Sheila Jasanoff: Public Faith in Climate Science


The gap between understanding and action on climate change can be vexing. If facts and risks are scientifically understood and assessed (see, for example, recent U.S. National Academy of Sciences reports), and numerous economic studies recommend action (NAS, MIT,McKinsey, IEA, PERI, E3), why the difficulty in committing?

Several approaches to this question, including psychological barriers,moral complexities, and dominant worldviews, are examined in this issue of P&P. Factors such as the manufacture of doubt and false media balance are frequently discussed elsewhere.

Another set of considerations involve public faith in climate science itself. A 2008 U.S. National Research Council report, “Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making,” describes the importance of trust and credibility in public acceptance of scientific findings:

The extent of scientific uncertainty affects the extent to which individuals accept new information or cling to prior beliefs. There is evidence, largely from experimental research, that under conditions of perceived uncertainty, trust and procedural fairness considerations become particularly important to the decision-making process and individuals display a heightened interest in evaluating the credibility of information sources.

These thoughts serve as introduction to an important trio of opinion pieces in the May 7th issue of Science. One, a letter signed by 255 National Academy of Sciences members (“Climate Change and the Integrity of Science“), decries “McCarthy-like threats” to climate scientists and has received a bit of attention (Joe Romm: “remarkable”; Andy Revkin: “defensive”). The two other articles deserve a closer look as well.

An editorial by the journal’s deputy editor for physical sciences Brooks Hanson (“Stepping Back; Moving Forward“) offers a frank acknowledgment of data management difficulties in climate science.

The ability to collect, model, and analyze huge data sets is one of the great recent advances in science and has made possible our understanding of global impacts. But developing the infrastructure and practices required for handling data, and a commitment to collect it systematically, have lagged. Scientists have struggled to address standardizing, storing, and sharing data, and privacy concerns.

The piece I find most interesting is a policy forum article by Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard. Referring to the apparent loss of public support for climate action since the release of the so-called climategate emails, Jasanoff begins with the question: What can be done to rebuild public faith in the credibility of climate science?

Her answer, in sum, is the need for greater public accountability on the part of committees such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which help to translate science into policy recommendations.

I’ve created an outline of her essay (“Testing Time for Climate Science“):

Historical path from scientific integrity to public accountability

  • Organized skepticism” of peer review builds prestige of science
    o  Development of methods of inquiry
    o  Development of impersonal communication techniques
  • Credibility judged by community of peers
    o  Disciplines are small and methodologically coherent
  • Origins of need for greater public accountability
    o  Economic and social consequences of scientific findings
    o  Investment of public money
  • Accountability concerns lead to U.S. legal framework
    o  Administrative Procedure Act requires public consultation
    o  National Environmental Policy Act extends public input
    o  Federal Advisory Committee Act requires scientific advisory committees to be balanced and open by default
  • National Research Council reports
    o  Risk assessment should be separate from risk management (1983)
    o  Risk analysis is improved through repeated public consultation (1996)

Public accountability as a three-body problem

  • The individual scientist: need for honesty and integrity
  • Scientific knowledge: need for rigor, coherence, and integrity
  • Expert committees that translate scientific findings into policy-relevant forms: need for individual and collective impartiality and sound judgment

Challenges for climate science

  • Some disciplines unfamiliar with accounting to external audiences
  • Divergent national traditions of openness and confidentiality
  • Interdisciplinary
    o  Lack of common principles for visualizing data, interpreting anomalies, representing uncertainty, data-sharing, or public disclosure
    o  Vulnerable to charges of groupthink and concealment of uncertainties

Challenges for expert committees in a supranational context

  • Not subject to – or legitimated by – national legal or political requirements

Implications for IPCC

  • Functions extend beyond science, to policy and diplomacy
  • Current procedures rest on traditions of scientific, rather than public, accountability
  • Should build relationships of trust and respect with global citizens

Given the current review of IPCC policies and procedures by theInterAcademy Council, Jasanoff’s piece is especially timely.

(See also: “Sheila Jasanoff: Climate, Experience and Understanding.”)