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Communicating risk & uncertainty

Nov 15, 2012 by | 10 Comments

How can the risks and uncer­tainty of cli­mate change be better com­mu­nic­ated? This ques­tion – reg­u­larly posed, but seldom answered – was the central issue addressed at a work­shop held at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, on 15th November.

Chaired and con­vened by James Painter, the author of ‘Poles Apart’ (a report that ana­lysed the pre­val­ence of scep­tical cli­mate voices in the media), the opening address was given by David Spiegelhalter, a spe­cialist on risk per­cep­tions based at Cambridge University. Spiegelhalter argued that inac­curate reporting of risk in the media was primarily caused by the poor press releases issued by journals and uni­ver­sity press offices – although speaking later in the day, Emily Shuckburgh (also from Cambridge University, and one of the authors of recent report ‘Climate Science & the Media’) sug­gested that the lan­guage sci­ent­ists use in news­paper quotes is often misleading.

Based on her recent invest­ig­a­tion into public views on cli­mate change, Shuckburgh reported that phrases like ‘loading the dice’ (often recom­mended as a com­mu­nic­ative tool to describe the way that cli­mate change influ­ences the chance of extreme weather events) actu­ally led people to infer that cli­mate sci­ent­ists were ‘loading the dice’ in terms of the under­lying sci­ence, attempting to unduly influ­ence the out­come of their research.

Nick Pidgeon – Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University – pointed out that no recom­mend­a­tions for improving the com­mu­nic­a­tion of cli­mate change will ever amount to much if it is not prop­erly funded. Pidgeon argued that there is an urgent need for a com­mu­nic­a­tions infra­struc­ture to be built into the funding of cli­mate research, such that dis­sem­in­a­tion and public engage­ment is con­sidered the norm.

Echoing Pidgeon’s com­ments, Chris Rapley (ex Director of the Science Museum) pro­posed that cli­mate sci­ent­ists need to have the con­fid­ence to take more active roles in debates about cli­mate change, raising the intriguing pos­sib­ility that models of sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion – cur­rently con­strued – are simply not fit for purpose.

In a sen­ti­ment that seemed to be widely shared by the cli­mate sci­ent­ists present, Myles Allen argued that the forth­coming 5th Assessment Report should be the IPCC’s last. Allen’s view was that a mono­lithic state­ment of cli­mate sci­ence know­ledge every five years was no longer the most helpful way to com­mu­nicate cli­mate change. Instead, smaller, more focused reports aimed at spe­cific target audi­ences would make not only a more useful state­ment of cur­rent know­ledge, but a less vul­ner­able target for cli­mate sceptic attacks. One mis­take in the entire doc­u­ment can cur­rently provide a reason for some to doubt the vera­city of the whole cannon of cli­mate know­ledge. If it were not designed to be one, single, defin­itive state­ment, this situ­ation could be avoided.

Speaking from the audi­ence, the IPCC’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ector, Jonathan Lynn, defended the struc­ture of the organ­isa­tion, and argued against more par­ti­cip­ative forms of engage­ment like blog­ging. The mood of the room, how­ever, sug­gested this atti­tude was out of step with the way that most people viewed the future of cli­mate change communication.

Completing the day, a panel of journ­al­ists chaired by Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre put their per­spective on com­mu­nic­ating risk and uncer­tainty across. Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s well-regarded Environment cor­res­pondent, was unam­biguous about where she thought most biases and inac­curacies in sci­ence reporting came from: the lobby reporters at the House of Commons, fed polit­ical ‘leaks’ and ‘spin’ from Ministers and their Special Advisors. Although the source of most sci­ence ‘news’ is not politi­cians, it seems a little bit of ‘In the thick of it’ spirit is reserved for sci­ence communication.

10 Comments + Add Comment

  • Sounds like a wide ran­ging and com­pre­hensive dis­cus­sion — encom­passing all shades of opinion on the cli­mate sci­ence debate.

    Did you just forget to men­tion the names of the scep­tical attendees — or was it really just another “anyone who dis­agrees with us is a swivel eyed loony” circle –jerk?

  • The event was by invit­a­tion, to those who are act­ively involved in com­mu­nic­ating risk/uncertainty around cli­mate change and sci­ence in gen­eral. I did not organise it, nor decide who attended. That no ‘scep­tical attendees’ were present says some­thing about either:

    a) the low pre­val­ence of this view among active actors in the com­mu­nic­ating risk and uncer­tainty domain
    b) yet more evid­ence of the covert oper­a­tion to exclude anyone not of this view from the debate.

