Communicating science

I attended a seminar yesterday on how scientists should communicate with politicians. It was the start of a course for researchers on communicating our science. During the discussion several interesting ideas and issues arose.

One of the first things to strike me was the limited tolerance politicians apparently have for inexplicit information. By inexplicit i mean information that is not entirely apparent and/or applicable. Politicians we were told have extreme time pressures and must absorb large amounts of information. They prefer clear messages: "climate change will result in a sea level change of X". Uncertainties or error margins should be couched in percentage terms to aid clarity: "we are 90% certain that sea level will rise X as a result of climate change".

It is not always that simple to quote a percentage; more often than not that is going to be a personal guestimate not a statistically valid measure. One contradiction this raises is that climate scientists are damned if they quote error margins: critics/sceptics emphasise the uncertainties and use them to suggest that the community is disunited or that predictions lack confidence. One example is the idea of the 100 year storm: not a storm that is expected every hundred years but rather one that might typically be expected to occur once every hundred years based on an average from a given observation period.

Conversely if we are not forthright about error margins and incertainties we risk accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies. You can’t win.  


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