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.”

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  1. Joshua Northey says:

    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.

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  2. AJ says:

    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.

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  3. PR LITTLE says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • LS says:

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

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      • Allen says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Doug Winch says:

      Chill out man. You really need to get someone to edit your stuff before you post it. Most of it is unintelligible. If you are trying to get a point across, and I assume that you are, then you need to make it so people can easily understand it. Let me see. You’re very proud of your own green credentials, you grow trees and drive a Prius, but you don’t like organised greenies, especially your family greenies. You’re anti – climate change, Palestinians, UN, unions and universities but you’re pro Wallstreet. How’m I doin’ there dude?

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  4. Vangel says:

    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.

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  5. Sarah Guerrier says:

    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..

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