Climate of Uncertainty

35521701131_938f2e3112_oIn popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”

The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.

The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.

That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.

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The Collective Endeavor

Philae on Comet 67P Churyumov-GerasimenkoWe know very well that science is not truth—indeed, central to science is the idea that we must acknowledge both the subjectivity of human perception and the limits of individual knowledge. So science does not aim to replace those perceptions; it aims instead to refine them. Science strips away the biases of the individual, the biases of the community, the biases of particularity, and the biases of variable conditions. In so doing it aims not for a pure and incontrovertible view of the world, but merely a verifiable view.

Science is thus not truth, merely the lens through which we view truth. Yes, its role is to bring truth as nearly into focus as it may, but greater than that is its role of ensuring that we are all using the same lens. By prescribing the method, science drives us all to view the world with the limits of our collective understanding rather than the limits of our personal understanding.

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Quantum Ex Machina

UntoldStory_viaAftabUzzamanWe all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.

The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.

It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?

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Climate Denihilism

climatechange_viaADBThe overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change is real, ongoing, and extremely dangerous. For those who missed the most recent data point, February of 2016 was the hottest temperature anomaly in recorded history. That, on top of us having racked up most of the hottest overall years on record during the past decade. And yet, somehow, there are still intellectually dishonest people who stand up and argue that climate change isn’t happening, or maybe isn’t so bad, or maybe will just not be a problem because we’ll adapt (or something, and who needs those ecosystems anyway).

It’s enough to make you want to give up. What’s the point in trying to stop climate change when we keep electing people who are happy to disbelieve it? Isn’t it basically inevitable at this point? Realistically, we’ll be lucky if we can all agree that it’s real before we pass the point of no return, let alone do anything about it.

But I think that’s a pretty dangerous point of view.

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A Few Bad Apples

Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.

“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.

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Infectious Ideas


The qualities that lead to an idea going viral and the qualities that make an idea credible, apparently, do not overlap. Personally, I think this is because many of us have bad ideological immune systems: we accept ideas based on whether they fit what we already agree with, not based on whether they are well-supported by the evidence. That’s what the research seems to show so far, anyway.

The latest wrinkle in the puzzle of how bad ideas spread as easily as good ones comes from a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read the abstract or the full study online, but the shorthand version is that Vicario et al. looked at conspiracy theories and science news to see how they spread on Facebook and to try to learn something about the dynamics of that spread. Like a number of studies in the past, the results showed that both kinds of ideas tend to spread in “homogeneous clusters” of users (essentially echo-chambers), slowly diffusing through a cluster over a period of days or weeks.

What I find interesting about this study is that it also shows that assessment of information is lost along the way; science news and conspiracy theories both rapidly become background information as they diffuse through an echo-chamber. By a few weeks out, users in a group will consider the new information fact and resist attempts to change it.

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“Causes Cancer”

One can and should simplify scientific research to make it intelligible, but there is a level of imprecision beyond which simplification becomes mere fiction. I think at this point, in most cases, saying something “causes cancer” is effectively fiction. It wasn’t always, but that phrase has been so abused that it now creates a one-to-one link in the popular imagination between the item of the week and our most potent medical boogeyman.

The recent announcement by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the associated statements by the WHO (World Health Organization) have created a current hullabaloo over red meat, and processed red meat in particular. If you want a good summary of that issue, please read this one, and not any of the more sensationalized pieces exploding into your news feeds.

Because those sensationalized pieces dominate. Most of the media are busily reporting, nuance-free, how red meat and processed meat “causes cancer.” Most are using the most inflated statistic—an increase in risk of 17%. Most are not mentioning baseline risk. Most are not discussing potency. Most are not mentioning that this information is not new, but instead a result of slowly progressing scientific research.

In my view, reporting that something “causes cancer” gives you all the panic with none of the information. What is the baseline risk? In this case, it is 6%, or 6 people out of 100 will get bowel cancer in their lifetimes. What is the increased rate if you eat a lot of processed meat daily? 7%, or 7 people out of 100. So, if everyone ate processed meats only in moderation (about 50 grams is suggested, or two slices of bacon per day, or one bacon cheeseburger per week), we could avoid one additional case of bowel cancer for every 100 people who decreased their consumption.

That matters. That’s significant. But it also isn’t a one-to-one relationship. Processed meat does not “cause cancer” so much as it contributes to a slight increase in your risk of one type of cancer over your lifetime. And that isn’t even that much harder to say. Headline writers, please take note: your hyperbole is helping no one.