WUWT readers may recall this paper from Dr. Judith Curry where the “uncertainty monster” was given life.
The uncertainty monster has bitten back. It seems that the IPCC botched more than just AR5 in 2013, they also botched their own press conference on the Summary for Policy Makers in Stockholm by not paying attention to their own uncertainty figures, something we saw recently when 2014 was declared the “hottest year ever”, but NASA GISS was really only 38% sure, finally having to concede that point of uncertainty. The author writes in an email communication regarding journalist David Rose and the “ill-posed” question during the IPCC SPM conference:
We refer to the dismissal of your question by Michel Jarraud, and the article you subsequently wrote. While it’s not the central finding of the paper, we state that your question was indeed well-founded and not ‘ill-posed’.
Improving climate change communication: moving beyond scientific certainty
A new report from The University of Nottingham looks at whether climate scientists threaten their own scientific credibility when trying to make their research accessible to members of the public.
In the last 25 years scientists have become increasingly certain that humans are responsible for changes to the climate. However, for many politicians and members of the public, climate change is still not a particularly pressing concern. In a new report – ‘Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports’ – published on Nature Climate Change’s website, Dr Gregory Hollin and Dr Warren Pearce from the University’s School of Sociology and Social Policy, look at a press conference held by the IPCC in 2013 in order to better understand the ways in which climate scientists attempt to engage the public through the media.
Dr Pearce says:
“Climate science draws on evidence over hundreds of years, way outside of our everyday experience. During the press conference, scientists attempted to supplement this rather abstract knowledge by emphasising a short-term example: that the decade from 2001 onwards was the warmest that had ever been seen. On the surface, this appeared a reasonable communications strategy. Unfortunately, a switch to shorter periods of time made it harder to dismiss media questions about short-term uncertainties in climate science, such as the so-called ‘pause’ in the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature since the late 1990s. The fact that scientists go on to dismiss the journalists’ concerns about the pause – when they themselves drew upon a similar short-term example – made their position inconsistent and led to confusion within the press conference.”
Dr Hollin says:
“Climate change communication is anything but straightforward. When trying to engage the public about climate science, communicators need to be aware that there is a tension between expressing scientific certainty and making climate change meaningful. Acknowledging this tension should help to avoid in the future the kind of confusion caused at the press conference.”
Climate change is an area where consistent attempts are made to communicate the certainty of the science. As a result, a spotlight on scientific uncertainties may be seen as unwelcome. However, Dr Hollin and Dr Pearce argue that a discussion of uncertainty may be an unavoidable by-product of attempts to make climate change meaningful.
Dr Pearce adds: “In the run-up to the United Nations climate summit in Paris, making climate change meaningful remains a key challenge. Our analysis of the press conference demonstrates that this cannot be achieved by relying on scientific certainty alone. A broader, more inclusive public dialogue will include crucial scientific details that we are far less certain about. These need to be embraced and acknowledged in order to make climate change meaningful.”
To view a full copy of the report see: Hollin and Pearce – 2015 – Tension between scientific certainty and meaning c (PDF)
There is a blogpost by the authors explaining the article on the University of Nottingham’s Making Science Public blog: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2015/06/05/ipcc-press-conference
There was, however, an inconsistency in the argument of the scientists. Scientists consistently
drew on short-term temperature increases in order to give climate change meaning:
“the decade 2001 onwards having been the hottest, the warmest that we have seen”
However, the scientists also understood these short-term temperature increases to be less
certain than the overall theory of climate change:
“periods of less than around thirty years. . . are less relevant” (Stocker, L582–583).
Thus, the meaningful, short-term, temperature changes were actually incorporated at the
expense of certainty. While the intended move was therefore to the top-right quadrant
(position three), the actual move was to the bottom-right quadrant (position four): meaning
had been added but at the expense of certainty.
Drawing on meaningful information like ‘the hottest decade’ proved problematic for the
scientists for it is hard to see why the short-term increase in temperature during ‘hottest
decade’ is very different from the short-term decrease in temperature witnessed during the
15-year ‘pause’. Journalists repeatedly asked scientists about the pause and, in particular,
how they could be increasingly certain about climate change in the face of such an
“Your climate change models did not predict there was a slowdown in the warming.
How can we be sure about your predicted projections for future warming?” (Harrabin
Faced with these questions, scientists insisted that short-term temperature changes were
irrelevant for climate science:
“we are very clear in our report that it is inappropriate to compare a short-term period
of observations with model performance” (Stocker L794–796).
Given the type of statement we saw during phase three it is perhaps unsurprising that this
retreat led to confusion, incoherence, and criticism within the press conference.
David Rose was one of the causalities of that press conference, now vindicated. From the paper:
This `temporal segmentation’ enabled the pause to be dismissed as scientifically irrelevant, suggesting that journalists’ questions on the matter couldbe ignored. Jarraud oered just such a dismissal to Rose’s question, which he claimed was “from a scientific point of view: : : what we would call an ill-posed question” (L827828), essentially dismissing Rose as scientifically illiterate. The terms of this dismissal, however, seem inconsistent with the temporally localized claims made by speakers during the press conference. The speakers oscillated between two positions: one of broad certainty but little public meaning, the other of public meaning but little broad certainty (Fig.4). This striking incoherence was noted by Alex Morales of Bloomberg News who asked why 15-year periods are considered by the speakers if they hold no scientific value (L965969).
When Rose published his article the following day, the quote “your question is ill-posed!” was given headline status, and derided as a misjudged response to “a simple question”. We do not wish to claim here that Rose was particularly sympathetic to the IPCC before the press conference, but in this instance his question was well founded. It exposed how attempts during the press conference to increase public meaning undermined the very scientific certainty that representatives were trying to communicate, and then leverage, to procure public meaning.
Congratulations to journalist David Rose, who because of articles like this one about the IPCC, was labeled ““climate misinformer of the year”, by Media Matters, a label now most certainly, “ill-posed”.