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January 22, 2007

Notes in the Houston Chronicle

Posted to Author: Vranes, K. | Climate Change

Roger and I are quoted in an article by Eric Berger (who has a good science/science journalism blog of his own) running today in the Houston Chronicle. It's an outgrowth of my AGU/climate scientist tension post from late December.

It's interesting that I learned that the article was up from dueling emails in my inbox this morning – one from a (non-skeptic) climate scientist saying that I was right on, another saying that I must be in the pocket of Exxon.

My take home message is this:

But within the broad consensus are myriad questions about the details. How much of the recent warming has been caused by humans? Is the upswing in Atlantic hurricane activity due to global warming or natural variability? Are Antarctica's ice sheets at risk for melting in the near future?

To the public and policymakers, these details matter. It's one thing to worry about summer temperatures becoming a few degrees warmer.

It's quite another if ice melting from Greenland and Antarctica raises the sea level by 3 feet in the next century, enough to cover much of Galveston Island at high tide.

and then later in the article:

Much of the public debate, however, has dealt in absolutes. The poster for Al Gore's global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth, depicts a hurricane blowing out of a smokestack. Katrina's devastation is a major theme in the film.

The details matter. So does the risk. As Roger says in the article:

"The case for action on climate science, both for energy policy and adaptation, is overwhelming," Pielke says. "But if we oversell the science, our credibility is at stake."

Are we risking our credibility? The point I'm trying to get across is that as a community we might not be giving the public and policy makers enough credit. We are shying away from giving them the details, perhaps worried that if they have the details they might not see climate change as a big threat, and might not be compelled to address the risk. This is C.P. Snow's two-cultures tension. Have we in the climate sciences internalized C.P. Snow's lessons yet? I think not.

Posted on January 22, 2007 10:28 AM


If one buys Matthew Nisbet's argument that members of the public are "cognitive misers" (and it seems to me a pretty reasonable argument that I'm at least willing to seriously entertain), then there is little point to giving the public the details.

This is of course a problem for me, as I have no other marketable skills. I'm thinking of learning to weld.

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2007 12:08 PM

Kevin, how do you reconcile your call for more details with Sherwood Boehlert's advice that scientists invite congressmen "not to a technical presentation that they probably can’t understand, but to a general discussion of what’s going on and what it means" (Science, 314:1228-1229, 2006). The level no doubt varies from politician to politician, as with supreme court justices (Science, 313:1019, 2006; Massachusetts vs. EPA, 05-1120).

John, I highly recommend welding, economic downturn or not.

Posted by: Daniel Collins [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2007 01:33 PM

John, I've been thinking about welding too. really.

Daniel -- it's a good question. I'm not arguing that policy makers and/or the public need to have journal-level articles explained in minute detail. I am suggesting that scientists might be taking "general discussion of what’s going on and what it means" as "the facts and their consequences but leave out the uncertainties b/c those are technical details that we don't need." And I don't think that's what Rep. Boehlert meant.

Posted by: kevin v at January 22, 2007 02:45 PM

IMO, uncertainties are facts, so'd prefer not to gloss over them anyhow.

Posted by: Daniel Collins [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2007 03:46 PM

"IMO, uncertainties are facts, so'd prefer not to gloss over them anyhow."

Well said, sir!

I recently heard (literally heard, so can't link to it) the statement that communication between politicians and scientists was problematic because scientists deal with (in?) uncertainties and politicians need certainties. This statement troubled me when I heard it. Politicians may need certainties, but they can't have them! What they seem to need are provisional certainties, that is certainties that aren't actually certainties at all, but that they can pretend to be certainties. Like Sarewitz's Florida-voting example: we don't know the right answer, but we have to pretend there is a right answer (and furthermore pretend that it is *really* the right answer) to move forward.


Posted by: Mark Hadfield at January 23, 2007 01:18 PM

Considering a standard engineering problem, I would not design a culvert to pass the average runoff that has come down a river over recorded history, but instead add some capacity to account for interannual variability, look for possible trends in discarge, and assess the costs of a full culvert. I would also not wait until I know with 'certainty' how much water will come down nor even the 'exact' costs before I build a culvert, knowing full well a culvert is needed and I can build a new one later. This is also how I see appropriate climate change policy.

Posted by: Daniel Collins [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2007 11:03 PM

It seems the Cognitive Miser meme may apply to some science jouralists. Witness Science Guy Eric Berger's ecomium in the Houston newsBlog Roger refers to --

"I'm beginning to feel some sympathy for any scientist who publishes material that contradicts the prevailing theory of anthropogenic global warming.

From the sagacious readers:

Tom writes: No joke, you should get a Pulitzer for this piece. It is the single most balanced and intelligent coverage of this issue that I've read."

Could this be the same Eric Berger who declines to read IPCC 200 on line, lest posessing himself of its contents online tempt him to transgress its confidentility?

My excuse for only having waded through half to date is that the half is thus far about 2,000 pages.

Posted by: Russell Seitz at January 24, 2007 12:06 AM

"As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know."

"Uncertainties are facts."

Posted by: Mark Hadfield at January 24, 2007 01:59 PM

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