Eschenbach to Trenberth: Admit uncertainty but don’t show uncertainty


Willis Eschenbach, in an open letter to Kevin Trenberth, lais bare the catch-22 for scientists-communicators:

Admit the true uncertainties.

while at the same time:

Write scientific papers that don’t center around words like “possibly” or “conceivably” or “might”.

Hmm… that might be tricky. Due to the impossibility of complying with both requests though, it’s a good recipe for presuming someone guilty until proven guilty.

There’s an important question underlying these recommendations though: How could scientist steer between the need to admit uncertainties and at the same time communicate clearly?

Update: I partly answered my own question before: It’s what we know that’s most important in communicating to the public.

Also: The catch-22 in communicating to the public; talking by means of merely providing rational information or emotive storytelling (just the facts won’t do); being angry or calm in your communication?



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26 Responses to “Eschenbach to Trenberth: Admit uncertainty but don’t show uncertainty”

  1. sharper00 Says:

    I see that trap being laid all the time.

    If a scientist says “Possibly” then it’s dismissed because it’s not certain.

    If they express something definitely they’re dismissed for being arrogant and closed minded (among other things)

    Conversely those expressing more “agreeable” positions can do no wrong. They can claim climate sensitivity is proven (to be a low number), that 20th century temperatures can definitely be explained (by natural variation) and that past climate can be confidently reconstructed (to show it was warmer in the past).

    I therefore have to think it’s no accident that it becomes impossible for scientists to express anything without falling into one trap or the other, the goal isn’t to have them meet some higher standard but to remove their contribution entirely.

  2. Rocco Says:

    I have a better question: How can scientists communicate without being (willfully) misrepresented?

  3. Dana Says:

    It illustrates the fact that so-called ‘skeptics’ have (intentionally) impossible standards. If you discuss uncertainties, they will argue that the uncertainties are too high to draw any definitive conclusions. If you don’t discuss uncertainties, they’ll accuse you of ignoring the uncertainties. There’s no way to steer between these issues, at least when dealing with ‘skeptics’ like Eschenbach who are not actually skeptics.

    Of course if you’re Richard Lindzen, they have no problem with you mentioning the uncertainties and then proceeding to ignore them!

  4. dorlomin Says:

    “There’s an important question underlying these recommendations though: How could scientist steer between the need to admit uncertainties and at the same time communicate clearly?” As they normally do. There is a crazy idea that has taken hold that it is in some way the scientists who are doing something wrong, its the media and the bloggers who are focussing in on what they want to hear who are fostering the suspicion and confusion.

    To many people are beating themselves up over how to get a clear message to the press. You write science papers to comunicate research to scientists, you cant think you are writing a press release at the same time.

    Perhaps the one gap in the comunications process is a blog run by a collection of scientists to make clarifying statements about science in the press? Make the tone as nuteral as possible and clarify areas that have been glossed over or exagerated.

    Just a thought.

  5. Bart Says:


    I see what you’re saying, but esp in the current -dare I say “postnormal”- situation, scientists and those who have a sufficient understanding of the science had better communicate effectively to the public, to narrow the gap in understanding between the scientists and the public at large. Staying in the ivory tower of academia will not do anything to increase the climate literacy of the public (and politicians).

    I wrote about these issues before, e.g. the public role of scientists

    Blog initiatives by groups of scientists exist, e.g. RC, ClimateCentral, and loads of individual scientist-bloggers (e.g. many on my blogroll).

  6. Dagfinn Says:

    Quoting out of context without linking to the text you’re quoting? Really? Did I miss something?

    I suppose this is it:

  7. sharper00 Says:


    “Quoting out of context without linking to the text you’re quoting? Really? Did I miss something?”

