by Judith Curry
Bringing uncertainty to the public debate or putting the credibility of climate science at risk matters less to them than interest groups misusing or the public misinterpreting their results. – Senja Post
A very interesting new paper has been published in the Public Understanding of Science [link].
Communicating science in public controversies: Strategic considerations of the German climate scientists
Abstract. In public controversies on scientific issues, scientists likely consider the effects of their findings on journalists and on the public debate. A representative survey of 123 German climate scientists (42%) finds that although most climate scientists think that uncertainties about climate change should be made clearer in public they do not actively communicate this to journalists. Moreover, the climate scientists fear that their results could be misinterpreted in public or exploited by interest groups. Asking scientists about their readiness to publish one of two versions of a fictitious research finding shows that their concerns weigh heavier when a result implies that climate change will proceed slowly than when it implies that climate change will proceed fast.
Excerpts from the section on Findings:
The climate scientists assessed the causes of climate change, its past and present volatility, future consequences and calculability in ten items. For the present purpose, it suffices to say that the climate scientists have little doubt about the human impact on the climate but are more or less split on its extent and danger as well as on the reliability of future climate projections. Based on their judgements, their degree of conviction of the publicly held assumptions that climate change is man-made, dangerous, unique in history and calculable was determined.
On a five-point scale, most climate scientists (72%) more or less agreed that “climate scientists should tell the public more clearly that many questions about climate change are still unresolved”. Few (9%) more or less disagreed and about a fifth (21%) were indifferent.
Correlations confirm that the more the German climate scientists talked with journalists and published articles in the media, the less they approved of discussing unresolved questions in public. They were also the more engaged with the media the more they were convinced of the publicly accepted frame of climate change, i.e. that it is man-made, dangerous, historically unique and cal- culable. There may be at least two reasons for these relationships. On the one hand, journalists may prefer scientists definitely and unambiguously confirming rather than questioning the public frame of climate change. On the other hand, being aware of journalists’ preferences, the climate scientists may be the more encouraged talking to journalists the more certain and convinced they are of the publicly held assumptions about climate change. Another explanation may be that climate scientists who consider climate change a dangerous threat are motivated to act politically and speak up in public. Plausibly, all three factors apply and interact. How far this is the case should be determined by future research.
When deciding to give their results to the media, climate scientists likely consider the dynamics of the public debate – e.g. the potential effects of their findings on social or political actors or the general public. The climate scientists rated several objections to publishing a fictitious research result in the media. Two versions of the fictitious finding were created. One confirms the estab- lished assumptions about climate change, implying that climate change is proceeding faster than expected and the situation thus at least as dramatic as assumed. The other version contradicts the established views, implying that climate change is proceeding more slowly and the situation not as dramatic as assumed. The two versions were distributed randomly among the respondents.
A knowledge gap in climate science was exploited to construct the fictitious finding. Based on this, two versions of the finding were formulated:
Suppose a geologist conducted measurements to explore how the soil in the Northern hemisphere influences the climate. His measurement data show that the soil’s capacity to store CO2 has been considerably
a) overestimated b) underestimated.
The geologist concludes that climate change could proceed
a) faster b) more slowly
Both versions were improved with the help of a full professor of geology to ensure their plausibility. None of them yielded any critical comments or remarkable response refusals, indicating that respondents considered them realistic. To explore the climate scientists’ objections to publishing the respective result in the media they were asked:
Suppose the geologist’s finding was published in a scientific journal. Now he wants to publish it in a newspaper, concluding that climate change will proceed
a) faster b) more slowly
than expected. One can have several objections to his decision. How relevant or irrelevant do you consider each of the following?
The objections referred to possible undesirable effects on the public interpretation of the result, the credibility of climate science or the fictitious scientist’s career. Bringing uncertainty to the public debate or putting the credibility of climate science at risk matters less to them than interest groups misusing or the public misinterpreting their results.
Their answers differ in the two versions of the finding. When the result indicates that climate change is proceeding more slowly rather than faster the climate scientists are more worried that the finding “could be exploited by interest groups” and “misinterpreted in public” – though the latter difference is not significant. The climate scientists’ ratings of the remaining objections follow the same pattern, though with small differences. When a finding indicates that climate change is proceeding more slowly rather than faster than expected, they are slightly more worried that it “may provoke criticism among his peers”, “might bring too much uncertainty to the public debate” and could “put the credibility of climate science at risk”.
Overall, climate scientists object to publishing a result in the media significantly more when it indicates that climate change proceeds more slowly rather than faster than expected. This gives reason to assume that the German climate scientists are more inclined to communicate their results in public when they confirm rather than contradict that climate change is dramatic. Yet one has to bear in mind that the above objections may not amount to climate scientists’ overall readiness to publish a result in the media. In any case, their fear of interest groups seems to play some role in hindering climate scientists from communicating their findings in public.
I find this paper to be extremely illuminating, and I particularly like the methodology used and the care that Post used in interpreting the results. I would like to see much more of this sort of research.
This paper illuminates a bias introduced in the public debate on climate change, and I suspect that this bias feeds back into biasing the actual scientific research of many of those scientists most active in interacting with the media.
I can relate to the issue of ‘strategic considerations in communication.’ I played this game for 6 months, from Aug 19, 2005 (Webster et al. paper) to February 2, 2006 (WSJ ‘brain fossilization’ article), in context of the ‘war’ being fought over hurricanes and global warming.
After realizing the insanity and stupidity of this little war, I decided that I was only going to worry about appropriate communication of uncertainty and protecting scientific integrity. Of course I paid a professional price for this, and the survey respondents were right to worry that it “may provoke criticism among his peers”, “might bring too much uncertainty to the public debate” and could “put the credibility of climate science at risk”.
But there are much bigger things to worry about here, both with regards to the science and the policy process. Playing such ‘strategic’ games puts the credibility of climate scientists at risk.