Can climate scientists speak Publikese?
How to talk about scientific research and probabilities in the media

Richard Parncutt
July 2018


I read in an excellent article in the New York Times that “the transformation of the planet and the degradation may be the biggest and most important story of our time, indeed of all time, but on television, at least, it has nevertheless proven, so far, a palpable ratings killer.”

This is how collective suicide works, and we are in the middle of doing it. But it’s not only the fault of every car driver, airline passenger or meat eater who steadfastly refuses to change (or even consider the possibility of change, or even just mention the problem, let alone take it seriously). It may also be the fault of those well-meaning climate scientists who fail to state clearly that our emissions are causing these disasters.

When asked by the media about the relationship between climate change and specific events, climate scientists are typically careful and conservative, as good scientists should be. They may for example say that “It is too early to be sure that these bushfires are caused by climate change“. That may be true in a scientific context, in which the participants in the conversation all have a scientific qualification. But the general public misinterprets statements of this kind, because the general public doesn’t understand probabilities. In other words, the general public does not speak Scientese. To avoid misunderstandings, one should avoid speaking to them in Scientese.

Hearing that “It is too early to be sure that these bushfires are caused by climate change“, the general public may  conclude that it is not urgent to stop burning fossil fuels. So don't worry about driving a car and eating red meat every day, or flying across the world to meetings or holidays. Just keep going until the scientists finally make up their mind. This of course is not the reaction the climate scientists intend, but it is the message that the general public may take home with them.

In fact, nothing could be more urgent than reducing emissions on every possible level and by all possible means. This practical implication is surely the most important finding of climate science, because it is about human survival, without which nothing else matters. Climate scientists can solve the problem by always addressing this existential aspect when approached by the media, even if the media don't ask about it.

In other words, when dealing with the media, scientists need to be bilingual. We need to speak two languages, Publikese and Scientese, and know how to switch between them. In Publikese, the language of public discourse, it’s obvious that climate change is the cause of the recent fires in Sweden and Greece. The scientists predicted it and now it’s happening.

In Publikese, we might say this: “It’s obvious that our emissions are causing these fires, even without direct scientific proof in this specific case”. In Publikese, that is a true statement, but in Scientese it is false. It is a translation of the Scientiese statement that “we can’t be sure yet“ into Publikese. It is an accurate translation because the practical implications are the same
in both cases, namely that all fossil fuel burning must stop as soon as possible.

Regarding probabilities, one of the great achievements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been to express scientific findings or predictions in the area of climate change in terms of approximate probabilities, standardizing the relationship between words and numbers. For example, if scientists agree that a prediction will come true with a probability exceeding 95%, the term "extremely likely" is used. More than 99%, "virtually certain".  The word "likely" without qualification means the probability exceeds 66%.

The general public is baffled by these numbers because it is so hard to imagine something that might happen in the future before it has actually happened. If scientists predict a probability of 66%, the general public might conclude that no action is necessary, because after all it might not happen at all, and given that we can't imagine it happening and we don't know what those scientists are doing, we might as well ignore it. For this reason, the Publikese translation of 66% should be something like "high probability", to be sure that the public understands the practical implications.

Said another way: In Publikese, something is true if it works. Something is not necesssarily true if it’s the result of a careful empirical study or statistical test, because as we know those studies often disagree with each other and the scientists also seem to change their mind. If we read one day that we should drink wine regularly to avoid heart disease, we can be sure that a few years later we will read about another study that came to the opposite conclusion. In fact, the main findings of climate change are not going to change, like studies of nutrition and health seem to change, but the general public doesn't know that, which is why we have to think about how best to express ourselves in Publikese.

No matter whether global warming directly caused a specific forest fire or not, it is definitely happening and it definitely does cause forest fires. The solution is definitely to reduce emissions, deforestation, meat production, cement production and so on. These things are true with a probability exceeding 99%, so for both scientists and the general public they are virtually certain. Climate scientists have a responsibility to repeat them again and again when approached by the media.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage