by Judith Curry
The concluding section in my draft paper on “Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster” (discussed previously on this thread) is entitled “Taming the uncertainty monster.”
Uncertainty monster refresher
In case you missed my original post on the Uncertainty Monster, here is a brief recap:
The “uncertainty monster” is a concept introduced by van der Sluijs (2005) in an analysis of the different ways that the scientific community responds to uncertainties that are difficult to cope with. A monster is understood as a phenomenon that at the same moment fits into two categories that were considered to be mutually excluding. The “monster” is therefore the confusion and ambiguity associated with knowledge versus ignorance, objectivity versus subjectivity, facts versus values, prediction versus speculation, and science versus policy. The uncertainty monster gives rise to discomfort and fear, particularly with regard to our reactions to things or situations we cannot understand or control, including the presentiment of radical unknown dangers.
An adaptation of van der Sluijs’ strategies of coping with the uncertainty monster at the science-policy interface is described below.
Monster hiding. Uncertainty hiding or the “never admit error” strategy can be motivated by a political agenda or because of fear that uncertain science will be judged as poor science by the outside world. Apart from the ethical issues of monster hiding, the monster may be too big to hide and uncertainty hiding enrages the monster.
Monster exorcism. The uncertainty monster exorcist focuses on reducing the uncertainty through advocating for more research. In the 1990’s, a growing sense of the infeasibility of reducing uncertainties in global climate modeling emerged in response to the continued emergence of unforeseen complexities and sources of uncertainties. Van der Sluijs states that: “monster-theory predicts that [reducing uncertainty] will prove to be vain in the long run: for each head of the uncertainty monster that science chops off, several new monster heads tend to pop up due to unforeseen complexities,” analogous to the Hydra beast of Greek mythology.
Monster simplification. Monster simplifiers attempt to transform the monster by subjectively quantifying and simplifying the assessment of uncertainty. Monster simplification is formalized in the IPCC AR3 and AR4 by guidelines for characterizing uncertainty in a consensus approach consisting of expert judgment in the context of a subjective Bayesian analysis (Moss and Schneider 2000).
Monster detection. The first type of uncertainty detective is the scientist who challenges existing theses and works to extend knowledge frontiers. A second type is the watchdog auditor, whose main concern is accountability, quality control and transparency of the science. A third type is the merchant of doubt (Oreskes and Collins 2010), who distorts and magnifies uncertainties as an excuse for inaction for financial or ideological reasons.
Monster assimilation. Monster assimilation is about learning to live with the monster and giving uncertainty an explicit place in the contemplation and management of environmental risks. Assessment and communication of uncertainty and ignorance, along with extended peer communities, are essential in monster assimilation. The challenge to monster assimilation is the ever-changing nature of the monster and the birth of new monsters.
Below is the text from the concluding chapter of my draft paper:
5. Taming the uncertainty monster
“I used to be scared of uncertainty; now I get a high out of it.” Jensen Ackles
Symptoms of an enraged uncertainty monster include increased levels of confusion, ambiguity, discomfort and doubt. Evidence that the monster is currently enraged includes: doubt that was expressed particularly by European policy makers at the climate negotiations at Copenhagen (van der Sluijs et al. 2010), defeat of a seven-year effort in the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill centered on cap-and-trade, increasing prominence of skeptics in the news media, and the formation of an InterAcademy Independent Review of the IPCC.
The monster is too big to hide, exorcise or simplify. Increasing concern that scientific dissent is underexposed by the IPCC’s consensus approach argues for ascendancy of the monster detection and adaptation approaches. The challenge is to open the scientific debate to a broader range of issues and a plurality of viewpoints and for politicians to justify policy choices in a context of an inherently uncertain knowledge base (e.g. Sarewitz 2004). Some ideas for monster taming strategies at the levels of institutions, individual scientists, and communities are presented.
5.1 Taming strategies at the institutional level
“The misuse that is made [in politics] of science distorts, politicizes and perverts that same science, and now we not only must indignantly cry when science falters, we also must search our consciences.” Dutch parliamentarian Diederik Samsom
The politics of expertise describes how expert opinions on science and technology are assimilated into the political process (Fischer, 1989). A strategy used by climate policy proponents to counter the strategies of the merchants of doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Schneider and Flannery, 2009) has been the establishment of a broad international scientific consensus with high confidence levels, strong appeals to the authority of the consensus relative to opposing viewpoints, and exposure of the motives of skeptics. While this strategy might have been arguably useful, needed or effective at some earlier point in the debate to counter the politically motivated merchants of doubt, these strategies have enraged the uncertainty monster, particularly since the Climategate emails and errors that were found in the AR4 WGII Report (e.g. van der Sluijs et al 2010).
