December 11, 2014

Scientific Known Unknowns and Uncertainties: Vital Information or Achilles Heel?

Posted by Nick Saab

The following guest blog post was written by Amy Luers, Director, Climate Change, at the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Scientists are in the business of producing knowledge. In the process we delineate what is known, what is uncertain, and what is unknown. In science, these boundaries of knowledge are vital information for piecing together the puzzle of complex systems such as the climate system. They help to define critical research questions, shape experimental designs and interpret results.

Amy Luers, Director, Climate Change - Skoll Global Threats Fund

Amy Luers, Director, Climate Change – Skoll Global Threats Fund

But for much of the general public, the unknown and the uncertain implies doubt. This effect can be amplified around politically charged issues such as climate change when special interest groups misrepresent uncertainties and unknowns to manufacture doubt in scientific findings or minimize uncertainties to highlight particular scientific conclusions. Both means of mishandling the unknown and the uncertain pose threats to society’s health, economy and environment.

Quantifying uncertainties and identifying unknowns are critical for operationalizing science. They allow society to weigh risks of investments and development decisions. The real challenges arise when we are unable to quantify the uncertainties and when we recognize the vastness of the unknown unknowns.  This is a central challenge in society’s struggle to manage climate risks.

Decision makers want to know what climate change will mean for their city, their district, their community.  How exactly will the probabilities distributions of floods, drought and wildfires change?  The answer is often — we don’t know. What specifically should we plan for?  The answer is increasingly – plan for the unknown, plan for the unexpected.  This is what the science says. But to many that does not sound too scientific.

Scientists can see the knowledge through the ambiguity. But communicating and operationalizing it has proven difficult.

How should scientists confront the challenges of communicating uncertainties and known unknowns that are critical for robust decision-making but can often be grist for manufacturing doubt in politically charged environments?

These are the issues we will be discussing on a panel at next week’s fall AGU meeting: “Communicating Science to Society in the Face of Deep Uncertainty and the Threat of Manufactured Doubt.”  With Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Andrew Freedman of Come join the discussion:  Wednesday December 17th 10:30-12:00pm.