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 sure. But 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 thing.

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 suggestions.

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 right". 

For example,  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 original intention.

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 about.

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 of perception? 

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 belief.

"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 Gods:

"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 not."

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 action?"

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 paradox.

Turning uncertainty into certainty: "It's the science, stupid"

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 persuasive.

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 now".

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.

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