In a recent article in The New York Times, Andy Revkin talks about the whiplash effect:

When science is testing new ideas, the result is often a two-papers-forward-one-paper-back intellectual tussle among competing research teams.

When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Under nonstop scrutiny, conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public.

An understanding of how science works sheds a lot of light on this problem.

Scientists work at the turbulent interface between what we know and what we do not know. At that turbulent interface, scientists are constantly putting forward new ideas to extend the scientific community’s understanding. These new ideas are then tested by other members of the scientific community. Bad ideas wither and die while good ideas survive. Eventually, after an idea has survived replication and other testing long enough, it comes to be accepted (a scientific consensus exists that this idea is correct).

For example, quantum mechanics was put forward to explain puzzling observations at the atomic scale. After concerted testing by the scientific community, a consensus has grown up that quantum mechanics is a correct description of nature.

Once consensus has been reached on an idea, the turbulent interface moves on to the next unanswered question. Arguments about the fundamental correctness of quantum mechanics, for example, are no longer interesting, and the scientific community no longer works on that. Instead, the community is working on some of the unanswered details of quantum mechanics.

If one focuses on the turbulent interface, science always looks uncertain because, by definition, the turbulent interface exists where the science is uncertain.

Because the turbulent interface is the focus of the scientific community, it is also, unfortunately or not, the focus of the media. And this can give the general public a view of science that is more uncertain than reality.

In climate change science, there is lots that we don’t know. We don’t know with precision how precipitation will change as the climate warms, or how climate change will vary from one region to another over the next century, or exactly how clouds and aerosols affect each other, etc.

One should not take this to mean that our knowledge of the climate is poor. In fact, our understanding of the climate is quite good. We know that greenhouse gases warm our planet. We know that changing greenhouse gases have been associated with changing climate on most timescales over the last hundred million years at least. We also know that humans are increasing the abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given the paleoclimate record, as well as simulations from climate models, we can expect warming of several degrees Celsius over the next century if atmospheric greenhouse gas abundance continues to grow throughout this century.

Since these observations are well known, they are generally not at the center of the scientific debate. Rather, the scientific community is working to expand our understanding of the details of the theory of climate.

The whiplash effect does not work in isolation, but is reinforced by the denial industry and their agenda of pushing “uncertainty.”

The ultimate solution is for the general public to become more savvy about how science works. Arguments about Greenland ice melts should not cast doubt on the fundamental certainty of climate change. In the meantime, I’m not terribly optimistic that things will improve.