    A quote isn’t necessarily “out of context”. It’s only out of context if it’s presented in a way which changes the original meaning. I don’t see any indication that the given quotes can be interpreted differently in the original piece. If we take a fuller sample of the second point:

    “Write scientific papers that don’t center around words like “possibly” or “conceivably” or “might”. Yes, possibly all of the water molecules in my glass of water might be heading upwards at the same instant, and I could conceivably win the Mega-Ball lottery, and I might still play third base for the New York Yankees, but that is idle speculation that has no place in scientific inquiry. Give us facts, give us uncertainties, but spare us the stuff like “This raises the possibility that by 2050, this could lead to the total dissolution of all inter-atomic bonds …”. Yeah, I suppose it could. So what, should I buy a lottery ticket?”

    So he says yes give us uncertainties but no don’t give us “possibly” or “might”. He doesn’t provide any real examples of a misuse of any of those terms.

    Can you propose a manner in which someone could satisfy both conditions? How do you communicate uncertainty while at the same time avoiding terms commonly used to express uncertainty to varying degrees?

  8. Dagfinn Says:

    sharper00: It’s not terribly clear what he means, but it’s obvious that it’s not about hiding uncertainty and not about avoiding those words. It’s about staying away from “idle speculation”. But yes, actual examples from climate science would have been helpful.

  9. sharper00 Says:

    “It’s not terribly clear what he means, but it’s obvious that it’s not about hiding uncertainty and not about avoiding those words.”

    That’s the problem under discussion though isn’t it? What precisely does he mean and how can a scientist actually say anything without being criticised for one or the other?

    If you’ve read sites like WUWT then you’ll see scientists regularly criticised for both and it’s completely unclear how all objections can be satisfied – this in itself raises the issue of whether the objections are themselves genuine or a cover for a dislike of what’s being said.

  10. Dagfinn Says:

    sharper00:Of course you can’t satisfy all objections when faced with all the participants at WUWT who have any number of opinions on the issue. Creating a stereotype and then complaining that the people you’re stereotyping don’t act the same is not very helpful, but it seems to be common in this controversy.

  11. Tom Fuller Says:

    I may be wrong, but I think you’ll find that the best way of communicating differing levels of certitude has more to do with attitude and stance than it does with language. I imagine that sounds very unsatisfactory to many involved in this debate, but I firmly believe it to be true.

    Fortunately, this can be tested, by way of looking at the communications styles of scientists who have succeeded in getting their messages across. I haven’t done this testing myself, but I think you’ll find that warmer styles are more effective than either pedantic assertion or hectoring of the opposition.

    This is actually good news, as this style of communications, if desired, can be learned–it is not a gift from the gods. In fact, this type of coaching has been very much in vogue over the past decade, as leaders of larger organisations have found they need to secure support and allegiance using more than command and control tactics used in earlier periods.

    The difficulty is that the current speakers on climate change carry the baggage of earlier attitudes and statements, and may find it difficult to ‘walk back’ from previous pronouncements. Although I can easily see where, for example, Joe Romm could make a positive contribution to the debate, I cannot easily see a mechanism that would allow him to make a transition from his current role, which has largely negative effects on the debate.

    I think we may need a new generation of science communicators, although I also think Bart is well-positioned to be one of them. But looking around the blogosphere and those making public statements in the press, there are few others who haven’t dug themselves in too deep to be effective going forward.

  12. William Says:

    Hi Bart

    could you please clarify something for me?

    Are the Bart commenting on this topic on WUWT.

    I am guessing you aren’t, but in this new Internet Age, people’s names are often overused, making it very confusing to know who is who.


  13. Bart Says:


    No, that ain’t me.

  14. Bart Says:


    At your service.

  15. William Says:

    Thank you Bart. I didn’t think it was you. Willis’ essay is a rambling rant. He uses the “three card monte” that McIntyre has perfected. Only attack the science, but completely ignore the mountains of dross from the denialist side of the issue. By doing so, you give the impression that the science is full of faults, but the case from the denialists is completely acceptable. The second ‘walnut’ is that the science is actually all about a few, select people.

