PD3.1 Shades of Gray: A Panel Discussion on Ethics, Law and Uncertainty in the Weather, Water, Climate Community

Wednesday, 25 January 2017: 8:30 AM
613 (Washington State Convention Center )
Gina M. Eosco, NOAA, Silver Spring, MD; and M. Behl, J. Austin, E. A. Cohen, P. Higgins, P. T. Huttner, J. Samenow, and W. Hooke

Uncertainty is an inherent part of science, and acknowledging and managing it is fundamental to scientific progress. Weather, water, and climate information is often characterized by a range of scientific uncertainties that are related to the likelihood and severity of events that may impact health, safety, and our environment. Verification is a standard metric of success in meteorology; peer review is a standard for all weather, water, and climate research; and “actionable information” that helps save lives and protect property is an underlying mission of it all.  As a weather, water and climate enterprise, scientists’ metrics and missions keep us goal-oriented and motivate us to improve our forecasts, climate models, and our communication. Our enterprise is deeply rooted in a desire to understand our environment and protect the public.

Though our Enterprise is indeed motivated by altruistic interests, ethical gray zones emerge. How confident are we in that climate model, and what should we disclose? Should we attempt to create a forecast beyond 7-14 days? What is the proper balance between providing information and urging action? 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 weather, water, and climate information can seem esoteric, academic, and irrelevant. On the other hand, partisans of various policies can use or misuse uncertain information for their own interests. There can be a “disconnect” in the way experts understand and treat uncertainty (which includes disclosing, managing, quantifying, reducing, and communicating uncertainty) and how scientific uncertainty gets perceived and communicated by non-experts.

With funding from NSF’s Paleoclimate Program, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has held two high-level workshops on scientific uncertainty and professional ethics in science, journalism, and law. With participation from AMS members at the most recent workshop, the topics and issues raised touch on many issues relevant to our larger AMS membership. As such, the goal of this panel discussion is to broaden the issues raised there, diversify the conversation, and spark a thought-provoking dialogue among the weather, water and climate community.

Potential panel topics include:

  • The role of the CCM in forensic meteorology: Using data to hold people liable

  • The limits of predictability and communicating uncertainty: How much uncertainty is too little, too much, or just right?

  • The moral obligation to communicate science? The role of consensus vs uncertainty

  • The ethics of information: Should scientists  urge action and, if so, under what circumstances? Where and when can it go right or wrong?

  • Weather journalism: The role of headlines and phrases that hype and sensationalize or are perceived that way. How does a writer or broadcaster strike a balance between drawing attention to an issue and communicating responsibly?

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