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Scientific certainty in an uncertain world

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 24 March 2010

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. From the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development a key international agreement currently in force to which Australia is a party.

Kerry Emanuel, Director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently said:

... Science cannot now and probably never will be able to do better than to assign probabilities to various outcomes of the uncontrolled experiment we are now performing, and the time lag between emissions and the response of the climate to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations forces us to make decisions sooner than we would like. We do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty, which will never come ...


The most fundamental problem with the “climate change debate” is that a small disparate group of “loud and proud” people are manufacturing popular doubt. Lawmakers, gullible through the scientific ignorance they share with most of the community, are then cajoled into not taking action even though there is scientific certainty about the fundamental premises.

We’re being distracted from the objective realities of what is actually happening to our planet and to us, and their enormity, by what is really a comparatively vacuous nitpicking exercise that has been unwarrantedly elevated to and popularly promoted as a “debate”. The “debate” itself needs to be scrutinised as carefully as its subject matter, if not even more carefully. Leah Ceccarelli, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of Washington and author of the book, Shaping Science with Rhetoric, hits it on the head when she says:

Aristotle believed that things that are true "have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites" but that it takes a skilled user of rhetoric to defeat sophisticated sophistry. I concur. The manufactured controversy must be exposed for what it is - the assertion of an important scientific debate where none exists.
Science will continue to be the victim of anti-science sophistry until the defenders of science learn to use my field - rhetoric - to achieve what Aristotle envisioned for it: to make strong arguments carry the day before an audience of non-experts.

She accurately describes global warming scepticism as an example of manufactured controversy, noting that it “has been called an “epistemological filibuster” because it magnifies the uncertainty surrounding a scientific truth claim in order to delay adoption of a policy warranted by that science.”

There’s a ring of truth and familiarity to her suggestion that “sceptics” seem to be “following the playbook of the tobacco industry after scientists discovered that their products cause cancer. When a threat to their interests arises from the scientific community, they declare “there are always two sides to a case”, and then call for more study of the matter before action is taken. It’s not just the tobacco industry, either: the same thing happened with profitable industries like lead in paint, pesticides, CFCs and asbestos.

How many people have died and are still dying as a result of those filibusters?


Scientific examination and argument abstracted from the objective reality of what’s happening - that is, abstracted from the reality all of us can see and feel - is open to abuse as supporting an argument for scientific uncertainty when none really exists. We can learn a lot about how to deal with expert evidence by looking at our judges: they are professional decision-makers who deal every day with scientific and other expert evidence in the cases they have to decide, and the approach they have developed is instructive in considering the climate change "debate". Judges aren't usually scientists or formal logicians, but they understand that decisions about human affairs can't be left exclusively to "experts".

Adapting what Chief Justice Herron said in EMI (Australia) Limited v Bes (1970) 44 WCR 114 at 119:

It is not incumbent upon the people who want action, upon whom the onus rests, to produce evidence from experts which proves that their contention is correct. Science may say in individual cases that there is no possible connection between the events and the consequence in which case, of course, if the facts stand outside an area in which common experience can be the touchstone, then the judge cannot act as if there were a connection. But if science is prepared to say that it is a possible view, then in my opinion the judge, after examining the non-expert evidence, may decide that there is a probable connection. It is only when science completely denies the possibility of any such connection that the judge is not entitled to act on his own intuitive reasoning.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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