The Downside of Research: How Small Uncertainties Can Lead to Big Differences


Most research yield very few conclusions with 100 percent certainty — that’s why you’ll often hear economists state their conclusions with “95 percent certainty.” It means they’re pretty sure, but there’s still a small margin of error. The science of climate change is no different, and, according to a Washington Post blog post, scientists are struggling with how to explain that uncertainty to the public. “What do you do when there’s a small but real chance that global warming could lead to a catastrophe?” asks Brad Plumer. “How do you talk about that in a way that’s useful to policymakers?”

Plumer goes on to provide an example:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report had a section on future sea-level rise. At the time, there was still debate over how quickly ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica would melt as the poles warmed. (Roughly speaking, it was unclear whether the melting ice sheets would largely stay in place and drip water into the oceans or whether big chunks would slide off into the sea.) So the IPCC models explicitly left out estimates of “future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow” and forecast that sea levels would rise just 18 to 59 centimeters by 2100, largely caused by thermal expansion of the oceans.

In a sense, this was “accurate,” representing what the broad scientific community could say with high levels of confidence. The report even added a caveat: “Larger rises cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood.” In another sense, though, the IPCC was acting too conservatively, giving an overly rosy picture of the rising oceans. In the years since the 2007 report, researchers have learned more about the dynamics of ice sheets and are converging on the view that we’re facing at least a one-meter rise by century’s end if emissions aren’t tamed.

In an effort to address the problem, scientists Michael Oppenheimer and Gary Yohe have edited a special issue of Climactic Change dedicated to the topic. “If we had all the time in the world to study this, it would be no big deal, it’d just be some arcane scientific debate,” says Oppenheimer. “But because there’s a policy context, there’s an added urgency in getting it right.”

Joshua Northey

Well one thing you don't do when trying to get across complex scientific ideas is switch from centimeters to meters mid explanation because it sounds more scary. Don't talk about "18-59 centimeters", and then a couple lines later refer to "one-meter"

Too much science writing and science journalism values getting eyeballs/grant dollars/hype over conveying the truth. Then they go right around and complain when others (fossil fuel companies) also preface their interests over the truth.

You can't have your cake and eat it too.


Looks like we'll be accepting the risk. The likelihood is unknown and the costs of acceptance are unknown. The costs on mitigation, however, are certainly huge and problematic in a game-theory/limited resources kind of way.


I am one of the few westerners who lives green. I live in a passive solar house, drive my second Prius, grow endangered native trees at Nettlecreek Nursery without pesticides. This is my experience, when I tried to sell trees in Toronto markets I saw firsthand how the pinkos in Libertyville choose to vote green then spend $$ on marijuana not trees). Talk is cheap. You "Greens" are 99.9% hypocrites that talk the talk but don't walk the walk. My cousin in Crystal Beach Ontario Canada, ran for the Greens this month and his campaign manager's sole job was to supply free marijuana to the supporters. He's "Green" but can't be bothered to get the trees we gave him for his new house a year ago. He barbeques (a huge air pollution source if you really want to get scientific) in his backyard, never gardens. By the way, how'd those tomatoes you planted in the rainforest of BC, your very first gardening effort in a life of green shilling, work out Suzuki, you treasonous bastard. Almost single handedly shutting down BC fish farms with trumped up "science" more specious than the Climategate crap all you smart guys worship. And all for the benefit of Alaska's far more harmful open sea net fishing industry that is in direct competition with Orcas. Vivian Krause can tell you how Suzuki gets millions in US$ from Hewlett Packard fund etc to fund antiCanada protectionist schemes for Uncle Sam.
I am a fiscal conservative who has attended Green events to support family members numerous times. NEVER has there been another hybrid or electric car in the lot like our Prius. Oh no, they all say they are gonna wait till it makes $ sense. Pollution is not the sole preserve of Exxon and bigbiz. YOU make the difference. You will be held accountable some day.
Climate Change ain't science. It is pathetic UN and university prof anticapitalist propaganda that profits a few politically connected rent seekers and researchers like Michael Mann et al, (I am from Canada, home of the 2 scientists who broke your sly hockey stick)TBoonePickens and the liberal Jewish trash that runs GE and NBC. The recent CERN institute cloud making test gave evidence for what really impacts our climate, reproducing on a larger scale the Danish scientists results from the 90's. That is SCIENCE. Not your nebulous bafflegab.
But you pinko American scum just wanna shut down Canada's oil sands and Trans Canada pipeline while you suck back the oil of the oh sooo much more acceptable and ethical oil of Chavez "America is Satan" + "lets nationalize the grocery stores and leave boat loads of food to rot in the harbour to prevent private business from gauging customers" Venezuela and Putin "gun down journalists in elevators" Russia, the white whore mongerer to the world, and Saud "lets stone the bitches" Royalty, and Ahmad in a Hat's "lets give $2000 to each and everyone of the 1027 murderers Israel just freed through Hamas so they can kill a whole whack more Jews and help us annihilate Israel".
The UN, UNions, UNiversities all are safe havens for the work of the ANTIchrist. May the tree be judged by its fruits. Look. LOOK at wherever the UN aid workers prosper, be it Haiti or Afghanistan or Africa, a hell hole putrifies and expands. Look at all those solar plants that have been subsidized with billions in tax payer $ that are now bankrupt. Your socialist Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, Sally Ann schemes and green boondoggles caused real estate and green industry bubbles, NOT WALLSTREET!



I think you should call Michael Moore immediately and clue him in on this.


Hmmm. when, again, did "science" make human-made emissions of carbon a direct factor in global warming again? I'm just curious. Because to my knowledge there is no link. Its a logical fallacy. The Earth is warming. Carbon is increasing. So it must be carbon that is causing the Earth to warm. Sweet. Now ... lets solve cancer ...


The problem is that the predicted increases are not being observed by the most accurate satellite reading. In fact, the satellite data seems to be showing a sea level decline over the past five years. The urgency seems to be driven by a fear of being exposed as charlatans rather than the predictions coming true.

Sarah Guerrier

Like a dollar waiting on a nickle..

In all reality. I did a research paper on this "Global change" and it is a bunch of Hoax and falsified computer data to raise cost of energy on fuels,, food and everything politics wishes to control.

In 1830's we as a globe were in an ice age ... this man " i don't recall his name" from 1857?? or 1877 came up with his idea ... " wow it is warmer now than 2 yrs ago...

reason we came out of an ice age... WE Still are coming out of this ice age warming up.. if we didn't have the industrial age we would and still would be in this perpetual ice age..

thank you for your time and reading-- I am also a twitter follow me..