Can the Public Be Trusted?

In the age of MEGO (my eyes glazed over) and TMI (too much information), scientists who communicate with the public must tread a fine line between full disclosure and information overload. With current scientific output topping two million papers per year, nobody can keep up with everything. Of course, the public’s need to know does not extend to every corner of science. But for some policy-relevant fields—climate science is one—the public and policy-makers do need critical scientific information to inform important policy choices. We can’t all be climate experts, so the experts must decide what information is most useful to the public and how to frame what they share so the public can interpret it in the light of the decisions to be made.

The climate change debate has deservedly generated a public thirst for knowledge, and the climate science community has mounted an extraordinary effort through the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consolidate a tsunami of scientific and technical research and to try to capture the consensus of expert opinion when there is one—and to highlight areas of uncertainty when there is not. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014, was the work of more than 800 experts divided into three topical working groups: the physical science basis; impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; and mitigation of climate change. The physical science report alone involved more than 250 experts and ran to more than 2,000 pages in its unedited original release.

IPCC reports have long undergirded international efforts to craft a global response to the threat of climate disruption. National leaders and diplomats relied on the IPCC analyses—or at least the synthesis reports—in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which produced the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015.

As comprehensive and authoritative as the IPCC reports are, they necessarily (and appropriately) simplify the science and cannot transfer the nuanced judgment and implicit knowledge that scientists acquire. For example, understanding the limitations of computer modeling, a core discipline in climate science, requires appreciating the importance of subjective assumptions about some future social and technological trends. Alluding to that unavoidable subjectivity, Andrea Saltelli, Philip B. Stark, William Becker, and Pawel Stano pointed out in “Climate Models as Economic Guides: Scientific Challenge or Quixotic Quest” (Issues, Spring 2015) that “models can be valuable guides to scientific inquiry, but they should not be used to guide climate policy decisions.”

The public’s inevitably limited scientific sophistication creates the potential for those who don’t like the implications of the IPCC consensus to selectively twist bits of the scientific literature to undermine the mainstream position. As science journalist Keith Kloor reported in “The Science Police” (Issues, Summer 2017), some scientists were so concerned that climate deniers were using studies that identified a short-term pause in the overall trend of global warming as evidence that the threat of climate change was exaggerated that they urged researchers to avoid addressing the phenomenon in their research. Kloor argued that such policing of the scientific literature revealed a lack of faith in the public and could in turn eventually undermine society’s belief in scientific transparency.

A few pages from here, Roger Pielke Jr. makes a case that the IPCC is exhibiting a lack of trust in the public by building into its computer models assumptions that by design advance a particular course of action in the UNFCCC negotiations. Pielke maintains that these underlying assumptions artificially narrow both the range of potential risk that we face and the variety of policy options that we should be considering. But here’s the rub: since experts need to frame scientific disputes in a way that facilitates public participation and decision-making, are the current IPCC modeling assumptions helping or misleading policy-makers and the public?

Climate science experts see an enormous potential danger in climatic changes. Their reasonable fear is that the problem is too slow moving to motivate action and yet too large and complex to manage. Pielke provides evidence that IPCC’s assumptions about future coal burning exaggerate the likelihood of catastrophic climate change in order to motivate policy-makers to act. At the same time, the IPCC’s assumptions about spontaneous decarbonization (economic changes that will reduce emissions without policy intervention), along with the feasibility of carbon capture and storage, reduce the climate risk enough to make the politically feasible actions being proposed by the UNFCCC adequate to prevent a catastrophe.

That’s not an irrational strategy. Many people who accept the reality of climate change do not think that it requires extensive, full-steam-ahead action. And many who do want to charge ahead are wary of promoting policies so ambitious that they will be tossed out as unrealistic. To motivate action, it makes sense to present the public with a serious but solvable problem. An ill-defined problem and an overly ambitious agenda could lead people to shrug or throw up their hands in despair.

Pielke’s worry is that by framing the climate issue as the IPCC does, it unwisely narrows the possible future scenarios we should be considering and the range of policy responses we should be exploring. As he rightly points out, the assumptions being built into the computer models could be wrong, and if they are, policy actions based on them may not work. He argues that the public needs to be presented with a wider field of vision of how the climate could change in the hope that it will consider a richer mix of policy options. Moreover, when important assumptions are not openly discussed by scientists, the public will rightly want to know why—especially if those assumptions turn out to be wrong.

Scientists in many disciplines face the same challenge of deciding how to frame the information they communicate to the public. Is it possible to convey the nuances of levels of certainty, the weight of the evidence, the state of development in a field? Small-sample studies versus meta-analysis? Clinical research versus big data mining? How much detail does the general public—or a congressional staffer—need? How might experts best characterize the points of controversy within a field? Is there a point of diminishing returns in public engagement? Is there anyone out there who is actually using scientific understanding to make decisions rather than to justify the predetermined outlook of the tribe?

The answers are neither simple nor obvious, and will vary with the role of science in the debate and the political environment. But the underlying principle is that if science is to play a constructive role in public policy, scientists must have the public’s trust. And for scientists to earn and keep that trust, they must trust the public. We live in a democracy, not a technocracy, and that’s a good thing. It’s tempting in these fact-challenged days to retreat to the comfort of our scientific tribe, but wisdom, unlike knowledge, is widely distributed. We should generously share knowledge—including the sources of uncertainty—so that wisdom can put it to work.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Can the Public Be Trusted?” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 4 (Summer 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer 2018