Presenter: Stephan Lewandowsky
Sunday, June 9, 2013

Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of science. In the case of climate science, any uncertainty should give particular cause for concern because greater uncertainty usually implies greater risk. However, appeals to uncertainty have been used in public debate to forestall mitigative action. Uncertainty has been highlighted in many situations during the last 50 years in which vested interests and political groups sought to forestall action on problems long after the scientific case had become robust.

We suggest that the prolonged appeal to uncertainty in the public arena has “leaked” into the scientific community and has distorted scientists’ characterization and self-perception of their own work. Although scientists are well trained in dealing with uncertainty and in understanding it, we argue that the scientific community has become unduly focused on uncertainty, at the expense of downplaying solid knowledge about the climate system.

We review some of the historical and empirical evidence for the notion of “leakage”, and we identify the psychological and cognitive factors that could support this intrusion of ill-informed public discourse into the scientific community. To illustrate with an example, the well-known “third-person effect” refers to the fact that people generally think that others (i.e., third persons) are affected more by a persuasive message than they are themselves, even though this is not necessarily the case.

Scientists may therefore think that they are impervious to “skeptic” messages in the media, but in fact they are likely to be affected by the constant drumbeat of propaganda. We review possible solutions to the undue leakage of biased public discourse into the scientific arena.

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