Why We Should Trust Uncertain Science


Unless you are accustomed to the scientific method, you have probably already disagreed with the above statement and I’ll be lucky if you’re still reading this. But read on: it’s really not as boring or mind-boggling as you might imagine.

Same words, different meanings

Contrasting understandings between the everyday use of concepts such as risk and uncertainty and their use in a scientific context are a major challenge to communicating science between experts and a lay audience. This is not an underestimation of the general public’s intelligence, but an indication that scientists need to be aware of how they present their findings and how this influences how these findings are received.

If a friend responds to an invitation with ‘not sure’, chances are that – who are we kidding? – they are politely saying ‘no’.

On the other hand, if it is ‘extremely likely’ (which most of us automatically translate into ‘not sure’) that anthropogenic activity is contributing to climate change, this actually is almost a ‘yes’, and is an amazing degree of certainty for science.

But those writing the report and those reading it are often not on the same page. To illustrate the point, here is a short paragraph from the Summary for Policymakers IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report:

“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

As we delve deeper into the world of science communication, it becomes apparent that besides what scientists say and how they say it, another factor is pretty important in predicting audience response: what they already believe.

Does science seek questions or answers?

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of philosophy in science. One of them is the classical school of thought, which deals with science as ‘unquestioned answers’. In other words, science is seen as a quest for a singular, absolute and objective truth, which is out there and waiting to be discovered. The answers exist and science is responsible for developing questions in order to find them.

The other school adopts the idea of paradigms, which are the frameworks for how the world is seen, and sees science as ‘unanswered questions’. Paradigms can evolve or exist simultaneously, supporting that science is open to debate. The questions already exist and through science we can come up with several equally valid answers which are gradually discarded as research disproves them.

In a recent paper, participants in a study were presented with the same statements about climate change, but were previously exposed to information supporting one of the two schools of thought regarding the purpose and nature of science.

The statements presented potential impacts of climate change and included an indication of the level of certainty that these would occur. The participants were then asked to indicate how likely they were to take environmental action in response, such as recycling. Those who were programmed to accept science as simultaneously supporting multiple theories showed a greater likelihood of taking action in order to mitigate the potential impacts of climate change than those who saw science as absolute.

In basic terms, if you are used to statements rarely, or never, presenting information as 100% certain, you are more likely to accept information presented in uncertain terms. If you expect science to give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer presented without doubt, you are less likely to trust a statement which does not give you such an answer.

The protected bubble of science is permeable

Philosophy aside, your general cultural values and worldview can also influence your take on what science has to offer.

If you are an individualist by nature, you are less likely to perceive the risks of climate change as affecting you personally.

If you have a more communitarian mind-set, you are predisposed to believing that the impacts of climate change are a global issue, involving everyone, including yourself.

Of course, these are sweeping generalisations – albeit supported by peer reviewed academic literature – but they serve the important purpose of illustrating that factors much beyond the science itself can influence its uptake by the general public.

Interestingly, knowing more about science is not necessarily the solution for gaining support for scientific findings.

Although it was widely supposed that people showed indifference to climate change because they knew too little about science to understand it, it was found that when their scientific knowledge was increased, their cultural alignments were actually the dominant determining factor of their position.

For example, an uninformed individualist who showed little concern for climate change did not necessarily hold a different opinion to an individualist who regularly came into contact with scientific material and statistics.

Are you converted?

If you’re a classic believer in science, remember that we once thought, with absolute certainty, that the Earth was flat. And if your views are more along the multiple paradigms line of thought, be confident that quantification and presentation of uncertainty (rather than elimination) is what science does best.

By no means should science be trusted blindly, but acknowledging the inevitability of uncertainty and making it explicit is the most honest thing scientists can do.

And if you’re ready to delve even deeper into the science of communicating science and climate change to catch out all those trickster mind-reader writers, there’s a wealth of research to be explored. Here is one research paper that provides a good starting point : Pidgeon, N. and Fischhoff, B. (2011). The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change, 1(1), pp.35-41.

About the Author Alexia Karageorgis

Alexia Karageorgis has an interest in exploring human relations to environmental issues. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a Geography BA, and after several nature conservation volunteering escapades, she decided to revert back to the student life. She is currently following the Science Communication and Public Engagement MSc at the University of Edinburgh while nurturing her new interest in British Sign Language.

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