experiences suggest a different pattern. Saying that this decade was warmer than previous decades (by a fairly small measure) is relatively abstract compared to whether or not I ran out of firewood last winter because it was unusually cold. Explaining the logic of why the recent decade of higher temps is, in a scientific sense, more meaningful than a relatively short-term decrease in a long term trend of surface temps only will not be persuasive to most people, IMO.

    So making the argument that using the last decade of temps isn’t contradictory to saying that the “pause” isn’t scientifically meaningful won’t be convincing to people, IMO. But why? Because they don’t understand the technical merits of that argument?

    I don’t think so – because “realists” will hear that argument from “the climate science community” and even if they don’t understand it at a scientific level, say to themselves “Well, an expert that I trust is saying that the last decade of temps relative to previous decades of temps is more meaningful scientifically than this “pause” that I’ve heard about.” Likewise, a “skeptic” will say that the “experts” their experts say that AGW is a “hoax” because temps haven’t gone up in 18 years – and that their views is validated by the contradictory arguments presented by “activist” lefty scientists who want a one world government, And on and on.

    IMO, thrown into the mix, as we see with Pearce’s article and follow-up and countless other places as well, we have some people who have an agenda about science communication. They will attribute the views of “skeptics” differently to what I see as the attribution. They will say that “skeptics” are “skeptical” because “the climate science community” is inconsistent in how they treat uncertainty. Or because “skeptics” think they’re being sold a bill of goods.

    Maybe they’re right. But here’s the thing. As near as I can tell they present their views data free, and on top of that, in their thesis they fail to address abundant data that suggest a different causal mechanism than that which they propose.

  31. some people who have an agenda about science communication.

    Except we’re talking about people in the Science and Technology Studies field, who do not – as I understand it – see themselves as people who study “science communication”. It is – from what I understand – intended to about more technical aspects of the role of science and technology in society. You may gather that I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. I had thought it was about science communication too, when I first encountered it.

    The reason I say this is that if the whole Hollin & Pearce article was about science communication, then they may have a point. However, I think what they were suggesting was a more fundamental problem with the press conference, not simply that they didn’t communicate very well.

  32. chris says:

    Actually Joshua, my feeling is that because Pearce and Hollin (P&H) are entirely vague and imprecise in their use of language to convey meaning, one ends up attempting to second guess what they might think they mean and thus generate confusions in our own discourse.

    I’m taking their words at face value. It’s the “scientific knowledge” that P&H decide is “abstract”, not how this may be used (which is what you have inferred, and maybe that is what P&H mean, but then one wonders why they don’t say so). There is nothing abstract about the knowledge that the 2000’s is the hottest decade on record, that each of the preceding 3 decades have been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850, and so on. That isn’t “abstract knowledge”.

    And who are these “in the climate science community” who think that “scientific knowledge alone” will determine how the general public views climate change? That’s a strawman isn’t it? In fact P&H use this specifically in relation to the Jacobs et al letter:

    “That Jacobs et al.3 critique our recent Letter4 about public meanings attached to abstract scientific knowledge by using even more abstract scientific knowledge reaffirms this central point: that some in the climate science community fail to understand that scientific knowledge alone, no matter how certain, is poorly equipped to meaningfully communicate climate change.5.”

    That’s what their words say. According to P&H, the fact that Jacobs et al. pointed out misinterpretations in the P&H “thesis” and clarified the IPCC statements by reference to the temperature record (“abstract scientific knowledge” in the P&H view), means that they (Jacobs et al) fail to understand something about scientific knowledge and its ability to communicate climate change.

    My “sense” of the P&G “agenda” is different from yours although yours is a plausible inference. Whatever their motives P&G seem to have a profound difficulty with conveying meaning.

  33. chris says:

    Joshua, I might add that although you consider that the points made by the IPCC (that the last few decades have been progressively warmer, and that the record warmth of the recent decade is more meaningful than the recent slow down in temperature rise) may be relatively abstract to some or most people, that doesn’t seem to apply to the journalists (or all but one of the journalists) who asked questions and reported on the IPCC presentation as Miriam O’Brien analysis indicates:

    One would hope that social scientists that purport to specialize in science communication, science skepticism and “making science public”, might be able to reach the level of general understanding achieved by science journalists.

