In defence of reticence

Occasionally, comments on this website call me reticent. I think that this is because I try not to let my personal opinions cloud my professional, scientific judgement. I am proud to be reticent. I always try to be informative, to give values of uncertainties and ranges and assessments of confidence. I try to present both sides of the story, while always relying on peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. I try to let the evidence speak for itself.

Reticence in the science world

When I write scientific papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals, my personal opinion does not matter. I am an impartial scientist who must interpret the disparate data in front of her and present a theory that explains them. Another scientist may come along, hopefully having read my paper, and disprove this theory. This is the scientific method, where we continually test hypotheses in an attempt to get ever closer to the truth. The more a theory withstands rigorous testing, the more robust it is considered to be. Theories that have withstood decades, or even centuries, of testing, are generally assumed to be true. These theories form the hard core of research; examples are continental drift, evolutionary biology and climate change. Hypotheses outside of and surrounding this core of universally held truths are continually tested and challenged, and eventually this rigorous testing may result in a paradigm shift where a new set of hypotheses and theories are held to be true.

The fact that our world is changing, that glaciers are shrinking, and that the oceans and atmospheres are warming, are a set of theories that form the hard core of much of the research that I and my colleagues do. However, theories around this core of assumptions and generally accepted truths are continually challenged. How much and by how far? At what rate and magnitude? How does it vary spatially and temporally? What are the causes and sensitivities?

Recent papers on rates of grounding line recession in West Antarctica fall into this latter category of newer hypotheses. We know that these ice streams have been receding for decades; this has been tested and replicated by numerous independent studies. But new techniques, new satellites, new datasets over coming decades will revolutionise our ability to evaluate and consider this change. Predicting the future is even harder; numerical models are simplifications of reality, with simplified physics and numerous unknown and unconstrained parameters. Model improvements over coming years and decades will improve our ability to replicate past behaviour, investigations of the sub-shelf cavity and ice physics will constrain these parameters, and observations and modelling of basal processes and calving line dynamics will improve.

Reticence in science communication

These papers represent the state-of-the-art, at the very forefront of knowledge by some of the world’s leading experts. But the values and numbers and ranges that they give will change, as more people hurl themselves at the problem, and test the theories and hypotheses that the authors suggest. The more they are tested, the better the projections will become and the more we will reduce uncertainties. But we must remember that they are only a model; that we cannot know the truth; that our knowledge is limited.

I am aware that the field of science communication is different to the world of science where I work day to day. But we are unfair to our readers if we suggest that these data are the whole truth, that they are the answer, that they are fact. To do this lays us open to criticisms when the next publication comes out with slightly revised estimates. We must be reticent about our personal opinions and be explicit about the limitations of the data, or we will undo ourselves as scientists and as science communications. To be alarming, to present opinions without proper scientific support, to make wild claims; all of these harm our credibility and result in people (rightly) ignoring us.

We must therefore be reticent about our personal opinion of new scientific findings. We must provide our professional judgement, but acknowledge that this can only hint at the true complexity of the problem.

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4 thoughts on “In defence of reticence

  1. To be alarming, to present opinions without proper scientific support, to make wild claims; all of these harm our credibility and result in people (rightly) ignoring us.
    I agree with this and I agree that reticence is the right way to consider new information. However, the problem that I see is that there are some who will regard any mention of something like the rate of grounding line recession in West Antarctica as inherently alarmist, even if it is presented with all the appropriate caveats.

    So, one concern might be that because of this, some become too reticent and actually avoid discussing things like this so as to avoid being labelled alarmist. It’s a bit of balancing act, but I think one also has to be careful of being too constrained by those who are trying to control the narrative by labeling anything that they disagree with as alarmist.

      • “I try to present both sides of the story, while always relying on peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. I try to let the evidence speak for itself.”

        Fair enough, but please explain why you neglected the Rignot et al. WAIS paper in your recent post. As it was the one co-released with Joughin et al., it seems reasonable to have expected you would talk about it rather than an earlier one (albeit from the same group and on a closely-related topic).

        I assume Bethan knows, but others may be confused by my use of “reticent” in this context. See here for the source. Jim used it, as do I, as a synonym for unjustifiably cautious stances being taken by people (well, glaciologists) who are privately concerned (or should be, based on the available information) that things are a lot worse.

  2. Scientists are of course right to be reticent in relation to new science and to give all the caveats when it is communicated. However, and following up ATTP’s point, I worry about the reticence shown by scientists when doubt is publicly spread, not about new science, but about the “set of theories that form the hard core of much of the research that [you and your] colleagues do”.

    The IPCC, the Met Office, universities and senior scientists commonly hold to the mantra “policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive”. This is an excellent ideal and if we lived in a society where vested interests and politics played fair it would be fine. But what happens when government policy or media statements are, as too often, deeply ignorant of the core science, or intentionally misleading regarding it? It seems we continue to rely on bloggers and a very few scientists to publicly identify misinformation directed at the core science.

    Understandably and properly, science always moves on from the already rigorously tested theory to concentrate on the open hypotheses. ‘Reticence’ is, and always will be, required in scientific investigation and communication of these. Nonetheless, if scientific bodies and senior scientists also act reticently in communicating, or refrain from constantly reaffirming, the strongly-agreed basic climate science then they are doing both their science and our society a disservice. Left unchecked, tides of disinformation can all too easily swamp public understanding of science and reality.

    In the USA, Canada and Australia, wealthy countries with strong science, we have seen how easily reticence in basic science communication can help to allow ignorance to quickly gain traction thereby severely limiting public awareness of reality and eventually cutting scientific research funding. In the UK and Ireland, there are strong signs from vested interests that this pressure will increase in the near term.

    Not being cowed in the face of this political reality requires institutes and scientists to go beyond current reticence in strongly and repeatedly stating the core science of climate reality. Science itself may be at risk if scientists do not distinguish necessary reticence in new science from the critical need to speak out strongly, especially whenever policy proposals or media messaging depart from the already known range within which reality lies.

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