This paper, one of many on uncertainty in climate models, makes me wonder if scientists’ increasing willingness to talk about uncertainty is making it the new ‘risk’. According to Brian Wynne’s classic typology, there are four types of incomplete knowledge: risk – where we know the odds and the range of outcomes, uncertainty – where we don’t know the odds, but we know what sorts of things might happen; ignorance – the Rumsfeldian world in which we don’t know what we don’t know; and indeterminacy, where we can’t see any links at all between knowledge and implications.
Wynne has described tirelessly for more than twenty years how scientific cultures tend to rationalise uncertainty and ignorance in terms of risk. So issues that bring massive knowledge gaps, ethical conflicts and contested visions of the future are often presented as though they are narrowly about risk (think GM crops). The science policy world, prompted by people like Bob May, have begun to realise the limits of risk as a frame, and have gradually become more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. But it seems as though this too is being scientised.
I watched much of this meeting last year at the Royal Society. It included people as diverse as Tim Palmer, Mervyn King, John Krebs and David Spiegelhater. But throughout the meeting, there was a surprising consensus that these uncertainties were relatively easy to solve through more research, better characterisation and increased computer power. Meryn King, for example, explained the credit crunch as an outlier event – but still within the range of probabilities (his talk is here – search for Royal Society). The fact that it almost fell off the edge of their probability fans (this sort of picture, below) was seen as nothing abnormal.
The scientisation of uncertainty presents huge problems for policy. It suggests that policy problems can be solved by throwing more science at them. And it assumes that current scientific trajectories are the right ones. People like Dan Sarewitz have argued that, with the climate debate, more science makes things worse not better. If we take uncertainties seriously as policy issues, we need to change how we think about issues – take action, not just commission more research, and prompt new sorts of insight.