Oppenheimer et al. (2007) remark: “The establishment of consensus by the IPCC is no longer as important to governments as a full exploration of uncertainty.” The institutions of climate science such as the IPCC, the professional societies and scientific journals, national funding agencies, and national and international policy making bodies have a key role to play in taming the uncertainty monster. Objectives of taming the monster at the institutional level are to improve the environment for dissent in scientific arguments, make climate science less political, clarify the political values and visions in play, expand political debate, and encourage experts in the social sciences, humanities and engineering to participate in the evaluation of climate science and its institutions.
5.2 Taming strategies for the individual scientist
“Science . . . never solves a problem without creating ten more.” George Bernard Shaw
Individual scientists can tame the uncertainty monster by clarifying the confusion and ambiguity associated with knowledge versus ignorance and objectivity versus subjectivity. Morgan et al. (2009) argue that doing a good job of characterizing and dealing with uncertainty can never be reduced to a simple cookbook, and that one must always think critically and continually ask questions. Spiegenthaler provided the following advice at the recent Workshop on Uncertainty in Science at the Royal Society:
- We should try and quantify uncertainty where possible
- All useful uncertainty statements require judgment and are contingent
- We need clear language to honestly communicate deeper uncertainties with due humility and without fear
- For public confidence, trust is more important than certainty
Richard Feynman’s address on “Cargo Cult Science” clearly articulates the scientist’s responsibility: “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it . . . In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”
5.3 Impact of integrity on the monster
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Integrity is an issue of particular importance at the science-policy interface, particularly when the scientific case is represented by a consensus that is largely based on expert opinion. Integrity is to the uncertainty monster as garlic is to a vampire.
Gleick (2007) distinguishes a number of tactics that are threats to the integrity of science: appealing to emotions; making personal (ad hominem) attacks; deliberately mischaracterizing an inconvenient argument; inappropriate generalization; misuse of facts and uncertainties; false appeal to authority; hidden value judgments; selectively omitting inconvenient measurement results; and packing advisory boards.
The issue of integrity is substantially more complicated at the science-policy interface, particularly since the subject of climate change has been so highly politicized. A scientist’s statement regarding scientific uncertainty can inadvertently become a political statement that is misused by the merchants of doubt for political gain. Navigating this situation is a considerable challenge, as described by Pielke (2007). Individual scientists can inadvertently compromise their scientific integrity for what they perceive to be good motives. Whereas such actions can provide temporary political advantages or temporarily bolster the influence of an individual scientist, the only remedy in the long run is to let the scientific process take its course and deal with uncertainty in an open and honest way.
5.4 The hopeful monster
“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” Andre Gide
The “hopeful monster” is a colloquial term used in evolutionary biology to describe the production of new major evolutionary groups. Here we invoke the hopeful monster metaphor to address the possibility of taming the monster through the evolution of new entities, enabled by social computing.
When the stakes are high and uncertainties are large, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) point out that there is a public demand to participate and assess quality, which they refer to as the extended peer community. The extended peer community consists not only of those with traditional institutional accreditation that are creating the technical work, but also those with much broader expertise that are capable of doing quality assessment and control on that work.
New information technology and the open knowledge movement is enabling the hopeful monster. These new technologies facilitate the rapid diffusion of information and sharing of expertise, giving hitherto unrealized power to the peer communities. This newfound power has challenged the politics of expertise, and the “radical implications of the blogosphere” (Ravetz) are just beginning to be understood. Climategate illustrated the importance of the blogosphere as an empowerment of the extended peer community, “whereby criticism and a sense of probity were injected into the system by the extended peer community from the blogosphere” (Ravetz).
The potential for monster taming through the blogosphere may be the best hope for enabling the highly multi- and interdisciplinary investigations required to address the climate change challenge and to enfranchise the public to secure its common interest. Social computing has unrealized potential to facilitate understanding of complex issues, drive public policy innovation, provide transparency, identify the best contributions, increase the signal and filter out the noise, empower the public and policy makers to identify and secure their common interests, and maybe even reduce polarization.
While the uncertainty monster will undoubtedly evolve and even grow, it can be tamed through understanding and acknowledgement, and we can learn to live with it by adapting our policies to explicitly include uncertainty. Beck et al.’s (2009) statement describes a tamed and happy monster: “Being open about uncertainty should be celebrated: in illuminating where our explanations and predictions can be trusted and in proceeding, then, in the cycle of things, to amending their flaws and blemishes.”