by Judith Curry
Last month I attended a Workshop on The Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty: Understanding How Scientists, Environmental Lawyers, and Journalists Treat Uncertainty.
The Workshop was organized by the Environmental Law Institute, their website for the Workshop is [here]. On the site is a webinar How Professional Standards Shape Scientists’, Lawyers’, and Journalists’ Approaches to Uncertainty (plus ppt slides), which the participants watched prior to the Workshop.
About 50 individuals attended the Workshop, roughly equal numbers from the 3 groups. In terms of WG1-topic climate scientists, there was only one other in attendance besides myself. The Workshop was funded by the National Science Foundation Paleoclimate Program. Huh? I was sort of wondering about that, but I quickly understood after meeting the Program Manager, Dave Verardo. Fascinating; I hope to do a Q&A with Dave Verardo in the near future.
The ELI will make all materials/transcripts from the Workshop publicly available, and will write a synthesis report. Below I provide excerpts from some of the material we received and my own reflections. I will do a Part 2 on this once the additional materials from the ELI are available.
Here are some notes and punchlines from the Webinar:
Scientists’ perspective, summary points:
- Disagreeement arises from differences in science, interpretation of science, judgment about acceptability of risk, others?
- Risk means uncertainty: causal relationships, likelihood of occurrence, consequences
- Scientific norms encourage disclosure of sources and magnitude of uncertainty
- Communicating uncertainty is hard
- “A court proceeding, such as a trial, is not simply a search for dispassionate truth. The law must be fair.”
- Two competing mandates: i) Advocacy for client (present the case with persuasive force); ii) Candor to the tribunal (avoid false evidence)
- Burden of proof: civil cases – preponderance of evidence; criminal cases – beyond reasonable doubt
- Scientific evidence is traditionally presented by experts
- Traditional values: be fair, be accurate, be engaging
- Fewer than 10% of journalists are skeptical about climate change, but more than one third of journalists believed that coverage of climate change science must reflect a balance of viewpoints or present all sides of controversy (half did not believe in the need for balance).
- When are journalists going to start treating climate skeptics like flat earthers? Not soon.
- At best, journalists handle uncertainty by: Deeply researching explanations and explaining which are probable and why some are wrong or unlikely; Reporting potential sources of bias of those advocating for particular explanations; Engaging an audience
We were given a reading list of 12 papers, below are excerpts from the ones I found most interesting.
How Rachel Carson Spurred Chemical Concerns by Highlighting Uncertainty, by Andy Revkin. Excerpts:
But of all the fresh considerations of Carson’s work, there’s one that stands out for me at the moment — a recent paper by two researchers of rhetoric and writing who dug in on “Silent Spring” drafts, notes and revisions and found that Carson had a remarkable and rare trait for someone so committed to raising public concern about a pressing environmental issue. Rather than downplay scientific uncertainty and gaps in understanding, she progressively amplified what was unclear about the human impacts of DDT and other synthetic compounds on humans and wildlife.
The authors, Kenny Walker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, and Lynda Walsh, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, describe how surprised they were by this pattern, given a large body of work, including “Merchants of Doubt,” the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, showing that inflating uncertainty has mainly been the task of industry-backed efforts to blunt public concern and policy.
With Carson’s approach to conveying risk, they write, she appears to have created “a bridge across the is–ought divide in science-related policy making, using the uncertainty topos to invite the public to participate by supplying fears and values that would warrant proposals for limiting pesticide use.”
This stands in stark contrast to the “Be Worried” approach that some have tried (in vain) on global warming over the years. Mind you, Carson’s book has plenty of passages, from beginning to end, warning powerfully of the “grim specter” of a poisoned future.
FASCINATING article, read the whole thing. Back in the days, circa 2006/2007 when I was not skeptical of AGW, i did emphasize uncertainty in my public presentations, and I did not find that this lessened concern or left anyone thinking that this wasn’t a problem worthy of serious consideration. They left the room trusting me because I was honest about the uncertainties.
Journalism ethics and climate change reporting in a period of intense media uncertainty, by Bud Ward. Excerpts:
Consider another aspect of journalistic ethics as it applies to covering climate change. One element of the SPJ Code of Ethics urges reporters to ‘give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid’. Another cautions reporters to ‘support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant’ (note that it is ‘repugnant’ and not ‘factually inaccurate’ here).
In reporting on climate change and the findings in the physical and earth sciences defining it, US reporters for many years practiced what critics contend is a ’false balance’, providing space disproportionate to its scientific credibility to perspectives running counter to what is now widely accepted as the ‘established’ scientific judgment. In effect, reporters may for too long have been balancing opinions about science when in fact they might better have been evaluating and reporting evidence based on the science. Accuracy can trump balance in such a case, so that one perspective gets 90% of the column inches, based on the standard of evidence, and another perhaps 5 or 10%, or maybe none at all.
Just as that approach to covering climate science based on evidence and not sheer opinion has changed throughout much of the western world, it appears in recent years to have also changed, albeit much later, among many US news reporters.
So, instead of the over-simplified notion of providing ’balance’ in reporting on news involving differing perspectives, journalists increasingly, and rightly, take their clues from the leading and acknowledged scientific experts when it comes to the facts and causes of global climate change. That means, in effect, reporting as a given—until science shows otherwise—that warming of Earth actually is occurring and that human activities have a significant role, though not the only one, in that warming.
