There is a puzzling mismatch at the heart of the debate around the science of climate change. Scientists are increasingly certain that the climate system is undergoing profound changes as a result of human activities, yet the public believes that this consensus is disintegrating. Figures from 2011 suggest that fewer than two thirds of people think that the climate science experts agree, despite the real figure being almost 100%. So why does this discrepancy exist?
Photo: Wylie Maercklein
A large part of the blame lies with the media. Much of what is published might be politely described as misguided. The oft-repeated claim that global warming stalled around 1998 is based on a common misreading of the long-term temperature trend. What climate deniers characterise as a series of plateaus is actually a steady, century-long increase. What is more, printing erroneous non-evidence, as well as blatant fallacies, is easy and quick. Debunking them with real evidence is time-consuming and tedious – and doesn’t make for as eye-catching a headline.
Another problem is that scientists, somewhat unhelpfully, have given a selection of common words slightly different meanings for when used in a scientific context. “Theory” is a pertinent example. While it is often used to imply that an idea may be unproven, the US National Academy of Sciences describes a scientific theory as “comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence”. It goes on to point out that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is, technically, also a theory; and one would look rather silly for denying that. So protesting that climate change is “just a theory” is to complement its strength and rigour rather than to ridicule any inherent uncertainty.
Which brings us on to what is perhaps the most important point: uncertainty. It is an intrinsic part of scientific measurements, and it is attached to any predictions about how climactic changes may play out over the coming centuries and decades. It does not, by default, expunge all reliability from a given conclusion or prognosis. Rather, it provides a useful measure of the amount of confidence that scientists can have in their findings. Unfortunately, studies have shown that they public conflates it with ignorance, thus assuming that climate science is based on conjecture to a far greater degree than it actually is.
Furthermore, this assumption overlooks the fact that the central principles of climate change theory are, in fact, very robust.
Scientific communication with the public is a growing field. Al Gore made a splash with An Inconvenient Truth, but a broadside of bad publicity and misunderstandings has focused attention on some of the common misconceptions around climate science. In order to combat this scientists need to present their findings to the public in a way that conveys both the key principles and, where necessary, the important caveats.