    My view is a).

  • c) group­think by those involved, and the believe in com­mu­nic­a­tion is a one way process?

  • Speaking from the audi­ence, the IPCC’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ector, Jonathan Lynn, defended the struc­ture of the organ­isa­tion, and argued against more par­ti­cip­ative forms of engage­ment like blogging.

    How very pre­dict­able of Lynn — and how very typ­ical of the IPCC’s con­trol the mes­sage modus operandi. But here’s another per­spective on this sem­inar, offered by SciDev’s David Dickson [h/t Tom Nelson], which includes:

    Jonathan Lynn, head of com­mu­nic­a­tions for the IPCC, points out that it is up to the 195 member gov­ern­ment of the inter­gov­ern­mental panel to decide on the type of reports it should pro­duce, and that it already pub­lishes reports on spe­cific topics, in addi­tion to its syn­thesis reports.

    One can well ima­gine that Lynn would have been none too thrilled with the fol­lowing com­ments Dickson attrib­utes to Myles Allen:

    as a result of cri­ti­cisms of earlier reports “IPCC state­ments are becoming so leg­al­istic that their value as a com­mu­nic­a­tion tool is diminishing”.

    We should give up on the ‘Stalinist’ notion of a single inform­a­tion vehicle,” Allen told the meeting, organ­ised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, part of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford.

    Allen sug­gested that the IPCC pro­cess was partly motiv­ated by a desire “to make a big media splash,” as a way of get­ting key mes­sages through to policymakers.

    But this could back­fire when it came to con­veying the uncer­tain­ties con­tained in cli­mate change predictions.

    It is inter­esting to com­pare Dickson’s take with that of Corner. Kinda makes one wonder if Corner’s sum­mary of Allen’s obser­va­tions — in which he depicts (and seems to attribute to Allen) skeptic views as “attacks” — is not heavily weighted by Corner’s own pre­con­cep­tions and enviro-activist views.

  • I can find no ref­er­ence to this work­shop at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism web­site.
    Can you help?

  • hi Geoff I don’t think there is a page to link to, or I would have included it. I’d sug­gest con­tacting the person who organ­ised it you have questions…

  • […] recently, Corner posted his take on a November 15 sem­inar on “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty”. One of the […]

  • That no ‘scep­tical attendees’ were present says some­thing about either: a) the low pre­val­ence of this view among active actors in the com­mu­nic­ating risk and uncer­tainty domain […]”

    Is it your view that cli­mate scep­tics are *not* active actors com­mu­nic­ating with the public on uncer­tain­ties and risks regarding cli­mate science/policy?

    I have to say, I wouldn’t have thought it was an effort to exclude cli­mate scep­tics from the debate, either. I would have cat­egor­ised it as a strategy plan­ning ses­sion by par­tisans on one side of the debate. They invited people who they expected to be able to con­tribute useful strategies for their own side.

    Even so, having some­body from the other side could actu­ally be useful given the right con­di­tions, as they would be able to advise you on how cli­mate scep­tics would be likely to respond, point out obvious weak­nesses and counter-arguments, and per­haps give examples of scep­tical present­a­tions that you could then figure out how to counter. But seeking out the best opposing argu­ments is a soph­ist­ic­atedly sci­entific Enlightenment-inspired sort of strategy. (You’ll recall Mill’s dis­cus­sion of this point in ‘On Liberty’, for example.) That might there­fore be highly counter-productive for making the ‘global warming cata­strophe’ argument!

  • […] All too often, public debate about cli­mate change hap­pens by acci­dent or when someone works to engineer a news event: when there is a polit­ical scandal – be this “cli­mategate” of cli­mate sci­ent­ists or “energy­gate” exposing politi­cians – or when act­ivist engineer stunts like flash­mobs at the British Museum or living up chim­neys for a week. At a recent dis­cus­sion on com­mu­nic­ating uncer­tainty held at the University of Oxford, cli­mate sci­entist Myles Allen made the inter­esting sug­ges­tion that the IPCC should stop pub­lishing Assessment Reports, as they serve no useful public com­mu­nic­a­tions pur­pose (Adam Corner has a good report on this event). […]

  • […] at how Talking Climate’s Adam Corner explored uncer­tainty versus risk as an aca­demic finding in November 2012. Compare that to his forceful Jan. 31 Guardian piece calling for the framing of risk over […]

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