IN attempts to communicate complex science to a general audience, scientists and journalists often look for the colourful detail, the emotive anecdote that will help an audience connect with otherwise abstract ideas.
That’s why the individual patient story is a staple part of so many media reports on medical “breakthroughs”.
When it comes to global warming, the equivalent of that story about a 30-year-old mum with a hitherto incurable disease might be the really hot weather we’ve been having lately or last week’s extreme weather event.
But just as the individual patient story doesn’t really tell us anything about the value of a particular treatment — if it did, homeopathy would be a wonder cure — the focus on colourful stories does not always represent the complexity of science well.
One of the hardest things to communicate to a lay audience is the role of uncertainty in science.
After all, science is about facts, right? So just tell us how many degrees the planet is going to warm by, and what that will mean for rainfall in my area — oh, and do I need to organise a marquee for my wedding next March if it’s going to be raining that day?
The inability of climate scientists to give precise answers to such questions has helped foster some of the scepticism about the very idea of anthropogenic climate change.
You can see something similar in debates about vaccination, where any uncertainty in medical information is seized upon by anti-vaccination campaigners in an attempt to bolster their case.
Uncertainty, though, is the life’s breath of science — the principle that pushes understanding forwards, the thing that keeps scientists on their toes.
When scientists seek to deny its existence in an attempt to keep the message simple, they can end up undermining their credibility rather than enhancing it.
Perhaps what we really need are better ways of communicating the scientific process itself, “a nuanced accommodation of uncertainties”, as a recent article in Nature Climate Change
The paper, by two researchers from the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, is a critique of recent communications by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, particularly a 2013 press conference launching the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report
Perhaps what emerges most clearly from their critique is how very difficult it is for anybody — including the two researchers — to tell a clear and simple story about something as complex as climate change.
The Nottingham researchers argue speakers at the press conference confused the message by seeking to use short-term data to support their own argument, while saying similar timescales were irrelevant when cited by critics.
If they’re right, that would be the equivalent of a doctor countering a homeopath’s claim of a miracle cure with a story about one of their own patients who got no benefit from it.
The problem is, I’m not sure they are
right, and neither are a number of other critics
Essentially, it’s an argument about whether describing the decade from 2001 as the hottest on record (which the speakers did) is equivalent to citing a short-term decrease in the rate of global warming to suggest it isn’t happening at all (which some of the journalists may have done).
I’d say they’re fundamentally different, as the first is based on around 150 years of weather records, while the second draws on less than 20 years of data, little more than a blip in the context of long-term climate history.
Communicating scientific complexity is all the harder when you’re dealing with a highly politicised or contested field such as climate change — or immunisation, for that matter.
It will be interesting to see how The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change
negotiates that minefield when it launches its 2015 report on Wednesday (24 June), with the promise it will be an authoritative and scientifically founded case for the impact of climate change on health.
In Australia, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians will be the host for the global launch and you can register to attend
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.