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Comeback for climate cautions and caveats

Richard Black | 18:43 UK time, Thursday, 15 April 2010

There are many ways in which climate science has moved on since the mid-1990s, the period from date which the oldest e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and featured in the so-called "ClimateGate" affair - and there are quite a few in which many both inside and outside the mainstream would argue it needs to change further.

I referred to some of them in a previous post dealing with the first report into the affair, from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC).

Polar_bearAnother of them is flagged up in the second report, from a panel chaired by geologist and former Shell chairman Lord (Professor Ron) Oxburgh.

In essence it says: tell the whole story.

"Their published work contains many cautions about the limitations of their data and their interpretation."

And a little further on:

"All of the published work was accompanied by detailed descriptions of uncertainties and accompanied by appropriate caveats. The same was true in face-to-face discussions."

And finally:

"CRU publications repeatedly emphasise the discrepancy between instrumental and tree-based proxy reconstructions of temperature during the late 20th Century, but presentations of this work by the IPCC and others have sometimes neglected to highlight this issue. While this was regrettable, we could find no such fault with the peer-reviewed papers we examined."

In any branch of science, if you follow a path from raw data to scientific publication to meta-analysing review, you will inevitably see a process of simplifying and parsing.

If you then follow the non-scientific channels where that information flows - through governmental report to distillation for ministers to sound-bite, or from a journalist's research through article to headline - you will see further reduction, and sometimes not so skilfully done.

The Oxburgh review's point is that we reduce the uncertainties and caveats and cautions at our peril.

As one might have predicted, this review (like the STC's) has been broadly applauded by mainstream scientists and scientific institutions, and ridiculed by "sceptical" organisations.

But over the last decade, many people I've spoken to across the spectrum have expressed concerns at the loss of caveats and "small print"; perhaps, at least on this aspect of the Oxburgh review, there will be some consensus.

It is not without challenges. Communicating climate science is hard enough as it is; the more uncertainties and limitations are involved, the more daunting as a communication challenge it becomes.

Yet, extrapolating from Oxburgh, it is a challenge that needs to be taken up.

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