  34. Joshua says:

    Anders and Chris –


    It seems to me that your points overlap…and in looking at their abstract, and thinking about your comments…

    I can’t tell if their point was to address what they see as an incoherent scientific argument (which should be addressed scientifically) or to address (and avoid in the future) what they think is an explainable impact on public understanding that results from that supposed incoherence. (Or perhaps some combination – upon re-reading the abstract, they do kinda seem to me to be saying both)…

    So maybe I’m wrong in my assumption that their target is the latter issue. Does that capture (well-enough) what you were saying?

    ==> “That’s a strawman isn’t it? ”

    It certainly lacks specificity. Pretty poor form, IMO.

  35. So maybe I’m wrong in my assumption that their target is the latter issue. Does that capture (well-enough) what you were saying?

    Pretty much, yes.

  36. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    ==> “Pretty much, yes.”

    Thanks. (I guess. 🙂 )

  37. So here’s H&P’s abstract:

    Here we demonstrate that speakers at the press conference for the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report […] attempted to make the documented level of certainty of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) more meaningful to the public. Speakers attempted to communicate this through reference to short-term temperature increases. However, when journalists enquired about the similarly short ‘pause’ in global temperature increase, the speakers dismissed the relevance of such timescales, thus becoming incoherent as to ‘what counts’ as scientific evidence for AGW. We call this the ‘IPCC’s certainty trap’. This incoherence led to confusion within the press conference and subsequent condemnation in the media. The speakers were well intentioned in their attempts to communicate the public implications of the report, but these attempts threatened to erode their scientific credibility. In this instance, the certainty trap was the result of the speakers’ failure to acknowledge the tensions between scientific and public meanings. Avoiding the certainty trap in the future will require a nuanced accommodation of uncertainties and a recognition that rightful demands for scientific credibility need to be balanced with public and political dialogue about the things we value and the actions we take to protect those things

    The argument does not read as particularly inductive to me. There is an effort to make certainty more meaningful; this effort can lead to a double standard (i.e. the certainty trap), which undermines credibility; if we wish to increase credibility, we might try to avoid falling into the certainty trap. Only the last sentence (about values and actions) seems somewhat inductive, insofar as it editorializes about the argument.

    The second premise looks a lot like what is prescribed in conclusion. The first premise (what the authors purported to demonstrate) only establishes the relevance of the prescription. Even if we accept the first premise, the conclusion does not convey much. Let’s hope it’s not because of some kind of certainty trap.

    In any case, that the authors seek to demonstrate a premise looks strange. It makes a premise a thesis. That thesis goes a bit beyond the title, which speaks of a tension between scientific certainty and meaning, and expresses communicational concerns. The authors presume that this tension between certainty and meaning is inescapable, which is why it needs to be acknowledged. If they could remind contrarians of that tension when they fisk the famous Schneider misquote, that would be nice.

    PS: Nature’s webmasters should take note that their CSS is broken for Chrome.

  38. And the basic point in our response was that this

    Speakers attempted to communicate this through reference to short-term temperature increases. However, when journalists enquired about the similarly short ‘pause’ in global temperature increase,

    is simply wrong. The IPCC did not reference short-term temperature increases so as to communicate certainty about AGW.

  39. > And the basic point in our response was that [H&P’s first premise] is simply wrong.

    If my reading is right, then H&P’s response misconstrues what you did. Attacking a factual premise has nothing to do with questioning an inference.

    Maybe it’s a vocabulary thing.

  40. Willard,

    If my reading is right, then H&P’s response misconstrues what you did.

    Well, I’m slightly confused as to what they thought they were responding to. It didn’t seem to be to what we’d written. Maybe it is some kind of vocabulary thing.

  41. izen says:

    P&H have a point about the appeal to ‘abstract scientific knowledge’ and its impotence in communicating climate change.

    The pattern of change within a single, isolated body of data is a basic feature that can usually be grasped.

