Originally posted on February 23, 2015
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
If you’re like me, variations on the headline, “Scientists Say 2014 Hottest Year!” inundated your inbox and social media feeds last month. Memes and sound bytes circulated, mostly using the environmentalist’s version of “shock and awe” in an apparent attempt to scare the public into believing in climate change, and changing our ways. A few days later, some of my more climate-change-skeptical friends began circulating articles questioning the claims of said headlines and memes. Frustratingly, for someone who cares about the environmental crises facing our planet, many of these counter-claims were true, therefore shedding distrust on climate science — though, in my opinion, the distrust should be placed on the media rather than the scientists. Let me explain.
The claim that 2014 was the hottest year on record is based on good scientific data, collected and compiled separately by NASA and NOAA, showing 2014 as the hottest year since we started recording worldwide temperatures in 1880.
Vostok ice core data, Antarctica. Spikes indicate rapid warming and concurrent increase in greenhouse gases directly after significant cool periods known as ice ages, ushering in interglacial periods. Since we are not in an ice age, this spike in temperature and greenhouse gases is not similar to previous temperature spikes.
Many of the headlines, memes, and even news stories did not explain the whole truth, however. Some implied that last year was the hottest year in Earth’s history, and many neglected to mention the margin of error all reliable scientific data interpretation includes. Skeptics were quick to point out that there were likely warmer years during the early millennia of the Holocene Period as the planet was coming out of the last ice age, claiming that “hottest year on record” sounds like “hottest year ever,” and depends on the kind of “record” under discussion. Using ice core records, the claim of “hottest year on record” is untrue. (Skeptics fail to point out that we are not currently coming out of an ice age, when temperature spikes previously occurred in the ice core record.)
Perhaps more damaging is the skeptics’ claim that the scientists are only 38% sure that 2014 was the hottest year in recent history, and that this level of uncertainty was not originally reported in the media. This Washington Post article helps clear up the discrepancies, but the damage is done: climate change skeptics already have the fodder they need to create a sense of uncertainty regarding the veracity of NOAA and NASA’s interpretations of the data. Though climate scientists rank the probability that this was the hottest year since 1880 as twice as likely compared to the next closest year (2010), it still sheds doubt when twisted into, “scientists are only 38% certain.” It also sounds like a cover up, since the media at first did not report this level of uncertainty in its coverage of the story, helping skeptics prop up a belief in media bias for climate change in a way that, in their opinion, does not hold up under scrutiny.
Two things stand out to me as particularly problematic here. First, in an attempt to emphasize the severity of the problem, overzealous journalists and scientists have created a situation where climate skeptics can legitimately point to gaps in what is reported, and second, the fact that the American public (in particular, though this is true for other countries to some degree) is so focused on certainty as a measure of trustworthiness.
To elaborate on the first point, I recognize that we need to communicate the urgency of the situation, and somehow motivate our collective selves to action. But when we do so in ways that don’t give all the information or are seen as scare tactics, we end up doing more harm than good. More people are able to deny the science, brush it off as an exaggeration motivated by politics, economics, or “sky is falling” fear over nothing. Would there be better ways to communicate the data without resorting to fear or exaggeration?
Moving to the second point, I notice that speaking into American culture currently requires a high degree of claimed certainty. Scientists and those speaking for them do themselves a disservice when speaking with more certainty than they can honestly claim. Science does not intend to prove theories, but to disprove hypotheses and to create ever more compelling theories. Good scientists will not claim certainty for any theory. Rather, they will state that their theory is based on the evidence available, but that further evidence may eventually emerge that would guide them toward a different explanation of the evidence. While anthropogenic climate change is a scientific theory, evidence is mounting that suggests the theory is a correct explanation of the data. Scientists attempt to prove trustworthy by indicating margins of error, levels of uncertainty, and probability that a particular theory is true compared to other explanations. Rather than giving the public reason to distrust scientists, admitting their level of uncertainty should actually encourage the public to trust them. But in our culture of partisan politics where it is important to exude certainty and confidence in one’s ideology at all times, many politicians, pundits, media sources, and members of the general public scoff at this level of uncertainty.
These two problems are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: by attempting to create a façade of certainty and conviction, those crying an unqualified, “hottest year!” were in fact preparing the ground for distrust. Speaking, instead, of the level of uncertainty and how much we do not know requires vulnerability and admits our shortcomings, but in this way we create a space where trust can occur: a place where the whole truth can be told, where the data can be looked at from any number of angles, where each interpreter is invited to perform his or her own analysis of the data, and where we recognize how much more there is to be learned and discovered. It is in this space of trust, truth-speaking, and knowledge-seeking that I hope to reside, rather than being caught in the trap of certainty.