Issues of journalism ethics in dealing with climate change go much farther than that. Assume, for the purposes of discussion, that the effects and impacts of global warming just may be as dire as a number of leading scientists suggest, threatening not only vast ecological systems and the natural resources dependent on them, but also posing great risks of accelerated extinctions, forced human migrations from low-lying lands, diminished food resources for a growing population, and so forth. What then are the ethical responsibilities facing news reporters? Is it up to them to sustain the clarion call by way of front-page headlines and repeated broadcast ‘breaking news’ alerts, despite what some observers now dismiss as ‘climate fatigue’ on the parts of their already-harried audiences? Isn’tthat too much like making and not merely reporting the news that others—acclaimed scientists or leading policy makers—have as part of their portfolios?
So what if the nature of the threatened worst-case climate change outcomes are to be most clearly manifested only for future generations, or only as they directly affect audiences geographically far removed from one’s own readers or viewers? Do the journalists’ ethical responsibilities differ if it is just ‘some other population’ (or perhaps even some other species) that is at greatest risk, and not the one closest to them in time and space?
Journalists have profound ethical responsibilities covering issues as expansive and critical (not many are, perhaps) as climate change. That they are dealing with these issues during a time of profound change in their own field, and during a time of profound global economic and financial uncertainty, compounded by ongoing threats of divisive wars and terrorist activities, only confounds their approach to these issues.
JC comment: This article emphasizes the colossal and unnecessary damage to science, public debate and policy making by the Oreskes ‘merchant of doubt’ inspired denier witch hunt. This situation is getting out of control by a new Oreskes documentary and book, I’m planning a future post on this.
When questions of science come to a courtroom, by Cornelia Dean. Excerpts:
Idealistic lawyers and idealistic scientists often describe themselves as engaging in a search for truth.
The scientists follow the scientific method. They state their hypotheses, describe the ways they test them, present their findings — and wait for another researcher to prove them wrong. Lawyers’ practice is built on the idea that the best way to shake the truth out of a complex dispute is for advocates on each side to argue it, as vigorously as they can, in front of an impartial judge or jury.
These approaches work more or less well on their own. But when a legal issue hinges on questions of science, they can clash. And the collision can resound all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Last Wednesday, the nine justices heard arguments in the first global warming case to come before the court. Massachusetts, 11 other states and several cities and environmental groups are saying that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ignored the requirements of the Clean Air Act and otherwise shirked its responsibilities by failing to regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases, chiefly carbon dioxide.
But much of the argument hinged on scientific questions. Is the earth’s climate changing? If so, are human activities contributing to the change?
Mainstream science has answers to these questions (yes and yes). But while it is impossible to argue that earth has not warmed up a bit in the last century, there are still some scientists with bright credentials and impressive academic affiliations who argue that people don’t have much do to with it.
One issue is the standard of proof. Typically, scientists don’t accept a finding unless, statistically, the odds are less than 1 in 20 that it occurred by chance. This standard is higher than the typical standard of proof in civil trials (“preponderance of the evidence”) and lower than the standard for criminal trials (“beyond a reasonable doubt”).
The justices may also consider that when scientists confront a problem, they collect all the information they can about it and then draw conclusions.
Lawyers work in reverse. They know their desired outcome at the outset, so they gather arguments to support it. While it would be unethical for scientists reporting on their work to omit findings that don’t fit their hypotheses, lawyers are under no compunction to introduce evidence that hurts their cases; that’s the other side’s job.
Perhaps the knottiest problem, though, has been deciding what scientific evidence or testimony should be considered in the first place.
For years, the standard was “general acceptance” by scientists, which a federal appeals court enunciated in 1923 in Frye v. United States, a case involving lie detectors. The court ruled that lie detector technology had yet to win wide acceptance and barred its use.
In these rules, the test became not wide acceptance, but whether the scientific, technical or other specialized information would assist the judge or jury in reaching a decision and whether witnesses seeking to testify about it had enough knowledge or expertise to make a valuable contribution.
Critics of this standard say it flooded courtrooms with junk science, as people with good (or seemingly good) credentials but bad ideas took the stand before judges and juries unable to differentiate between credible scientific claims and those with only an aroma of scientific respectability.
But even if lawyers and judges could routinely absorb a thorough grounding in the scientific issues they confront, there would still be trouble. For one thing, the state of scientific knowledge changes rapidly. Sometimes, there are multiple scientific views of a given issue, all potentially credible. And sometimes research on an issue does not even begin until it works its way into court. To an extent, that was the case with the silicone breast implants.
But without a method of providing courts with reliable scientific information, scientific research has an uncertain role in the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, as David L. Faigman put it in “Laboratory of Justice” (Times Books, 2004).
JC comment: This article raises the really key issues here, particularly: They know their desired outcome at the outset, so they gather arguments to support it. While it would be unethical for scientists reporting on their work to omit findings that don’t fit their hypotheses, lawyers are under no compunction to introduce evidence that hurts their cases; that’s the other side’s job. While this describes lawyers, it also describes scientist-advocates; in principle this behavior is ok, but in the legal system the ‘other side’ has a fair chance to make their case; in the climate change debate, the ‘other side’ is smeared as ‘deniers.’
This was a fascinating Workshop; I went into this with more of a philosophy of science perspective on uncertainty and came away with a more ‘real world’ perspective.
One issue that came up in a break out group was the different codes of conducts. Lawyers and journalists have clear codes of conducts, scientists do not (beyond admonitions related to research misconduct – fabrication, falsification, plagiarism). Scientists employed by the government have some codes of conduct to adhere to; academic scientists do not. As a result there is some pretty irresponsible public behavior by academic and think tank/advocacy group scientists, and there are absolutely no repercussions (I’m sure we can all think of examples).
In any event, much food for thought, and I expect to have a follow up post on this once the Workshop summaries are written up.