The Pressure for a Certain Science

By Kate Botterill

A columnist for The Times this week raised the matter of uncertainty in science and called for the Government and the public to rebuild confidence in scientific findings that acknowledge limitations.

In his article, David Spiegelhalter discusses statistical probability, reasonable uncertainty and trust in numbers in his article, reflecting that ‘it would be nice to think that scientists could be upfront about uncertainty and not feel they have to put everything into precise numbers’.

He gives examples of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which stated a ‘very high confidence’ in the anthropogenic causes of global warming but warns that such judgements have been ignored in the ‘increasingly polarised arguments’ on climate change.

In a critique of US media representations of climate science Maxwell Boykoff (2007) writes for ‘Transactions’ about the need for ‘reframing’ the debate about climate change. Using analyses of US media sources and interviews with climate scientists and environmental journalists between 1995 and 2006, Boykoff argues that the media portrayal of the climate change debate at this time was one of contention rather than consensus.

He suggests that such media framing was due to a mix of socio-political and economic power relations and micro-processes of journalistic professionalism. While dissenters of climate change effectively captured media attention to question scientific findings and discredit the evidence through its ‘uncertainty’, scientists responded ineffectively to media demands on accuracy . Boykoff suggests that ‘for journalists and policy actors, these issues of caution, probability and uncertainty are all difficult to translate smoothly into crisp, unequivocal commentary’, with each actor observing different norms of knowledge production. These interactions between the ‘scientific community’ and the public, through policy and media, is the subject for discussion at the Royal Society today in a debate on ‘Handling Uncertainty in Science’.

Read David Spiegelhalter’s article in The Times here

Read Boykoff, M.T.  (2007) From convergence to contention: Unites States mass media representations of anthropogenic climate change science.        Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 32: 477-489 here

Listen to Lord Krebs, keynote speaker at the Royal Society, talking on the Today Programme on Radio 4 here

Watch Brian Hoskins interview on climate change and uncertainty on The Economist website here

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