November 13, 2012, by Warren Pearce

Echoes of Climategate: focusing on uncertainty?

The ever-lively climate blogosphere was given an extra jolt recently by a new BBC Radio 4 documentary – Climategate Revisited. The programme assessed the fallout from the infamous publication of emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) server, rather than attempting to adjudicate on scientific claims or the contents of the emails. The programme seems to have garnered a rare level of agreement across the spectrum of the climate debate, with praise coming from commenters at prominent sceptic site Bishops Hill for the programme’s balanced approach.

One interesting aspect raised in the programme was the effect Climategate may have had on the communication of uncertainty. UEA’s Mike Hulme noted that since Climategate, six percent of academic articles on climate science have mentioned ‘uncertainty’ in their abstract, compared to only three percent in the years preceding the affair. Comments by Fiona Fox, from the Science Media Centre, appeared to back this up. They are worth quoting in full from the programme:

Some of the really intelligent debates that have come out of Climategate have been those where people admitted, “I, as a scientist, didn’t want to be as open about the uncertainties” because of this war they were in. They were on a war footing and rather than thinking about communicating the best possible science in the most accurate and measured way they were also thinking over their shoulder about how it would be received by the sceptics. But they have to somehow work out a way of behaving as scientists rather than behaving as if we’re in a war. Because that would distort the best science. And that will be exposed.

So perhaps prior to Climategate, climate communications backgrounded uncertainties within the science as some scientists felt they were on a ‘war footing’, or maybe because they simply believed sufficient consensus had been reached. After Climategate, Fox and Hulme’s evidence suggests that scientific uncertainties have become more prominent which, in principle, would seem to be a good thing if one’s concern is to reflect the science as literally as possible. However, introducing more uncertainties also adds more complexity to messages which ultimately need to be succinct enough to be understood by a range of ‘non-experts’. If there is indeed a trend toward focusing on the uncertainties within climate modelling – in other words, the potential instability, rather than stability, of scientific facts – then what does that mean for the ways in which ‘climate change’ is understood in society? How does one determine which uncertainties should be part of the story, and which are left out?

My next post will examine how Climategate’s echo of uncertainty has been evident in the debates around Hurricane Sandy and its link to climate change, and how one magazine cover demonstrated how lucidity triumphs over literalism in public debate.

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Posted in Climate ChangePoliticsScience Communication