Précis: Information Statement on Scientific Uncertainty in Weather, Water, and Climate

The AMS Mission

The American Meteorological Society advances the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.

Statement Drafting Committee

If you would like to be considered for service on the drafting committee for this statement, please send your name and contact information with a brief description of your background to the AMS Council at the following e-mail address: drafting_committee@ametsoc.org.

Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain. – Richard Feynman

The goal of this statement is to explore the role of scientific uncertainty in weather, water, and climate (WWC) communication. The statement will explore the challenges and opportunities associated with communicating science within and beyond the scientific community. A focus of the statement will be the ethical dimensions of communicating with audiences that may understand uncertainty differently than scientists do and for whom an accurate accounting of uncertainty may heavily influence decision-making. 

Uncertainty is an inherent part of science, and is fundamental to scientific progress. WWC information is often characterized by range of scientific uncertainties that are related to the likelihood and severity of impacts of events that may impact health, safety, and the environment. However, the presentation of scientific uncertainty can be fraught with misinterpretation and resistance, particularly from non-scientists. On the one hand, discussions of uncertainty related to WWC information can seem esoteric, academic, and irrelevant. On the other hand, partisans of various policies can use or misuse uncertain WWC information for their own interests. There can be a “disconnect” in the way WWC experts understand and treat uncertainty (which includes disclosing, managing, quantifying, reducing, and communicating uncertainty) and how scientific uncertainty is perceived and communicated in the public arena. 

The AMS membership is composed of atmospheric scientists, meteorologists, oceanographers, hydrologists, climatologists, broadcasters, educators, policy makers – several (if not all) of whom deal with uncertain WWC information in their respective lines of work. This statement would enable the AMS to lead a discussion of ethical codes and professional norms (if any) related to scientific uncertainty, highlight the role that uncertainty plays in formulation of solutions for problems with important scientific dimensions, and feature ways in which the scientific enterprise can ethically and effectively address scientific uncertainty.

Some questions that can be addressed in this informational statement include: what does uncertainty mean for scientists working in WWC; are there any existing ethical and professional norms that guide the discussion of uncertain WWC information, if not, what might those norms be; what can be done about uncertainty in WWC information; how can uncertainty be ethically communicated and used when its inclusion can be confusing or misleading; how can scientists help society determine whether scientific evidence (including uncertainty) is sufficient for decision-making when those decisions necessarily involve subjective value judgments that go beyond scientific knowledge and understanding, etc.

The aim of the proposed statement is to explore strategies to integrate a holistic approach to communication of scientific uncertainty in WWC information, rather than focus on issues related to communication of uncertainty in weather or water or climate, separately. Since communication of scientific uncertainty is not entirely separable from topics such as, methods for assessing uncertainty, characterizing uncertainty, managing uncertainty, etc., we anticipate that the drafting process will entail comprehensive discussions of various aspects of uncertainty without compromising the focus of the statement. 

A variety of professional organizations have offered training sessions to experts and practitioners in WWC on addressing various aspects of scientific uncertainty. The AMS could leverage participant expertise at some of these trainings to create a drafting team for the proposed statement.