How does Adam Harris’ work relate to questions about the communication of climate change?

Posted on 09.12.2015

Adam Harris is a lecturer in Experimental Psychology at UCL, and acted as an advisor to Adam Chodzko throughout the project Deep Above.  Adam’s research focuses on the fields of judgement and decision-making. His interests include how communication – the words we choose, and how and who says them, impacts our risk assessment of a situation – including how we communicate risk from climate change.

His 2013 study looked at the wording of reports on the state of the climate, and considered how the choice of phrasing affected people’s perception of risk.  The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)’s 4th report on climate change weighed scientific evidence, and then refers to different ‘likelihoods’ for each situation, for example “likely, or extremely likely to happen.”

Adam’s team found that such words can be interpreted quite differently depending on who reads them, and the reader’s perception of the outcome of the report – and thus risk from climate change- may not actually reflect what was written. For example, a 60-89% chance of an event occurring appears in the report as “likely”, but this is not necessarily interpreted in a way that reflects the actual percentage in question.

These issues are key to Adam’s work, and the danger of  unclear communication when it comes to scientific observations were made clear after the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009. The 6.9 Richter earthquake killed 309 people. Six government scientists were sent to prison as a result, for having estimated the risk of a large scale earthquake as low. A low risk event can, of course, still happen, but it is possible that a more effective communication of the uncertainty in the risk estimate would have led to a better understanding of the situation.

Other recent work by Adam and his colleagues considers the decisions that go into assessments of how credible different sources are. These perceptions are based on many factors, including pre-existing biases.  The relevance of such questions is ongoing. At the moment, the phrase “two degrees” is ubiquitous, considered to be the ‘safe’ boundary of warming. If this changes to become “three degrees”, this poses several questions: what will the consequence be of having absorbed and invested in this phrase only to see it discarded? Is there a risk of scientists losing credibility?

To avoid such a situation it’s important to be clear about what scientific uncertainty means and how it is talked about, and research such as Adam’s helps explore that.

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