Bringing more certainty to uncertainty communications
For the armchair dilettante observer of scientific progress a solid literature review is something akin to going to Disneyland. It’s almost too much stimulation. When a review covers a salient, hot topic, so much the better. More seriously, literature reviews are an opportunity for a scientific community to “take stock,” identify where commonality of purpose might benefit and where gaps or discontinuities in knowledge are stubbornly lodged or newly developing. For the layperson, a review is a great way to gain a toehold on current understanding.
This week we’re pleased to feature a vast review focusing on a key factor controlling public thinking and hence policy progress toward remedying our unfortunate, accidental launching of rapid climate change. “Communications about uncertainty in scientific climate-related findings: a qualitative systematic review” by Astrid Kause et al provides a sweeping view of our best understanding of how people are dealing with the notion of uncertainty when thinking about climate, and how future research might best be directed.
From the review, it’s safe to say there’s a lot of work left to be done in this arena; research into public thinking about uncertainty and climate change might be termed as in the “generating more questions” as opposed to “answering questions” phase. As well, this field of inquiry affords what might be termed an embarrassment of riches in terms of suggestive, tentative findings begging for followup. Finally, there’s a lack of coordination or normalization around much of the mechanical aspect of this research work as practiced, such that forming “big picture” conclusions is somewhat stymied.
Our understanding of uncertainty underpins our thinking about hazards and risks, in the face of what we know are very poor native cognitive skills in producing useful answers when confronted with this trio of probabilistic challenges. Subpar thinking skills in this department lead to bad decisions. Given the need for informed public engagement to drive political energy and – ultimately – useful policy formulation, we face a strong imperative to cement our understanding of and skill in helping the public to accurately perceive and productively think about uncertainty as it concerns climate change. Kause et al is open access, free to read, a diligently constructed snapshot of our present understanding of these matters. From the abstract:
We find that studies of communications about uncertainty in scientific climate-related findings substantially varied in how they operationalized uncertainty, as well as how they measured responses. Studies mostly focused on uncertainty stemming from conflicting information, such as diverging model estimates or experts, or from expressions of imprecision such as ranges. Among other things, users’ understanding was improved when climate communications about uncertainty in scientific climate-related findings were presented with explanations about why climate information was uncertain, and when ranges were presented with lower and upper numerical bounds. Users’ understanding also improved if they expressed stronger beliefs about climate change, or had better numerical skills. Based on these findings, we provide emerging recommendations on how to best present communications about uncertainty in scientific climate-related findings; and we identify research gaps.
Physical science of climate change, effects
Early-onset of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation weakening in response to atmospheric CO2 concentration
Dima et al 2021 npj Climate and Atmospheric Science
Open Access pdf DOI: 10.1038/s41612-021-00182-x