The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

2 thoughts on “The known unknowns

  1. Pingback: Models and the perils of (too little) uncertainty « The future – a rough guide

  2. Pingback: Uncertainty (again) « through the looking glass

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