  16. Scrooge Says:

    IMHO it looks like this is a step forward. He may be saying he’s been wrong but its the scientists fault for not taking everyone by the hand and explaining it. Here in the US we used to have faith in the media and journalists to explain it to the public. But journalism now seems to be simply political opinion journalism. Makes you wonder if they ever did know what they were talking about. On the positive side though looking at what this country went through in the 60s with civil rights there is hope we can advance.

  17. jyyh Says:

    Thanks Bart, the comment possibly not appearing above was a bit incorrect. I don’t know if Eschenbach has ever read let alone made an interpretation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I’m a bit more logical positivist, fan of Wittgenstein, but admit though the concept of a lie presents some problems for using language as a means of delivering information. The numbers though, imho, aren’t as obscure, as I can create a circular action-observation chain by sticking a needle in a finger.

  18. dorlomin Says:

    William Says:
    Willis’ essay is a rambling rant.
    = = = = = = = =
    Mr Eschenbach is more noted for his ‘enthusiasm’ than any analytical skill set.

  19. Eli Rabett Says:

    So there can be a few key words, “everything I know points to” “simplifying a bit” “putting this as clearly as i can” “we can, with sufficient time and coffee, go into the details” and so forth. Part of any discussion is a negotiation on the level it will take place on, best done before you start. As noted above Willis & Co like to play three card Monte on this, to which the best approach is simply to say, well, that’s not what we agreed to talk about, come back tomorrow.

    “Rambling Rant” is awesome

  20. andrew adams Says:

    From my time reading Judith Curry’s blog I have managed to establish some principles for scientists and proponents of AGW to follow for effective communication with skeptics –

    The public will not accept people telling them they are heading for a disaster. If scientists want to communicate the dangers of AGW the only acceptable way is to say it is not dangerous.

    People will not listen to scientists unless they are treated with respect. Unfortunately those arrogant and dishonest scientists in their ivory towers will not listen when they are told this.

    People who say AGW is a serious problem should provide sources to support their claims. The only acceptable sources are those which say AGW is not a serious problem.

    If a skeptic is not persuaded by a scientist’s argument that he is directly threatened by climate change then only the scientist has a problem.

    Instead of fighting with the skeptics, proponents of AGW should instead seek areas of agreement with them. Obviously this means forgetting about all that pro-AGW alarmism.

  21. Tom Fuller Says:

    Or you can do as rabbit does and insult people and make stuff up about them. Hey, it works for him.

  22. Bart Says:

    Eli, Good point.

    Tom, Don’t keep bringup up old sores, please.

  23. Eli Rabett Says:

    Sorry Bart, Eli always brings out the best in Tom.

  24. MarkB Says:

    Eschenbach: “Admit the true uncertainties”

    From my observations, Trenberth and most climate scientists do a fairly good job of laying out the true uncertainties.

    Others do a good job of laying out untrue uncertainties. We’ve seen Curry do this with the Italian Flag / IPCC strawman stuff.

    Another form of untrue uncertainties is a gross exaggeration of true uncertainties. Eli recently posted Gavin Schmidt’s take:

    “But one of the strongest methods to deflect attention away from what the science has actually concluded is to find ways to exaggerate the mount of uncertainty. since there is always uncertainty in science – scientists work at the boundary between known and unknown – any strongly supported result can be politically “countered” by reference to uncertainty in an assumption, a piece of data, or an experimental procedure regardless of how well characterized that uncertainty is or how robust the original result. This tactic implicitly constructs the logical fallacy of suggesting that because we do not know everything, we therefore know nothing.”

  25. MarkB Says:

    Regarding Eschenbach, we’ve seen him state with certainty unsupported speculation that NOAA adjustments are “bogus”, even though it’s clear he doesn’t understand their procedure.

    Regarding his comment:

    “Write scientific papers that don’t center around words like “possibly” or “conceivably” or “might”.”

    My advice to Eschenbach would simply be:

    “Write scientific papers”

    preferrably something robust and objective enough to be published in a journal other than E&E.

  26. toto Says:

    andrew adams: very much seconded. (Or “THIS!”, as they say on the intertubes)

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