Lost in translation: Scientific uncertainty and belief in climate change
- 23 Jul 2013, 17:30
- Kate Pond
"Uncertainty is normal currency in scientific research", states
a new Sense about Science report called
Making Sense of Uncertainty. And yet the concept of uncertainty
is often misunderstood, and taken to mean that research is
deficient or unreliable.
Uncertainty, to most of us, means not knowing, or not being
to scientists, it means how well something is known. When it
comes to uncertainty, scientists and the general public are often
speaking different languages.
Lost in translation
Like pretty much everything, science has its own particular
technical lexicon. Words can mean very specific things that are
often different to their common usage. If the audience does not
understand the technical lexicon, it's like scientists are speaking
to them in a language they don't understand.
It can be even worse than that. Instead of simply not knowing
what is being said, if people pick up on recognisable words in
scientists' communication, the message can be misconstrued. So
'uncertainty' is often interpreted as 'ignorance' - after all, the
dictionary says it means doubt, or hesitancy.
In the case of climate change, confusion arises when media
reports focus on areas of uncertainty without also explaining the
areas where scientists have reached high levels of certainty,
or suggest that scientific uncertainty
throws all of climate science into doubt.
'Making Sense of Uncertainty' calls this the "misuse of
uncertainty": the politicisation of scientific uncertainty itself
to gloss over or ignore evidence. "Smoke and mirrors", they call
it. I call it bad translation, but it all boils down to the same
A simple way to remedy bad translation is to adapt the
communication to fit the audience. A number of excellent
publications, like this article from
Somerville and Hassol - which identifies areas of confusion and
offers alternatives for scientists - make plausible
But what's of interest to us here is the mechanics of bad
translation. So, as it pops up again and again, let's take a closer
look at uncertainty and likelihood.
When scientists talk about uncertainty - and other terms like
probability - they refer to how likely it is that something will
happen. What the audience may hear is, "we don't know if this is
the IPPC says:
"[M]ost of the observed increase in
global average temperatures since the mid-20th century
isvery likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic
greenhouse gas concentrations".
'Very likely' in this case means a probability of more than 90
per cent. But the way that uncertainty is presented in the media
strongly indicates that the public 'translates' this term as a
probable cause, but with significant doubt. This is an
interpretation which is significantly less certain than the
Of course, misunderstanding is possible or likely, but not
guaranteed. The inexactness of the transmission means that there is
a reasonably large margin of possible interpretations for the
audience. They will not necessarily misunderstand, but it is likely
that a significant proportion of a non-scientific audience will
understand uncertainty to mean doubt, as it does in the dictionary,
and likelihood to indicate possibility, not probability.
Bad translation does not just mean that the content of the
message is misunderstood. It also foments a secondary kind of
uncertainty in the audience's mind. This secondary uncertainty is
psychological rather than scientific, and is characterised by
doubt. To use the metaphor of 'sowing the seeds of doubt', if the
badly-translated scientific uncertainty is the seed, this secondary
uncertainty is the plant that grows from it.
The Pandora's Box of uncertainty
When likelihood and uncertainty are badly translated, the
audience can misunderstand on a number of levels. They may not
understand how likely scientists think something is, but they might
also not understand what kind of uncertainty is being talked
The kind of uncertainty intended by the scientist may not be
what is received by a lay audience. To return to the metaphor
of the plant, these layers of misunderstanding are the soil in
which it puts down roots.
An important element of secondary uncertainty is how concrete
doubt can be. Among the possible interpretations for uncertainty or
likelihood mentioned above, one is interpreting them as a question
over how real climate change is: is it real, or is it just a matter
It is important not to underestimate how deep the roots of doubt
can be in an audience, and how doubt has crept almost unnoticed
into day-to-day discussions of climate change.
As doubt gives rise to questions about the reality of climate
change, it also has a more insidious branch: the notion of
"Do you believe in climate change?"
This is a question we've all heard. It may sound innocuous
enough, but presenting climate change as something in which one
does or does not believe undermines its basis in facts and
evidence. We don't need to 'believe' in things that are real, we
know they're real.
The popularity of this question shows how insidious this doubt -
this secondary uncertainty - is. The question itself frames climate
change as something that is not necessarily real. As the author
Terry Pratchett puts it in his book Small
"There's no point in believing in things
that exist. [...] If they exist, you don't have to believe in
them... [they will go on existing] whether you believe it or
An episode of 'Any
Questions?' in June illustrates this. Presenter Jonathan
Dimbleby asked sceptic columnist James Delingpole:
"Do you believe [climate change] is not
happening, or if it is happening, has nothing to do with human
By introducing the notion of belief, Dimbleby's question
legitimised the response, regardless of what it was, before it
could be spoken. Even Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood used the
term, embedded in a list of facts: "Yes," stated Wood, "I believe
in climate change." While it got a round of applause from the
audience, the pairing of facts and belief was, in reality, a
Turning uncertainty into certainty: "It's the science,
As a final point, we will look briefly at the politicisation of
uncertainty mentioned in Sense about Science's report. In his
book, 'Understanding Uncertainty', the statistician, Dennis
Lindley, states: "uncertainty [for most people] is a personal
matter: it's not the uncertainty but your uncertainty". This
is often overlooked in communicating scientific uncertainty, and is
a key element of its politicisation and "misuse".
Much of the strength of arguments which try to undermine the
areas of agreement in climate science is in their clarity,
repetition of memorable phrases and their certainty about both
their own rightness and their opposition's wrongness. Confidence is
However, green politicians are starting to play the same game.
Leanne Woods's Any Questions? performance was a series of
definite statements and facts. Even "Yes, I believe in
climate change" was, after all, definite.
UK climate secretary Ed Davey's
speech at the Met Office last month is another example. It was
loaded with emphatic statements like "The facts don't lie, the
physics is proven. Climate change is real and itis happening
Davey's speech reached a much wider audience than the Met
Office, largely because of his diatribe against "absolutely wrong
and really quite dangerous" misinformation. Certainly, it riled
The Telegraph and the
Mail enough to respond. In the process, the newspapers
accidentally promoted his speech. There may well be a question over
how comfortable scientists are with this approach, but this is
certainty as strategy.