How Much Science is Too Much?

I’ve been sympathetic to green causes for as long as I can remember.  I first formally joined an environment group 30 years ago.  What really drew me into focusing on climate change was when I learned about the scientific consensus.

I read that 97% of climate scientists agreed that climate change was real, caused by humans and urgent.  At that point, I couldn’t figure out why anyone was still arguing about it.  As discussed in an earlier story, the remaining 3% of studies have now been vetted and rejected through peer review.  For all practical purposes, the consensus is now 100%.

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future”

As laypeople, the most sensible thing for us to do with science is to learn and apply the expert consensus.  Of course, that places a burden on the climate science community.  They have to be accurate and reliable to earn and retain our trust.  The challenge is that, as Yogi Bera wisely avowed, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

In a new study from Stanford University, researchers explain the dilemma this creates for climate scientists.  On the one hand, the more specific scientists are when they present their findings, the more credible they are.  On the other hand, when scientists act responsibly, stating their assumptions and acknowledging unknown factors, the public views them as less trustworthy.

For example, the study, published in Nature Climate Change, looked at predictions of sea-level rise.  It found that when climate experts include both the best-case and worst-case case scenarios, the American public tends to open up and believe what they have to say.  So far, so good.  However, if the scientists then act professionally by disclosing that they can never tell us precisely what will happen in the future, the public starts to balk.

When scientists act responsibly, the public views them as untrustworthy

Scientists prudently state their assumptions and the limitations on their analysis all the time in other fields.  What makes things different for climate scientists are what Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call the merchants of doubt.  There has been a deliberate effort by people who oppose government regulations and by the fossil fuel industry to amplify any uncertainty they can find about climate change.

As lead author and post-doctoral scholar Lauren Howe put it, “In the context of global warming specifically, scientific uncertainty has been of great interest, in part because of concerted efforts by so-called ‘merchants of doubt’ to minimize public concern about the issue by explicitly labelling the science as ‘uncertain.'” 

This makes the role of the experts even more difficult.  They have the best of intentions when they qualify their findings. Still, they are handing ammunition to the climate deniers when they do this.  Much as it goes against the grain to behave like spin doctors, they may have to learn a few things about public relations and communication.

They may have to learn a few things about public relations and communication

As Dr. Howe put it, “Scientists may want to carefully weigh which forms of uncertainty they discuss with the public. For example, scientists could highlight uncertainty that has predictable bounds without overwhelming the public with the discussion of factors involving uncertainty that can’t be quantified.”

Another study in the same edition of Nature Climate Change provides a case in point.  Scientists from a group known as the Permafrost Carbon Network have been studying arctic permafrost.  Permafrost is soil that remains frozen throughout the year because of sub-zero temperatures.  It contains elevated levels of carbon. 

Climate change is causing permafrost to thaw in the far north

Climate change is causing permafrost to thaw in the far north, which releases the carbon into the atmosphere and makes climate change even worse.  It’s a vicious cycle.  The study found that twice as much carbon is released during the winter than we used to think.  Plants absorb carbon out of the atmosphere in the summer but not enough to offset this effect.

Now, here is the tricky part.  There haven’t been a lot of studies done in the arctic.  This was a kind of meta-analysis where a set of existing studies were combined together mathematically. They pooled observations from more than 100 northern field sites.   The statistics on the release of carbon in the winter have a relatively high margin of error.  The study also didn’t confirm any actual increase in emissions during the study period.

The public needs to know, but how much does it need to know?

How did you just react?  Was there a tinge of dismissal after reading the “tricky part”?  How should the research team balance their responsibility to make this issue public against the qualifications that they are used to putting on experimental findings? The fact is the vicious cycle that scientists call permafrost feedback is now underway.  We need to know about it, and we need to act on it.  The public needs to know, but how much does it need to know?

This is the dilemma that climate deniers have deliberately imposed on us.  Any honest admission of ambiguity will be seized upon and exploited by the climate deniers.  Yet, professional ethics demand that climatologists state their assumptions and provide disclaimers based on the limitations of the methods used in their research.  If they don’t discuss this with the public, they should at least explain it to their peers.

It’s a matter of education, including lifelong learning.

I understand Dr. Howe’s point about scientists giving some thought to what they make public.  However, I’m not sure that the solution is for scientists to bite their tongue.  Ideally, the public would have the critical thinking skills to take in disclaimers about scientific findings without losing faith in a researcher’s expertise.  This isn’t something scientists have the ability or the responsibility to address.  It’s a matter of education, including lifelong learning.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Stanford University
Acknowledging uncertainty impacts public acceptance of climate scientists’ predictions
Global impacts of thawing Arctic permafrost may be imminent
Large loss of CO2 in winter observed across the northern permafrost region


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