    However making a comparison over time between one feature of a body of data, and similar features to determine the temporal probability of events IS invoking an abstract conceptual form of reasoning that is unfamiliar to many people.
    The cumulative nature of a trend over time, or how one local value compares with the same measure over an extended range of correlated instances, may be convincing to those who have learnt the function of such deductive/inductive logic.
    But if it was a commonly held skill payday lenders would not be a viable business model.

  42. Joshua says:

    Quite a post by Sou on this…in case anyone hasn’t seen it. Nice to see someone provide evidence related to P&H’s assertions. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t support the assertions they made in their published article.

  43. Ethan Allen says:

    Well, given the last few dozen comments I’m sort of seeing word salad and incoherence. I still haven’t read the original W&P article. I do find that to be a fundamental communications problem leading to incoherence.

    It would be nice to see a show of ‘truthful’ hands wrt having read all three articles (I have read the two replies).

    All that I can infer at this moment is that social scientists “crossed over” to the natural sciences domain to deliver a social scientists message.

    That that social sciences message as delivered to the natural sciences community was indeed incoherent to the natural sciences members. That much is rather clear. That W&H at least get that point.

    Let me double down on these two words: IRONIC and IRONY.

    W&H clearly delivered an incoherent message about the IPCC’s ‘incoherent’ messaging. That W&H failed miserably in communicating their rather incoherent message suggests that W&H need to improve their own messaging skills

    W&H also reads more like a movie critic review than anything else, except that this movie is in real time, and thus they offer no alternative outcomes to climate science messaging to the public, whom they ‘pretend’ to represent in ‘there’ role as their own self appointed judge AND jury.

    Long story short? If one is to critique others in the messaging department it is incumbent on those delivering their critiques to do so clearly so that the general PUBLIC understands your message. D’oh! Irony meter pegged at eleventeen.

  44. Tom Curtis says:

    Ethan Allen, I have read the original article by Hollin and Pearce, but not the critiques or responses. About that article, I note that Hollin and Pearce “demonstrate” a failure of the IPCC’s attempted communication by citing an article by David Rose. Followers of the climate change debate are aware of Rose’s record as a deliberate purveyor of misinformation about climate. What is more, Rose himself “shows” the incoherence of the IPCC’s communications by quoting Richard Lindzen, himself a well known AGW denier. In short, the demonstration of the failed communication by the IPCC consists entirely of AGW deniers saying that it failed.

    Being fair, Hollin and Pearce also mention six reporters out of eighteen journalists asking questions about the “pause”, on of whom was David Rose. I have a problem with that, as I can only find four reporters asking questions directly on the “pause” (questions quoted in full below). In addition, Richard Ingram of Agence France Presse asked if this report “silenced the skeptics” and restored IPCC credibility (line 537); Geoffrey Lean of the Daily Telegraph asked a follow up question on climate sensitivity (line 949); and John Parker of The Economist asked about the increase in ocean heat content (line 1182). Thomas Stocker mentions the “pause” in response to Parker, but that is the only direct connection between these questions and the “pause”. It appears, therefore, that Hollin and Pearce are padding their evidence.

    More concerning is their complete failure to cite or include their bibliography the articles from any of the journalists other than Rose. Given that their argument is a failure of the IPCC to communicate, the articles of those other journals are the primary evidence as to whether or not they were satisfied with the IPCC responses to their questions. A survey of just David Rose’s article has no bearing on that question. It is a cherry pick. On they other hand, if they surveyed the other journalists articles and did not include them because they did not show the confusion they have diagnosed, they are guilty of academic fraud by excluding contrary information. This is the more glaring given that they manage to cite three distinct articles by Rose, but none by any other journalist present.

    In another example of dubious practise, they quote a question by Harrabin, and accuse the IPCC of retreating to generalities in response. The only problem is that they response they quote from is to a David Rose question where it follows on from prior, more detailed discussion. It is not the response to Harrabin at all. They also fail to mention the fact that all questions on the “pause” (or possibly all bar one) came from the english language media – a fact that suggests the concentration on the “pause” represents a failure in media standards in English language journalism (unless we wish to take the somewhat racist view that the failure in standards is to be found in all non-english media).

