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Communicating risk & uncertainty

Nov 15, 2012 by | 11 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.

11 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 […]

  • […] 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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