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Uncertainty or uncertainty?

Greetings to all,

I made some comments about the usage of the word uncertainty here, on a Forum page entitled "A video and some software," but I think what I said bears repeating, and a whole new topic. Perhaps this deserves to be a Wiki topic, as after all Scientific American saw fit to publish an entire article focusing on this subject - which can be found here. From the sidebar, I copied these three points. What's below that are my comments copied from the other thread.

  • In the wake of “Climategate” and attacks on policy makers, the public is more confused than ever about what to think, particularly when it comes to talk of uncertainty in climate science.
  • Climate policy is stalled.The public needs to understand that scientific uncertainty is not the same thing as ignorance, but rather it is a discipline for quantifying what is unknown.
  • Climate scientists need to do a better job of communicating uncertainty to the public and responding to criticism from outsiders.

Remember that, for Climate Science opponents, there is a tendency to play to the lowest common denominator, and to ignore the subtle distinctions which would help us to distinguish a true-to-life model from a flawed one. Specifically; while scientists hear the word 'uncertainty' in statistical terms, the average person can be persuaded to conflate this with a reason to feel that all climate models should be distrusted, or that scientists are lying.

It should be made very clear, whenever we talk about uncertainty on this forum or the Azimuth Wiki, that we mean statistical uncertainty about the data, predictive uncertainty about possible outcomes, or whatever. We must be careful to quantify in what way things are uncertain, rather than leaving open opportunities for wild exaggeration about what is being said. Tim's comment here serves to highlight the extent to which an open-ended statement about uncertainty could be misconstrued, and this could lead unscrupulous people to apply a slippery-slope argument that makes the whole Climate Science effort appear moot.

We all need to remember, scientific uncertainty is not the same as what being uncertain means to everybody else.

Comments?

Comments

  • 1.
    edited February 2011

    I agree with what you're saying, Jonathan. As always, the question is: what can we do?

    We have a lot of people here interested in probability theory, statistics, Bayesian reasoning, decision theory, and so on. Nobody planned that, it just sort of worked out that way.

    So, we have a lot of people very knowledgeable about these issues — at least compared to the baseline level of knowledge that you'd expect 'ordinary folks' or even university-educated folks to have.

    How can we take advantage of this?

    One way would be to come up with scientific projects that take advantage of our skills. Needless to say, we're all short of time. But we can do a few well-chosen projects.

    Another way is to explain stuff nicely on the Azimuth Library. The explanations there are not primarily aimed at 'ordinary folks', more for scientists and engineers... but still, clear explanations are a good thing. So, I urge you to explain what you know about uncertainty on the Azimuth Library!

    When it comes to popularization - communicating to a larger audience - the best tool we have right now is the Azimuth Blog. I hope you know that we have a system in place where you can write articles and (subject to my approval) put them on the blog. Go here:

    to see that system in action. So, if you want to write a blog article explaining ideas about uncertainty, you can use that system. The idea is to start writing on the wiki, and tell us about it here on the forum, where we give feedback.

    Comment Source:I agree with what you're saying, Jonathan. As always, the question is: **what can we do?** We have a lot of people here interested in probability theory, statistics, Bayesian reasoning, decision theory, and so on. Nobody planned that, it just sort of worked out that way. So, we have a lot of people very knowledgeable about these issues — at least compared to the baseline level of knowledge that you'd expect 'ordinary folks' or even university-educated folks to have. How can we take advantage of this? One way would be to **come up with scientific projects** that take advantage of our skills. Needless to say, we're all short of time. But we can do a few well-chosen projects. Another way is to **explain stuff nicely on the Azimuth Library**. The explanations there are _not_ primarily aimed at 'ordinary folks', more for scientists and engineers... but still, clear explanations are a good thing. So, I urge you to explain what you know about uncertainty on the Azimuth Library! When it comes to popularization - communicating to a larger audience - the best tool we have right now is the Azimuth Blog. I hope you know that we have a system in place where you can write articles and (subject to my approval) put them on the blog. Go here: * [Blog articles in progress](http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/Blog+articles+in+progress), Azimuth Wiki. * [Azimuth Blog](http://www.math.ntnu.no/~stacey/Mathforge/Azimuth/?CategoryID=12) articles, Azimuth Forum. to see that system in action. So, if you want to **write a blog article explaining ideas about uncertainty**, you can use that system. The idea is to start writing on the wiki, and tell us about it here on the forum, where we give feedback.
  • 2.

    OK then,

    I created a Wiki entry.
    Uncertainty in climate science

    And I see Curtis Faith's blog entry talks about uncertainty too. That should get the ball rolling.

    Thanks,
    Jonathan

    Comment Source:OK then, I created a Wiki entry. [Uncertainty in climate science](http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/Uncertainty+in+climate+science) And I see Curtis Faith's blog entry talks about uncertainty too. That should get the ball rolling. Thanks, Jonathan
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