The uncertainty of beer and climate

January 13, 2014 12:00 AM

Message box climate change How many times a day does someone ask you if you’re certain: are you certain you want to cancel your reservation? Stay home rather than going out with friends? Bring your laptop with you?  Or how many times a day do you internally second guess yourself: do really want to order another beer? Should I have turned left back there? Will I or won’t I need my umbrella? Uncertainty and incomplete information are hallmark characteristics of our daily lives. Though the questions above are seemingly trivial, take a moment and consider how many times you have needed think about a choice.

Let’s proceed further with the beer example. How often does the waiter at a bar need to go away and come back before you’re certain about what beer you want to order?  For me, it borders on nearly every time: do I choose the same beer that I always get, cowardly shying away from the uncertainty of selecting a new beer, or do I boldly try something different and perhaps exciting?  Admittedly, more often than not, the incomplete information that I am faced with—the not knowing of changing up my beer choice—precludes me from trying a new beer, even though I know it's rare beer that I don’t like. The uncharted territory of uncertainty, no matter how small, prevents me from considering alternative information and making a change.

Though much more serious in nature, the same uncharted territory of uncertainty plagues scientists, especially when faced with reporting issues of uncertainty in controversial topics, such as climate change, to the public. Common challenges in all of science—and especially in a field of science as complex as climate change—frequently include phenomena occurring at global scales where there is incomplete information and  evidence that’s not exactly tidy. As a result, scientists are faced with difficulty when communicating their results: how can inherently uncertain science be communicated to the public in a way that is clear and honest, yet conveys the confidence with which humanity must act to avoid detrimental impacts resulting from climate change? This need, at least historically, has been largely unmet. In fact, communicating the science of climate change, and the gravity of our decision not to act, has been one of the most storied failures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Inexperienced with public communication and naïve to the role of the media, initial strategies employed by the IPCC to communicate with the public struggled to balance providing clear facts about the science while acknowledging the inherent uncertainties. In 2005 when the media found, and subsequently leaked evidence of this internal grappling, the public became more uncertain about climate change than ever before. Suddenly, the small, uncharted territory of uncertainty became increasingly large in the minds of millions, and the willingness to accept climate change, marred by this controversy, became increasingly unlikely.  

Now just for a moment, return to the bar with me and my beer, and add to the scene above this small complication: I am with a group of friends, and when making my decision about trying a new beer, seven out of the eight friends I am with give a positive review about a new beer I am considering. But friend number eight, the loudest and most vocal of my friends, gives a terrible review: “absolutely awful,” she says. Basic laws of probability should appeal to my rational and logical tendencies. I should, if I am a rational and logical human being, choose the new beer. After all, seven of my eight friends like it; right? But, there is that pesky eighth friend, the friend whose voice I can’t quite escape, and there is the building awareness of the imperfect knowledge. So what do I do? I accept the advice of the single, loudest voice because it is the most convincing, most noticeable, and most confident in these uncertain times. I choose to retain the information that I have always relied on. I choose the same old beer I always get.

It has been clear for years that the majority of scientists are confident in the strong findings of the IPCC: climate change is real, and largely driven by anthropogenic sources. In fact, the probability to accept climate change is much stronger than the probability of my liking a new beer based on the advice of my beer-drinking partners. In this article, published in the highly regarded, peer-review journal Science, author Naomi Oreskes found that, in addition to the IPCC, nearly all major scientific bodies in the United States have accepted that anthropogenic alteration of climate is real and accelerating. In addition to institutional consensus, Oreskes also analyzed 928 abstracts of papers published in peer-reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003 with the keywords “climate change” to discern the percentage of dissenting opinions: she found none. More recent examinations, such as in this 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and this 2013 paper in Environmental Research Letters, have found similarly low instances of dissention from the mainstream scientific position. Yet, a few boisterous dissenters (e.g., Marc Morano of Climate Depot, Joe Bastardi of AccuWeather) have caused the uncertainties surrounding climate change to become astronomical in the minds of the public. As a result, much like me when choosing a beer, the public remains largely willing to ignore the majority of quiet scientists in favor of the few, loud dissenters.

So, what can be done?  How can scientists be more effective at communicating controversial and often uncertain science to the public, and what tools can be used to encourage the critical behavioral changes needed to slow humanity’s contributions to climate change? One solution may lie in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which my lab mates and I are currently reading. The book lies out a framework for change based on principles of human psychology, namely the human desire to be rational and the human tendency to be emotional, and calls for the development of a clear, action-oriented path forward. Such advice could be highly valuable in the challenge of communicating the science of climate change. Tune back into a later blog post to find out more on this. Until then...

Effectively acknowledging uncertainty, while communicating with urgency and confidence the need with which we have to act on complex and wicked problems—like climate change—presents one of the most challenging obstacles of our times. We know the science. We're getting better at the communication. Now we need to give a brief nod to the dissenter, smile at the masses, and say, “Hey bartender, let me try that new one!”