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Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports


Here we demonstrate that speakers at the press conference for the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group 1; ref. 1) attempted to make the documented level of certainty of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) more meaningful to the public. Speakers attempted to communicate this through reference to short-term temperature increases. However, when journalists enquired about the similarly short ‘pause’2 in global temperature increase, the speakers dismissed the relevance of such timescales, thus becoming incoherent as to ‘what counts’ as scientific evidence for AGW. We call this the ‘IPCC’s certainty trap’. This incoherence led to confusion within the press conference and subsequent condemnation in the media3. The speakers were well intentioned in their attempts to communicate the public implications of the report, but these attempts threatened to erode their scientific credibility. In this instance, the certainty trap was the result of the speakers’ failure to acknowledge the tensions between scientific and public meanings. Avoiding the certainty trap in the future will require a nuanced accommodation of uncertainties and a recognition that rightful demands for scientific credibility need to be balanced with public and political dialogue about the things we value and the actions we take to protect those things4,5,6.

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Figure 1: Increased certainty of AGW.
Figure 2: Intended process of making AGW publicly meaningful.
Figure 3: Public meaning of AGW increased at expense of certainty.
Figure 4: Incoherent attempt to maintain public meaning and certainty.

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W.P. acknowledges the support of the Leverhulme Trust’s Making Science Public programme (RP2011-SP-013). G.J.S.H.’s research is supported by a Mildred Blaxter Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness. We would like to thank T. Edwards, M. Hulme and B. Nerlich, colleagues at Science and Democracy Network, for comments that have helped us to improve the argument. Responsibility for the content of the paper remains ours alone.

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Both G.J.S.H. and W.P. contributed fully to all aspects of this submission and acknowledge joint first authorship.

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Correspondence to W. Pearce.

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Hollin, G., Pearce, W. Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. Nature Clim Change 5, 753–756 (2015).

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