    So, without going into their frankly incoherent reading of the physical science, their article skirts with, and IMO clearly transgresses the ethical standards of Social Sciences research.

    “559 RH: Roger Harrabin, BBC News. A question for Dr Stocker.
    560 Your climate change models did not predict there was a
    561 slowdown in the warming. How can we be sure about your
    562 predicted projections for future warming?”

    “768 DR: David Rose from the UK’s Mail on Sunday. [Confusion over
    769 who was asked to speak, but continues] I’d like to ask two
    770 questions. First of all, you defend the simulations saying
    771 that they should not be expected to reproduce internal
    772 variability on a decadal scale. I’d like to ask, number one,
    773 how much longer will the so-called pause or hiatus have to
    774 continue before you would begin to reflect that there is
    775 something fundamentally wrong with the models. My second
    776 question is that in AR4 you gave a likeliest figure for the
    777 equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3.0 degrees. You’ve not
    778 given a likeliest figure this time. Do you consider that the
    779 likeliest figure is now below 3.0 degrees Celsius? “

    “810 DR: So with respect you’ve not answered my first question: how
    811 much longer would the hiatus have to continue, never mind what
    812 the start date is, the start date is when it is, how much
    813 longer would it have to continue before it would cause you to
    814 consider that the models may be flawed?”

    “964 AM: Alex Morales with Bloomberg News. My question is for
    965 Thomas Stocker. You acknowledged, I’m down here right in
    966 front of you ((laughs)), you acknowledged that a fifteen year
    967 period is less relevant from looking at a climate point of
    968 view and thirty years is what you would normally look at. If
    969 that’s the case why did you even mention a fifteen year period
    970 in the summary for policymakers? And just a second question
    971 if I may, because I wasn’t clear in your answer to an earlier
    972 question on which are the four RCPs we’re closest to at the
    973 moment. I thought you said we’re above all of them but does
    974 that mean we’re above even 8.5 at the moment, is that what
    975 we’re tracking on?”

    “999 AM: And the first question was why include a fifteen year
    1000 period in the summary for policymakers at all?”

    “1022 AM: Sorry could I just. I’m still not clear why you included
    1023 it though. Is it because lots of, you were requested to
    1024 include details about this and you felt it was something you
    1025 needed to give a best explanation of?”

    “1115 PC: Sorry. Pilita Clark from the Financial Times. There’s
    1116 obviously a lot of changes in the final summary that we’ve
    1117 just seen compared to the final draft that you were working on
    1118 at the beginning of the week and although it hasn’t been
    1119 possible to go through the entire thirty six pages this
    1120 morning it does seem as though there’s been an attempt to put
    1121 the slow-down in global warming, slow down in warming over the
    1122 last fifteen years into the sort of context that Thomas
    1123 Stocker’s just been talking about and I wondered if you could
    1124 explain how and why that change was made. Thank you.”

  45. Brian Dodge says:

    [1] If one accepts “that some in the climate science community fail to understand that scientific knowledge alone, no matter how certain, is poorly equipped to meaningfully communicate climate
    change.” then one accepts that climate change is not a scientific matter, but a political/social/religious/economic matter. However, the absorption spectra of CO2/H2O/NOx/CH4 are not subject to
    poitical negotiation; the Clausius Clapeyron equation doesn’t change to fit the social status of people at the country club versus those at a NASCAR race; the exponential loss in productivity of food
    crops above the optimum temperature isn’t a matter of belief, but measurement, analysis, understanding of biochemical reaction temperature rate dependence, and mathematical modelling; sheet flow of flood waters varies as the cube of the depth, and is unconstrained by the economic damage that causes.
    [B] Someone who is unable to grasp the difference between a (decadal) average and a (decadal) trend, or is ideologically unwilling to recognize or admit the difference is probably incapable of
    understanding climate science, or that climatology is a science(see part 1). This is not a failing of the climate science community.

  46. Ethan Allen says:


    Yes, very good work on your part. I guess I’ll request a copies from H&P and ATTP. The may have dodged a bullet, for now. This is just starting to get interesting.

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